From Six to Sixty: Introduction to Children’s Literature Symposium

J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote in his “On Fairy Stories

I will now turn to children, and so come to the last and most important of the three questions: what, if any, are the values and functions of fairy-stories now? It is usually assumed that children are the natural or the specially appropriate audience for fairy-stories. In describing a fairy-story which they think adults might possibly read for their own entertainment, reviewers frequently indulge in such waggeries as: “this book is for children from the ages of six to sixty.” But I have never yet seen the puff of a new motor-model that began thus: “this toy will amuse infants from seventeen to seventy”; though that to my mind would be much more appropriate. Is there any essential connexion between children and fairy-stories? Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself? Reads them as tales, that is, not studies them as curios. Adults are allowed to collect and study anything, even old theatre programmes or paper bags.

Next week, Transpositions will play host to a Symposium on Children’s Literature. Like the projected readers of this genre, we hope it will be playful, curious, and more than a little fun.

Like Tolkien, I find “Children’s Literature” a vexed term. Is it a pejorative phrase used to describe literature not complex or serious enough for academic study? Is it a phrase concocted by publishers to denote the intended audience for a work? Or is it a term used by authors to describe their ideal reader? I think it is and has been all of these.

As the definition of what constitutes childhood has changed, so too has the limits of children’s literature – a genre that really only began to be developed from the mid-18th century. For example, some sites define children’s literature as books for children between 0 and 12 with young adult literature covering the 12-18 year span. I have to admit that, like Tolkien, I hesitate at such a clinical description of the age group of readers of “children’s literature.”

I would argue that the test of good children’s literature is whether it can be read as enthusiastically by an adult as a child and whether upon further readings (at various stages of life) the narrative reveals more of itself to the reader. While a book written with children in mind may require different language than, say, a hefty tome on systematic theology, it does not need to be trite or simplistic. Nor does the vocabulary need to be infantile.

Beginning next Monday, the contributions to this symposium include scholarly and theological explorations of children’s literature as well as considerations of the imaginative and the creative aspects of children’s book creation and production. The exploration of illustration as an art form in theory and practice will be explored in at least two posts, while the relationship between the reader and the writer will feature in another. Finally, two of the posts will reflect theologically upon the parental lessons children’s literature may furnish.

Monday, 7 November: Stephen Schuler will present his Soteriology of The Runaway Bunny“.

Tuesday, 8 November:  James Robinson will share the rationale behind and creative process of  his project, Jonah’s Scrapbook.

Wednesday, 9 November: Emily Watkins will explore the art of illustration in children’s literature.

Thursday, 10 November: Anna Blanch will reflect upon on E.Nesbit’s expectations of her child readers.

Friday, 11 November: Allison Germer Buras will consider the lessons children’s literature have taught her about parenting.

This is the first time we’ve examined a genre of literature in a Transpositions symposium, but it certainly won’t be the last. Next month, Cole Matson will be curating a symposium on Fantasy Literature, so keep an eye out.

7 Comments

  • Leticia Cortina Aracil says:

    Oh! Good luck with that, it sounds amazing.

    I wish I could go. Not only I’m an avid reader of children’s literature and fairy tales, I have some essays on the field of fairy tales illustrations (and I have done a couple of illustration works myself) and I would love to hear Wednesday’s talk on it.

    Are you planning to post something about it here later?

    • Anna Blanch says:

      Leticia, the best part about this is that the Symposium will take place here on Transpositions, so you’ll be able to read all of the contributions, just as we usually do with our symposia. Hopefully, you’ll get involved in the discussion and comment on each of the posts next week!

    • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

      You’ll get to read all of it, Leticia, because this will be an online symposium taking place right here! I hope you find it helpful, and we look forward to hearing your thoughts on next week’s posts.

  • Cole Matson says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Anna, and I’m looking forward to the Children’s Lit posts!

  • Steve Schuler says:

    As with other “literary” genres, the genre of “children’s lit” is not a literary classification, but a commercial one. It tells the publisher how to market it; it tells the bookstore which shelf to put the book on; and it may also tell a customer whether a child of a certain age is likely to be able to read the book on his or her own. As you know, there are a number of algorithm-driven computer programs that establish the “reading level” of books, usually based on vocabulary and sentence length. In practice, though, such systematic classification systems can be fooled. My 4-year-old enjoys A. A. Milne’s Winne-the-Pooh stories, even though their vocabulary and syntax are not exactly simplistic. Nor does she really understand most of the humor. And yet, it’s “children’s literature.” Whatever that means.

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