David Beagley, La Trobe University, lecture available on iTunes U

Today’s topic: The place of children’s literature in the bigger world of serious literary analysis.

Authors discussed:

  • Anthony Browne – very much at the forefront of this type of picturebook
  • Shaun Tan
  • Chris Van Allsburg
  • David Wiesner
  • Jon Scieszka [his website tells you how to pronounce his name, whether you want it to or not] – strong humour – most books which use this style do so as a joke. Bear in mind that as soon as you start to analyse humour, it kills the joke.

[I note with interest that all of these postmodern authors are men. Are there any women working in this style?]


Is Children’s Literature Real Literature?

People who specialise in children’s literature (kidlit for short) ranks right up there with the world’s greatest literature. But those from the Literary Establishment tend to ignore kidlit completely, regarding it as a minor plaything or a bit of a training exercise to prepare kids for Real Literature.

Does kidlit belong in the literary canon? Canon means a ‘collection’, but it’s a very specific collection. Around the year 2000 there was a rush to draw up lists of the 100 greatest novels of the millennium and so on. Who decides what are the great lists of literature? Sometimes there’s a public vote, in which case LoTR tends to win. (The movies helped, but looking back, did LoTR deserve to be at the top of all those millennium lists?)



The Greatest Kidlit

What does ‘greatest’ mean? Is it the most long-lived? The best-selling? The most hated by Year 12s because they have to study it?

When looking at the development of kidlit over the past two and a half centuries (which is about all you get, because kidlit is a distinct and recent entity) you can see a couple of major movements:

  • Romanticism and Modernism in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • Postmodernism, Surrealism and a bunch of other -isms came later (post-colonialism, feminism, modernism, romanticism…)

Kidlit, however, is rarely looked at in the terms of the great works of literature, but we really do have to look at it in the same way, with all these ‘isms’. These ‘isms define both society and literature. In fact, kidlit quite often anticipates the movements. It’s often kidlit which is leading the way. Certainly, literature reflects what is happening in broader society as well.

Here’s an example. In 1894 Helen Bannerman writes a book called Little Black Sambo. 

This is now seen as offensive to a lot of people. At Bannerman’s time it was not [offensive to white people, at least]. The character actually outwits the tigers and becomes a hero, so was seen as a positive representation of PoC.

The Famous Five also reflects outdated views. Good people catch ‘bad people’, because that is what good people do. An interesting feminist subtext runs through the character of George, who is annoyed that the boys are allowed to do things she is not. George became one of the first pin-ups of the feminist movement. In contrast, Anne sits around making cakes, cleaning etc.

Today we get books like Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs which looks at incest and issues like that. Content reflects the times. Kidlit is immensely powerful because it gets to the readers first. It’s the first literature that children read.

Peter Hunt, one of the leading commentators on kidlit today says that children’s books are immensely powerful.

Precisely because children’s books are so powerful, they are likely to be very specifically ‘directive’. They might be encouraging a certain behaviour. It is less vague and open to interpretation than adult lit. To balance the vulnerability of children, often kidlit becomes didactic, teaching obviously and openly and directly, and far more than adult books do. (Didactic can be a negative term — ‘preachy’ is another word.)

While a few texts do make their way into lists of great literature (e.g. Alice In Wonderland), little else ever does. Kidlit is not studied in university English courses.

People who are seen as major writers — William Makepeace Thackeray, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde — all wrote children’s books. But those books are largely ignored. Their serious adult books are the ones that are considered. Kidlit even today is where books by women writers were in the 18th and 19th centuries — not yet considered worthy of our full attention. The comparison works for volume of output as well — women were even at that time writing just as many if not more books than the men. Today, kidlit is a booming industry but doesn’t get proportional coverage by professional reviewers in major news outlets. The dead white male who writes books for adults is who you’ll be studying. That’s what’s seen as great. Hunt concludes that if we can shake free of the idea that kidlit is intrinsically inferior, we can start looking at the literature properly.


  • 18th Century thought: The basis of modern science rests on the idea that humans can observe and understand. (Humanism and individualism.)
  • 19th Century thought: A slight change occured. People realised that amidst this mechanical theory of the world there was no place for emotion in all of this (beauty, hate, horror). So romanticism came about and gave us wonderful music — Mozart, Beethoven etc. — human experience and human emotion provided a balance.
  • 20th Century thought: A couple of things happened. People realised that actually we don’t have all the answers. (The Titanic was a great example of thought prior to this — people actually thought it was unsinkable.) We realised that humanity wasn’t as all-powerful and all-knowing as we thought. Millions of people were killed in WW1, which shattered a lot of views. Then came the Great Depression, followed by the second World War, even worse. And so all the certainties about what the human could do were shattered. We became far less certain. Throw in nuclear weapons and we realised we could destroy the entire planet. So what was needed to understand all these was a complete change in how we view our world. This lead to movements which questioned ‘certainty’. Surrealism is a good example of such a movement. By the 1960s, all the different movements came together to form what we call ‘postmodernism’. After the certainty and hubris of modernism, we now have postmodern literature.


How is postmodernism different from what came before?


First: Things are less sure. The idea of things being complete is challenged — deconstruction. To deconstruct an idea means to look at the final idea and look at what created that idea? What are the assumptions? What are the parts that make it up? It’s like starting with a great lego construction then taking it apart to see how many blocks are used and how they fit together.

Second: The idea that meaning is inherent is also tackled. Another reader will get something different from a work of art. The meaning does not exist within the work, but is derived via an interpretation of it. Each interpretation is therefore valid. The works on the ‘canon’ are therefore challenged. All works now have validity. This also brings a lot of ambiguity and irony. There are layers of meaning. We have to keep drilling down through the layers to find out what something means. A movie like Shrek has a lot of layers of meaning through it — much of which is superficial and humorous — but it makes pop-culture references and weaves them into a reversed traditional tale. [Inversion does not equal subversion, which is much harder to achieve.] To subvert something means to cut away what people would expect to be the stable elements.

Postmodern works are often works of metafiction: How a piece of work is very conscious of itself as a created artifact. [Beagley mentions that metafictive works don’t take themselves too seriously, though I’d argue plenty do.]

Postmodern works are a ‘discourse‘. Meaning is created via a back-and-forth between readers and the work itself. If you read the same thing 10 years later you get a different piece of work.

What do postmodern picturebooks do?

They upset the taken-for-grantedness of things. The storyline might meander all over the place and never actually finish. Or it might stop suddenly and you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. There may be no sense of closure.

Representations may be surreal. Surrealism is used wrongly in everyday speech (I don’t get it, I don’t understand), but in an academic sense it means almost the opposite: It’s an abbreviation of ‘super-real’, in which we do understand a surrealist work of art by going past the surface and looking at the essence behind. The idea you dig for is more important than any conveyed by the first impression. Surrealism makes the viewer work.

A dinosaur dressed in a hat driving a car is surrealism. That’s not what you’d expect of a dinosaur. Humour is rampant in surrealist picturebooks and kids’ films, in which the audience may be a part of the joke or even the butt of the joke. In Shrek so many things are parodied: the children’s world of fairytales, the adult world. Intertexuality runs throughout this film.

Willy The Dreamer by Anthony Browne is a book about what Willy just happens to dream, but it’s playing with pictures. Where he’s sitting in the comfortable armchair, is that a dream or is that real? Is the chair really made half of concrete, pulling him back to earth? Inside, schools of fish are actually bananas. What does it mean? That’s for the reader to work out. There’s also a lot of reference to Browne’s other books. (He parodies his own books.)

Shaun Tan makes reference to a very specific text. The Cahill Expressway painting was very influential in the 1960s in Australia. Forty years later he uses a pastiche of this picture in The Lost Thing to convey a sense of bleakness.

[I even have a collection of short stories which were inspired by this painting.]

Expressway Short Story Collection

Expressway Short Story Collection

Postmodernism doesn’t describe a book so much as the way of looking at a book. So often books labeled postmodern are confusing to begin with. They demand their readers start thinking about them.

Children’s books are just as intellectual as adult books. They expect the reader to use just as much mental effort as an adult book does. Quite often, far more, because the reader who is likely to read it does not have the contexts (and therefore the limits) that an adult reader has. Children are much more able to let their imaginations go.