U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Children’s Literature as Intellectual History

Because of my research interests in education, I would guess I am more familiar with the scholarship on children’s literature than many intellectual historians. Most of the work on children’s literature seems to come from American Studiers or from researchers housed in colleges of education, or, increasingly, from the new and growing interdisciplinary field of “childhood studies,” spearheaded by the program at Rutgers University-Camden. I am currently reading a book from the Rutgers Series in Childhood Studies: Michelle Ann Abate, Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism.

One thing about the historiography on children’s literature that leaves me unsatisfied is that there are few compelling notions about why children’s literature is important. That children’s literature is, in fact, important, is inarguable, I suppose, to the degree that it is not argued. Perhaps intellectual historians are better situated to offer answers?

Take Abate’s book, about children’s literature produced by conservatives since the 1990s. She argues that right-wing children’s literature—William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, Terri Birkett’s Truax (an anti-environmentalist parody of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax), Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series for children, Lynne Cheney’s picture books, The O’Reilly Factor for Kids, etc.—needs to be considered as part and parcel of the larger Christian Right counterculture. She writes: “Although children’s literature has often espoused didactic lessons, offered conservative morals, and even contained political themes, the new crop of books for young readers that began appearing in the early 1990s did so in a new and far more overt way” (4). She contends that these recent conservative children’s books contain “the broad spectrum of subjects that comprise the U.S. culture wars…” (4)

Although Abate adds an important component to the rapidly growing historiography on recent American conservatism, she does little to explain the importance of children’s literature, other than to show that adults consider it important. But again, this is common. Even the best addition to this historiography, Julia Mickenberg’s Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, does little, from my vantage point, to explain why scholars should pay attention to children’s literature. Mickenberg is quite right to say that children’s literature is potentially influential given its vast audience—a “ready market provided by school libraries.” And she provides tons of fun material from leftist children’s book authors, such as by M. Boland, whose “ABC for Martin” (1931) began with the following clever refrain: “A stands for Armaments—war-mongerers’ pride; B is for Bolshie, the thorn in their side.” (Now that’s poetry!) But still…

Like in the history of education, it seems clear that the history of children’s literature pivots from Robert Hine’s oft-repeated quote: “What society wants its children to know reveals what that society wants itself to be.” But this sentiment is about adults. What does reading literature do to children? What do children make of literature? Personally, I think growing up reading literature made me a much more empathetic person, someone much more likely to root for the underdog. Perhaps this was due to the literature put into my hands by my mother, a high school English teacher with decidedly liberal sympathies. Or perhaps this was due to the very genre of literature, the very act of reading literature.

In a recent review of Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Robin Blackburn takes issue with Moyn’s argument that human rights were invented in the 1970s. Moyn contends that using the framework of human rights to explain political or intellectual history prior to the 1970s is at best anachronistic, at worst a teleological cover for imperialistic impulses of humanitarian interventionists. Blackburn finds a good deal to like about this contention, but maintains that not everyone who fought for rights since the Age of Revolution did so in the name of state power and, as such, often did so in the cause of individual, even “human” rights. Blackburn disagrees with Moyn because he explicitly has in mind abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who never tied his disdain for slavery to state power. Quite to the contrary, he disavowed the Constitution as a guarantor of slavery. (This seems to come directly from Blackburn’s new book, The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights.)

How does this detour into human rights history relate to children’s literature? Blackburn writes:

We can agree that fictitious lineages help no one. Nevertheless, if the first law of history is that the past is always another country, the second is that it is never beyond the reach of the present. Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights (2007) sees the appeal to subjective ‘rights’ as a product of the new print culture of the 18th century, arguing that the wider identifications encouraged by the novel endowed readers with a new sensibility and sensitivity to suffering. She traces the emergence of a concern with ‘human rights’ as much to the psychology of the novel reader as to the arguments of the philosophers—with Rousseau, as philosopher-novelist scoring on both counts. While the political pamphlet appealed to the reasoning faculty, the novel or poem encourages the reader to imagine herself or himself in the situation of another. It directly aroused sympathy and de-familiarized oppression… The reader could be invited to identify with those unlike themselves.

Does something akin to this explain the recent importance of children’s literature?

Scholars tend to argue that, for most of its history, children’s literature was inherently conservative in its didactic approach to instilling proper behavior. Only recently has children’s literature more openly explored issues that arouse empathy, or the relativistic side of morality. Thus, Abate argues recent right-wing children’s literature is anti-modern in harkening back to a bygone era and that, as such, it fails to arouse empathy.

But if this is true—that conservative children’s literature fails to invite readers to identify with those unlike themselves—then what explains its popularity? What explains the millions of copies sold? I suppose there is one of three answers to this perplexing question. 1) Empathy is an overrated component of recent children’s literature, which does not, after all, act like the 18th century novel. 2) Conservative literature does, in fact, arouse empathy, just not for liberal academics like Abate. 3) American conservatives are decidedly un-empathetic and don’t want their children to evince sympathy for those who suffer.

My guess is some complex combination of all three is at play here. But this leads me back around to my original question: Why is children’s literature important? Is it merely a synecdoche for adult concerns?

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I am heartened to learn you are seriously dedicated to exploring this topic.

    My interest in the subject of children’s literature is owing to a familiarity with the philosophical work of Daniel Hutto. Among other things, Hutto is trying to understand the roots of our capacity to employ folk psychology (roughly, ‘the practice of making sense of intentional actions, minimally, by appeal to an agent’s motivating beliefs and desires’). Against “theory theory” and “simulation theory” arguments which essentially resort to “internalist” or biological explanations, Hutto finds our capacity to understand intentional actions has “a decidedly sociocultural basis,” i.e., more “nurture” than “nature” by way of a fundamental accounting: “[C]hildren only come by the requisite framework for such understanding and master its practical application by being exposed to and engaging in a distinctive kind of narrative practice.” Of course this practice encompasses both dialogue or conversation and story-telling generally (in second- and third-person forms) and thus is not limited to reading literature to children but certainly includes it insofar as the Narrative Practice Hypothesis (NPH) claims that “direct encounters with stories about persons who act for reasons—those supplied in interactive contexts by responsive caregivers—is the normal route through which children become familiar with both (1) the basic structure of folk psychology and (2) the norm-governed possibilities for wielding it in practice, thus learning both when and how to use it.” This may strike some of us as fairly intuitive but it’s a novel argument a considerable body of philosophical literature in which “theory theory” and “simulation theory” rule the roost. On Hutto’s model, folk psychology itself is a distinctive kind of narrative practice that at bottom or in the beginning means being exposed “stories involving characters who act for reasons.”

    See Daniel D. Hutto’s Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis for Understanding Reasons. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. See too, Daniel D. Hutto, ed., Narrative and Folk Psychology. Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic/Philosophy Documentation Center, 2009.

    His academic page is here: http://web-apps.herts.ac.uk/uhweb/about-us/profiles/profiles_home.cfm?profile=D9F0BA39-FECA-E6F5-C93EDFF817BA61EC

  2. I’m not sure what you mean by “the recent importance of children’s literature” — do you mean that it is recently drawing the attention of intellectual historians? It has been a focus of inquiry in literary studies, and much of that work is attentive to the historical development of ideas of childhood, the cultural function of fantasy, etc.

    Many critics would argue that children’s literature emerged as a distinctive and intentionally self-differentiating genre of fiction in the 19th century, seeking to distance itself from the usual didactic fare. (One of Lewis Carroll’s many brilliances, besides seeing the adult world through a child’s point of view, is his mirthful and merciless pillorying of the kinds of “literature” that formed part of children’s education, often accomplished through parodic rewrites of stock pieces children were expected to recite for their “improvement.”) This shift away from overt didacticism and the growth of the genre of children’s “escape” literature is tied, I think, to other significant economic/cultural shifts. When and how did children become “a market”? My guess is that the emergence of children’s fantasy literature may date from — and may shape — that time.

    This is so far outside of my fields of research that I wouldn’t know where to start as a historian. However, I used to be an English major. So…The Columbia History of the British Novel (1994) has a helpful article by Robert M. Polhemus, in which he touches on the emergence of ideas of childhood, the child as hero, and fiction written for the entertainment of children. (“Lewis Carroll and the Child in Victorian Fiction,” 579-607). The article provides a selected bibliography of monographs, the conclusions of many of which have no doubt seen “improvement” by the work of subsequent scholars. But of particular interest to intellectual and cultural historians might be Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood (1962); Harvey Darton, Children’s Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life (1982); Kimberley Reynolds, Girls Only?: Gender and Popular Children’s Fiction in Britain, 1880-1910. This is a dated bibliography, but it might be a good place to start, especially to take a somewhat longer view of children’s literature as a way of both instantiating and inculcating ideas.

    Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights makes a good case, I think, for literature as not just reflecting but shaping and shifting the most basic concepts on which whole worlds have been made and unmade. It’s interesting to note that the emergence of this transformative sympathy coincides with the emergence of the novel as a mass-marketed commodity. You mention Hunt’s study in connection with Garrison — they were jostling elbows on the syllabus of a class I took on the history of slavery in modern thought. One takeaway from that class (besides that the Genoveses could have used an editor) was how this modern idea of “human rights” was a necessary and efficient factor in the dislodging / dismantling / disorienting of prevailing views of slavery, beginning in the 18th century. So I’m surprised that a historian would seriously suggest that the idea of “human rights” was “invented” in the 1970s. Maybe a particular and very specific form of that idea? My general view is that when looking at the history of an idea, historians can never go back far enough. The beginning point we draw is most of the time an arbitrary decision to start our discussion in a place that will make most sense in relation to where we are expecting to end up. So, just on principle as one of those long-view types, if my research suggested to me that whatever Big and Important Idea I’m looking at had its first beginnings in the 1970s, I would be really worried that I hadn’t done enough research.

  3. I am heartened to learn you are seriously dedicated to exploring this topic.

    My interest in the subject of children’s literature is owing to a familiarity with the philosophical work of Daniel Hutto. Among other things, Hutto is trying to understand the roots of our capacity to employ folk psychology (roughly, ‘the practice of making sense of intentional actions, minimally, by appeal to an agent’s motivating beliefs and desires’). Against “theory theory” and “simulation theory” arguments which essentially resort to “internalist” or biological explanations, Hutto finds our capacity to understand intentional actions has “a decidedly sociocultural basis,” i.e., more “nurture” than “nature” by way of a fundamental accounting: “[C]hildren only come by the requisite framework for such understanding and master its practical application by being exposed to and engaging in a distinctive kind of narrative practice.” Of course this practice encompasses both dialogue or conversation and story-telling generally (in second- and third-person forms) and thus is not limited to reading literature to children but certainly includes it insofar as the Narrative Practice Hypothesis (NPH) claims that “direct encounters with stories about persons who act for reasons—those supplied in interactive contexts by responsive caregivers—is the normal route through which children become familiar with both (1) the basic structure of folk psychology and (2) the norm-governed possibilities for wielding it in practice, thus learning both when and how to use it.” This may strike some of us as fairly intuitive but it’s a novel argument a considerable body of philosophical literature in which “theory theory” and “simulation theory” rule the roost. On Hutto’s model, folk psychology itself is a distinctive kind of narrative practice that at bottom or in the beginning means being exposed “stories involving characters who act for reasons.”

    See Daniel D. Hutto’s Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis for Understanding Reasons. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. See too, Daniel D. Hutto, ed., Narrative and Folk Psychology. Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic/Philosophy Documentation Center, 2009. His academic page is here: http://web-apps.herts.ac.uk/uhweb/about-us/profiles/profiles_home.cfm?profile=D9F0BA39-FECA-E6F5-C93EDFF817BA61EC

  4. Julia Mickenberg (who was on my dissertation committee) followed up Learning from the Left with a collection of children’s stories that she edited (along with Philip Nel), called Tales for Little Rebels. Could be interesting reading, Andrew, for any young socialists in your life. : )

  5. Some random thoughts:

    1. I’m using Steven Mintz’s Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood in my “History of American Education” class this fall, and your post had me scrambling for references in it to reading, literacy, and books. Sadly, although several individual children’s books ar mentioned, there seems to be no clear focus on children’s books. Perhaps I’ll add a few of the books mentioned above to a book review list.

    2. It seems to me that we need to link this discussion to American public schools. I wonder, for instance, when children’s libraries were constructed in elementary schools? Or rather, when were children’s books specifically cordoned off? Also, what if children’s literature in public schools has _always_ been the vehicle for inculcating a (Protestant, then secular) ethical education public schooling? What if books were _the_ indirect way—meaning not from teachers in the official formal classroom—for schools to inculcate morals? I don’t mean textbooks, of course, because those are used in the classroom. If this has always been the case with children’s books in special sections of public school libraries, perhaps only conservative awareness of this possibility—this indirect method of instruction—only increased at the end of the century? What I’m saying here is that perhaps twentieth-century educators have always understood the importance of the overall reading environment a school provides—perhaps children’s libraries and their books have always been a source of subversion or moral reification, depending on the ethic of those supposedly mousy, quiet librarians?

    Looking at this from another direction, perhaps the recent rise in homeschooling has increased awareness on the Right about the importance of children’s books? Does Abate’s book get into home schooling?

    3. Teaching empathy is something that also has to be demonstrated (as is often the case in relation to book learning). Lessons often do not stick, or “take,” unless a real-life demonstration accompanies the action. It’s in the nature of children, I think, to value telling and showing.

    4. The formation of children in relation to political ideology has always been a concern in Western civilization. It dates from the Greeks. I’m thinking in particular of Plato’s Republic and its rules about things to which children can or should be exposed, especially those children who would become protectors of the polis.

    That’s all I have for now. – TL

  6. Ran across this James Baldwin quote today: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

  7. In recently reading Moyn’s book, I think he makes a good case that when we say human rights today we have a very different concept than prior to the 1970s. Content of concepts change and their development is not linear. Issues of nationhood, ideas about the nature of human nature, loss of communal ties, tradition, and globalization all have contributed to our particular definition of human rights. Words may stay the same but meanings are wildly fluctuating.

  8. That’s very different from saying that Moyn’s argument is that “human rights were invented in the 1970s” — a summary that Andrew, to cut him some slack, is giving third-hand. I could easily see a good argument being made for an important conceptual shift in the notion of human rights occurring in the 1970s.

    “Content of concepts change and their development is not linear.” Indeed, that’s very much the point of doing intellectual history for me — or, rather, the history of ideas/sensibilities.

  9. Thanks for an interesting post. I’m not sure I would agree, though, that “Scholars tend to argue that, for most of its history, children’s literature was inherently conservative in its didactic approach to instilling proper behavior. Only recently has children’s literature more openly explored issues that arouse empathy, or the relativistic side of morality.” Even the example of Lewis Carroll, cited above, offers one counter-example to this claim. More importantly, cognitive neuroscientist Maryann Wolf argues in her book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, that reading itself may increase empathy–that there is a “reciprocal relationship between emotional development and reading” (86). This development requires reading a wide variety of kinds of works, though, not just reinforcing what is already heard at home, etc.

    Children’s lit scholars, by the way, are tired of having to argue for the importance of their field. While, actually, lots of children’s literature scholarship does so, one way or another, the field has matured to the point that we don’t often go through the motions anymore. No one begins a book on Virginia Woolf, or Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens, arguing for her or his importance any more, though one might have some decades ago.

  10. Libby, you’ve made a valuable and very interesting contribution to the discussion here. I’m much intrigued by the theory that “reading itself may increase empathy.” From a historical perspective — and I think Hunt does touch on this in _Inventing Human Rights_ — the exponential growth of literacy tracks with the rise of the novel and the growing importance of “sympathy” as an essential and valued aspect of personhood. Hunt discusses sympathy as the ground of a number of cultural transformations, including not only the abolition of slavery but changes in the treatment of prisoners (most notably the growing distaste for/repudiation of torture).

    It seems to me that “children’s literature” as a genre — and I would draw a definite distinction between “children’s literature” and “literature used to instruct children” — arises at a time when concepts of the personhood of children are undergoing a transformation, and when empathy/sympathy is extended to children, so that someone like Lewis Carroll or L. Frank Baum to enter into and write from and for “the child’s point of view.” The whole idea that children might require and deserve a literature of their own, for their own entertaintment and enjoyment, reflects, would not have been possible without this cultural shift in conceptions of childhood and personhood. In The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age, Susan Pearson traces these changes in how children are viewed by society, and the resulting movement to extend the idea of “rights” to them as well. So children’s literature as a distinct genre of fiction comes into its own, I believe, against/from a background of the growing awareness that children need protecting via labor laws, changes in the social welfare system, etc.

    As to children’s lit being important — of course it is! And not just for literary scholars but for intellectual historians. Children’s literature reveals the values, sensibilities and assumptions of the world in which it was/is produced.

  11. My experience as a graduate student/scholar of children’s literature is a bit different than what you present here; while schools of education and library science, American Studies and the recently created Childhood Studies programs all contribute to the scholarly work on children’s literature, quite a lot of those working in the field today come from English departments (as I myself do). Those of us who come from a literature background tend to approach children’s literature as we might any literature, without first explicating in great detail *why studying it matters*. In English departments as well we are often less concerned with the reading reactions of children (for a variety of reasons, not least that we have chosen to study literature, not *humans*), which may also account for the perceived absence of discussion of why this literature matters to children. An older distinction was made once by John Rowe Townsend, between “book people” (literary scholars, primarily, who focused almost entirely on the text as text) and “child people” (librarians, teachers, parents, psychologists, who focused on the texts as they related to or worked upon children). Townsend’s dichotomy was always flawed, and is not generally used these days, but it does make, I think, a useful shorthand for thinking about approaches to children’s literature. Are your interests with the real, physical children who read the books? Or with the books themselves, as works of literature, as signifiers of culture, politics, etc? Or with a messy mix of the two? Childhood Studies, as I (imperfectly) understand it, is an intellectual effort at creating an interdisciplinary home for this kind of mixing.
    In response to your query about the popularity (as judged by sales figures) of the “unempathetic” books cited by Abate as failing to connect with readers: well, one of the things that makes children’s literature both unique and challenging is that it is rarely produced or purchased by its target audience. For younger children in particular (say, under age 10) who aren’t likely to have a source of income outside the home, purchasing power is almost solely in the hands of parents, grandparents or other adults – who tend to choose what THEY value, ideologically or narratively, rather than what the reader might want to engage with.
    A great deal of very, very smart, insightful and provocative work on children’s literature – some grappling with the question(s) you raise here – is being done from within English departments. *Children’s Literature* is the annual journal published by the Children’s Literature Association, which also produces the ChLA Quarterly. *The Lion and the Unicorn* is another extremely valuable academic journal that approaches children’s literature from a literary perspective.

  12. Another journal in the field that focuses on child studies and on children’s lit analyzed using cultural studies and literary studies approaches is the international quarterly _Children’s Literature in Education_, which has been publishing children’s lit scholarship for 40 years.

    I agree with Libby’s comment that scholars of children’s literature are tired of having to justify or legitimize our research. We are also a bit tired of people discovering this “new” field that we’ve been researching and writing about for decades.

    A great book to read that chronicles some of the history of the discipline is Bev Clark’s _Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America_.

  13. Just wanted to mention that in my summer school community college class today, one of my students told me that the Greek myths (Edith Hamilton) I am having them read is a book she has started reading out loud to her children.

  14. Wow, I spent yesterday traveling and return here to 12 very smart, insightful, and challenging comments. Thanks you all. In retrospect, I now realize that my post was sloppy in at least two respects. (Weekly blogging is sometimes conducive to this I guess, at least for me.)

    1) Of course people in English departments do work in children’s literature, and have for a very long time. Why I neglected to mention that? I have no idea (especially since the author who sparked my post is in an English department!)

    2) Of course children’s literature is important in and of itself. I see now I strongly implied otherwise. That said, intellectual history, like most history, is largely about the world of adults, so I am interested in some explanation of how the world of ideas in childhood might be different. I was seeking to elicit a strong response that might lead to conversation about these differences. I think in that way, this post was successful, thanks to you all.

    My frustration was born of the book I am currently reading, Most of Abate’s energies are spent debunking the political and cultural logic of her subjects–the conservative books for children. This seems like a useless, preach-to-the-choir exercise. What I would really like to see is some analysis of how these books might connect with their young readers if, as Abate says, they are so unlike most other contemporary children’s literature. And I suppose that such analysis would require some meta-theorizing about what children’s literature does–some of the type that you all, our smart commentariat, have provided.

  15. Hi again,
    We can theorize about what children’s literature “does” to children (theories of subjectivity formation, Frankfurt School vs. Hall, child agency, etc. etc.) but we don’t really know what it does until we include actual children in our discussion. One of the biggest dilemmas in children’s literature studies is the fact that you have adults writing books, publishing books, buying books for children, reading them to children, and then theorizing about them with a bunch of other adults. Where is the child reader in that equation?

    That’s why a lot of focus in the field in on the way the children’s book is mostly about adult desires, fears and ideologies and reflects ways the child is socially constructed, mostly by adults.

    Also, the questions you are raising are grounded in the history of the field. Since educators and moralists have spent centuries worried about what books “do” to children, folks in literary studies wanted to separate (for better or worse) ourselves from these models of discourse. Up until very recently, people in the field focused quite a bit on arguing for the literary merit of children’s literature. Even those of us who are cultural theorists and who question the very idea of “literary merit” find ourselves arguing for the merit of children’s literature when we are backed into a corner by colleagues questioning the validity of what we do.

    Too much and too long of a debate to put into a little comment box, but hope this makes sense.

  16. Dear Anon: Thanks for further explanation. I fell duly chastised. But I think you misunderstood the point of my post–which I concede is my fault for not being clear enough. I honestly wasn’t fishing for “proof” that children’s literature had merit or not. I was looking for theoretical or epistemological explanations for the historical study of children’s literature, which you and your colleagues have offered in very helpful ways. My approach might have been too provocative in the post–again, I concede fault and understand the reasons for the prickly response. But I don’t quite understand the whole “you would understand this if you knew our field” retort. Or the whole “we’re tired of having to justify our subject matter.” I think all scholarly should be constantly justified. All work should have to pass through the scrutiny of the question, “Why does this matter?” I’m constantly asking these questions about my work. And when outsiders inquire about the importance of intellectual history–when they ask fundamental questions about the epistemology of my work or of my field–I do my best to explain to them, not chastise them.

  17. Dear Andrew,

    Sorry if I come off as chastising — I didn’t mean to. I’m just trying to give you a list of resources (journals, books, etc.) that pretty thoroughly explore all the questions you are asking in really interesting and complex ways.

    Another really good one is _The Hidden Adult_ by Perry Nodelman. Nodelman’s earlier book, _The Pleasures of Children’s Literature_ explores much of these ideas as well.

  18. Your post implicitly answers the question of “Why is children’s literature important?” Libby does a good job in making a more direct answer to that question. And, as she notes, those of us who study it are weary of having to defend it (for the very reasons she cites). If you’re interested in the history of children’s literature within academe, I highly recommend Beverly Lyon Clark’s Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America.

    My own explicit answer to the “Why study children’s literature?” question is this. Children’s literature may be read by those who have less height or vocabulary, but children’s literature is literature. And children’s literature is art. It is, in some senses, more important than literature and art for grown-ups. Children’s literature is what we read when we are still in the process of figuring out who we are and what we want to become. Potentially, then, children’s literature may have a greater impact on us than any other books we read. Children’s literature is the most important literature we read. Period.

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