- Research and Children's Literature in France:A Crossroads of Disciplines
A study of children's literature implies using disciplines as diverse as comparative literature, educational sciences, library science, literary theory, history, and social sciences. Thus, any literary investigation that is not based on regular updates of knowledge in the associated sectors of human sciences, and which neglects the specific features of children's reading, would miss non-negligible aspects of a system in which the author-reader interactivity is more intense than in other literary domains.
As it happens, the technological and economic changes at the end of the last millennium affected children's literature by virtue of their complexity, perhaps even more than they affected the general culture. Young people are, in fact, the "children of the videosphere," as I stressed in Jeux et enjeux du livre d'enfance et de jeunesse (1999). What this means is that they have all the benefits of a network of digital communication that enables them to switch from one medium to another and, via the Web, to exchange information on a worldwide level. As avid consumers of novelty, they become the prime target of the inventors of game-based languages that are specific to films, CD-ROMs, and the fictions that result from them. Remaining blissfully ignorant of overpedagogical approaches, these communication supports, which are offered up for the entertainment of children outside School (but often with the classroom), strive to seduce young minds by using an element of surprise when exploiting the most obvious and extravagant aspects of popular culture. The result is a cornucopia of avant-garde works that are both extremely varied and rich, but of which it is difficult to assess the specifically literary qualities. [End Page 109]
Let me give an example to illustrate this point: three CD-ROMs have been produced by Eric Viennot on the character of an adventurous Uncle Ernest, with a last title L'île mystérieuse de l'oncle Ernest in 2000. In December of the same year, they were followed by the beautiful picture book, Le Trésor de l'oncle Ernest (Uncle Ernest's Treasure) of the same author, published by Albin Michel Jeunesse and dealing with the same treasure quest, involving references to Jules Verne's and to Mark Twain's novels. Readers are trained to intertextual reading and incited to read the transformed narratives, but get to know them only through a constellation of enigmatic fragments.
The subtlety of the technical design of these works sometimes contrasts with the naivety of an often moralistic tone, which is in reality no different from the tone originally adopted by Fénelon in his Traité de l'éducation des filles (1687), which aimed at "instructing by amusing." First these cultural objects respond to the "functions" of informing, communicating, and educating, which are implicitly or explicitly required by the new (but already changing), status (child: all persons "under the age of eighteen years"), as proposed by the International Convention on the Rights of Children in 1989. Second, they can be of considerable assistance in developing reading skills and training full-fledged citizens, on condition that aesthetic qualities of these cultural objects are not neglected. The development of the reader's personality cannot set aside the notion of style and the representation of the Person. Finally, these cultural objects are important for researchers engaged in studying the ways in which the different media available are used in public libraries, documentation centers, primary and secondary school libraries, and in the ways that they facilitate relationships between private reading and public reading.
Integrated into commercial consumerism, all these objects are also subject to an accelerated production, which makes their lives increasingly ephemeral—so much so that it discourages critical analysis, because the necessary time lapse involved in their study makes obsolete the advantages that readers can derive from it. Some publishers even go so far as to say that the readers themselves find the stories that suit them without any outside help, as if the help provided for readers were the major role of critical research that is now focused solely on questions of reception. As if research into literature were...