The lion, the witch and the critic

Children's Literature - Children's Literature in the 1890s and 1990s
July 14, 1995

In 249 pages of sometimes lucid, sometimes turgid and tortuously circuitous arguments, Karin Lesnik-Oberstein has created a weighty, polemical and intentionally shocking work of criticism. We have met something of the kind before in Jacqueline Rose's monumental coup de grace of the literary child on the back of Peter Pan (Rose, 1987). Indeed, Lesnik-Oberstein acknowledges her debt to Rose, and then proceeds to break new ground and reach new depths of nihilism. She proposes that, without the possibility of the "knowable, real child" (passim) on which children's literature criticism depends and by which it is defined, "then it is indeed dead . . . As children's literature criticism operates at the present, I can only conclude it makes non-statements, for its own purposes . . . its writings are useless to the fulfilment of its own professional aims". She takes us to the edge of the precipice and invites us to view the abyss, then offers some kind of salvation, in an alternative ending, in the psychoanalytic works of Klein, Winnicott and Axline.

In a variety of dense chapters she locates what she perceives to be the current impasse in children's literature criticism in a genealogy of educational European thinkers from Classical times to the Reformation and the Enlightenment with occasional reconnoitres in the works of (mostly) Locke and (sometimes) Rousseau, and suggests that this rootedness in educational thinking has continued into present-day practices. These, she says, account for the split between the two groups of children's literature critics. There are those she has called "educationalists", and there are "literary pluralists" - "book people" who have dominated the field and who, despite apparent differences, share an unwitting consensus in their individual claims to ways of "knowing" the child. They adhere to developmental psychologist theories of sequential learning, and to the liberal humanist tradition (which, she says, is nowhere radically challenged) in ubiquitous, unexamined questions of value and influence.

No one, it seems, is exempt, not even the revisionist, post-structuralist meta-critics: Lissa Paul, Peter Hunt, Jacqueline Rose and Barbara Wall, whom she lucidly accuses of the original sin which she identifies - that of "knowing the child", even when this "child" - as in the case of Rose - is the unconscious "child" of Freudian theory.

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein has not seemed to recognise (at least not in this book) the new breed of academic critics who have sneaked up behind her and who are openly theorising the subject as both reader and text in contemporary critical terms. Even so, Kimberley Reynolds would have figured on the Lesnik-Oberstein hit-list had she pre-dated Lesnik-Oberstein's publication. Here, in the Reynolds book, the child-reader is very much alive and at the centre of her thesis. And children's literature is cited as both dialectic and product of a constructed childhood in social and literary history. Reynolds analyses past and present fin de si cle literature for children from Mrs Sherwood's Calvinist didacticism, through the mid-century psychological fantasies of Philippa Pearce and Catherine Storr, to the late century works of Diana Wynne Jones's multiple-plot novels. And she traces the idea of the child from the Victorian "Beautiful Child'' to its late 20th-century reinvention in the canonic recommendations of the national curriculum. In anyone's terms this is a virtuoso and scholarly tour de force analysis of the past 100 years of children's fiction. It is informed by Kimberley Reynolds's exhaustive scholarship as a social and literary historian, and one can only marvel at what can be packed into 100 pages by a skilled and competent writer, even while she is apologising for being selective. As a reference for students seeking a potted overview of children's literature, it is unsurpassed.

Much has changed in a century of children's literature publishing. There are stylistic innovations at the margins in the metafictional and experimental novels from people like Aidan Chambers. Reynolds also claims that despite a move towards international publishing and the risk of producing a bland and bogus international product, the range and diversity of children's fictions has never been greater. However, in her assessment of the critical field and in her own metacritical view one might equally conclude that nothing much has changed. The child as idea and reality continues to dictate the parameters of the genre and to circumscribe its criticism - not just historically but contemporaneously. Questions abound about value and worth; about what is and what is not suitable reading matter for children, especially when these questions relate to the often unorthodox subject matter of graphic-novels. Reynolds is clear about the literary merits of such texts, and she says so. But I was disappointed that she chose ultimately to play safe; that she chose to align her critical stance with the old cliches and alongside the critical views she appears to be merely quoting: the assumption of a literary engagement in the mode of the liberal humanist tradition that Lesnik-Oberstein has castigated, and children's literature as an instrument of social formation. We might well ask how things might be otherwise in a literary genre that is by its very definition an ideological form premised on textual contents that perpetuate and reproduce the cultural myth of childhood. Which one of us would dare to ask, in all seriousness, what a children's literature without children would look like?

Christine Wilkie is lecturer in English, University of Warwick.

Children's Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child

Author - Karin Lesnik-Oberstein
ISBN - 0 19 811998 4
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £.50
Pages - 249

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