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  • Second Thoughts on Socialization through Literature for Children
  • Jack Zipes (bio)

When we speak in the genitive about children's literature, we mean a literature aimed at children and adolescents which intercedes on behalf of civilization and its discontents to persuade young readers to abandon themselves temporarily to the style, norms, values, and images of a piece of writing. Literature for children acts as sociopsychological agent, legitimizing and subverting, cop and criminal, compelled by the same laws. It uses many disguises, masks, tricks, and illusions. Literature seduces and challenges children to take sides, see, grasp, tolerate, hate, dream, escape, and hope. Words in print form a context, a frame, in which possibilities for work and play are pictured, as projections of a better life. The frame has borders, sets limits, and curtails the view of the young reader, yet, it sometimes even seeks to contain the mind with contents that dare children to go beyond the borders.

Literature for children is not children's literature by and for children in their behalf. It never was and never will be. Literature for children is script coded by adults for the information and internalization of children which must meet the approbation of adults. It is personal projection—literal participation in an institutionalized discourse about the young—an author's endeavor to behold the child and maintain the process of civilization. It is the adult author's symbolically social act intended to influence and perhaps control the future destiny of culture. At heart are notions of civility and civilization. Authors who write literature for children want to cultivate raw sensibilities, to civilize unruly passions, and to reveal unsocial forces hostile to civilization. From a historical viewpoint, this literature began to be institutionalized as a system of communication in the West toward the end of the seventeenth century as a reaction against feudal "barbarism" and absolutism to justify the rise of a bourgeois, public sphere. This new cultural system of communication has always appeared to speak for humanity. However, signs of trouble have increased within it and exposed contradictions, ultimately reflecting the perverse side of the public [End Page 19] sphere which literature for children has constantly been called upon to defend.

That literature for children has its bourgeois origins in instruction is well-known. The didactic aspect, the moral lesson, the doctrinaire ideology of the Protestant Ethic were part and parcel of scripture to be learned by heart and engraved in the minds of children. Entertainment and amusement were byproducts. To enjoy literature was permissible so long as it was done with a clean mind. Within the bounds of proscription and inscription fantasy's wings were clipped. The humor of the imagination was suspect and had to be restrained. The logos of the word was to initiate the young into society through school texts, religious tracts, homilies, and didactic stories. Literature for children was first and foremost a rationalization of a social hegemony. It served to substantiate the other social and cultural institutions of the bourgeois, public sphere.

These institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, legal establishments, commercial firms, small factories, printing houses, parliaments—and we must remember that they arose with the rise of the middle classes—demanded the production of proper children, obedient and industrious, malleable masters and workers. From the beginning, pedagogues, clergymen, publishers, and government controlled children's literature and printed books to promote their interests. Even the early fairy tales of Charles Perrault, Madame d'Aulnoy, and Madame Leprince de Beaumont paid tribute to the ruling bourgeois-aristocratic code of civilization. Whether the story was fantastic or realistic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the purpose remained the same. Primer, biblical story, broadsheet, dime novel, almanac, fairy tale, adventure book, romance, nursery rhyme, and pictures joined together to socialize readers in accord with male-dominated cultural dictums of the growing bourgeois, public sphere. Even when some writers questioned the manipulative purpose of middle-class utilitarianism, and even when opposing factions fought tooth and nail over the welfare of the young, for imagination against rationalism, these individuals and groups always sought to set their own socialized models for the socialization of the young. The context of the texts and...