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The Lion and the Unicorn 24.1 (2000) 1-17

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Disdain or Ignorance?
Literary Theory and the Absence of Children's Literature

Deborah Thacker

The battle against the marginalization of children's literature within the academic mainstream is an old one, and the current wealth of books with titles joining children's books and literary theory attest to attempts to bridge the 'seriousness' gap. However, there is another blindness at the heart of the literary enterprise that must be addressed if the significance of both the texts and readers of children's literature are to be recognized. As theorists explore the implications of the multiplicity of readership and the influence of sociocultural constructions on response to fiction, so the site of interaction between readers and texts requires a perspective that includes a continuum of experience that begins in childhood. While critics of children's literature use theory to argue the case for children's literature, theoreticians in general seem slow to use children's literature, despite its relevance.

Children's literature still remains beyond the range of most literary studies, and I argue here that the distance that now exists will persist, given both the absence of a consideration of those particular texts and multiple, socially constructed readers. The transformation of critical theory over the last few decades has meant that theory needs children's literature. As theorists move from a textual emphasis toward the interplay between reader and text and the social and political forces that mediate those interactions, so the part played by texts written primarily for children and the ways of reading available to children, within a web of discourses that both encourage and control interactions with fictional texts, need to be included and examined. Thus, we, as specialists, must contribute to a broader picture of the social constructedness of readers and the implications of the discourses surrounding fiction in the development of response.

There have been numerous occasions over the past ten years that demonstrate the relevance of theory to readers of children's literature. [End Page 1] Peter Hunt's work (1990, 1991, 1992) and Rod McGillis's recent publication, The Nimble Reader: Literary Theory and Children's Literature (1996), provide ample evidence that children's literature critics are confronting the marginalization of the field by adopting theoretical strategies that are more often reserved for mainstream academic concerns. In many cases, however, these discourses can appear to be stuck on, creating a kind of parallel universe for children's literary theory.

The extent to which "adultist" theorists ignore these "first" texts and young readers is surprising, particularly since Terry Eagleton's claim that "all literature is intertextual" (138) and dependent on the recognition of codes within a text derived from previous reading experiences is now a familiar theme in theories that privilege response. The multiplicity and subjectivity of meaning suggested by the direction of much response theory implicate the reader as an active participant within the text, ascribing authority to any individual reader to engage creatively with any text. While children as readers are frequently dismissed and children's texts are ignored, an awareness of both is crucial to an understanding of how readers are enabled to take up this creative responsibility.

This missing perspective is noticeable in the work of most prominent theorists, among them Wolfgang Iser, Jonathan Culler, Roland Barthes, and Peter Rabinowitz. 1 The pleasure or jouissance that Barthes ascribes to a writerly engagement and the distinction between open and closed texts described by Umberto Eco, are central to considerations of how children are socially constructed as readers. The ability of very young readers to enter into a dynamic interaction between text and reader has been documented by both "book" and "child" people, yet it is difficult to find a theorist acknowledging the early experience of text. Neither Culler and his "literary competences" nor Stanley Fish and the notion of the "interpretive community" 2 refers to the earliest experiences with text, though constructions based on literary convention and expectation are learned during childhood. It is the expectations...


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