In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Keywords for Children’s Literature
  • Claudia Mills (bio)
Keywords for Children’s Literature. Edited by Philip Nel and Lissa Paul. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

It’s here! The long-awaited collaboration of dozens of stellar contributors, shepherded by two visionary and indefatigable editors, can now take its place as an indispensable title in any children’s literature scholar’s library. Inspired by Raymond Williams’s original Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Oxford University Press, 1976), the project of Keywords for Children’s Literature is to bring together prominent scholars from the interdisciplinary field(s) of children’s literature for the purpose of “mapping the history of key terms and explaining how they came to be used in conflicted ways” (1). The intended result: to provide “a snapshot of a vocabulary that is changing, expanding, and ever unfinished” (1). More than mere “snapshots,” however, the book provides dozens of brilliantly crafted short “films” of evolving meanings, and critical conversations around those meanings, for terms such as “Boyhood,” “Culture,” “Gender,” “Golden Age,” “Graphic Novel,” “Nonsense,” “Postcolonial,” “Realism,” and “Voice.” This volume has extravagantly succeeded in its stated mission to “map meanings vital for those who read, teach, and study literature for children” (2).

A representative delightful sample is Claudia Nelson’s entry for the term “Domestic.” Nelson begins by giving the derivation of the term from the Latin domus (“house”) through the Middle French domestique, noting that the Oxford English Dictionary cites multiple meanings from the term’s earliest usages in the early sixteenth century: “While ‘domestic’ always implied closeness, the extent of the sphere of proximity varied”—from the household (“domestics” as servants), to the nation (“domestic policy”), even to humankind at large (“domestic animals”) (67). She then situates the term within children’s literature as describing “a genre that emerged in the eighteenth century from writers such as Maria Edgeworth, namely stories of family life in a realist mode” (67). In her discussion of the association of the term “domestic fiction” with middle-class Victorian girls, Nelson observes the way in which this “occludes not only post-modern tales of alternative domesticity” but also “discussions of nontraditional family life” (67). She goes on to explore and challenge its linkage with femininity, pointing out, for example, that in An Old-Fashioned Girl Alcott uses the term “domestic” more often in connection with her male than her female characters. Finally, Nelson cites the use [End Page 110] of “a domestic” as “twentieth-century police slang for a violent altercation between family members” to argue that domestic “intimacy need not promote peace” (69). She well makes her case that domesticity is “an unstable concept to be contested or redefined at need” (69)—valorized by some, despised by others—building to the conclusion that “much of the energy of the domestic novel for children derives [from] the recognition that achieving and maintaining what is domestic, whether defined as intimacy, familiarity, or housewifery, is often neither easy nor pleasant” (70). All this in 3½ exquisite pages!

Entry after entry trenchantly poses crucial questions that structure contemporary discussion. Take, for example, the letter “M”: For “Marketing,” June Cummins traces the dual suspicion and admiration aroused by the marketing of children’s books, from John Newbery’s book-and-toy package in A Little Pretty Pocket-book to recent critiques of Scholastic Book Fairs, at which fully a third of the items sold are not books, but toys. Her entry offers the fascinating fact that a 1926 American Library Survey found that a whopping 98 percent of students named as their favorite book a title issued by the marketing-savvy Stratemeyer Syndicate. Cummins concludes with the claim that it is impossible to imagine how “children’s books could be produced and distributed in our contemporary democratic society without money and marketing”; the challenge is to “imagine a world where marketing’s major success was to bring literature to as many children as possible” (150). Kimberley Reynolds’s entry on “Modernism” documents the ways in which “the relationship between children’s literature and modernism is convoluted and contradictory” (151). Have writers for children consciously rejected literary modernism as part of a...