- The Year of the Child: Children’s Literature, Childhood Studies, and the Turn to Childism1
In American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1994), Anne Scott MacLeod observes that by 1920, children’s literature had become an “enclave”—“a garden, lovingly tended by those who cared about it but isolated as well as protected by the cultural walls that surrounded it” (125). At the time MacLeod published her landmark study, these metaphors could easily have extended to the academic pursuit of children’s literature. Analogous to the growth of children’s literature in the early twentieth century, when “all the creative activity, all the knowledgeable producing and reviewing and purveying . . . took place a little apart from the larger world of literature” (125), a generation ago the scholarship devoted to children’s literature tended to be cordoned off from the larger scholarly enterprise, cultivated by a dedicated few but marginalized within literary studies as a whole. Of 549 journal articles published between 1974 and 1994 and indexed under the keywords “children’s literature,” 80% issued forth in specialized journals devoted to children’s literature, primary or secondary education, librarianship, or the book trade. Of the remaining 20%, only a handful appeared in journals with a broad disciplinary scope.2
Twenty years later, the academic study of children’s literature resembles less a secluded reserve, sectioned off from its disciplinary environs, than a thriving hub sustained by and extending along a network of interdisciplinary crossroads. Each of the books I consider in this essay review exemplifies the kinds of cross-disciplinary [End Page 331] scholarship currently unfolding in this dynamic field. As critical coordinates, they help map the contours not only of this particular branch of literary studies but also a wide swath of US cultural history. Even as they illustrate the extent to which children’s literature has been incorporated into larger disciplinary and interdisciplinary conversations, however, each of these recent studies also reflects how scholars of children’s literature and childhood studies have embraced a distinct set of philosophical and methodological approaches. Each one makes a significant contribution to these expanding fields. Considered in tandem, they prompt an overriding question with farreaching implications for literary studies as a whole: how does the synergy among these critical texts illuminate what the turn to the child might mean for the discipline in its broadest sense?
One of the signs that a disciplinary subfield has emerged in its own right is that practitioners begin to engage in self-reflective conversations concerned with its definition, theoretical foundations, origins, and historical as well as future development. In the area of children’s literature, this metacritical activity has been gathering force for the past decade. Spanning the gamut of academic audiences, Perry Nodelman’s theory-driven The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature (2008) and Seth Lerer’s classroom-friendly Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History, from Aesop to Harry Potter (2008) barely preceded a swift succession of reference books, including The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature (2009), The Routledge Companion to Children’s Literature (2011), and The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature (2012). At the same time, Philip Nel and Lissa Paul’s Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011) and M. O. Grenby and Kimberley Reynolds’s Children’s Literature Studies: A Research Handbook (2011) took up places beside Peter Hunt’s pioneering collection Understanding Children’s Literature (1999; rev. 2005). Also, in 2011—surely a watershed year—Kenneth Kidd published his dual disciplinary history Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children’s Literature (2011), while PMLA showcased children’s literature in its forward-thinking “Theories and Methodologies” section.3 Reinforcing the existing disciplinary infrastructure, contributions such as these helped to solidify the fundamental questions organizing the subject: How do children’s...