- Keywords for Children's Literature
In 1976, Denis Donoghue reviewed Raymond Williams' Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society for the New York Times. He wrote that as a teacher Williams loved "to show where ideas begin and end, in principle, only to emphasize that in practice their beginnings and endings are incorrigibly wayward" (2). In Keywords for Children's Literature, Philip Nel and Lissa Paul share Williams' pedagogical strategy to disrupt common understandings of children's literature.
Nel and Paul's carefully edited collection contains refreshing essays on a range of keywords such as "African American," "Culture," "Image," "Literacy," and "Queer." Contributors were asked to attend "to the ways individual terms came into common use, the ways those uses vary over time and place, and the ways terms are contested and/or conflicted" (2). In this way, familiar critical terms are reassessed in relationship to their theoretical and historical origins as well as how they have been deployed in children's literature scholarship (primarily in English-based literary studies in North America).
The book provides a conceptual map of children's literature studies as it moves in and out of genres and disciplines within North America, Australia, and the United Kingdom. This is no easy feat, as the term "Children's Literature"—a set of texts and an academic discipline—is itself unruly and "carries with it complex emotional freight" (Hunt 47). The forty-nine essays are organized alphabetically beginning with "Aesthetics" and ending with Lee Talley's insightful essay on the term "Young Adult." In their introduction, Nel and Paul invite readers "not to start at the first entry and read through to the last. Instead, each reader should follow the associations suggested by each keyword" (3). Entries are short and engaging, and implicit and explicit references across essays allow the reader the luxury of forging intuitive or abstract connections.
Nel and Paul write that their intent is "not to fix meanings in place, but rather to delineate tentative boundaries of a shifting conversation" (2). Essays in which authors write from another disciplinary perspective, such as Elisabeth Rose Gruner's essay on "Education," are particularly provocative as they chart associations and meanings that would not necessarily conform to mainstream definitions and histories of that term within its home discipline. These interdisciplinary exchanges are important because—as Nel and Paul [End Page 75] note—academics, teachers, librarians, and others working with children's literature (an umbrella term for different disciplines, genres, and media) rarely cross disciplinary lines. The result of this is that "Meanings can be blurred and cross-disciplinary conversations confused" (1). Keywords for Children's Literature begins to "create a shared vocabulary by mapping the history of key terms and explaining how they came to be used in conflicted ways" (1).
Within the essays, each author eschews static definitions in favor of complex histories that keep this shared vocabulary contentious. One excellent example is Phillip Serrato's entry on the term "Latino/a." He provides a history of this keyword in the United States and then explicates the inconsistent ways that it has been deployed in children's literature. The term might be used to mark literature for children by designated Latina authors like Julia Alvarez and mixed race authors like Pam Muñoz Ryan, who are considered cultural insiders; it might also be employed to refer to non-Latino/a authors (cultural outsiders) such as Eve Bunting, who write about Latino/a characters. Serrato breathes new life into these longstanding insider/outsider debates by tracing the term's use in the marketplace with a focus on how publishers and booksellers use the category to sell and market books to consumers who favor an easy multiculturalism. He demonstrates how categories like Latino/a, while intended to open up reading experiences for children, actually close down understandings of cultural specificity. He writes that "On the one hand, they obfuscate the specific cultural content and context of a text (assuming it has specific cultural content and context in the first place); on the other, they perpetuate indifference...