Friday, April 1, 2011

Recovering Children's Literature

I have just come off of my panel at the 2011 British Women Writer's Conference on "Educating the Nineteenth Century Child." I presented on Augusta Webster's Daffodil and the Croaxaxicans: A Romance of History, in which I believe Webster has taken and revised the Alice model to support an image of child heroine as emerging New Woman. Before my presentation, came two wonderful presentations, Sandra Burr's "The Curious Case of Harriet and Lousia Beaufort: Questing Women, Inquisitive Texts" and Ashely Faulkner's "Christ Among the Doctors: Pedagogy, Pediatrics, and Divinity in Alice Meynell's Criticism."

At the end, when the floor opened up to questions, an audience member remarked that we (all three panelists) were all working on recovery projects. Though Ashley saw his process as a different kind of recovery than the work Sandra was doing, I think this very keen audience observer was correct in her statement. With that said, I believe it for a reason other than Webster's obscurity in the larger 19th century writers conversation or the out-of-print nature of Daffodil

It appears to me that the Children's Literature field, as whole, is typically a recovery project. What do I mean by that? I mean that when it comes to the canonical texts that we consider worthy enough to make it onto our syllabi and into conferences and journals, children's literature is usually at the bottom of the barrel. Sure, people will acknowledge they pleasure they had reading The Wind in the Willows as a child, but the idea of seeing it on a Global Literatures reading list or a British Literature survey seems nearly ridiculous. And because there is little space to study it, usually only those rare recognized pieces made "great" by antiquity, such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, are accepted in scholarly conversation, even in Children's Literature courses. 

Ironically, it was just a few moments ago that I had the delightful opportunity to eat lunch with several students and a well-respected professor from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The subject that enlivened us all, bridging the gap from one end of the very large party to the other, was children's literature. Everything from yesterday's presentation on books about mining for children to the wide-ranging influence of the Harry Potter series to books we probably shouldn't have read as children came up. Many of the books that were mentioned were not nearly as popular as HP, yet it was obvious that they had all made an influence in our growing processes and adult lives. As children, we are molded, especially by what we read. Even those works not consciously aiming to teach provide education, whether it be moral, intellectual, or creative.

Though I am an avid fan of "literature for adults," both for pleasure and for scholarship, I think it odd that we give so much attention to these "serious" works and so little to children's literature, which actually seems to have a much more impressive impact on the shaping of cultures. In writing about Webster's work for children, rather than her impressive poetry or plays, as well as Rossetti's children's literature, and Carroll's, my goal was only partially to recover women's writing that has been obscured by time. The larger, more ambitious goal is really for the field as a whole, working to recover Children's Literature from its marginalized position in the field of literary scholarship and reminding people why these texts are just as important as Eliot's novels and Browning's poetry.

1 comment:

anthea said...

Wow..about the books called "The Wind in the Willows" and
"Alice in Wonderland" being considered children's literature...when surely they were written to be read by adults to chldren? It doesn't make much sense to me that children's literature is relegated to the 'bottom of the barrel' when it actually tells us a great deal about social attitudes at the time etc.