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  • In the Throes of Definition
  • Marilynn Olson

A gathering of essays about American children's literature fills the Spring Quarterly. It has proved to be an unusually bouncy issue, snarling with exuberant springlike enthusiasm and vitality. Post-modernism, linguistics, and fractal geometry have been used to investigate the lyrical simplicities of MacLachlan and the early Seuss. Childhood is colonized or not colonized in a debate between two distinguished columnists. Meridel LeSeur's Lincoln emerges from the singing voice of socialist feminism to become an American myth; Puerto Rican Americans reject literary stereotyping and investigate the realities behind their own traditional migrations. Memory and desire mingle in our attempts to understand, preserve, or reject our earlier social artifacts and pastimes.

The Twins books, for example, were an effort to improve children's perception of the ethnic and national diversity of early twentieth-century America. Perceiving similar needs today, we do not reach for a shelf of Twins books for the elementary school, any more than we would reach for those original, but faulty, Hardy Boys series books. On the other side of the melting pot, we look, among other things, for stories about children of varying cultural backgrounds within our own society, knowing that mutual respect and peaceableness between ethnicities is an unaccountably more difficult goal than it once seemed. Lucille Gregory's discussion of Puerto Rican stories suggests warm community traditions that Lucy Fitch Perkins would have liked to know about, for example, and which have had too little literary attention paid to them. But these values are balanced by social and economic difficulties so complex and varying that in the late twentieth century it appears that the story of the Puerto Rican Americans perhaps may never be told well for really young children. Perkins' astonishing confidence that she could interpret a myriad of cultures she had never personally encountered, and our own bewildered anxiety when we attempt to describe our neighbors, are telling comments on the successes and failures of our society in the years between.

This sense of historical change leading to complex new definitions appears also in our relation to the phenomenon of the young adult novel. Michael Steig and Perry Nodelman discuss the ways in which Norma Klein's young adult novels appear to fit or fail to fit in the various categories used to define this literature. Robert C. Small, an editor of both The ALAN Review and the Young Adult column in The Journal of Reading, recently listed twenty-five characteristics of plot, characterization, setting, point of view and style that he had determined embodied the sub-genre and should be observed by the writer for this market.1 The novels sharing these characteristics appear to be both "literature that has been written for young adults by authors who intended to be addressing that audience" and also "literature that young people have been popularly known to read." Many of the characteristics are those we might guess: short length (rarely more than 200 pages); actions and decisions of the main characters are major factors in the outcome of the plot; only one plot, usually linear in nature and building to a climax at the end of the book; a short time span, usually less than a year; language, action, and descriptions that are relatively mild when compared with contemporary novels written for adults, particularly in relation to sex and violence; sparing use of devices such as symbolism, allegory, flashback—and so on. While much interesting material would appear not to conform to this list, including MacLachlan's Unclaimed Treasures, it seems clear that the material on the list overlaps both with books we might have grouped as children's literature and also with much literature marketed for adults. Relative ease in comprehension and students' ability to empathise with the main character, however, appear to be goals underlying this definition.

At the Quarterly, we are uncertain whether there has to be a general standard to apply to submissions including material that might be called "literature it would be nice if young people could be brought to read" or "literature which could be profitably read by someone of high school age" or simply "literature containing a young...


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