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"Irony?—But Children Don't Get It, Do They?": The Idea of Appropriate Language in Narratives for Children
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In 1991, in his Criticism, Theory, and Children's Literature, Peter Hunt noted "a neglect of language itself" in children's literature criticism, which he saw in the context of an "emphasis placed on the use of children's literature. This has led to concentration on affect, which has led in turn to some very simplistic models of the reading process, and concentration on thematic analysis" (102). I would argue that what Hunt noted then is still largely in operation now, for, if we look at the most recent issues of The Lion and the Unicorn, Children's Literature, Children's Literature in Education, or the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, we still find that the field is dominated by thematic studies concerned with, for example, "violence" in children's literature, "fathers" in children's literature, or depictions of "race" and "gender" in children's literature. Furthermore, these thematic studies do not engage with the methodological issues of thematic criticism, that is to say the question of a text's "aboutness," or the grounds on which we read the "presence" of certain themes. Nor do they consider the way thematic criticism generally implies a certain kind of relationship between language and a purported "reality"; rather, the themes explored by critics in the journals named above are explored as self-evidently there, possessing an ontological status independent of representation, and so the "representations" are critiqued precisely as re-presentations of greater or lesser accuracy, and consequently of greater or lesser political/social/pedagogical desirability.1

Similarly, when language does become the issue, it is not infrequently discussed in terms of its "appropriateness" or "suitability" for the child reader.2 In 1991, Hunt remarked that "There seems to be a 'register,' a set of words thought to be appropriate in writing for children" (104), and in his more recent work on fantasy fiction he refers to "a certain linguistic set" that marks a text out as perhaps "for children" (Hunt and Lenz 95). Thus, even those who, like the editor Elizabeth Law, decry "the idea that, if something is for children, it had better be obvious," nevertheless retain the notion that simplicity is what is appropriate to the child whereas an "art [that] suggest[s] multiple meanings" is conversely "suitable for adult tastes" (15).3 In her account of the making of a picture book using the text of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," she writes:

[I]n the recently published Both Sides Now (1992), in which Joni Mitchell's 1968 song, a bittersweet musing on the nature of life and love, is depicted by illustrator Alan Baker as a love story between two caterpillars.... The dark underside of the song is completely ignored. For example, the line "So many things I would have done but clouds got in my way" appears against the sunny backdrop of a rainbow after a storm. Where is the irony? Where is the pathos? The problem is that the song was written for an adult audience; the publisher should have used a sophisticated, innovative artist with a hipper look...whose art would have suggested multiple meanings and been suitable for adult tastes.


The assumption of a critical position that implies "appropriateness" or "suitability" necessarily involves the critic in bringing to bear an assumed knowledge of the "child": of its needs, its likes, and its linguistic or narrative competence. Frequently this "knowledge" is based on an appeal to memory—which, somehow in such accounts, becomes certain, immutable, generalizable and unmediated—either of "my own experience as a child" (Wall 88), or of experiences gained as a professional who has worked with "real" children (for example a librarian or a teacher, see again Wall 88). And one of the things known about the "child," or the "child" masquerading as a plurality of children, is that irony and/or satire is beyond its grasp.4 For instance, alongside Barbara Wall's statement that "My own experience as a child, a teacher, a reader and a researcher suggests that the language and the ironies of Huckleberry Finn are bewildering to children, and in many cases to adolescents too" (116),5 we may read Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer's...