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  • Obit Signal:Approaches to Children's Books (1970-2003)
  • Peter Hunt (bio)

When the British children's book journal Signal reached its fiftieth issue in May, 1986, its editor, Nancy Chambers, allowed a rare moment of introspection. The Australian writer, therapist, and critic Hugh Crago wrote in "A Signal Conversation":

There are, to my mind, some key questions for people seriously concerned with children's literature: how can we talk meaningfully about children's books when their readers are supposed to be children and we are adults? are there really differences between adult books and children's books? between how adults read and how children read? if so what are they? . . . It is Signal's consistent interest in these questions, and its refusal to be satisfied with the tired old answers to them, that has been responsible for its gradual emergence as a shaping force in the field.


In the sixteen years since then, Signal established itself as a highly influential and unique phenomenon in children's literature criticism. Its alumni are an impressive group: significant parts of John Goldthwaite's The Natural History of Make Believe (1996) first appeared in its pages, as did the article that won the first Children's Literature Association Article Award, Aidan Chambers' "The Reader in the Book," and also Lissa Paul's "Enigma Variations: What Feminist Theory Knows about Children's Literature," runner-up in 1987. In Signal we could find the major critics and educators of the UK: Margaret Meek, Brian Alderson, Elaine Moss, Nicholas Tucker, but also many international writers such as Susan R. Gannon, Susan T. Viguers, Margaret Mackey, Peter Newmeyer, Sanjay Sircar, Jon C. Stott, and authors from Philip Pullman to Ursula K. Le Guin. The Signal poetry award, instituted in 1979, not only became one of the most prestigious awards in the field, but also produced the longest debate on the nature of children's poetry in print. Spin-off volumes from Signal included Lance Salway's A Peculiar Gift, a collection of nineteenth-century critical writing still much sought-after as a basic reference text. In the 1980s the annuals The Signal Review and The Signal Selection pioneered collaborative reviewing.

But the singular character of Signal lay in its independence. It took no advertising, was affiliated with no institution, and, most important, it followed no academic fashion. The fact that it was not, strictly speaking, a "refereed journal" placed it in an uncomfortable relationship with academia, which tends to be nervous about editorial individualism, however rigorous. This discomfort may have been exacerbated by the fact that Signal was strongly opposed to what Frank Kermode called "the high-tech, jargoned, reader-alienating...modern product" (qtd. in Harwood 21), academic name-dropping (such as that), and academic affectations such as footnotes that are longer than the article, or long bibliographies designed to impress as much as to inform (see below). All of this was not because the journal was anti-academic; rather that it was never only academic: the constituency for Signal was the constituency of people interested in children's books for a wide variety of reasons, not for those primarily interested in furthering their academic careers through publishing. Thus, in a single recent issue (number 93, September 2000) a scholarly study of the German poet Josef Guggenmos appears beside a campaigning article on literacy education in Canada, and a lovingly detailed description of a collection of fiction "set on or near canals."

Signal crossed academic boundaries in creative but unsettling ways: the categories of article in The Signal Companion, the guide to the journal's first 25 years, would seem hopelessly intractable to most academic administrators and many journal editors: "Collectors and Collecting" sits beside "Classroom Use of Books," "Authors, Bookselling, Exhibitions, Promotions, Awards" beside "Criticism and Reviewing," "Research" beside "Learning to Read." One of the major consequences of this was, as Crago observed, a conversation between disciplines, [End Page 226] and the major consequence of such interdisciplinarity was that the language had to be clear, the exposition straightforward. There was no room for anything that did not need to be said: obscurity did not indicate wisdom, and clarity did not indicate simplicity of ideas.



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