- The Transactional School of Children's Literature Criticism
Thimble Press has long held a leadership role in negotiating the gap between what Peter Hollindale in a 1988 article called the "book people" and the "child people" (5). In Signs of Childness in Children's Books, he defines the divide as existing between those who "prioritiz[e] either the children or the literature" in the study of children's literature (8). He advocates instead a study of children's literature as a "reading event" (30) in a strategy that allows both the child and the text to have a place. Lissa Paul's Reading Otherways has a similar orientation: she rejects the validity of hermeneutic readings and demonstrates how much the reader can gain by understanding a text's contextuality. Hollindale and Paul—and a number of critics including Peter Hunt, Jill May, Maria Nikolajeva, Perry Nodelman, and John Stephens—have become core members of a type of literary criticism that could be called "transactional criticism" for the way that these people acknowledge the importance of the child's multiple interpretations as a critical component of the fluid complexity involved in reading children's texts. These critics' position is one that relies on reader response theory to mediate between the extremes of aesthetic criticism and pedagogical criticism in children's literature, although transactional critics still tend to treat child readers in the abstract as a theoretical construct rather than as an empirical group of beings whose needs can actually be quantitatively or qualitatively tested. Nevertheless, the willingness of the transactional school to grapple with the complexity of childhood as a social construct and with textuality as a literary construct is perhaps the most significant contribution that poststructural theorists have made to the study of children's literature.
At first glance, Paul's Reading Otherways seems to be the much-needed [End Page 268] introduction to feminist reading that those of us teaching children's literature at the college level have sought for the past ten years. Reading Otherways is certainly that—it will be an essential work of feminist criticism in children's literature for many years to come—but it also has an even broader usefulness. Reading Otherways challenges the reader to learn new ways of reading. And since the reader is quite likely to be a pre-service teacher, by extension, the book challenges teachers to teach children new ways of reading. By reading Paul means "literary interpretation"; her work is a relatively jargon-free tour de force of demonstrating how to read poststructurally. Written with a casual stylistic felicity that feels as comfortable as chatting with an old friend on the phone, Reading Otherways makes poststructuralism accessible to even the most wary of theory-phobes.
Paul bases her argument on the principle that readers need to interrogate texts in order to gain multiple interpretations. She shows how asking simple questions can change our interpretations of such texts as "Blue Beard" and Little Women. She suggests that readers learn to ask the following questions routinely:
— whose story is this?
— who is the reader?
— when and where was the reading produced? . . .
— how are value systems determined? (16)
These questions may have originated in Paul's feminism, but they also serve any number of purposes, all of which empower the reader by engaging her critical acumen. Paul argues that readers who understand when and where and why a text was produced will understand more of the story than they otherwise would, so these questions validate historical study (both of the traditional kind and the so-called New Historicism). She asks that we look at oppression of all forms, so she engages multiculturalism and Marxism. She wants us to know who the reader is supposed to be, so she employs the reader response theories that are the hallmark of the transactional critics. And as she explores how meanings can compete with one another in a text, she shows how deconstruction creates interpretive richness for the reader. The net result is not only a course in learning...