Children's Literature

Topic/Subject area: Text types

Author: Anna Birketveit, senior lecturer, Høgskolen i Bergen


Children's literature is a fairy recent concept as there was no specific children's literature before 1700. Fairy tales and religious stories or educational stories were used by adults as well. One of the first commercial books for children, A Little Pretty Pocket Book, was published in 1744 in London.

Through history, the purpose of children's literature has been to teach children the right behavior or attitudes. Especially, since the Second World War alongside improved material conditions and focus on children's needs, children's literature has grown in importance and publishing numbers. A culture's understanding of childhood is embedded in children's stories, and by uncovering the ideology presented implicitly or explicitly the understanding of underlying norms and values is deepened.

A strong tradition dating from Jean Jacques Rousseau(1712-78) perceives the child as innocent and naturally good ( Mjør et al., 2006, p. 17). According to this view, civilization is responsible for any corruption of the child. The Romantics shared this view of the child which has been criticized for being suppressive. "The idea of the innocent child as one with nature , going back to Romanticism, is one of the most powerful instruments of oppression, since the child is defined as opposed to the civilized and mature adult" (Nikolajeva, 2007 p. 31) . However, this view is challenged by books like William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954) which brings across a very sinister view of children and human beings.

The Narrator's Voice

In The Narrator's Voice: The Dilemma of Children's Fiction (1991) Barbara Wall points to three different ways the author of children's literature can address the reader. Double address was used in the early days of children's literature and during the Victorian age where the author wrote to please the adult reader looking over the child's shoulder. There were comments meant for the adult reader and perhaps also at the expense of the child reader. Through single address used in Alice in Wonderland a new way of addressing the child reader was introduced. This text was intended to please and be understood by the child reader disregarding adult response to it. Roald Dahl for example, uses single address and he "puts himself in league with an implied reader against the inevitable disgust of grown-ups. He is frequently seen as a subversive writer...he ranges himself with children against adults. His stance shows him assuming that children will join him and squirm delightedly in fact because they do so with the approval of the adult who has joined them. There can be little doubt that Dahl's willingness to acknowledge the existence of his child readers and to do so by playing the game of joining them has played a part in his popularity with children" (pp. 193-4). In the 20th century dual address has been introduced by writers of children's literature who believe that children can understand complex texts and therefore speaks to the adult and the child alike in the conviction that children can cope. Barbara Wall, however, claims that writing to children is writing for children, and that children have a right to a literature of their own. Cross-over fiction that is an increasing popular genre would therefore not be suitable for children according to this view. Perry Nodelman in "Reading Across the Border" (2004) claims that the writer and reader/critic must take into account the inexperience of "inexperienced readers" and consequently supports Wall's claim that children must have their own literature.

Characteristics of children's literature

According to Mjør et al., (2006) a typical motif in children's literature is the journey - however short or long. The protagonist leaves home and goes out to experience life in some way and often returns home wiser and happier. This corresponds to the Great Code of narratives found in the small and large narratives of the Bible and in fairy tales according to Northorp Frye (1982). Going on a journey means to meet and deal with challenges, in other words to experience and learn something, and thus journeys can be considered as didactic tools. Some cultures like the Aborigines actually have physical journeys as rites into manhood. Walkabout (1959)by James Vance Marshall is one such account of a young Aboriginal boy going on a lone walk in the dessert facing the challenges of surviving on his own. The pattern of leaving home, going out to experience something and learning something before returning home wiser is the basic plot structures of classic Buildungs novels like The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Hucklebery Finn (1884). The pattern is found in popular series like the Harry Potter stories as well. Children's literature seems to basically concern itself with the theme of growing up.

The basic structure of all narratives and therefore also of children's literature has the following three elements:

The opening which sets the story in motion. Setting and introduction to characters come in the opening.

A conflict of some sort that underlies the development of the plot. In The Secret Garden (1911), Mary's conflict is most of all with herself and about her learning to interact with her environment and thus gain access to the secret garden symbolizing her emotions.
A resolution or an ending of the conflict such as we can see in The Illustrated Mum (1999) when the main character, Dolphin, manages to communicate the problems with her mother and gains help.

Children's literature has variations over this basic structure. Usually, events are presented chronologically.

Myths, legends, fairy tales

They all have their origin in oral tales. Myths are old stories explaining in a literary way the early history of a group of people or about natural events or facts. Legends are old stories that tell about famous people or events. They do not have to be true.

Fairy tales can be seen as human footprints and have in common an element of wonder and the key theme of metamorphosis.(Birketveit,2005, p.108). They follow basic patterns and laws. The Russian formalist Vladimir Propp and the Danish researcher Axel Olrik identified the structural functions and the laws of the fairy tale genre.

There are many ways of reading (understanding) fairy tales. One way is to look upon them as traces of the original tellers who were women mostly, and the harsh lives they often had (dying in childbirth, enforced marriages, violent husbands/fathers, stepchildren, stepmothers etc.). Another way is to give interpretations based on psychoanalytic approaches. Most well-known is Bruno Bettleheim's The Uses of Enchantment, published in 1976. In it he analyzed fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychology. Bettelheim discussed the emotional and symbolic importance of fairy tales for children, including traditional tales at one time considered too dark, such as those collected and published by the Brothers Grimm. The pattern and structures of fairy tales are very strong and can be looked upon as a basic plot structure being repeated in all sorts of narratives. Modern fairy tales use this pattern as well, but with a twist. The princess might not want a husband after all like in Princess Smartypants (1986) by Babette Cole. An comprehensive overview of the development of the fairy tale and the different interpretations are given in Birketveit, A. (2005) "Fairy Tales as Human Footprints" i Hansson, T., Kjartansson, R., Larsen, A. & Lassen, H. (red.) Tales on the Screen: Narrative Competence in Teacher Education.

Realistic or fantastic stories

Children's stories are classified as either realistic or fantastic. Anne Fine's stories like Google Eyes (1989) belong to the former category whereas Roald Dahl's stories belong to fantasy. Realistic literature deals with real life problems like finding friends at school (Secret Friend, (1998)) or coping with a mentally unstable mum (The Illustrated Mum, (1999)). Fantasy makes use of supernatural elements, but there are real messages, and they can be just as didactic as realistic stories. An example is Philip Pullman's novel Northern Lights (1995) which is the first novel in his dark material trilogy. It is set in a universe parallel to our own and tells of Lyra Belacqua's journey north in search of her missing friend and her imprisoned father who has been conducting experiments with a substance known as Dust. Children's literature often mixes realism and fantasy in the same stories.

Fantasy is further divided into high fantasy (the Narnia books or Pullman's stories) where the hero goes on a journey to parallel worlds. In low fantasy fantastic elements/happenings occur in a realistic world. An example is Roald Dahl's story, The Witches (1983), which starts out with a realistic account of a boy becoming orphaned and taken care of by his grandmother. Then strange and terrifying things start happening when they go to a holiday resort in England.

Nonsense stories are a particular type of fantasy. These stories create their own world with their own principles for how things happen. Alice in Wonderland (1865) is an example of this kind. She enters another world through the wardrobe and this other world, Narnia, has its own rules. Roald Dahl's The Giant Peach (1961)is another example. Another characteristic is that these types of stories draw attention to language itself by making up nonsense words. Roald Dahl's children's stories often have this element, and in the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Center in Great Missenden, UK there is a section for visiting children where they can join in the fun of making up new nonsense words like fizzpopping (The Big Friendly Giant, 1982).

Picture books

It is a very important multimodal type of text where picture and text function together: it communicates through two different types of sign system: picture and text. Bader(1976) in American Picture Books, offers this definition: "A picture book is text, illustration, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historical document; and foremost an experience for a child. As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of picture and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning page. "

In many picture books, the front and back cover as well as the inside of the covers and first page are important for the whole story. Expectations towards turning a page are characteristic for picture books. Picture books combine two different ways of telling: a visual and a verbal way. Together they form a whole and the particular quality of the picture book lies in its ability to combine the two. They cannot be separated in the meaning making. Together they constitute what we call the iconic text.

When reading a picture book, we perceive the pictures first, and then we read the text before we usually look at the pictures again.

A book is read from left to right. According to Mjør et al (2006) there is a convention of movement and place in picture books. When a character leaves home, he turns to the right. When he/she returns home, he she turns left (home). Another convention in picture books is that dangers/conflicts come from the right! (Mjør et al (2006), p 119). Picture books can also encourage the child to interact in special ways with the text, for example The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) who has literally eaten through the fruit /items it describes. The Little Mouse‘s Big Book of Fear (2007) has a whole/burnt on the first page that physically illustrates the plot/fear. Pictures and text can tell the same, they can tell different stories or they can complement each other. Anthony Browne's picture books, like My Dad, Gorilla, The Tunnel, etc are excellent examples of the latter as well as Babette Cole's stories like Princess Smartypants or Prince Cinders.

Rhymes, riddles, songs and poems

These types of texts lend themselves very well to language learning as they bring music to the language, and music means rhythm, rhyme, fun and enjoyment. There can be regular or irregular rhymes. Alliteration and onomatopoetic words are other elements to be aware of and exploit. These texts can be rich in images and help extend vocabulary. Working on a theme or a longer text, it is useful to find poems, rhymes or songs on the same topic to reinforce language and learning. The Hutchinson Treasury of Children's Poetry (1998) edited by Alison Sage is an excellent resource for language teachers.

Factual prose

One way of categorizing these is to claim that it should be possible to verify the truth of the facts presented. In this category we find books about the environment, books about animals, about the human body, geography, technique and different means of transport. Art and music have since the 70s started to make their impact. According to Mjør et al (2006) there is a lack of books about politics, and about different aspects of our society. This may be because it is difficult for grown-ups to write about these themes in a neutral way (p. 170). Under books about facts we find biographies, travel descriptions, historic accounts as well as encyclopaedic books. 

List of references

Birketveit, A. (2005) "Fairy Tales as Human Footprints" i Hansson, T., Kjartansson, R., Larsen, A. & Lassen, H. (red.) Tales on the Screen: Narrative Competence in Teacher Education. Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, pp. 107-120.

Frye, N. (1982) The Great Code. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Mjør,I, Tone Birkeland, Gunvor Risa (2006). Barnelitteratur - sjangrar og teksttypar. Oslo: J. W. Cappelens Forlag, p. 17

Nikolajeva, Maria.(2007) General Programme, Children's Literature International Summer School 11-15 July.

Nodelman, P. (2004) "Reading Across the Border" in Horn Book Magazine,vol.80, issue 3 May/June.

Wall, Barbara. (1991)The Narrator's Voice: The Dilemma of Children's Fiction. Basingstoke: Macmillan.


Publisert 15. juni 2020 13:06 - Sist endret 15. juni 2020 13:06