Studying the Children in Children’s Literature

This week's blog post is the second in our Studying Children's Literature series, which began last week with Dawn Sardella-Ayre's ideas about what it means to academically study children's literature. Today's post is brought to us by Aline Frederico, one of our PhD candidates who is interested in picturebook apps, with a different perspective. 

As Dawn brilliantly claimed in the previous post, children’s literature is diverse; it does not accept only one definition. It is multidisciplinary - people study it in different departments, usually English or modern languages and education, but also creative writing, visual arts, psychology, history, sociology, anthropology, library and information sciences, or communication and media, among others. Nonetheless, there is usually a divide in the field between those who focus on the texts, usually from a literary perspective, and those who focus on the children, analyzing their responses along with the educational implications of children’s literature. 

By choosing one side or the other, one may be engaging in very different kinds of research, with its own traditions, theoretical approaches and unique methods. On the one hand, there are books, books, and more books, along with archives and documents, and the interpretation one chooses to make of it through specific theoretical lenses. “Data,” or primary texts as we call them, are novels, picturebooks, comics, short stories, etc. On the other side, besides books and theories, there are readers, real children and their books (or the books someone has decided they should read), multiple interpretations, and all the implications that dealing with children imply - usually including the need to engage with teachers and/or parents. Data comes from observations, interviews, drawings, etc.

For me, studying children’s literature means trying merge these two sides. I have a BA in publishing and an MA in literature. I love doing textual analysis and spending 20 pages talking about one picturebook whose text has only a few paragraphs. But working in publishing for many years and not ever talking to children, not knowing anything about the final audience of the books I helped to create, I found that I deeply missed this link. 

What do children do with books? What do they think of them? Do they understand all these literary devices we spend our lives describing? How do they make sense of the narrative? What influences their literary choices and reading habits?  Do they read for pleasure? Or are they mostly forced by parents and teachers? These are only a few of the questions that I hope researching children’s literature will help me answer.

For me, then, studying children’s literature also means to give a voice to children. As said in the previous post, children do not write children’s books (with veeery few exceptions) and often don’t get to choose what they read. For any children’s book to be successful, it must first be acclaimed by its adult “audience” of parents, teachers, reviewers, and scholars. Children are the last and least powerful participants in this process, but in children’s literature scholarship (or at least part of it), we stop and listen attentively to what they have to say, or to draw, or to dramatize. We are eager to understand the fresh meanings they make, that we, as adults, with the weight that education and experience has put on us, cannot equally grasp when we read masterpieces like Where the Wild Things Are and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. For some of us, studying children's literature really is about the children. 

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