- Taking Political Stock:New Theoretical and Critical Approaches to Anglo-American Children's Literature in the 1980s
Ever since the formation of the Children's Literature Association in 1971 and the foundation of such journals as Children's Literature, Children's Literature in Education, The Children's Literature Association Quarterly, The Lion and the Unicorn, and Signal during the 1970s, there has been a marked change in the quality of the literary criticism of children's literature in North America and England: whereas the majority of the academic books on children's literature written before 1972 tended to be bland literary histories that celebrated the good nature and intentions of children's literature with positivist methods and a paternalizing ideology to match,1 the more recent studies have probed the ulterior motives of children's literature and explored its socio-political and psychological ramifications.
This "revolution" of criticism in the domain of children's literature did not happen overnight, and there is still a good deal of academic gibberish published about children's literature. However, there can be no doubt that the new journals concerned with children's literature and culture, along with various organizations, like the Children's Literature Association and the Children's Book Council, that have pushed for the expansion of teaching children's literature (especially in the United States), prepared the way for an ideological shift in the criticism of children's literature, one that is not unified, but one that represents a break from the benign conservatism of the postwar period, 1945-1970.2
Ironically, while America and England turned politically to the Right during the periods of Reaganism and Thatcherism in the 1980s, the criticism of children's literature began harvesting the fruit of the radical efforts of different critical schools, marked by liberal and left-wing politics, that emanated in the late 1960s and 1970s. In fact, there has been such a plethora of interesting studies of children's literature in the 1980s, that it would be impossible to do them all justice without writing an extensive study. Therefore, I want to consider some of the more innovative [End Page 7] endeavors that have focused on the socio-historical and political aspects of children's literature. In my opinion, this focus can be attributed to the fact that the anti-Vietnam War movement and student protests of the late 1960s, along with the feminist movement and struggle for equal rights by various minority groups in the States and England during the 1970s, generated a fundamental change in attitudes toward childhood, children, and children's culture.
No longer is the child considered the repository of innocence, truth, and untarnished nature, symbolical of an idyllic past that we are nostalgically urged to recover. Rather, on social, economic, and psychological levels, the child has become a multi-investment for the future, transferable as evil or good currency that can be exchanged to benefit or destroy society. There is a general consensus that the quality of socialization of the child will determine: the moral and ethical fibre of society; the manner in which the child will consume and be consumed as commodity; and the structural nature of society and psychic well-being of future generations. Moreover, the social investment in children's socialization, that is, the energy, money, priorities, and time that is to be expended, has clearly become a crucial part of the power struggle among social classes and political parties. The secret agenda (which is really not so secret) of all official and basically conservative endeavors to reform schools and improve literacy concerns the child only insofar as he or she is to be controlled and computerized in forming an identity that will not cause trouble to the conservative forces that want to maintain a capitalist market system in which children are primarily commodities. Consequently, the struggle in children's culture that we are witnessing today concerns various political questions of power and manipulation. Essentially, the forces on the Left want to "decommodify" the child and enable the young girl or boy to gain a sense of autonomy and take a critical stance vis à vis the social forces that are exploiting and...