You study children's literature? What?

This is the first post in our Studying Children's Literature series, which is where we will be asking a variety of our students to answer the tricky question of what studying children's literature actually means. First into the fray is Dawn Sardella-Ayres, a second-year PhD candidate with an interest in feminism and racism, with a penchant for opinion-ating.

After over a decade in the field, I’ve discovered that people ask pretty much the same three or four questions when they find out what I do. And is usually starts with the inevitable:

“Oh! You study Children’s Literature! You must love kids!”

Actually, no. I don’t love children. I loathe children. I twitch and break out in hives at the mere thought of them. (Though not all children's literature scholars feel the same, and some even study actual children.) But the idea that children and their literature is linked in both a physical as well as a theoretical way underscores a fundamental issue in any kiddielit department:

Is it Children’s Literature… or Children’s Literature?

It’s not always an easy question to answer. If your area is Modernism, it’s pretty obvious you’re focused on a specific genre and/or movement. Or you can bypass some of the theoretical questions and just identify yourself by a centenary: Eighteenth-Century Literature. And if you identify what you study as “Adjective Literature,” like Women’s Fiction or Postcolonial Literature or LGBT Literature, it’s still not that difficult to grasp what you study just from the label: you’re obviously studying literature written by, for, or concerning that group of people.

Same with Children’s Literature, right?

Well, no, not exactly. British Edwardian literature can be defined as literature written by British Edwardians, or perhaps concerning British Edwardians, and once you’ve defined “British” and “Edwardian,” you’re 90% done. But is Children’s Literature written by children? About children? For children? Concerning children? If so, which children? When? Is something written for children of the 1700s still appropriate or useful for children of the 2000s? How do we define “children”? Ages 0-12, and then they’re “young adult”? Or ages 0-18 because of legal status in certain countries? Is “child” a legal, social, biological, religious, cultural definition? Is the idea of “Children’s Literature” about education? Or is it a marketing tool? Does it relate to size and layout of book pages, print, and illustrations? (If it doesn’t have any illustrations, is it still “children’s”? If it is textless with only illustrations, is it still “literature”?) Or is “Children’s Literature” a subject-based definition? If a book is about issues of “growing up,” it’s Children’s Literature, right? Right! Plus if it has non-adult protagonists, just like Lord of the Flies, or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Or To Kill a Mockingbird-


So, maybe the definition of “Children’s Literature” is more slippery than other genres to begin with.

For those of us who have been working with Children’s Literature, especially if we are in programs that are not dedicated to Children’s Lit, or who side-eye anything smacking of “interdisciplinary” or “pop culture studies,” we are used to existing in liminal academic spaces. We have to justify our presence with “real” literature, we have to defend texts like The Snowy Day and even Little Women far more than “great works” like Tristram Shandy or Ulysses or Pride & Prejudice. We shrink, we apologize. We argue and fight for recognition. We recontextualize.

It’s like childhood itself.

So when we ask is it “Children’s Literature… or Children’s Literature?” we’re actually addressing one of the most powerful elements of our field. It’s literature-centric: we are lit scholars, applying complex theory, rigorously analyzing texts and interrogating linguistic constructs, engaging in post-structuralist feminist Marxist queer eco-critical readings of the cultural underpinnings of the economic social gender relations in our chosen texts, because hurrah for hermeneutics. And it’s child-centric: we are hands-on with children in a variety of reading- and book-based conditions, looking at how they read, what they read, how they read what they read and when and why and with what surprising results, collecting data, constructing empirical queries, transcribing, assessing, comparing.

On the other hand, maybe it is an easy question to answer.

Children’s Literature… or Children’s Literature?

Yes. It’s all of that. And more.

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