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  • The Other:Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children's Literature
  • Perry Nodelman (bio)

Child psychology and children's literature can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with childhood—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it; in short, child psychology and children's literature as an adult style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over childhood.

Anyone distressed by these strongly critical words about our institutions for dealing with children will be happy to hear that I have made the words up. Or more accurately, I have borrowed them: I have merely inserted phrases relating to childhood institutions into a quotation that actually discusses a quite different topic:

Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it; in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.

(Said 3)

I came upon the original quotation in Edward Said's Orientalism, a brilliant investigation of European attitudes towards Arabs and Asians. Said works to reveal that what we call "the Orient" has little to do with actual conditions in the East—that it is more significantly a European invention that has had a powerful influence of how Europeans have not only thought about but also acted upon the East.

As I read through Said's powerful descriptions of the history and structure of Orientalism, I was continually astonished by how often they suggested to me parallel insights into our most common assumptions about childhood and children's literature. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so astonished: after all, Jacqueline Rose's influential discussion of "the impossibility of children's fiction" works from the premise that children's literature is a form of colonization.1 Indeed, an exploration of the parallels between Said's descriptions of Orientalism and our representations of childhood in both child psychology and children's literature reveals a number of interesting things.

1. Inherent Inferiority

According to Europeans, Europeans must describe and analyze the Orient because Orientals are not capable of describing or analyzing themselves. Not only is Orientalism an area of study that can be pursued only by outsiders, but what defines them as outside of their subject is, exactly, their ability to study it: "the Orientalist is outside the Orient, both as an existential and as a moral fact" (21). Orientalism is thus inherently and inevitably a study of what theorists often call the other—of that which is opposite to the person doing the talking or thinking or studying.2 Since the opposite of studying is an inability to study, the other is always conceived by those who study it to be unable to study itself, to see or speak for itself. Thus, what the study will always focus on is how and why the other lacks one's own capabilities.

It's fairly obvious that our descriptions of childhood similarly purport to see and speak for children, and that we believe them to be similarly incapable of speaking for themselves. As far as I know, the writers and readers of the Children's Literature Association Quarterly are adults; children are not the ones who write either the texts we identify as children's literature or the criticism of those texts. Said's words force us to face the uncomfortable conclusion that our attempting to speak for and about children in these ways will always confirm their difference from, and presumably, inferiority to, ourselves as thinkers and speakers.

Of course, we may claim to believe that the inability of children to speak for themselves is not inferiority at all, but a wonderfully ideal state of innocence, just as Europeans have claimed throughout history to admire what they have interpreted as a lack of analytical reason in Orientals. But this supposed admiration of the inability to see and speak is undercut by the fact that it is based at least in theory on observation—seeing—and then, spoken about; it makes the other wonderful at the...


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pp. 29-35
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