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Reviewed by:
  • The Poetics of Childhood
  • Lois R. Kuznets (bio)
The Poetics of Childhood. By Roni Natov. New York: Routledge, 2003

The Poetics of Childhood is a sterling contribution to the internationally renowned Children and Culture Series, edited by Jack Zipes. Natov is in firm control of a surprisingly eclectic volume that has the earmarks of much rumination over a long period of time. Her emotional and intellectual experiences have served her well: as girl and woman, and as professor of literature at Brooklyn College, CUNY, co-founder and former co-editor of The Lion and the Unicorn, writer of many articles and interviews in the field of children's literature, and author of the volume on Leon Garfield for the Twayne English Author Series. So if we find Nabakov's Lolita considered in the same chapter as Heide's The Shrinking of Treehorn, among other works for child and adult audiences, we shouldn't be either surprised or dubious. She knows what she's doing.

The title of this work may mislead some, however. It suggests an emphasis on the theoretical not characteristic of the volume as a whole, which—on the contrary—seems to spend relatively little time exploring theoretical underpinnings of its critical practices. The study devotes itself largely to close readings of many individual texts within a subtle framework of development theory, Freudian and post-Freudian, as well as social, feminist, and post-colonial concerns. Natov's use of the term "poetics" here, combined as it is with "childhood" rather than "children's literature" is based, I think, on French phenomenological critic Gaston Bachelard's similarly iconoclastic usage in The Poetics of Space. I think Natov goes beyond literary jargon here by calling attention to the shape and texture of childhood itself and the images that arise from it. She thinks about a particular aspect of childhood—its combination of joy and pain—that permeates a certain type of text and calls up an audience of children and adults who need such imagistic texts in order to grasp meaningfully their own experience and memories.

Citing Bachelard in his similar concern for imagery, Natov writes in her introduction that the poetics of childhood "involves the images of childhood, the voice and tone, the smells and textures that make up the larger landscape that recalls to us our earliest states of mind" (2). She follows this with a key paragraph about the contents of the volume to follow:

This book explores the literature of childhood through a variety of texts both those conceived and written for children and those that engage an exclusively adult readership. Its focus is those works that provide a shared area where adult and child come together. . . . The majority of works considered here belong as much to adults as to children, as the world of childhood belongs to adults in memory as well as to children temporally.

(3)

She goes on to find "childhood narratives" liminal for adults, mediating various "levels of perspective and experience," yet inclusive in audience. For her, the literature of childhood: "embraces whatever children read and is read to them. . . . And it engages childhood as remembered and imagined by adults" (3). Natov's eclectic choices reflect this sense of inclusion.

Those who study children's literature will not be surprised to find that the first chapter, "Constructions of Innocence," begins with the Romantic poets, Blake and Wordsworth, whose works, like Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience and Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality," reflect what we have come to consider a special "Romantic" view of the Child: innocent, sensitive, and in close relationship to the natural world, while painfully [End Page 186] subject to corruption by worldly experience. Natov, in her close reading of their various works, including Wordsworth's Prelude, makes fine distinctions between Blake and Wordsworth in their images of childhood. Then she brings into this chapter a work to complicate further the Romantic notion of childhood innocence: Opal Whiteley's Diary, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1920. Whiteley and her Diary were subject to much controversy and Whiteley herself suffered tragically, but, as Natov argues, the work gives an extraordinarily direct (and seemingly unmediated) glimpse...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-1201
Print ISSN
0885-0429
Pages
pp. 186-189
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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