When we first conceived of this special issue on Children’s Rights and Children’s Literature in 2014—the year that marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC)—we were primarily interested in laying the groundwork for new, vibrant perspectives in the field of children’s literature studies. By challenging scholars to investigate and interrogate children’s literature in light of children’s rights discourses, we mean to encourage interdisciplinary practice as well as demonstrate how children’s rights can provide significant and exciting theoretical frameworks that can enhance and complicate critical studies of children’s texts. But our commitment to this project is not only a commitment to advancing scholarship; it is also expressive of our dedication to advocating children’s rights and to understanding the complexity of institutions that define and implement these rights.
Children make up roughly one-quarter of the global population, yet they are a political minority who are often neglected, exploited, and disenfranchised in many cultural settings (CIA Factbook).1 A majority of children around the world lack access to basic necessities that many of us tend to take for granted, such as shelter, water, food, clothing, as well as education, health care, and sanitation. Many young people are trafficked, enslaved, incarcerated, and forced to join militias. Around the world, children are seen as too inexperienced and immature to be rights-bearing citizens and are thus often excluded from participating in civic, economic, and political spheres. The CRC attempts to address these injustices by articulating children’s rights in four main ways: survival rights (i.e., the right to life and basic needs); development rights (i.e., the right to education, play, and access to information); protection rights (i.e., the right to be shielded from neglect and exploitation); and participation rights (i.e., the right to free expression, to free assembly, and to join social organizations). [End Page v]
It appears unquestionable that recognizing children’s rights means committing to safeguarding the well-being of children. Yet children’s rights remains a highly contested subject. One primary reason for this is that the concepts of “childhood” and “the child” are themselves the subject of much debate. Defining and scrutinizing children’s rights is not simply about understanding children’s needs and privileges; it also requires us to confront our understanding of what it means to be a child. It is also worth asking, what does it mean to assign a special category of rights to children? Why did the United Nations Assembly deem it necessary to draft the CRC, instead of examining how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, could be expanded to meet the needs of young people? Are efforts at designing, debating, and revising such special rights, often performed by adults on behalf of children, expressing and reinforcing the view that children lack the capability to determine their lives? And what role do children play in defining and implementing children’s rights?2
Perhaps the most significant debate that has emerged in children’s rights discourses concerns the issue of implementing children’s rights on a global scale given that there are culturally specific understandings of childhood as well as rights (Murphy-Berman, Levesque, and Berman 1257). This interrogation of the universalization of children’s rights primarily revolves around the CRC. The CRC is the most widely ratified human rights document in the world. Adopted by the United Nations Assembly in 1989, it has been ratified by all nations except the United States. Yet the almost-universal endorsement of the CRC has not resulted in across-the-board implementation. Phenomena such as child slavery, recruitment of child soldiers, and sentencing children to death have not yet been abolished in many countries. About one billion children around the world live in poverty. Moreover, the CRC reveals and arguably shores up the gap between constructions of childhood and the experiences of children. Critics argue that the CRC and the local and international agencies that work to implement it tend to embrace ideals of childhood as it is conceived in...