Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Defining Children's literature

What key elements do I consider are essential when attempting to define children's literature? This is a question I have found hard to answer.

There is considerable debate surrounding having a exact definition for 'Children's Literature'. Why is it so difficult to define?

If we were to break it down into two parts and separately define them then we would get 

Written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit for those under the age of 18. 
(as defined by the United Nations http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child)

Surely that should be enough? Unfortunately - no!

Determining what works are superior, or having lasting artistic merit is highly subjective. What I consider to be a good book for children will be different compared to others. People enjoy a diverse range of genres, and what appeals to one does not necessary appeal to all. 'Literature is a deep experience that we respond to in many different ways and at many different levels' (Winch, 2006, pg 401). So, perhaps it would be better to say that the literature aspect for children is better defined as works that creates a connection with the reader, that engages people under the age of 18, eliciting an emotional or intellectual response, positive or negative. 'For most adults and children, a good book is one that at a particular moment caused them to feel and to think' (Barone, 2011, pg. 7). This enables a distinguishing between banal home readers for early literacy development, from picture books, novels, poetry, drama, biographies, autobiographies etc written for the purpose of entertaining or informing children.

If we were to consider the age factor, I think that it is valid to say that if an author has the intention of writing for an audience of children, whether it be to entertain, inform, educate children, then the works produced could be considered literature for children. Yet, just because a book has been determined by someone as belonging to a person between a certain age range, e.g. 0-5, does not preclude them from experiencing literature above their level of reading. 'Continual opportunities must be made for all children to be exposed to a wide range of texts from a continuum that is continuously being supplemented and enriched' (Winch, 2006, Pg. 399). 'Children need to be read to and read with, even when that are competent, independent readers' (Winch, 2006, pg. 400).

However, what is written for children is just as important as the intent for writing for children. The content of the work written has always been contentious, as we adults determine in a top down approach what is appropriate for children to be exposed to. Works written for children have always and will always be subject to the perspective, bias and truth of the author, illustrator, editor, publisher, reader and context of the society within which the work is produced (Winch, 2006, pg. 394). This has always been the case e.g. primers written in the 1600's for the purpose of moral and religious instruction. Chapbooks written in the 1700's, written to entertain instead of teach. The banning and censorship of books available to children has driven the content available to children. Even in today's world, concepts and issues surrounding sexualisation, violence, transgender, homosexuality, war have contentiously moved into the realm of child fiction (eg: 'Forever' Judy Blume; 'The Hunger Games' Suzanne Collins; 'Two Weeks with the Queen' Morris Glietzman; 'The Book Thief' Markus Zusak; 'Tomorrow when the war began' John Marsden). How we limit that, or determine age appropriateness, thereby categorising it as a book for children or adults, is again highly subjective and contentious (but always under the guise of protecting the child). Skilled, avid readers of fiction will always find a way to read above their 'age' level, yet it is important that the works that are available to children to choose from are not limiting, yet somehow content appropriate. A challenge! 

And then, just to put the cat amongst the pigeons, I come across Crouch, who states their conclusion that there are no children's books. That all the qualities of a good adult book, are the same in a children's book. The difference being accessibility. Literate adults can access any book. A child can access a book in so far as their understanding and enjoyment allow. 

So currently,  three key elements that I would add to a definition of children's literature would be:

  •  works that engages people under the age of 18, eliciting an emotional or intellectual response, positive or negative
  • works written for the purpose of entertaining and informing people under the age of 18
  • works that contain content that is considered age appropriate according to the context of the reader
  • works that are accessible to children at different stages of understanding. 

Whilst no closer to a firm definition of Children's literature, exploring the question has given me a lot of food for thought about what I consider to be important elements. I am sure as the unit progresses my thoughts and beliefs will deepen and it will be interesting to revisit this question in weeks to come. 

Barone, D.M. (2011). Children's literature in the classroom: engaging lifelong readers. New York: Guildford Press.

Crouch, 1988. CSU modules notes located at http://interact.csu.edu.au/portal/site/ETL402_201390_W_D/page/e92933f3-8ebb-4bb1-00ba-d690bf47ec01

Winch, G. (2006). Literacy: Reading, writing and children's literature (3rd ed.) South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

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