When looking at the development of children’s literature over the past two and a half centuries (which is about all you get, because children’s literature is a distinct and recent entity) two major movements have been influential:
- Romanticism and Modernism in the 18th and 19th centuries
- Postmodernism, Surrealism and a bunch of other -isms came later (post-colonialism, feminism, modernism…)
When we give serious attention to children’s literature, we find children’s literature (especially young adult literature) often anticipates movements in adult literature. As one example, The Lovely Bones is YAL started the huge dead narrator trend which eventually found its way into literary adult fiction. Certainly, literature reflects what is happening in broader society as well.
CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IS IMPORTANT LITERATURE
Children’s literature offers valuable insights into how culture changes.
In 1894 Helen Bannerman wrote a book called Little Black Sambo. This is now seen as offensive. At Bannerman’s time it was not [offensive to white people, that is]. The main character outwits the tigers and becomes a hero, so was seen as a positive representation of people of colour.
The Famous Five also reflects outdated views. In a dualistic view of humanity, good people catch ‘bad people’ and send them to prison, 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 is confined to the home domain, making cakes, cleaning etc.
A contemporary book such as Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs looks at incest and issues which were not covered in children’s literature of earlier golden ages. Children’s literature is immensely powerful because it gets to readers first. Children’s literature shapes who we are.
Peter Hunt is one of the leading commentators on children’s literature today. He is one scholar saying consistently 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 in young readers. Generally speaking, children’s literature is less open to interpretation than adult literature. To balance the vulnerability of children, children’s literature can become didactic.
Teaching in an open and direct way. Moralistic.
While a few dual audience texts do make their way into lists of great literature (e.g. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland), little else ever does. Children’s literature is not traditionally studied in university English courses.
People seen as The Major Writers — William Makepeace Thackeray, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde — all wrote children’s books as well as books for adults. But those books are largely ignored. Their serious adult books are the ones considered great.
Even today, children’s literature has been seen as the less than. This is where women writers were at in the 18th and 19th centuries — not yet considered worthy of our full attention. [No coincidence that children’s literature has until recently been considered women’s work, alongside anything to do with children.]
The comparison works for volume of output as well. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, women were writing just as many if not more books than the men. Today, children’s literature is a booming industry but doesn’t enjoy proportional coverage by professional reviewers in major news outlets. The dead white male who writes books for adults is who you’ll mostly be studying.
Peter Hunt concludes that if we can shake free of the idea that children’s literature is intrinsically inferior, we can start looking at the literature properly.
The History Of Thought Which Influences Literature
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 occurred. 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.
Throw in nuclear weapons and we realised we could destroy the entire planet. We craved a complete change in how we view our world. This led to movements which questioned ‘certainty’.
Surrealism is a good example of such a movement.
By the 1960s, various 20th century movements came together to form what we now call ‘postmodernism’. After the certainty and hubris of modernism, we now have postmodern literature.