- Reading for Learning: Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
This century has seen a growing interest in cognitive approaches to literature; work by such scholars as Patrick Hogan, Peter Stockwell, and Lisa Zunshine has paved the way for scholars of children’s literature to consider the importance of Theory of Mind in their studies. This volume is the third offering in a new series, Children’s Literature, Culture, and Cognition (CLCC), that seeks to “encourage a cross- and interdisciplinary approach on the basis of literary studies, media studies, comparative studies, reception studies, literacy studies, cognitive studies, and linguistics.” Author Maria Nikolajeva is a member of the series’ editorial team.
The author’s introduction offers an explanation of the goals of cognitive criticism and makes the case for considering it as a way to understand the reader’s engagement with literature, especially as an aesthetic experience. Cognitive approaches, Nikolajeva asserts, unify authorial intention and reader engagement in ways that other literary theories do not: “cognitive criticism explores how the richness and diversity of narrative structures in fiction contributes to readers’ understanding and cognitive and affective engagement” (12).
As is typical with a Nikolajeva book, this one is organized into many discrete sections and subsections, making it easy to navigate. The study is divided into kinds of cognitive relationships between implied readers and literature for the young. Chapter 1 explores how readers process the fictionality of worlds—both mimetic fictional worlds and the actual one—and how texts imply certain knowledge on the part of those implied readers. Chapter 2 explores how “children’s literature can construct possible worlds through various modes, and how readers are encouraged to use their cognitive skills to make sense of the world” (49). “Impossible,” “probable,” and “improbable” fictional worlds are examined. The third chapter investigates the different ways readers connect to and care about literary characters, exploring mimetic and semiotic relationships; it contains an important discussion of the roles of empathy and identification that takes up Suzanne Keen’s discussion of this subject in literature generally. Chapter 4 contrasts novels and picture books, demonstrating how different modalities cue emotional engagement through telling and showing. The fifth chapter focuses on young adult literature as a domain that investigates and engages the question of self-knowledge [End Page 202] and identity construction, connecting directly to chapter 6 on the issue of how memory is depicted in literature and expected as a cognitive process in implied readers.
The last part of the book, divided into the two final chapters, itself serves as a mini-book in its discussion of literary ethics—ethics of art, of address, and of response—in relation to cognitive narratology. In chapter 7, Nikolajeva investigates how children’s literature conveys ethical knowledge and evokes cognitive responses to those ethical issues. An interesting discussion involves the important affective differences between pedagogical children’s literature that simply offers lessons and children’s literature that fosters ethical inquiry in young readers. Chapter 8 applies ethicalcognitive readings of four narratives: Forbidden, His Dark Materials, King of Shadows, and The Hunger Games. The book ends with something of an epilogue, defending the consideration of a cognitive approach to children’s books. Most convincing, especially following a complete reading of this volume, is the author’s contention that cognitive criticism “confirms claims that were previously made without indisputable scientific evidence” (228)—most notably, that reading fiction is good for children in a number of ways.
As in her previous books, especially Children’s Literature Comes of Age (1996), From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature (2000), and The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature (2002), Nikolajeva takes on a wide subject area and breaks it down in a systematic way into what she believes to be its constitutive parts. This book, like those others, is one that I will rely on to recall both basic and big-picture ways of seeing the relationship between children’s literature and, in this case, cognitive narratology. Her view is always panoramic, and her studies are always the...