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Children’s Literature

26 October 2017

Children's Literature: The Development Of CriticismChildren’s Literature: The Development Of Criticism by Peter Hunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been trying to write a sequel to my children’s book Of Wheels and Witches and thought this book might give me some ideas. It’s a kind of potted history of criticism of children’s literature — a collection of essays from various people written at various periods.

I found some a lot more useful than others for my purposes, but then the book wasn’t compiled for my purposes, but rather to ask and try to answer the question whether children’s books should be criticised using the same criteria as one would use for other books. There is also the question of what exactly are children’s books. Many books were written for adults, but are somehow lumped with children’s literature — Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, for example.

The essays I found most useful for my purpose were one by Roger Lancelyn Green, which was more of a survey or a review than a critique, and one by John Rowe Townsend, ‘Standards of Criticism for Children’s Literature’. But best of all was Aidan Chambers, ‘The Reader in the Book’.

Authors often make assumptions about their readers, and what they know, and what they will be familiar with. Chambers points out that most books, including most children’s books, have an ‘implied reader’:

… we can also detect from a writer’s references to a variety of things just what he assumes about his implied reader’s beliefs, politics, social customs and the like. Richmal Crompton in common with Enid Blyton, A.A. Milne, Edith Nesbit and many more children’s authors assumed a reader who would not only be aware of housemaids and cooks, nannies and gardeners but would also be used to living in homes attended by such household servants. That assumption as as unconsciously made as the adoption of a tone of voice current among people who employed servants at the time the authors were writing.

This, says Chambers, is something that could usefully be borne in mind by teachers who teach literature to children, and critics of children’s literature in determining whether or not a book is for children:

I am suggesting that the concept of the implied reader, far from unattended to by critics in Europe and America, offers us a critical approach which concerns itself less with the subjects portrayed in a book than with the means of communication by which the reader is brought in to contact with the reality presented by an author. It is a method which could help us determine whether a book is for children or not, what kind of book it is, and what kind of reader (or, to put it another way, what kind of reading) it demands. Knowing this will help us to understand better how to teach not just a particular book, but particular books to particular children.

That is something I think important not only for teachers of children’s literature to bear in mind, but also the authors. Whether articulated or not, most authors have a particular kind of reader in mind, and make assumptions about what the reader knows or doesn’t know.

John Rowe Townsend made some comments about criteria for criticising children’s literature which I think go far beyond children’s books, or teaching literature to children. In discussing the question of criteria for criticism, he concludes that the critic counts for more than the criteria:

A good critic will indeed be aware if theme, plot, style, characterization and many other considerations, some of them not previously spelled out but arising directly from the work; he will be sensitive; he will have a sense of balance and rightness; he will respond. Being only human he cannot possibly know all that it would be desirable for him to know; but he will have a wide knowledge of literature in general as well as of children and their literature, and probably a respectable acquaintance with cinema, theatre, television and current affairs. That is asking a lot of him, but not too much. The critic (this is the heart of the matter) counts more than the criteria.

And that reminds me of South Africa’s venture into Outcomes-Based Education (OBE) about twenty years ago. OBE attempts to standardise the criteria, which makes it easier to set standards and compare them across different institutions. About 15 years ago I was a member of a Standards Generating Body for Christian Theology. We had to wrote outcomes for theological education.

Now there are certain disciplines in which OBE works well and easily. If one is teaching carpentry, then you can specify that the outcome is a table. You can know that the learner has learnt to make a table when they have actually made one that doesn’t wobble and doesn’t collapse when anything is put on it.

But that doesn’t quite work in theology, nor, I should imagine, in literature. I was called upon to mark undergraduate essays in Missiology, and generally I could tell, after reading the first paragraph, what mark I would give at the end. Very rarely did it vary by more than 5% from what I thought at the beginning. And I think that is what Townsend was talking about in the bit I quoted above. It was very difficult to articulate the outcomes beforehand. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the eater gets to know what a good pudding tastes like, and trying to specify the taste and texture and qualities of a good pudding as measurable outcomes doesn’t work.

In the humanities, in particular, Outcomes Based Education is likely to have one overriding outcome — Zemblanity.

Zemblanity is the opposite of Serendipity.

Serendipity is the faculty of making happy, desirable and unexpected discoveries by chance.

Zemblanity is the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.

You can read more about it here: Zemblanity and education | Notes from underground

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