Do children have the right to participate in literary practices as writers rather than solely as consumers of adults’ literary productions? How can exploring this question further our critical understanding of children’s rights and of children’s literature? This essay considers the relevance of young people’s rights to participation and expression for the production, publication, and criticism of children’s literature by examining a recent anthology of poetry written by young people in the United States for what it suggests about the priorities, concerns, and artistry of contemporary young poets.
The title quotation of this essay was written by Christell Victoria Roach, who terms herself a “young artist” (86) and is identified as fourteen years old in the Rattle Young Poets Anthology, published by Rattle literary magazine in 2014.1 Her words are strongly reminiscent of Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), adopted in 1989, which “assure[s] to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child” (“Convention”). While this wording interposes developmental judgment in adults’ assessment of “the age and maturity of the child,” the Committee on the Rights of the Child subsequently clarified that age or verbal ability should not be a barrier, that adults should “presume that a child has the capacity to form her or his own views and recognize that she or he has the right to express them” (6), and that children’s views are relevant beyond their own immediate concerns and “can enhance the quality of solutions” (8) on all manner of topics (Committee, “General Comment No. 12”). In other words, adults should presume that even the youngest children have ideas of their own and are capable of expressing [End Page 196] them; furthermore, these ideas should be taken seriously as contributions to the cultural and political life of the societies in which children live.
Children’s right to participation—“The right of all children to be heard and taken seriously” (Committee, “General Comment No. 12” 3)—is considered a central principle of the UNCRC, and “participation” has become a broad term used in children’s rights discourse to encapsulate processes of children’s involvement in their social, political, and cultural worlds, and their right to have their involvement respected by adults (Lansdown; Reynaert, Bouverne-de-Bie, and Vandevelde). While scholars, advocates, and practitioners continue to explore means of integrating young people’s participation in public spheres such as youth councils, this discourse has not yet been applied to considering children’s right to participation in literary practices as writers.
While the right to participation is the cornerstone of considering young people’s right to involvement in producing literature, also important are the right “to participate fully in cultural and artistic life” (“Convention,” Article 31) and the right to freedom of expression (“Convention,” Article 13). Article 31 describes children’s right to access to, participation in, and contribution to creative activities, and acknowledges that children’s “spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional expressions of culture and the arts” might help transform their societies (Committee, “General Comment No. 17” 4). Article 13 outlines children’s right to the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice” (“Convention”), yet children’s right to “impart” ideas receives arguably less emphasis in public and scholarly discussions than does children’s access to ideas produced by others. Certainly age functions as a “frontier” in the production, publication, and critical reception of children’s literature. Aimed at children but authored by adults, children’s literature according to a children’s rights framework does not adequately respect or uphold the freedom of expression and right to cultural and artistic participation of young writers and of young audiences who would be interested in reading works by young writers.
To refer to literature written by...