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  • Signs of Confusion
  • Perry Nodelman

When we see a red light by the side of the road, most of us understand that we should bring our cars to a stop. Confronted by somebody in tight leather pants and a muscle shirt, few of us conclude that we are dealing with an assistant professor of business administration or an aspirant to high political office. Both the red light and the leather pants communicate information, but only to those who are familiar with a particular system of traffic-signalling or an unspoken set of implications of particular styles of clothing. Such systems of meaning are relatively arbitrary, and totally culture-bound: there's no reason beyond the accidents of history that we might not have decided to use the color purple to convey the need to stop, or why bikers might not have ended up signalling their machismo with burnooses, or spandex tights, or button-down collars and narrow ties. Furthermore, much of what we communicate to each other we understand unconsciously: we do not need to have had a course in clothing to have come to understood the message of tight leather pants—and often, we know that meaning and act upon it without even realizing that we know it.

Semiology is the science of signs—the study of the codes by which we signify meanings to each other, and of the complex interrelated systems of signification that influence our perceptions and readings of reality. Zohar Shavit says that her purpose in her book Poetics of Children's Literature (University of Georgia Press) is to examine children's literature "as a system in a culture, or in other words, as a semiotic phenomenon" (177). Such an examination is long overdue, for there is no doubt that cultural assumptions are of enormous significance not just in determining the plots and themes of specific children's books, but also in our understanding of the phenomenon of children's literature as a whole—indeed, in the very fact that we even have such a thing as a special literature for children. Exploring those assumptions is surely the central task for critics of children's literature; if we simply take them for granted and thus unconsciously accept their validity, we are not likely to arrive at a significant understanding either of children's literature as a whole or of any specific book. Consequently, the program Shavit proposes for herself demands that her book be given careful and detailed consideration.

Literature is itself a system of signification, and a highly complex one: we read any given book in terms of an intricate set of assumptions about why we read, about how to read different sorts of books in different ways, about genre and symbol and plot and character. Furthermore, literature is merely one part of the larger system of signification, the culture that produced it; we understand the behavior of characters and the implications of settings in novels only in terms of societal assumptions about the potential meanings of such things as places and the way people behave. Shavit calls this complex configuration of intersecting significations a "polysystem"; her object, then, is to determine how children's literature relates to the polysystem, and how its relationships with the larger system work to produce its distinct characteristics. As she says, "How children's literature manages to function in such a complicated net of systems is acutally the core of the book; it is practically what it is all about" (180).

Its being about that leads Shavit to ask a series of questions:

  1. 1. How is literature intended for children different from other sorts of literature?

  2. 2. How do our attitudes toward both the functions of literature and the nature of childhood account for these differences?

  3. 3. Why do most people involved in the production of literature—publishers, editors, reviewers, even writers—consider children's literature to be inferior to other sorts of literature? To use Shavit's term, why does children's literature have such a "poor self-image"?

  4. 4. Why are there different kinds of children's literature (specifically, what we consider to be "good" children's literature, which Shavit calls "canonical" as opposed to "non...


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pp. 162-164
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