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  • The Case for a Children's Literature*
  • Clifton Fadiman (bio)

If a children's literature is to exist as "an intelligible field of study," in Arnold Toynbee's phrase, it must justify that existence on grounds beyond its contribution to mainstream literature. It must assert some qualified claim as a sovereign state, however small. Even if a cultural sirocco were instantaneously to dry up the mainstream, a children's literature would still have to show that it is identifiable as an entity.

On the surface the literature seems to need no defense. If it is but a by-product, what is the meaning of the avalanche of children's books that annually descends upon the bookstores? What shall we say of the thousands of children's book editors, authors, artists, anthologists, librarians, professors—even critics? Is there not a gigantic, nearly world-wide industry, working away to satisfy the child's demand for something to read—or at any rate the parents' demand for something to give the child to read? Can we not, like Samuel Johnson kicking the stone to refute Bishop Berkeley's theory of the nonexistence of matter, merely point to the solid reality and say, "I refute it thus!"?

No, we must do a little better than that, just as Johnson should have known that kicks and phrases, however forcible, do not really dispose of idealism in episcopal gaiters. Let us therefore first glance briefly at the case against a children's literature.

The man-in-the-street puts it in simple terms: children's literature cannot amount to much because "it's kid stuff." The assumption here is that by nature the child is "inferior" to or less than the adult. His literature must be correspondingly inferior or less. Give the kid his comic, while I read grown-up books. But does not this amiable condescension shelter a certain insecurity? As racism is the opium of the inferior mind, as sexual chauvinism is the opium of the defective male, so child-patronage may be the opium of the immature adult. This book [the forthcoming study from which this essay is extracted], not surprisingly, admits that in certain ways the child is [End Page 9] patently inferior, but goes on to maintain that as an imaginative being—the being who does the reading—he is neither inferior nor superior to the adult. He must be viewed as the structural anthropologist views the "primitive"—with the same unsentimental respect, the same keen desire to penetrate his legitimate, complex symbol-system and idea-world.

There is, however, a more sophisticated case against a children's literature. Scholars have expressed it both negatively and positively.

Negatively the thing is done by omission. Literary historians leave out children's literature, as they might leave out the "literature" of pidgin-English. The English novelist Geoffrey Trease offers a key example. He refers to "Legouis and Cazamian's History of English Literature, in which no space is found, in 1378 pages, for any discussion of children's books and the only Thomas Hughes mentioned is not the immortal author of Tom Brown's Schooldays, but an obscure Elizabethan tragedian." Further examples are legion. Marc Slonim's authoritative Modern Russian Literature from Chekhov to the Present (1953) has no mention of Kornei Chukovsky as children's author. Hester R. Hoffman's Reader's Adviser (1964) finds space in its 1300 pages for a bibliography of Lithuanian literature, but not for Louisa May Alcott. C. Hugh Holman's A Handbook to Literature (1972) is alert to inform us about weighty literary matters from abecedarius to zeugma, but not about children's literature. That phenomenal compendium Die Literaturen der Walt in ihrer mündlichen und schriftlichen Überlieferung, edited by Wolfgang v. Einsiedel (1964), covers 130 assorted literatures, including the Malagasy, but from its 1400 pages you would never suspect that some writers have written for children. In Volume II of David Daiches' standard A Critical History of English Literature we find an otherwise excellent account of Kipling, but one from which we would never guess that he wrote masterpieces for children. While it is only fair to say that there do exist literary histories and...


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