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The Lion and the Unicorn 27.3 (2003) 437-443
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Deborah Cogan Thacker and Jean Webb. Introducing Children's Literature: From Romanticism to Postmodernism. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
In the bibliography at the end of this book, Maria Tartar's The Classic Fairy Tales appears as a work by John Stephens, three of Perry Nodelman's books appear under Maria Nikolajeva's name, John Griffith's (cited as Griffiths) study of Charlotte's Web appears as a book by Donald Gray, U. C. Knoepflmacher's Ventures into Childland appears as Ventures into Childhood, Herbert Tucker appears as the editor and the author of two volumes, each entitled A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture, Harold Bloom receives author credit for a book he compiled, and Jack Zipes receives credit for a book entitled Reading Victorian Fairy Tales, a work I cannot find attributed to him or anyone else in various databases. I feel a bit mean-spirited to point out these lapses at the outset of my review, but they are symptomatic of a rather careless attitude evident in this book toward the responsibility of the academic writer to his or her material and audience. My concern is that these lapses undermine the reader's trust in Thacker and Webb's essential argument in Introducing Children's Literature. Unfortunately, these lapses go beyond the bibliography. The writers are, at times, sloppy and insensitive to grammar; they (especially Thacker) argue to authority, rather than earn their assertions; they play fast and loose with chronology and dating of texts, and they make tenuous assumptions about the meaning of complex and difficult terms.
The intention of the authors is laudable: to place children's literature historically within the broader literary and cultural movements that inform our reading of mainstream literature. Rather than see children's literature as distinct in kind, separate from the serious movement of ideas from one period to another, Thacker and Webb argue that the literature produced for children derives from the same broad cultural and historical forces as does any literature and art. They are careful, however, to note that children's literature "must also always be a special case" (3); the special nature of children's literature lies in the "idea of power" that informs the relationship between author and reader (4). Whereas writers for adults see the readers as mature and knowledgeable, writers for children acknowledge readers who are immature and unlettered. Locating the beginning of children's literature in the late eighteenth century, Thacker and Webb set out to trace the development of children's literature from Romanticism through Victorianism to Modernism and Postmodernism. Assuming that "the adoption of literary theory in discussions of children's literature does not go far enough," their aim is to discuss the author/reader power relationship in relation to literary [End Page 437] movements and to observe "how such power relationships shift over time" (8).
What we have is a thesis that loosely posits, in literature for children, a clear power differential between author and reader under the Romantic ethos of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and then develops progressively towards the empowerment of the child reader until we reach the Postmodern moment with its "indeterminacy of meaning, lack of closure and play with language" (149). Postmodernism, then, delivers a children's literature that is a "revolutionary force" (149). I think the authors try to problematize this narrative by acknowledging the revolutionary sensibility of much Romantic writing and also by allowing for the continuing presence of social control in Postmodern books for the young. I think they do, but I am not certain because much of the discussion rests on a generalized assemblage of ideas and the hauling forth of familiar themes.
Allow me an example. In the discussion of Romanticism, we are told that "Romanticism needs to be recognized as an aesthetic and philosophical tendency." This twofold tendency manifests itself in a "dissatisfaction with what had come before" and in "a response to the revolutionary upheavals occurring on both sides of the Atlantic during...