Children's literature criticism

Children's literature criticism

The term children's literature criticism includes both generalist discussions of the relationship between children's literature and literary theory and literary analyses of a specific works of children's literature. Some academics consider young adult literature to be included under the rubric of 'children's literature.'

Nearly every school of theoretical thought has been applied to children's literature, most commonly reader response (Chambers 1980) and new criticism. However, other schools have been applied in controversial and influential ways, including Orientalism (Nodelman 1992), feminist theory (Paul 1987), postmodernism (Stevenson 1994), structuralism (Neumeyer 1977), post-structuralism (Rose, 1984, Lesnik-Oberstein, 1994) and many others.



Child focused

Early children's literature critics aimed to learn how children read literature specifically (rather than the mechanics of reading itself) so that they could recommend "good books" for children. These early critics were often teachers, librarians and other educationalists. The critics often disagreed about what books they think children would like, and why, and about which books will be "good" for children and why. Though many critics are still child-centric, the discipline has expanded to include other modes of analysis. As children's literature criticism started developing as an academic discipline (roughly in the past thirty years or so, see historical overviews by Hunt (1991) and McGillis (1997)), children's literature criticism became involved with wider work in literary theory and cultural studies.

Construction of the child

Many children's literature critics now point out that children are not one group, but differ according to gender, ethnicity, religious background, and so on. Feminist children's literature critics such as Lissa Paul (1987) therefore try to work out how boys and girls read differently, for instance. Other critics (for instance, Peter Hunt (1991), Perry Nodelman (1992), John Stephens (1992), and Roderick McGillis (1996)) take this idea a step further and argue that children are often "colonized" by adults, including children's literature critics, because adults speak on behalf of children instead of letting children express themselves. However, these critics too can not agree on what then are "true" children expressing themselves, and which books are therefore "good" for them. Finally, a few critics, notably Jacqueline Rose (1984) and Karin Lesnik-Oberstein (1994 and 2004) take this discussion even further, arguing that identities are created and not "inherent", and that in the case of an identity such as "childhood" it is created by "adults" in the light of their own perceptions of themselves. That is, "adulthood" defines "childhood" in relation to differences and similarities it perceives to itself. This post-structuralist approach is similar to that argued by critics in gender studies such as Judith Butler and is widely accepted and used in sociological and anthropological studies of childhood (Jenks 1996; Jenks, James and Prout 1997).

Textual focus

Many scholars approach children's literature from the perspective of literary studies, examining the text as text without focus on audience. Stephens and McCallum (1998) discuss the intertextuality of children's literature, while Rose explores the identifying characteristics of the genre. Nodelman (1990) looks at the synthesis of text and illustration in picturebooks.

Cultural studies focus

Culture studies scholars investigate children's literature as an aspect of culture. Children's literature, in this light, is a product consumed like other aspects of children's culture: video games, television, and the like. For more analysis of children's culture in general, see Jenkins. For literature in particular as cultural artifact, see Mackey.

See also


  • Chambers, Aidan (1980). "The Reader in the Book". In C.Carpelan, A.Parpola P.Koskikallio (ed.). The Signal Approach to Children's Books. Metuchen: Scarecrow. pp. 250–275. 
  • Hunt, Peter (1991). Criticism, Theory, and Children's Literature. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-16231-3. 
  • Hunt, Peter (1996). International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-08856-9. 
  • Jenkins, Henry (1998). The Children's Culture Reader. New York: New York UP. 
  • Jenks, Chris (1996). Childhood. London: Routledge. 
  • Jenks, Chris, Allison James and Alan Prout (1997). Theorizing Childhood. Oxford: Blackwells. 
  • Lesnik-Oberstein, Karin (1994). Children's Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  • Lesnik-Oberstein, Karin (2004). Children's Literature: New Approaches. London: Palgrave. 
  • McGillis, Roderick (1996). The Nimble Reader: Literary Theory and Children's Literature. New York: Twayne Publishers. 
  • Mackey, Margaret (1998). The Case of Peter Rabbit: Changing Conditions of Literature for Children. New York and London: Garland. 
  • Neumeyer, Peter (1977). "A Structural Approach to the Study of Literature for Children". Elementary English 44: 883–887. 
  • Nodelman, Perry. "Bibliography of Children's Literature Criticism". Retrieved October 26, 2005. 
  • Nodelman, Perry (1992). "The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children's Literature". Children's Literature Association Quarterly 17: 29–35. 
  • Nodelman, Perry (1990). Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books. Athens, Ga: U. Georgia Press. ISBN 0-8203-1271-1. 
  • Nodelman, Perry (1996). The Pleasures of Children's Literature, 2nd ed. New York: Longman. ISBN 0-8013-1576-X. 
  • Paul, Lissa (1987). "Enigma Variations: What Feminist Theory Knows about Children's Literature". Signal 53: 186–201. 
  • Rose, Jacqueline (1992 (originally published 1984)). The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children's Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 
  • Stephens, John (1992). Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction. London: Longman. 
  • Stephens, John and Robyn McCallum (1998). Retelling Stories, Framing Culture: Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children's Literature. New York: Garland. 
  • Stevenson, Deborah (1994). "'If You Read This Last Sentence, It Won't Tell You Anything': Postmodernism, Self-Referentiality, and The Stinky Cheese Man". Signal 19: 32–34. 

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