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  • Beyond the Grammar of Story, or How Can Children's Literature Criticism Benefit from Narrative Theory?
  • Maria Nikolajeva (bio)

Narrativity: The set of properties characterizing NARRATIVE and distinguishing it from nonnarrative; the formal and contextual features making a narrative more or less narrative, as it were.

(Gerald Prince, A Dictionary of Narratology)

The purpose of this essay is to show what analytical tools narratology can give us to examine children's fiction. Narrative theory is gradually becoming a hot topic in children's literature research, of which the present issue of the Quarterly is the best token.1 Yet compared to other contemporary directions of inquiry, narrative theory is still taking its very first steps within children's literature criticism.2 Furthermore, it has repeatedly been pointed out that while children's literature scholars may successfully borrow analytical tools from narratology for a systematic investigation of the various levels of narrative, we should be above all interested in a "children's-literature-specific theory" (Hunt, "Narrative" 192). My aim in this essay is thus twofold: to demonstrate the advantage of narratology as distinct from other critical directions, and to pinpoint the ways narrative theory is particularly applicable in children's literature scholarship.

In what way is then a narratological approach different from conventional approaches to children's literature? To anticipate accusations of critical bias, I hurry to point out that I am not using the word "conventional" in a pejorative sense. I am also aware of the fallacy of offering a specific theory as a panacea, as is sometimes done, for instance, with feminist criticism. Narrative theory is not opposed to other critical theories; it is just one of many. Yet for the sake of clarity, I will use juxtaposition as a method of argumentation in this essay to illustrate the distinctive features of narratological approach.

The decisive question for a literary historian is, for instance, "What makes Alice in Wonderland an outstanding children's book?" This question has been confronted by many critics, who have examined the portrayal of the child and the society (socio-historical approaches, childhood studies), the reflection of the author's actual life (biographical approach) or his psyche (psychoanalysis), the displacement of myth (archetypal theory), the linguistic acrobatics (literary stylistics), gender issues (feminist criticism), the philosophical implications (phenomenology), the impact on later authors (intertextuality), the reception of the book by young and adult readers (reader-response criticism), its fate in other countries (translation studies), its dissemination through other media (cultural studies), and so on. The question for a narratologist is: "What makes Alice in Wonderland a children's book?" This question has given those who have cared to pose it at all a lot of headache. We know by intuition that it is a children's book, and it has throughout the years functioned as a children's book, but it does not match any conventional definitions. It is not uncommon to interrogate books that do not match our preconceived opinions about children's literature. Some critics say that Alice in Wonderland or Winnie-the-Pooh are great books because they in actual fact are not children's books (see e.g., Shavit, Poetics; "Double"). Such statements are often made without further reflections, based on assumptions like "The book is too difficult; children don't understand it." In doing so, critics apply reader-response ideas and construct an abstract, ideal picture of a "child" who can or cannot enjoy the particular book. They also apply pedagogical criteria and judge the books on the basis of their own opinions about pedagogical values (which may be educational, moral, or ideological). Often critics also trust what authors say about their books ("I write for children" or "I do not write for children") or how publishers and library services classify them. All these are arbitrary criteria, which in addition change throughout history. The narratological question "What characterizes a children's book as a narrative, distinct from all other types of narrative?" presupposes a totally different methodology.

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Cover of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (1999)

Below I discuss some of the central issues of children's...


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