Literature’s Children: The Critical Child and the Art of Idealization, by Louise Joy

Catherine Butler salutes a bold attempt to rethink how children might respond to literature

May 9, 2019
Child reading
Source: iStock

For the past 30 years, criticism of children’s literature has echoed to discussions about the relationship of child readers to adults. Typically, this relationship has been framed in terms of relative power: some have characterised child readers as the helpless objects of adult fantasy or didacticism, while others see children as resisting such moves. Louise Joy’s Literature’s Children attempts to shift the terms of this debate. Drawing on the philosopher John Dewey, she suggests that we should understand children as critical readers.

Criticism is an activity to which children are arguably peculiarly suited: by virtue of their position as newcomers in the world, they are necessarily questioning and exploratory, used to not knowing and wishing to know more. They are ideal “practical readers”, as envisaged by the critic I. A. Richards, lacking the ballast of prior literary and cultural experience that he saw as likely to prejudice interpretation. Moreover, critical thinking offers the imaginative absorption of play as well as the focused purposiveness of work. Joy describes her book as a thought experiment designed to test the hypothesis that “when children read literary texts, they carry out a form of sceptical, investigative, dynamic practical reading that can best be characterised as critical activity”.

The main body of the book consists of seven case studies, each centred on a different work or author, ranging chronologically from the divine poetry of Isaac Watts to Malcolm Saville’s post-war Lone Pine novels. In each, Joy focuses on a different type of activity or affect (laughter, tears, boredom, speech, romantic love), providing both a close reading and a cultural-historical discussion of the ways in which each has been regarded in relation to children, and arguing that the text invites child readers to critique such orthodoxies.

The combination is both informative and stimulating: I particularly appreciated the discussions of E. Nesbit’s treatment of crying, and of the unexpectedly disconcerting poems accompanying Kate Greenaway’s illustrations (sadly not reproduced) in her 1879 debut, Under the Window. The one chapter about which I had serious misgivings was on speech in J. R. R. Tolkien’s work. Joy’s case partly relies on the proposition that 1930s children’s literature is distinguished from the adult variety by its plenitude of direct speech, and she cites Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and George Orwell as representative of the adult style. But this selection is arbitrary: Agatha Christie, P. G. Wodehouse and Ivy Compton-Burnett would have yielded very different results. More seriously, the chapter uncritically adopts from Bronisław Malinowski a frankly racist analogy between children’s language use and the “primitive languages” of Papua New Guinea tribes.

Is Joy’s thought experiment a success? In its own terms it cannot be, because Literature’s Children tells us almost nothing about what actually happens “when children read literary texts”. She explicitly excludes the activities of actual child readers from consideration, being concerned only with the “implied readers” constructed by her chosen texts and thus by their adult authors. In that sense, the “critical child” is yet another adult fantasy. Nevertheless, this book convincingly shows that the texts discussed have the capacity to richly reward critical engagement in a putative child reader. It is also a collection of critically adroit essays that make a valuable contribution to literary studies in their own right.

Catherine Butler is senior lecturer in English literature at Cardiff University. Her most recent book is Literary Studies Deconstructed: A Polemic (2018).


Literature’s Children: The Critical Child and the Art of Idealization
By Louise Joy
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £85.00
ISBN 9781472577191
Published 21 February 2019

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