This could be the subject of a whole book, but I’ll spare you the conceptual and definitional jargon. Here are five concise reasons why studying children’s literature is important, fascinating, and challenging.
A children’s book is an adult’s book
Adults write, select, publish, sell and buy children’s books. And they do so wanting them to benefit children – to entertain them, to teach them, to bring them up – to bring them up to become just like them, or perhaps a little different. In other words, children’s books are chock-full of adult desires and needs and fears – and by expressing them towards their children, they are expressing them towards themselves and their own society and culture. Studying children’s literature unpacks these desires and needs and fears.
Paraliterature: a parallel world we must explore
Children’s books belong to a non-canonical form of literature which literary snobs and the academic intelligentsia tend to neglect: paraliterature. Formed of an eclectic hodgepodge of genres and mediums – from detective stories to science fiction and comics – paraliterature is often thought to be formulaic, simple and commercial. But it is in the highly popular discourse of paraliterature that timely concerns about the world are crystallised and transformed to narrative. In its success we read the success of some ideas and the decline of others. Paraliterature is the barometre of human ideas in the world.
Children’s literature is actually good
Too many people don’t know that children’s books are good. They see the simplicity and the cuteness of a few remembered titles. Studying children’s literature helps raise the profile of children’s books – of the immensely diverse, extraordinarily complex world of children’s books. All of them. The challenging, the funny, the controversial, the edgy, the poetic, the outrageous, the revolutionary, the cosy, the erudite, the sad, the contemplative. Children’s literature critics explore and categorise this vibrant planet.
Children’s literature is an experimental platform
Many writers and illustrators, not least of which Philip Pullman, have established the need to write for children – the reason why they do so. And this reason has nothing to do with not being able to write for adults, or wanting an easy ride into publication. Children’s literature provides a platform for experimenting with form and content – for tackling themes from new and daring angles. The power of allegory, the infinite possibilities of text-and-image relationships, the ability to catch the imaginations of thousands of future citizens: here are the real reasons for the need to write for children.
Children’s literature fashions the future
Children’s literature, like all cultural productions for children, is a parallel educational universe in which we can see glimpses of the future. It constructs and impacts children’s developments, senses of identity, and visions of the world. It creates ambitions and aspirations, models taste and values. It is the only potentially world-changing form of literature. Studying children’s literature means studying both our heritage and our legacies.