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  • Never Going Home:Reflections on Reading, Adulthood, and the Possibility of Children's Literature
  • Michael Steig (bio)

In Memory of Norma Klein, 1938-1989

1. The Possibility of Literature for Children

Jaqueline Rose, in The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children's Fiction, says, in effect, that the concept of children's fiction (and presumably other so-called children's literature) is based on the fantasy that adults know what a child is and on the paradox that we believe we also know what a child should be and thus have the means of determining the outcome of a child's development, in part through the production and assignment of children's books of the proper kind (1-11). Fantasy and paradox are my terms, not Rose's, nor is it my aim here to analyze Rose's arguments; rather, I am concerned to raise a nagging question to which I will offer no conclusive answer: can we really say what literature for children is?

My main reason for asking this question is my sense that the borderline between children's and other literature is, and perhaps has always been, so fuzzy that our specialty is not really a separately definable category, but is rather, especially in college and university English departments, only a convenient rubric under which one can teach, do research on, and write about a group of important texts which are otherwise ignored. In commercial publishing, children's literature and its various subcategories can be seen as artificially generated designations intended to target certain members of the reading public-parents, perhaps, more than children. The designation "children's literature," in other words, is a constructed category whose content is determined by those who make professional use of it, rather than the children who supposedly read it. There is nothing strange about such a situation in the academy, for the Victorian Novel, the Romantics, Renaissance Literature, or Modern Drama are equally conventional ways of cutting up the literary pie, and equally lacking in precision. For example, Lewis Carroll's Alice books are not normally classified as Victorian novels, but this is an arbitrary exclusion. Furthermore, Jane Austen is sometimes taught in eighteenth century, sometimes in Romantic, and sometimes in Victorian literature courses, while William Blake may be claimed both by Enlightenment and Romantic specialists—and by those who teach children's literature as well.

Just how tenuous the boundaries are for those who specialize in children's literature was made vivid to me by the range of authors covered in a recent bibliography issue of the Children's Literature Association Quarterly. Among established children's authors and illustrators we find Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare, Swift, Scott, and Hawthorne, as well as Mary Shelley, William Morris, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Henry James, George Orwell, and Gertrude Stein, and the annotations indicate that the listed items include studies which concentrate neither on the "children's" works by some of these authors nor on the authors' treatment of children. I have not been able to deduce a set of principles for the inclusion of work on "standard" authors in such a bibliography, but if one could do so, I suspect those principles would be so numerous and varied that they would not add up to a coherent concept of what should be included under the rubric of criticism and scholarship on "children's literature."

My motivation for questioning how one identifies children's literature was strengthened by my reaction to one brief entry in the 1991 Quarterly bibliography, an obituary of Norma Klein, who died in 1989 at not quite fifty-one. Klein's early death came as a shock, for I attended the same high school she did in New York, two grades ahead of her. Though I barely knew her personally, we passed frequently in the halls for two school years, and the same amazingly large and bright eyes that I saw then now peer out from the photographs on the dustjackets of her novels. In 1953 and 1954 I knew her creative work only in the form of whimsical drawings, including the illustrations in the school's 1954 literary annual for the text of a...


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