Friday, 9 August 2013

Article: Gupta-Sociological Speculations on the Professions of Children's Literature

Sociological Speculations on the Professions of Children's Literature

Suman Gupta

The Lion and the Unicorn 29.3 (2005) 299-323

In writing Re-Reading Harry Potter (2003), my study of the politics of the HarryPotter books, as well as reading what Jack Zipes has described as the "Harry Potter phenomenon" (Sticks and Stones 173–74), I found myself guided by two circumstances in relation to children's literature. The first was as much an informed conviction as a circumstance; it had to do with the idea that children's literature is a playing field that has little to do with children as reading subjects, but a great deal to do with "children" as a politically efficacious category in the adult world. In broader terms, children's literature emerges from, and impinges upon, a nexus of social, political, and economic relations wherein adult desires are played out with "children" as a constantly and conveniently constructedcategory. No doubt these have material repercussions for children, but that occurs afterward, and generally outside, children's literature analysis. This is far from being an unfamiliar position, though seldom consistently in view in children's literature criticism. It has been lucidly theorized, for instance, by Jacqueline Rose in The Case for Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children's Literature (1984)and Karín Lesnik-Oberstein in Children's Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child (1994). In my study, I was able to address this in a straightforward fashion by trying to locate my arguments as being not about, or for, or with effect on children.

The second circumstance in question, and one I wasn't able to address in my book, has to do with the realization that children'sliterature is a comprehensively institutionalized academic arena. It has manifested gradually, and then increasingly in the last three decades of the twentieth century, the characteristics of institutionalization and legitimation of an established academic discipline. The area is discussed with intensive appropriateness within a distinctive academic discourse (literary studies). [End Page 299] It is one that maintains certain well-honed connections and interfaces, as any respectable academic area, with professional and other disciplinary discourses, such as education, libraries, media and cultural studies, psychology and psychiatry, history, politics, anthropology, and folklore studies. The area maintains its institutional credibility by being equipped with every academic professional marker, as delineated by Tony Becher and Paul R. Trowler in Academic Tribes and Territories (2001). These include highly regarded scholarly journals, a niche in the academic book trade, a range of higher educational courses and research centers, which are now affiliated with literature departments or humanities schools, and many teaching and research personnel. As one who couldn't make a suitable institutional or professional claim to children's literature or the business of talking about anything to do with children, writing about the HarryPotter books also turned out to be a cautious process of not being seen to be making any such claim. Not only was Re-Reading Harry Potter not meant to be a treatment of the books and phenomenon in question as children's literature, it had to be clear that in writing it I was not making any claim to be within the academic or professional arena of children's literature, or even what may more broadly be called childhood studies.

My locus standii in researching the Harry Potter books derived from an education in English literature and research in social and political theory. From this background, an awareness of the second circumstance noted above leads to the perception of a field of inquiry, one that seems to me to be in need of urgent attention, and one that hasn't received much focused discussion. The conditions are ripe for children's literature to be subject to a sociological analysis, to identify the conditions of academic inquiry and associated professionalism, and, in concert with that, expose related ideological imperatives. The burgeoning field of children's literature is in need of self-reflection, not only in terms of its methodological criteria and approach to investigative objects, but in terms of its institutional status. The professional claims that are imbued in, and emerge from, this field can only be assessed and absorbed in such a study.

What follows is more a speculative prolegomena. The idea is to open a discussion, not to take a position or to offer comprehensive documentation. To explore the possibilities, I examine the area from three directions: children's literature as a grouping of professional interests; children's literature as part of the academic discipline of literature in institutional terms; and the institutionalization of children's literature within the broad dynamic of social systems. [End Page 300]

Professionalizing Children's Literature Studies

Though there is little systematic data to make a concrete claim, enough circumstantial evidence suggests that the academic professionalization of children's literature was driven from outside the academy. Peter Hunt suggests, "Children's literature, as a subject of serious, but not solemn, study, has grown from a highly eclectic and involved 'practitioner' world, which tends to be highly intuitive and dedicated, but frequently anti-intellectual" (Criticism, Theory and Children's Literature 6). Such surveys of the development of a critical literature addressing children's literature occasionally place its academic development in the early 1970s. Looking at the evolution of the field in 1995, Jill P. May found that serious analytical criticism, according to academic norms, came to be the agenda of children's literature journals in the area in the 1990s:

New journals that studied children's literature for its literary elements evolved during the seventies. A quick look at Children's Literature and the [Children's Literature Association] ChLA Newsletter attests to the change in critical theory concerning children's literature. These two journals sought to publish scholarly articles that adhered to the publication standards set in English departments. They sought authors who would address children's literature as a serious group of texts.


Similarly, Sandra L. Beckett notes in Reflections of Change (1997), a collection of essays examining children's literature after the Second World War, that: "Since 1970, children's literature, as a significant field of scholarship, has been growing steadily, and gradually securing its place in the academy" (ix–x). But children's literature had already been discussed in a serious academic tone for at least three decades. Though a 1999 bibliographical survey by Hunt found him bemoaning the paucity of what he regards as noteworthy scholarship in the field since the 1950s and 1960s (Understanding Children's Literature 124–29). Children's literature has been discussed since the mid-nineteenth century. For instance, essays in The Quarterly Review in the nineteenth century were taking children's literature seriously.

Assimilated data to enable an analysis of the transition of children's literature from a practioner-led domain to an academic profession is still lacking. However, a sense of this transition can be gathered from career paths of some of the doyens of children's literature studies. The observations in the following section draw selectively upon the latter.

The transition in question was undoubtedly facilitated by the fact that some markers of literary respectability—such as literary prizes, honors, archival collections, and journalistic reviewing—were already in place. [End Page 301] The earliest moves to create these were market-led, mainly by booksellers and librarians. It was the bookseller, editor, and publisher Frederic G. Melcher (1879–1963) who established the first literary award for children's book writers in 1922, the Newbery Award, which is given annually by the American Library Association. Most awards in the field continue to be sponsored and managed by librarians' or booksellers' and publishers' organizations. In 1946, Melcher established the annual Caroline M. Hewins Lectureship in Children's Literature, in honor of Hewins (1846–1926), an administrator of the Hartford Public Library in Connecticut. Hewins had an interest in services for children and was the author of highly regarded booklists for children. More important contributions in this direction were made particularly by Bertha Everett Mahony and Anne Carroll Moore.

Bertha Mahony Miller (1882–1969) began her career at the Women's Educational Union and Industrial Union, a Boston institute to assist working women; there she established the popular Bookshop for Boys and Girls in 1916. In 1924, with her colleague Elinor Whitney Field, she founded The Horn Magazine, which she edited until 1951. This was the first magazine devoted exclusively to children's books and reading. It featured listings and reviews, often by Mahony, and contributions by some of the most highly regarded writers in the field. According to Mahony's biographer, Eulalie Ross, her inspirational editorship enabled the success of The Horn Book for the following reasons:

[S]he had the wisdom to place her magazine on a philosophical basis that would hold firm for all seasons, yet be flexible enough to respond to the inevitable seasonal changes; from the Bookshop associations she was able to secure as contributors to The Horn Book almost everyone working with children's books; she had an instinct for the needed article, the right person to do it, and its placement in the magazine for maximum effectiveness; a self-taught editorial pen enabled her to put the spirit of the magazine—that is to say, the spirit of the editor—into compelling and timeless words.

(The Spirited Life 123)

While Mahony's Horn Book came to be regarded as a key source of information and attitudes about children's literature, the journal took a distinctive academic turn in the late 1960s with Paul Heins (1909–96) as editor, and in the early 1970s under Ethel Heins (1918–97), both of whom held literature degrees. Their contribution is discussed in Barbara Bader's 1999 Horn Book essay "On the Cover: Preach and Practice." Mahony also authored and edited a prodigious number of books on aspects of children's literature, including Newbery Medal Books, 1922–1955 (1955) and Caldecott Medal Books, 1938–1957 (1957). [End Page 302]

Anne Carroll Moore's (1871–1961) contributions to creating an institutional space for children's literature helped direct it toward academic respectability. She was a children's librarian at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before taking up the responsibility of organizing a new children's department in the New York Public Library (NYPL) in 1906. Moore's drive to establish and open up the NYPL children's collection to popular and academic attention by organizing exhibitions, delivering lectures, and writing reviews and articles is described in a biography by Frances Clarke Sayers (1972). Particularly influential were collections of essays and reviews published in the 1920s, reprinted in My Roads to Childhood: Views and Reviews of Children's Books (1961). Some essays attest to Moore's interest in extending the serious study of children's literature through advanced education. In "Viewing and Reviewing Books for Children" (1920), Moore advocates this sort of study:

There is no better form of training in the fundamental art of expression than a sincere attempt to write to interest children and young people following competent lectures and discussions of comparative reading. Why not courses for readers—the parents and teachers, publishers and booksellers, of the next generation—who need to be placed in a much more understanding relation to the resources on which they must rely in the education of children, if education is to become as important as we believe it to be.


This illustrates Moore's desire to bring children's literature to serious academic consideration as well as her practitioner orientation to the field. The readers she imagines are practitioners.

The degree to which the British bookselling industry guided the creation of children's literature is described by Mary J. Jackson in Engines of Instruction, Mischief, and Magic (1989).

The actual creation of a professional academic space for children's literature is also powerfully associated with the enterprise of practitioners. Early influential and scholarly work usually came from professionals or persons in applied disciplines with a stake in childhood studies. Those connected to the bookselling and publishing trade occasionally produced scholarly historical bibliographical works in children's literature. This began with Andrew W. Tuer (1838–1900), of the Leadenhall Press, who published anthologies for children and wrote The History of the Hornbook (1897). To F. J. Harvey Darton (1878–1936) goes the credit of writing the first academically analytical and rigorous social history of children's literature, Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life (1932). Darton wrote that he tried to present the story of English children's books "as a continuous whole, or as a minor [End Page 303] chapter in the history of English social life" (v). Not just a factual narrative of authors, texts, and publishers, Darton placed these within social and cultural contexts or intellectual milieus. Darton belonged to the well-known Darton family, publishers of children's books since the late eighteenth century. After receiving an education at St. John's College, Oxford, he worked for the family business of Wells, Gardner, Darton & Co., from 1899 to 1928. He also edited the British magazine for children Chatterbox. Darton combined his practitioner experience with substantial scholarly interest, and wrote significant scholarly books in social history and literary studies.This combination of abilities perhaps explains the academic nature of Children's Books in English.

Other scholars of the publishing and bookselling industry followed. They either returned to the bibliographical emphasis of historical narrative that preceded Darton, or elaborated on the sociocultural emphasis that he introduced. Percy Muir's English Children's Books, 1600–1900 (1954) drew upon Darton's work, but without attempting "the detail of his portrayal, but rather a broader sweep within a smaller compass" (15). Muir emphasized bibliographical detail, elaborated for selected phases and texts touched on by Darton. The bibliographic material reflected Muir's interests as a bookseller: he had been associated with Elkin Mathews from 1930 to 1979, was founder and president of the Association of Antiquarian Booksellers and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, was a founder and member of the editorial board of the Book Collector, and wrote books on book collecting and bibliography. Bettina Hürlimann, a German editor and publisher of books for children with Atlantis Verlag since the 1930s, wrote Europaische Kinderbucher in drei Jahrhumderten (1963, English trans., Three Centuries of Children's Books in Europe, 1967). This had an all-European embrace and a more ambitious social-cultural aim to "revitalize our rather dusty image of this literature and to set it in some kind of relationship with present times" (xi). Hürlimann analyzes specific genres (nursery rhymes, fairy tales), authors and their texts (Hans Christian Anderson, Edward Lear), and issues of conceptual interest (the relation of children's literature to politics). Well-known children's author and journalist John Rowe Townsend, who was editor of the Guardian Weekly newspaper, wrote Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children's Literature (1965), a literary history of children's literature. This had an uncomplicated emphasis on the primacy of author and text in literary history. Townsend organized the material in a chronological format, with the expectation of giving a "brief and readable account of prose fiction for children in Britain from the beginnings to the [then] [End Page 304] present day" (Preface to 1990 edition, xi).In the early development of the literary history of children's literature, the contributors of professional academics were rather limited. One example is Cornelia Lynde Meigs (1884–1973) who was an English professor at Bryn Mawr and a biographer of Louisa M. Alcott; Meigs contributed to and edited A Critical History of Children's Literature (1953).

Practitioners had an enormously significant investment in pushing the study of children's literature into a professional academic space. But who was responsible in academia for bringing children's literature to its current position, and what career paths did they follow? One might be tempted to focus on those who are both famous children's fiction writers and career academics, such as J. R. R. Tolkien. However, it appears to me that Tolkien's academic works and efforts as a children's fiction writer did not have a significant impact on the academic professionalization of children's literature. His academic works, such as his Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (1958), the 1936 Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture to the British Academy, or the essay "On Fairy-Stories" delivered as a 1930 Andrew Lang Lecture at St. Andrews University (later included with "Leaf by Niggle" in Tree and Leaf, 1964)—were addressed to a select audience of the cognoscenti. Though "On Fairy-Stories" reflected the manner in which folklore comes down to children, it was not simply as children's literature that Tolkien considered and analyzed fairy stories. Though Tolkein's scholarship fed into, and resonated with, his fictional writings for children in ways that have been extensively examined, a focused scholarly attention on children's literature as literature did not emerge, nor did it appear to be a matter that could occupy a distinctive academic space in its own terms. A better example of a professional academic who paid scholarly attention to children's literature in its own terms, and who drew the study of children's literature squarely into academic discourse is Paul Hazard (1878–1944). His Les livres, les enfants et les hommes (1932), translated into English as Books, Children, and Men (1944), is regarded as pioneering in this respect. Though a substantial work of modern scholarship in children's literature, it stands outside in Hazard's distinguished academic career. As Chair of Comparative Literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, Hazard is better known for the monumental La Crise de la conscience européenne 1680–1715 (1935), translated into English as The European Mind (1953), and La pensée européenne au XVIIIe siècle (1946), English trans. European Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1954).

More indicative of progress are careers of those who actually brought children's literature into academia. This, too, occurred primarily from [End Page 305] applied disciplines or practice-oriented disciplines, unsurprisingly in library studies and education. Many education researchers wrote about children's literature to facilitate activities of teachers in the early and mid-twentieth century. Some had an impact on the development of the professionalization of children's literature. Annie Egerton Moore, for instance, who taught teachers of primary grades at the Teachers College of Columbia University from 1910 to 1931, wrote several influential books on children's literature, including Literature Old and New for Children: Materials for a College Course (1934), and, with her colleague Jean Betzner, Everychild and Books (1940). These elaborated a generic structure for examining children's literature that has influenced literary approaches thereafter. Their ideas were initially assumed effective by education experts from Indiana State Normal School—Charles Madison Curry and Erle Elsworth Clippinger—in their anthology Children's Literature: A Textbook of Sources for Teachers (1921). The career of May Hill Arbuthnot (1884–1969), author of Children and Books (1947), is another representative one. She taught at Case Western Reserve University and had a special interest in children's education. Arbuthnot edited the scholarly journals Childhood Education and Elementary English, and came to prominence as an author, with William Scott Gray, of the Curriculum Foundation Readers for education. Since 1970, she has been memorialized in the Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award for children's literature, given by the Association of Library Services for Children and the American Language Association.

But it isn't to those who worked within the confines of their applied disciplinary that the academic professionalization of children's literature in its own terms can be attributed. To impel the transition from practitioner oriented to a self-contained academic space of children's literature, the efforts of practitioners who crossed into academia, and academics who cultivated a wider engagement with the practical world, were required. Frances Clarke Sayers's career was exemplary, as described in Ethel L. Heins's 1990 Horn Book essay. A librarian by training, she succeeded her mentor Anne Carroll Moore as Superintendent of Work with Children at the New York Public Library and held that position from 1941 to 1952. In 1952, she was appointed Senior Lecturer in the English Department at the University of California at Los Angeles, and after 1960, also in the School of Library Service. In the 1950s, she was the first to offer university-level courses in children's literature as literature. She also lectured widely in universities and colleges in the United States, acted as consultant for children's literature to the Library of Congress in 1952, and wrote for children before retiring in 1965. She [End Page 306] wrote a biography of Anne Carroll Moore. Sayers's work has been memorialized in the annual Frances Clarke Sayers Memorial Lecturer at UCLA since 1994. Another practioner and academic was Sheila Egoff, an editor of the influential collection Only Connect (first published in 1969), and author of The Republic of Childhood (1967). She started her career as a children's librarian at Galt Public Library before moving to the Toronto Public Library and then becoming curator at the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books. She started teaching courses in children's literature at the School of Librarianship at the University of British Columbia in 1962.

The final touches of institutional sanction and academic credibility for children's literature were arguably secured through the efforts of Francelia Butler, who came from within the academic establishment. She entered academia late after an adventurous life of political activism in the United States and Europe and as a drama critic for the International Herald Tribune. These circumstances probably gave her a sense of engagement in the larger world, more perhaps of a practitioner's view than is usual among professional academics. She started teaching Shakespeare and seventeenth-century literature in 1963. Butler came to children's literature primarily after being appointed Associate Professor with tenure at the University of Connecticut in 1969. In 1969, she conducted the first MLA session on children's literature, and in 1980 won Division status for children's literature at MLA along with Glenn Sadler. In 1972, she began the first serious academic journal in the area, Children's Literature, initially at her own expense. It was later taken over by Temple University, then moved to Yale University Press, and is currently at The Johns Hopkins University Press.Through a series of influential contributions, this became the channel for her to campaign against the neglect of children's literature in literary scholarship and academic activity. She organized Summer Institutes for children's literature funded by the National Endowment of Humanities in 1983 and 1985 before retiring in 1991. A useful overview of Butler's life and efforts on behalf of children's literature is Gillian Adams's essay "The Francelia Butler Watershed."

The Children's Literature Association was founded by Anne Devereaux Jordan in 1973. She worked as editor of The Magazine for Fantasy and Science Fiction and Teaching and Learning Literature with Children and Young Adults, wrote numerous books and scholarly articles, and was a Visiting Lecturer in Liberal Studies at Wesleyan University. [End Page 307]

Children's Literature in Institutional and Academic Terms

This survey of careers of doyens of children's literature attest to the enormous investment of practitioners in bringing together the academic profession of children's literature as it is currently constituted. From it, two general observations can be summarized. To a great degree, the move from children's literature as an area of practice (concerned with parenting and primary education and librarianship and book publishing and selling), to an area of professional academic engagement (in terms of literary research and an advanced literary education), was initiated by practitioners' experience and interests. The above survey also suggests that this move was impelled not simply by practitioners' professional and ideological enthusiasms, but also by their own career transitions or the ability to infringe, so to say, effectively on a resistant academic establishment. The entry of practitioners into academe was conducted by mediation between practitioners' prerogatives and academic prerogatives, or by what may be thought of as both a clashing and a convergence of pragmatic practice-oriented discourses (which often pertain to the world of business and administration and social services), with academic discourses.1

It may be expected that this mode of development of the academic profession of children's literature would leave a trace within the current field. It is one that renders children's literature distinct from the conventional academic space of British or American literature. At the same time, it is analogous to relatively new influxes into literary study that have grown in concert with political activism and an awareness of contemporary sociocultural affairs such as working-class literature, women's writing, gay writing, and postcolonial literature. The particular practitioner-led drive to academic professionalization that children's literature manifests could be expected to be contained as a dualism—or a tension between dual possibilities—in its professional practice and perpetuation. Those in the academic profession of children's literature often acknowledge the existence of such a tension, or at least a trace dualism, in the now-acquired institutional space. Occasionally it is averred, particularly in the United Kingdom,2 that the professional academic space that has evolved contains its practitioner-led origins in specific ways. Children's literature conferences are often the meeting ground between diverse interests and academic specialists. Children's literature scholarship often couches itself (or should) in accessible terms. Children's literature graduate courses are more sensitive to practitioners' needs as students may seek careers outside academia; and so on. More [End Page 308] often, particularly in the United States but also in the United Kingdom,3 a decisive split has already taken place between the practitioner-oriented spaces for the study of children's literature and the space now occupied by academic professionals of children's literature. The Children's Literature Association, the Modern Critical Approaches to Children's Literature conference, and the Children's Literature Division at MLA are almost exclusively attended by university faculty and graduate students. Elementary and high school teachers are attracted to journals and conferences of the National Council of Teachers in English and the International Reading Association, and more regional conferences. Marked distinctions in scholarship and teaching methods of children's literature exists among the academic fields of literary studies (usually in English departments), library studies, and education. Increasingly, graduate students in children's literature that are part of literary studies programs plan to follow academic careers. The theoretical sophistication of the advanced study of children's literature, the numerous publications in the field that not only draw upon but seek to extend the boundaries of critical and cultural theory, and the specialist characteristics of the academic discourse of children's literature, are all evidence of the split from practitioners' perspective of children's literature.

Institutionalization of Children's Literature within Social Systems

The tension between the practitioner orientation and the academic profession occasionally reconciled but more often are seen as a clearly institutionalized split with ideological perspectives attached. Two contrary perspectives can be discerned.

In daily life, dominant political ideologies are so embedded or "interpellated," to use Althusser's suggestive term (173–74), that we unconsciously live them, rather than reflect on them, or act for, or against, ideologies, if necessary. To the extent that this embeddedness is replicated at a micro level in academic institutions, it undermines how this awareness is brought to consciousness, which is arguably a key function of higher education. The very artifice and distance of an academic institutional space allows perspective on the larger social realities, which, in turn, underlies political and social consciousness and participation. That is the rationale behind much social and political theory that hopes for progressive change and resistance to repressive dominant ideologies on university students.4 If this distance is reduced, the ability to develop such consciousness is also reduced. What is learned and taught in the classroom and discussed in peer groups become [End Page 309] continuous with living in the larger social world. Academic children's literature is likely to be, if the happy compromise between practitioner orientation and academic professionalization view is assumed, an area that generates more competent and self-conscious living in the larger professional world, but at the expense of developing a social and political perspective that has a dynamic and participatory stance for or against dominant ideologies.

My argument can also work the other way. It may be averred that, because of the continuities between the micro and macro levels, a more realistic apprehension of the operations of dominant ideologies can be desired. The cliché of academic removal from the real world is less likely to be concrete under these circumstances. The thing to do is to structure the environment of the institutional academic space of children's literature so that it can maximize its continuities with the macro social world, and simultaneously defamiliarize this world enough to bring its ideological leanings into active and participatory consciousness. This can be met through the disposition of the academic space itself or through instructional arrangements. The evidence that there is a split between the practitioner orientation and the academic profession bodes well for the complex mediation between continuity and defamiliarization to occur.

Almost all camps seem to feel that relations between the academic profession of children's literature and literary studies are finding common ground, but tensions are not yet completely resolved. Even if no distinction in quality and quantity of specialization, dissemination, perpetuation, and production between the two can be discerned, an unease about the relationship remains. This may manifest itself in simply the need for children's literature scholars to assert the respectability of their discipline, to remind themselves and others that children's literature is literature, and is distinctively children's literature. A slightly defensive attitude, or a slightly abrasive attitude, is sometimes indicatively struck. The following quotation from Nina Christensen is typical. It introduces a survey of children's literature criticism from the 1950s to the 1990s that contextualized Danish picture books:

This discussion is designed to help scholars think about keeping a balance between different forms of awareness. First, they must be aware of the fact that children's literature is literature, that it is, among other things, fiction, which needs no legitimation outside itself. Second, scholars must have an awareness that children's literature, like literature in general, is created and shaped under certain conditions and exists within a certain reality influencing the final product.


To come to grips with the relationship between the academic profession of children's literature and of literary studies (the former as both within [End Page 310] and distinctive within the latter), this discussion extends to the institutional space and prerogatives with which literary studies operates.

Converegence of Children's Literature and Literary Studies

Stanley Fish, in his 1993 Clarendon Lecture, was deliberately courting controversy when he asserted:

The literary critic as I imagine him is anything but an organic intellectual in the Gramscian sense; instead he is a specialist, defined and limited by the traditions of his craft, and it is the condition of his labours, at least as they are exerted in the United States, that he remain distanced from any effort to work changes in the structure of society. It is not that society is unalterable or that there could never come a day when the words of a literary critic will resound in the halls of congress; it is just that I do not see that day coming soon and I do not think that anything you and I could do will bring it closer.


He could be assured of controversy partly because he has a talent for raising critical hackles but more emphatically because he questions the carefully nurtured aspirations of literary studies. He particularly critiques the last thirty years during which literary studies has sought to be politically and socially effective. It has attempted to do so not just within disciplinary precincts, conventionally the study of literary forms, but beyond those borders. This aspiration has been given free play through the agency of European critical theorists who have been adopted enthusiastically by American literary specialists, by the extension of disciplinary prerogatives beyond literary forms to discourses and texts themselves. This aspiration has manifested itself by the fluid and confident incorporation of material that was traditionally handled in other disciplines, such as linguistics, philosophy, history, and anthropology into literary studies. The aspiration is also evident in the alignment of branches within literary studies, now ensconced in curricula and sub-departments, with wider political activism. Literary studies claims allegiance with the feminism and the women's movement, the Black civil liberties movement, gay/queer politics, working class politics, and the struggle of asserting post-colonial and immigrant identities. The aspirations seep into numerous disciplinary branches out of literary studies; those associated with literary studies have obviously had a considerable investment in the emergence of such new metadisciplines as critical theory, cultural studies, and media studies. All this is well known and much examined. Many authors have taken issue with literary studies' overweening ambition, self-aggrandizing attachment to theory, pretensions to being an essential discipline, and irritating claim of political [End Page 311] effectiveness. So are the numerous studies that assert plausibly and sincerely such aspirations.5

To single out the last few decades of the twentieth century as particularly relevant may seem reductive. The emergence of literary studies from the murky waters of litterae humanae is a relatively recent thing; not too long ago the study of literary forms was bound to classics, rhetoric/grammar, history, and theology and could hardly be distinguished independently. In its very establishment as an academic discipline, critics such as D. J. Palmer in The Rise of English Studies (1968), have shown that English literature has espoused great social ambitions: to cultivate the minds of workers and women through Mechanics Institutes or extension lectures, to instill proper imperial administrative backbones through the agency of Indian Civil Services examinations, to civilize the natives by being imposed through colonial educational curricula, and so on. Philosophers such as Roman Jakobson, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault have made pronouncements on literary matters as often as literary scholars, such as Matthew Arnold, Raymond Williams, and Edward Said, have crept into politics and other disciplines in the last two centuries. Yet, the last decades of the twentieth century are remarkable for the gradually acquired institutional character of the extension and enlarged embrace and aspiration to the social and political efficacy of literary studies. Since the late twentieth century, literary studies has ceased to be an institutional place where non-literary interlopers dropped in and literary dilettantes leapt, out of despite the protests of the Leavises.6 Literary studies has become an area that has institutionally, in its organizational and transmittive set-up in the academy, transformed itself. It has grown larger than its traditional boundaries, to accommodate metadisciplinary ambitions and political/social agency within itself, despite the protests of the Fishes.

Since the 1970s, the emergence of children's literature out of the powerful practitioner and applied discipline-oriented background into the academic institutional space of literary studies tellingly coincides with this history. This coincidence is probably not accidental. It seems plausible that the increasing embrace and ambition of literary studies is more comfortable in encompassing children's literature with its practice and application-based disposition precisely because of its renewed current dispensation. Equally influential has been children's literature ability to buy into the academic respectability of the traditional discipline by a few adjustments. It is ironic that in the phase of development with an emphatic didactic or moral-improvement agenda of literary studies, and especially English,7 the most conservatively didactic section of [End Page 312] literary texts that constitute children's literature did not quite make the canon. This is ironic but not surprising, given the determined emphasis on intractable and universal aesthetic and stylistic conventions that defined the canon. At any rate, the recent emergence of children's literature within the recently reformulated institutional precincts of literary studies has necessarily had to adopt its ambitions. This has meant adopting theoretical methodologies and critical discourses with overarching ambitions of contemporary literary studies to the analysis of children's literature text, and an attempt to give historical legitimacy to children's literature by discerning its place within the historical development of literary critical theory. May's Children's Literature and Critical Theory (1995)and Hunt's Criticism, Theory and Children's Literature (1991) are good examples of the latter. The negotiations related to the academic professionalization of children's literature within the academic institutional practice of literary studies has seldom been examined in depth, although a splendid attempt in this direction within the American context has been made by Beverly Lyon Clark in Kiddie Lit (2003).

Interestingly, the more complex the academic discourse attached to literary studies becomes the more a kind of back-to-basics terminology appears. A kind of fashionable infantilization of critical terminology to playfully counterpoint its increasingly specialized deployment may also have a gestural role in the extension of literary studies to the so far less forboding area of children's literature. This is a purely impressionistic point. But it has some credence when observing how a phrase such as "telling stories" has made a rhetorical appearance in specialist works of critical theory. Consider books such as Steve Cohan and Linda Shires's Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction (1988) and Michael Roemer's Telling Stories: Postmodernism and the Invalidation of Traditional Narrative (1995). This is obviously a playful allusion to the oral tradition, especially associated with children, that is discussed more straightforwardly, but with different nuances, by Anne Pellowski in The World of Storytelling (1990) or Jack Zipes in Creative Storytelling (1995), among others. Children's literature students may suspect an invitation to high literary theory, but will infer that the invitation, while never withdrawn, can only be one that results in academic colonization.

It is a moot point whether children's literature's protection under expanding institutionalized literary studies works against its derivation from the grouping of professional practitioner or applied discipline-based interests noted previously. As stated, the grouping of professional interests gives children's literature a character that might direct it away from the discernment of dominant ideologies and concordant social and [End Page 313] political participation. One might expect this to be corrected by its inculcation within the prevailing, and now institutionalized, alignment of literary studies with marginal and radical political theory and practice. Much recent research in children's literature, mostly by academics in literature departments, demonstrates that some such project is underway; or perhaps, more accurately, has grown spontaneously. Beginning in the 1990s, the most productive children's literature research attempts to analyze children's literary and critical texts through the political ambitions of literary studies. Children's literature criticism has grown to be a site of reflections on identity-based approaches and locations (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, north-south locations, migrant identities, etc.), or more broadly on ideology and politics itself. I suspect that the new academic professionals of children's literature feel convinced that this situation will work (or is already working) not only against its derived roots from the grouping of professional interests, but increasingly on those professional interests, too. Perhaps the close link with professional interests that is uniquely available in children's literature through literary studies makes it the ideal channel for conveying the social and political ambitions and master-discipline-like embrace of contemporary literary studies. Perhaps, once again, literary studies can hope to mold public character by reaching out to the non-academic world through such practice-rooted areas as children's literature in a nineteenth-century mode. I say this with all my cynicism about the nineteenth-century aspirations of literary studies intact.

That, however, is the more optimistic prognosis of the convergence of literary studies as now reshaped and the academic professionalization of children's literature as literature. Some skepticism about the implications of this convergence may also be entertained and is emerging within the academic profession of children's literature. Children's literature has acquired its professional space as literature within the academy but only to aspire to an expansion that reshapes literature and its relationship with other disciplines.

Children's Literature within Complex Social Systems

As a way to broaden the arena of children's literature and literary studies so that the convergence among these can be apprehended, it is convenient to assume a model of sociological thinking, such as general social systems theory. An example is Niklas Luhmann's model of complex social systems, not because of its ideological connotations (which I have reservations about for much the same reasons as Jurgen Habermas), but [End Page 314] for a temporary convenience in visualizing the situation. Insofar as children's literature and literary studies can be thought of as contained within complex matrices of larger social systems, a couple of clarifications come to mind.

The various macro social levels (polity, community, and citizenry) that contain the academic institution and other professions above may be conveniently thought of as interlinked with each other in a net of dependencies that operate, (as Luhmann describes in Social Systems, [1984]),as a complex, self-perpetuating, self-adjusting autopoietic social systems. I have referred to children's literature (as an initial grouping of professional interests and moving into an institutional academic space with certain orientations) and literary studies (as possessing an institutionalized character, manifesting in its research/teaching practice). I have thought of these essentially as socialization practices8 pertinent to the social systems; ultimately they are the totality of a complex social system that contains them. There is a mesh of interconnected, dependent, and expanding social systems: from the classroom/seminar to the constituted academic department/school to the institutions they are inside (university, school, research center, library, publishing house, etc.) to the various groupings at work (polity, community, citizenry) to their containment within larger social structures (nation-state, international networks, and organizations), to the totality of a complex autopoietic social system.

Seen in this way, children's literature and literary studies are socialization practices that operate, ultimately, for the continuity of the totality, but with more immediate effect on each interim layer, especially those within which the socialized subjects will, or may, operate. In considering children's literature and literary studies, it has been generally clear how the interlinkedness of layers of systems is constantly at play. Considering children's literature and literary studies as socialization practices in this framework is a complex affair; they are a series of mutually reflexive and sensitive levels of socialization. Literary texts directed at children are themselves socialization instruments within the immediate domain of certain social agents including parents, school teachers, children's authors, children's publishers, and education administrators. The study of these as children's literature involves a level of socialization of those agents themselves, among others. These are then aligned to the base consideration of socializing children. This level of socialization is dispensed by another set of agents, such as higher education professors and researchers, higher education managers, and experts from the professions (schoolteachers, librarians, publishers, etc.) who claim to be experts of the professions, including state-level education planners. The [End Page 315] study of literature involves similar socializing practices, but with different actors and somewhat different emphases. The convergence of children's literature with, and within, literary studies entails more complex negotiations of socialization practices. The picture is more complex by peer regulations that also operate with a socializing effect. All the layers of social systems become a total autopoietic system that comprehends it all.

The picture of interlinkedness and complex interconnections as contained within larger structures is useful as it allows us to visualize both. Earlier strokes in this article can now be reoriented to a larger canvas. This larger dynamic includes: the derivation from, and continuing relation to, a grouping of professional interests in children's literature; the academic professionalization of children's literature within literary studies; and the academic professional space that literary studies has arrogated for itself and embraces children's literature.

This larger scope is impossible to comprehend within this essay; only some impressionistic gestures can be made. Yet, these gestures may indicate why skepticism was expressed at the end of the last section. A significant element is the awareness and institutional formulation of children as political subjects and as a politically contingent category. While corroborated by social histories of childhood,9 this awareness is also operating in institutional prerogatives and political discourse. Institutional prerogatives include the formation of United Nations Children Fund in December 1946 after World War II, international recognition of its political status, its permanent incorporation in the United Nations in 1953, the United Nations adoption of a Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 (in consonance with a liberal individualist philosophy), to the more recent 1996 Machel Report on the effects of war on children (Machel 1996) and related 1998 UN debates. Spinning out of these is a discourse about children, especially in liberal political philosophy, for example, in relation to the balance of rights and duties for children,10 or in terms of the exceptional status of children in a constitutional democracy.11 In political discourse, the place of children's political subjectivity is manifested in issues such as concerns about child abuse and the near-symbolic intensification of repugnance to paedophilia (see James Kincaid's Child-Loving and Erotic Innocence), to the normative evaluation of ongoing social conflicts by referring to child casualties. The oppositional assessment of American foreign policy in the Middle East has often focused on child mortality before and since September 11, 2001.12 The convergence of literary studies, with its recently assumed master-disciplinary pretensions, and of children's literature as a professionalized academic formation within literary studies has developed in a respone to this larger social dynamic. [End Page 316]

Another side of this larger social dynamic is in numerous studies on globalization. These critiques incorporate a post-Cold War consensus on corporate capitalism as a supranational phenomenon with an affect on every level of existence; a perception of greater degrees of complexity in social interactions being impelled by technological developments, particularly in communications; the growing dissociation of economic exchanges and transfers from domestic control; the consequent adjustment of the prerogatives of states and transnational corporations; and related social effects. The results lead to greater cultural homogenization in different contexts, and reactive assertions of identities and communalities. That children may be perceived as commodities is demonstrated, to some extent, by Roger Cox in Shaping Childhood (1996). Cox explores the intersections of identity politics with global players (especially corporate industry), usually in a mutually exacerbatory fashion. Children's literature is one area where the commodification of the child is conducted in a clearly traceable fashion, as Jack Zipes argues in Sticks and Stones (2001). This is manifested in every aspect of children's existence: clothes, food, entertainment, even education and parenting. On a larger scale, the logic of commodification that underlies globalization affects every layer of institutional and social existence.13 Neither the academic institutions nor the professions mentioned are exempt. The interlinkedness of social systems is always in play. Similar to public interest services, in all levels of education the effects of commodification are evident and are under intensive scrutiny.14 It is not eccentric to suspect that this institutional convergence of literary studies and children's literature is substantially driven by the great commodifying sweep of globalizing forces. Further research and documentation are required to validate this theory.

Naturally, these considerations have not escaped academics who specialize in children's literature. Since the 1990s, there has been discussion of expanding children's literature toward a larger and more integrated children's studies concept. This would embrace the larger social dynamic of children's literature and literary studies, and with an awareness of the political and economic conditions that increasingly impinge on the academic profession of children's literature. I conclude this essay by noting some of the points raised in these discussions. For instance, in his introduction to the influential collection of essays Teaching Children's Literature edited by Glenn Edward Sadler (1992), U. C. Knoepflmacher observed:

The time may not be far away when universities and colleges institute cross-curricular programs devoted to studies in childhood. Such programs would enlist the expertise of child psychologists, anthropologists, folk-lorists, sociolinguists, social historians and historians, theologians, film [End Page 317] and theatre experts, as well as teachers of literature who might be called on to play a central role by offering their well-established courses as core studies.


The centrality that Knoepflmacher saw for the academic profession of children's literature in this future enterprise is of interest here because it positioned the aspirations of that profession beyond its current status. The degree to which Knoepflmacher regarded this aspiration to be conditional on the current academic status of children's literature was indicated in his conviction that the above would not be possible "until children's literature receives the same serious attention academia expends on so-called adult literature" (2). While Knoepflmacher wrote of these aspirations, some models were in progress. In Fall 1991, a Children's Studies program was founded at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. It attempted an integrative and cross-disciplinary approach to childhood research and teaching, much along the lines Knoepflmacher delineated. In "Children's Studies: Beginning and Purposes" (2001), Gertrud Lenzer described the thinking that led to the founding of that program. Unsurprisingly, this was closely related to a discernment of the kind of social dynamic and political and economic forces with which I began this section. In the same issue of The Lion and the Unicorn (2001), Mary Galbraith's indicatively titled "Hear My Cry: A Manifesto for an Emancipatory Childhood Studies Approach to Children's Literature" attempted to state theoretical underpinnings of the aspirations and development of children studies as an expansion from children's literature. Galbraith felt this derived from:

[A] commitment to understanding the situation of babies and children from a first-person point of view, exploring the contingent forces that block children's full emergence as expressive subjects, and discovering how these forces can be overcome. The significant thrust is that this emancipation must be accomplished through adults transforming themselves and their own practice.

(188) [italics in original]

The ideological implications of Galbraith's agenda are debatable. Her description of, and analytical emphasis on, subjectivity needs more deliberation. But, within this essay's context, her ideas' significance are as a gesturing to another process of transition in the academic professionalization of children's literature. Evidently, the profession of children's literature from its practitioner-led origins and through its achieved status in literary studies has not yet reached closure or settled into a conventionally structured institutional base.

Suman Gupta is Senior Lecturer in Literature at the Open University, United Kingdom. He is the author of six books in political theory and literature. The most recent is Re-Reading Harry Potter (Palgrave, 2003). [End Page 318]


1. Critiques of academic discourse and assessments of academic activity can be found in Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Claude Passeron, and Monique de Saint Martin's Academic Discourse (1994/1965). The point is made with a more literary inclination by Marjorie Garber in Academic Instincts (2001).

2. This view is maintained, for instance, by some colleagues at the International Children's Literature Research Centre of Roehampton University, to whom I am grateful for advising me on certain aspects of this essay.

3. I am indebted to children's literature specialists associated with The Lion and the Unicorn for instructing me on this strand of the essay.

4. In a pioneering fashion in Herbert Marcuse's work, especially One-Dimensional Man (1964) and An Essay on Liberation (1969).

5. Texts examining the relationship between literature and theory include: Gerald Graff, Literature against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society (1979); Stein Olsen, The End of Literary Theory (1987); Ralph Cohen, The Future of Literary Theory (1989); Terry Eagleton, After Theory (2003).

6. As in F. R. Leavis and Denys Thompson, Culture and Environment (1933) or Q. D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (1932).

7. Teased out effectively in Chris Baldick's The Social Mission of English Criticism (1983).

8. According to Luhmann, socialization is "the process that, by interpenetration, forms the psychic system and the bodily behavior of human beings that it controls" (Social Systems 241).

9. E.g., Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood (1965); Hugh Cunningham, Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500 (1995); Colin Heywood, A History of Childhood (2001).

10. For useful overviews, see Michael Freeman and Philip Veerman, eds., The Ideologies of Children's Rights (1992) and Kathleen Alaimo and Brian Klug, eds., Children as Equals (2002).

11. Robert Dahl expresses the limitations of democracy often by alluding to the exceptional status of children in Democracy and Its Critics (1989).

12. A sophisticated instance is in Ted Honderich's assessment of the ethical connotations of child mortality rates in his post-September 11, 2001, book After the Terror (2002). [End Page 319]

13. The following analyze this with an emphasis on specific public interest sectors in particular contexts: George Monbiot's Captive State (2000) and Colin Leyss Market-Driven Politics (2001).

14. As examined in Ruth Jonathan's Illusory Freedoms (1997); Derek Bok, Universities in the Marketplace (2003).

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