It is time to augment our approach to children’s literature criticism by developing a framework that directly addresses contemporary childhoods. Ultimately, this approach should be accessible to all those involved in the field, including reviewers, librarians, educators, children themselves, and professional scholars of children’s literature; it should respond effectively not only to textual representations of childhood but also to children’s own creative and critical production of and responses to their literature in ways that existing approaches cannot.
Such an approach would update our work by incorporating current and diverse visions of childhood. In both our scholarship and the works of children’s literature we analyze, we are influenced by and acknowledge many traditional images of childhood. These images explain a pervasive working assumption: that children’s literature primarily provides instruction and delight. For example, the convenient “historical models of childhood” that Carrie Hintz and Eric Tribunella outline in Reading Children’s Literature demonstrate how social constructions of childhood as “sinful” or “developing” portray child characters requiring instruction; however, when childhood is perceived to be “Romantic” or “radically other” the characters are more often portrayed as imaginative (15–29). In turn, these models elicit bodies of didactic literature or a plethora of texts that delight (and often both at once).
But a more recent social construction of childhood is also now at play—one that has been gaining power for decades. The near worldwide ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), a legal construction responsible for advocating the concept of childhood as a time of rights and responsibilities, has helped to promote [End Page 144] this image: I refer to this model of childhood as “empowered.” If earlier views on childhood—which remain actively influential today—positioned children as blank slates to be filled with correct ideas so that they could fit into society, or imaginative redeemers whose innocence needed to be preserved so that they could rejuvenate society, then today’s growing image of the empowered child envisions children as active participants contributing to their society. The empowered child is often portrayed in contemporary children’s literature, and a body of “empowering” texts has developed to support such a vision of childhood; however, a holistic critical framework has not yet arisen in response.
The empowered model of childhood promotes children’s contributions to their own lives, families, and communities—not as an investment in the future but during childhood. It grants children the possibility of helping to shape themselves and their surroundings through their input, values, decisions, and actions. This image differs from its predecessors by encouraging a disruption of the status quo rather than its perpetuation in terms of social hierarchies based on age. Although indubitably still a social construction, the empowered child is the only image that creates genuine space for children’s authentic values and voices, sharing power with them. This empowered child underpins the UNCRC:
The Convention. … reflects a new vision of the child. Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights. The Convention offers a vision of the child as an individual and a member of a family and a community, with rights and responsibilities appropriate to his or her age and stage of development.(“FAQs and Resources” n. pag.)
Representations of the empowered child, as well as children agitating for empowerment, have long been central to children’s literature.
Several major shifts precipitate the need to change our approach to analyzing, discussing, and evaluating children’s literature: the aforementioned radical changes in the ways contemporary childhood is constructed, the related production of sophisticated contemporary children’s literature that defies earlier definitions of the genre (see Maria Nikolajeva’s 1998 article, “Exit Children’s Literature?”), and the emergence of an established body of children’s own writing and critical responses to their literature. By incorporating an awareness of the empowered child consistently in our scholarship through a focus on children’s rights, we can augment our assessment and analysis of children’s literature to update the field.
In this article I describe elements of...