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  • The Urge to Sameness
  • Perry Nodelman (bio)

What most struck me on first reading Rod McGillis's response to "Pleasure and Genre" was not something he says but something I said myself. Rod quite rightly chastises me for describing how texts of children's fiction invite us to "view the world as a child." Surely, I told myself, as I read these words, I hadn't actually said that? A frantic search through my own piece soon revealed the horrid truth: the offending words were there. I had, indeed, done exactly what I spend much of my professional life getting angry at others about.1 I had based my reading of children's books on a generalization about children.

I hasten to say that I didn't really mean it—not in the way that Rod takes it. I was talking not about some existing "child" who might represent the behavior of a body of actual living children but about an intellectual construct, the concept of a child as unlike and opposite to adults because of a presumed innocence, a divergence from adult forms of thought. It is the perceptions of that imaginary child that I see adult and child readers sharing as they make their way through a text of children's fiction. That adults can experience it—for that matter, that adults writers are the ones who imagine it in the first place—suggests how detachable from the perceptual habits of living children I believe this construct to be.

Indeed, the major thrust of Tom Travisano's comments is to focus on my saying that and to suggest I am wrong about it—to make the case that there is in fact a generalizable childhood accurately represented by texts and existing in the world outside them. Such an essentialized childhood might indeed influence children as a self-fulfilling prophesy, a result of adults who believe it to be true acting as if it were true. But I remain committed to the position that this or any conception of childhood as a generalizable state distinct from other generalized states of being human exists primarily in human thought and language and is not, as Tom and the cognitive psychologists he quotes would have it, "hard-wired into our cognitive development." I'll say more about that later. [End Page 38]

Meanwhile, though, I can't be too hard on Tom and the psychologists when my sentence about viewing as a child replicates their behavior—when I myself so easily slipped into the very behavior I was in the process of separating myself from. Similarly, Rod is right to notice that my suspicion "that many child readers read as I do" implies a desire to homogenize reading, an urge to sameness. I meant to say something a little different, and I didn't say it clearly enough: not that actual readers inherently or even ideally share my reading strategies but that texts of children's fiction tend to set up conditions that invite readers to make sense of them in the ways I describe. This behavior might more accurately be ascribed to what reader-response theorists identify as "implied readers" than to real ones and represent ways in which the texts indicate and invite certain forms of meaning-making from those competent to interact with them as expected. I don't doubt that many readers do not act as expected, nor does it much bother me that they don't.2 I do, though, suspect that many readers do in fact do what texts invite—that for good or ill, and despite personal differences, many of us do learn the competencies that allow us at least some degree of understanding of what writers and speakers want us to understand. Indeed, discussing what it is that texts seem to intend to do—determining how they might manipulate readers for or against their better interests—would hardly be worth doing if we believed that it never actually worked and that the texts did in fact always communicate entirely different things to different readers.

Rod knows that, of course. If he didn't, he wouldn't be concerned about whether we need to make...


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pp. 38-43
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