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  • Defining Children's Literature
  • Perry Nodelman (bio)
Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, by Max Lüthi. Translated by Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1970.
The Fantastic in Literature, by Eric S. Rabkin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White, by Roger Sale. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
The Hills of Faraway: A Guide to Fantasy, by Diana Waggoner. New York: Atheneum, 1978.

E. B. White's Charlotte's Web and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings are fantasies; Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy and James Joyce's "Araby" depict young people facing the limitations of a real environment. But Charlotte's Web is more like Harriet the Spy than like Lord of the Rings; Harriet the Spy more like Charlotte's Web than like "Araby." Beyond anything else, Charlotte's Web and Harriet the Spy are children's novels; and saying that they are children's novels gets closer to describing their special qualities than saying that one is a fantasy and one is not.

In Fairy Tales and After, Roger Sale says that "everyone knows what children's literature is until asked to define it." There is much truth in that. I suspect we call certain books "children's novels" because we recognize something special about the way they depict reality, and sense their distance from usual grownup perceptions of it. This is not to say that children's novels are "unrealistic," only that they describe a particular version of reality in a particular way—that the children's novel is, in fact, a distinct kind of fiction, a kind that we recognize even when we cannot put our fingers on what is special about it.

The books by Diana Waggoner and Eric S. Rabkin show how important it is to keep that in mind. They both deal with the subject of fantasy in general and include discussions of some children's [End Page 184] novels, and they both become unconvincing when they refuse to distinguish between children's novels that happen to be fantasies and other fantasies.

Waggoner says that the "Bibliographic Guide to Fantasy" which makes up the bulk of The Hills of Faraway "does not exclude 'children's' books; many fantasies written for children may be read by adults with enjoyment, just as children may read some 'adult' fantasies with pleasure." Her bibliography makes no distinction between children's fantasies and adult ones. It includes books as diverse as Charlotte's Web and Evangeline Walton's The Island of the Mighty, apparently presuming that they are more similar to each other in being "fantastic" than different from each other in other ways.

Because her bibliography covers "nothing but fantasy," Waggoner includes E. Nesbit's novels about the Five Children and ignores the ones about the Bastables. This is misleading; The Story of the Amulet has more in common with The Story of the Treasure Seekers than with The Island of the Mighty. For that matter, even Alan Garner's The Owl Service and Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books have more in common with The Story of the Amulet than they do with The Island of the Mighty. Garner, Alexander, and Walton all work with the same legendary materials. But like the children in The Story of the Amulet, Alexander's Taran and Garner's youngsters are unfamiliar with the worlds they find themselves in; the characters in The Island of the Mighty are not. It is, in fact, a characteristic of children's novels, fantasy or not, that they exploit the reaction of a newcomer or a stranger to the world they describe in a way that adult novels rarely do. And that puts readers of children's novels into a relation with the events described that is quite different from what it is with adult novels. A reader's enjoyment of the peculiar pleasures of such a perspective is far more significant than a taste for fantasy in general. In indiscriminately discussing adult fantasies and children's fantasies as if they were the same thing, Waggoner ignores most of what really matters about...


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pp. 184-190
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