- On the Political Work of Children’s Literature
Children’s literature studies has been around for almost 50 years, its organizations, journals, and conferences dating to the early 1970s. The field continues to expand, drawing on and contributing to diverse critical and theoretical pursuits, and intersecting with fields such as folkloristics, comparative literature, Victorian literature, US literary and cultural studies, and interdisciplinary childhood studies. For better and for worse, the “professionalization” of children’s literature scholarship has involved a rhetorical de-emphasis of its links to ostensibly more applied fields. “Children’s literature,” remarks Francelia Butler disapprovingly in the inaugural issue of Children’s Literature (which she founded), “is almost entirely in the hands of those in education and library science, who emphasize the uses of literature in the classroom, methodology, biographies of current writers, graded reading lists, book reports—good things but not the concern of those in the Humanities” (8). Butler and her colleagues energetically championed children’s literature as bona fide literature worthy of serious attention. Summing up the scene in 1980, John Rowe Townsend saw a division between “book people,” or those interested in children’s literature as literature, and “child people,” those interested in the kids themselves.1
Townsend may have exaggerated the split, but he was right to see competing impulses in the field. At the risk of oversimplifying, I venture that the more applied, kid-centric tradition persists in different form, now more concerned with politics than with pedagogy. For all the complexity of the field, and the attention to literariness, scholars remain attuned to the impact of children’s literature on children, focusing on ideology and subject formation, schooling and citizenship, and increasingly the obligations of children’s literature scholarship itself. Sara L. Schwebel, for instance, proposes that we take our [End Page 423] scholarship to the public, and models how we might do so through her own work on US historical fiction often taught in junior high and high school. “By not publishing accessible scholarship on teachers’ and students’ best-loved books,” she writes, “children’s literature scholars miss an opportunity to make a lasting impact on the broader society” (471). Katharine Capshaw made a similar point in her powerful Francelia Butler lecture at the 2014 meeting of the Children’s Literature Association, linking the marginalization of children’s books by people of color to the paucity of scholarship on those books and on race and ethnicity more generally.2
Some scholars have been concerned with questions of political education and/or indoctrination since the field’s inception, and interest in the political unconscious of children’s literature has an even longer history—recall, for instance, George Orwell’s 1940 biting critique of British boys’ weeklies.3 Alongside attempts to establish a canon of children’s literature, the 1970s saw a wave of writing on the representational politics of class, race, and gender, much of it informed by Marxism and feminism. In the past decade or so, newer scholars have written superb histories of both politically progressive (Julia L. Mickenberg, Philip Nel) and politically conservative (Michelle Ann Abate) US children’s literature, expanding its archive and canon, while also addressing the broader public.4 Mickenberg and Nel’s anthology Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (2008), a widely read and reviewed anthology, makes an excellent textbook.
The books reviewed here belong to this more recent wave of scholarship and reflect its dual emphasis on uncovering conservative agendas and promoting progressive ones.5 Gregory M. Pfitzer and Capshaw focus on US materials, while Angela E. Hubler’s edited volume extends to British, German, and Indian texts. Pfitzer picks up on the theme of conservative children’s literature, less in the literature itself (though there is some of that) and more in its contemporary recirculation. Capshaw and...