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Editor's Note: Kiddie Lit(e): The Dumbing Down of Children's Literature

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 17, Number 1, June 1993
pp. v-ix | 10.1353/uni.0.0256

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The dumbing down of children's literature may be symptomatic of a larger cultural issue that Paul Fussell addressed in BAD: Or, the Dumbing of America (1991). According to Fussell, what makes an object BAD, or dumbed down, is that it "is something phoney, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring," yet a gullible public is convinced that the item is genuine, and even valuable (13). For Fussell, dumbing down goes beyond mere bad taste; it needs to exhibit elements of pretentiousness or be overvalued. In other words, a gap must exist between what is said about an object and what the object actually is. The essence of dumbing down is overstatement and simple-minded literalism, which Fussell warns paves the way for the new illiteracy, as well as the "blockbuster" mentality. Clearly children's literature is not immune to this phenomenon.

Nor is it a recent phenomenon to the field of children's literature. Ever since John Newbery published A Little Pretty Pocket-Book in 1744, with the accompanying "Ball and Pincushion, the Use of which will infallibly make Tommy a good Boy and Polly a good Girl," children's literature has been a field that regularly combines both art and commerce. It was Newbery's remarkable ability to sell children's books, not his skills as an author or illustrator, that made his reputation. According to S. Roscoe in John Newbery and His Successors (1973), Newbery is considered to be the first British publisher of children's books "to make a permanent and profitable market for them, to make a class of book to be taken seriously as a recognised and important branch of the book-trade" (9). Putting John Locke's educational theories into practice, Newbery promoted Locke's concept of "instruction with delight" using as his motto "Delectando monemus," which he prominently displayed on the frontispiece of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book. However, Newbery's attitude toward children's publishing is neatly summarized by his slogan "Trade and Plumb Cake for ever! Huzza!" that appears on the frontispiece of Twelfth Day Gift (1767). Newbery's genius was in developing the fairly new product category, children's books, through his frequent advertisements [End Page v] in the press and his clever ploy of introducing additional titles and products into the body of his children's books. The most notorious example is the tragic death of Goody Two-Shoes's father in The Renowned History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765) for the lack of Dr. James's Powder, the popular patent medicine Newbery produced. Newbery seems to have anticipated the now-common practice of paid product endorsement in films by two hundred years.

In honoring John Newbery, for whom the annual Newbery Medal is named and which is given for the outstanding contribution to American literature for children, those involved in children's literature acknowledge it as both a field of literature and a commercial enterprise. Children's book publishing remains an industry somewhere between "instruction with delight" and "trade and plumb cake." Commercial and market considerations have always been important factors in the creation of children's literature. Consequently, the examination of the ideological uses of children's texts and subsequent production of meaning for younger readers is one of the primary goals of the study of children's literature. As a field of literary study that is still attempting to define itself, and what it does, the very term "children's literature" remains open to debate. It is revealing that one of the best known descriptions of what constitutes a children's book is John Rowe Townsend's observation in A Sense of a Story (1971) "a book which appears on the children's list of a publisher" (10), a definition that neatly links the world of culture and the world of commerce.

For those concerned with children's literature, the term "kiddie lit," with its wholesale dismissal of children's literature as a significant and important aspect of literary studies, is disturbing and shortsighted. While Fussell argues that the dumbing down of America is visible in many unexpected places, he surprisingly does not address the issue of children's books in his study of the...