This document was written by Jonathan Klassen:
How to Read Children’s Literature
Taken fromThe Pleasures of Children’s Literature, 3rd Edition, by Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer
Seeing beyond an Adult Perspective
Before you can understand children’s literature, you have to read some. That’s not necessarily as easy as it sounds.
Whether baby books or young adult novels, what all the different kinds of texts described as children’s literature have in common is the gulf between their writers and their intended readers. They are written by adults for people younger than they are. Indeed, something called “children’s literature” exists only because people are convinced that children are different from adults-different enough to need their own special texts. Knowing that these texts are intended for people assumed to be unlike themselves makes it difficult for adult readers to respond to them. How can adults develop the most useful understanding of these books, in order to make judgments about them that will best serve children?
We’ll try to answer that question by describing an experience Perry Nodelman once had as a teacher. He asked a group of adults beginning to study children’s literature to consider whether or not they’d share a certain poem with children. The poem was Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat”:
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat;
They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
Oh! let us be married; too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away. for a year and a day,
To the land where the bong-tree grows.
And there in a wood a Piggy-Wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’”Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away and were married next day
By the who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
After some discussion, Perry’s students decided they wouldn’t share “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” with children. They concluded that young children wouldn’t be likely to know obscure words such as “runcible” and “bong-tree” and that the children’s frustration at not knowing these words would not only make them dislike the poem but also possibly lead to a general dislike of poetry.
Perry was surprised by that response. Not only does he like the poem himself, but he also knows it’s considered to be a classic of children’s literature and often recommended for sharing with children. So he asked the students if they shared his pleasure. Did they enjoy the poem themselves? They said they did. Why, then, did they assume children wouldn’t?
The answer was fairly obvious. In thinking about the poem as a text for children, they had ignored their own responses and, instead, guessed how some hypothetical children might respond. Many adults base their judgments of children’s literature upon such guesses. But making accurate guesses is difficult, maybe even impossible. Guessing forces adults to make generalizations about children—how they read, how they think, what they enjoy or don’t, and how they absorb information. Such generalizations can be dangerously misleading. If nothing else, they misrepresent the tastes and abilities of many individual children.
Worse, while adult readers are trying to guess how a typical child might respond, they aren’t paying attention to the only thing they can know for sure: their own response, what happens to them as they read. Perry’s students had ignored their own pleasure as they worried about the presumed vocabulary deficiencies of children.
Nor was that all they had ignored, as Perry tricked them into discovering after a sneaky question occurred to him. “By the way,” he asked, “just in case some of us don’t actually know, can anyone tell us what ‘runcible’ means, and what sort of a tree a ‘bongtree’ is?”
Nobody knew. Nobody could have known. That’s why the question was a sneaky one. There’s no such thing as a bong-tree, and “runcible” is in the dictionary only because somebody created a strange sort of fork shaped like a spoon and called it a runcible spoon after Lear made up the word and used it in this poem over a hundred years ago. If the students had thought more about their own pleasure in “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” they would have realized that their lack of knowledge didn’t prevent them from enjoying it. And if the pleasure this poem offered them didn’t require absolute mastery of its vocabulary, then why might it not offer at least some children a similar pleasure?
We know from experience that it does, that many children do enjoy “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat.” Even children too young to read the poem themselves can enjoy the experience of having it read to them, in spite of or even because of their unfamiliarity with its strange language.
But, although we believe that texts of children’s literature demand as honest a response from adults as all other literature does, we have to acknowledge that texts written for children do tend to create their own special worlds, and to evoke moods and feelings unlike those provided by other forms of literature. Perry’s students told him that the pleasure they took in “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” wasn’t the same pleasure they derived from poems by Sylvia Plath or William Wordsworth. So, even though adults should try to respond to a text of children’s literature in the same way they would respond to any other text, they also need to remain conscious of the ways in which it might differ from other texts. Adults who really want to understand stories or poems written for children need to ask themselves not only whether the texts are enjoyable, or interesting, or thought provoking, but also what is special about them as texts of children’s literature.
It seems likely that the special qualities of these texts relate to the fact that they’re written with an audience of children in mind. How can adults, not themselves children anymore, both respond to children’s literature honestly and take into consideration that it was meant to be read by an audience unlike themselves? A good answer to this question lies in an idea proposed by theorists of reader response such as Wolfgang Iser: the concept of the “implied reader.”
The Implied Reader
All texts have an implied reader. That is, they suggest in their subject and their style the characteristics of the reader best equipped to understand and respond to them. They do so in at least three important ways.
First, they engage the reader’s tastes and interests. Some texts-Shakespearean tragedies, for instance-dwell on characters who have little control over the ultimate outcome of their actions. They imply a reader with the ability to be interested, at least for the time it takes to read them, in exploring the darker side of existence. Some texts, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, are filled with complex descriptive paragraphs and strange symbols. They imply a reader who knows how to take pleasure in such writing and has the desire to try to make sense of it. “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” implies a reader who enjoys unfamiliar words like “runcible” for their strangeness and who isn’t annoyed by not knowing their meaning. Note that implied readers are not simply types or stereotypes-standard versions of melancholy people or middle-aged men or four-year-olds. They represent sets of tastes and interests that real readers are invited to share.
Second, texts assume that readers possess a body of knowledge of literature and life, what reader-response theorists call “repertoire.” The implied reader of a text has in his or her repertoire the factual, cultural, and literary knowledge the text refers to, and that knowledge enables the implied reader to understand the text. Part of the repertoire that texts demand is straightforward factual knowledge, such as what five-pound notes or quinces are. Another part consists of assumptions about how people act and interact that writers might not even know they are taking for granted. For instance, Lear assumes in “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” that readers will know what being married is and why it requires a ring. Yet another part of the repertoire of the text is knowledge of literary matters, such as what a poem is and why certain phrases might be repeated. It also includes an understanding of how to make sense of animals who, unlike real owls and pussycats, can talk and play the guitar. As far as we know, such animals exist only in literature, but readers are meant to take them for granted-to have the repertoire to understand that they shouldn’t be surprised or horrified by such peculiar beings.
The term “literary repertoire” suggests a third characteristic of the implied reader. Although the words on the page do imply certain experiences for readers-a poem, for example, about an owl and a cat-the words themselves are not the experiences. Until read, a text is merely something with the potential to come into existence, and texts come into existence only in the minds of readers, as what Louise Rosenblatt calls “a lived through process” (35). We say more about this process in chapter 4 and in our discussion of Rosenblatt’s theories in chapter 10. To undergo the process and respond to the poem in anything like the way Lear might have hoped, a reader must not only know what a poem is but also know how to turn it into an experience. In other words, this reader must possess a strategy for making it happen, a way of responding to it and engaging with it that makes it meaningful or at least comprehensible as a use of language.
Consequently, the implied reader is not merely a quality of texts. It is a role a text implies and invites a reader to take on. As Iser says, the term “implied reader” “incorporates both the prestructuring of the potential meaning by the text, and the reader’s actualization of this potential through the reading process” (Implied Reader xiii). The reader must, in some way and to some degree, become the implied reader.
But to what degree? As many ardent readers know, one of the main pleasures reading literature offers is its ability to take readers out of themselves and allow them to imagine they are someone else. But no matter how intense this experience is. Iser claims, “the reader’s own disposition will never disappear totally” (Act of 37). If texts did indeed have the ability to make readers lose themselves, then all readers would become the same being as they respond to the texts, and all would understand them in the exact same way. This conformity does not in fact exist. As Iser goes on to suggest, a reader’s own being “will tend instead to form the background to and frame of reference for the act of grasping and comprehending. If it were to disappear totally, we should simply forget all the experiences that we are constantly bringing into play as we read-experiences which are responsible for the many different ways in which people fulfill the reader’s role set out by the text” (37).
Iser’s use here of the idea of a role is revealing. Even though different actors play the same role in different ways, they do all play the same role. The Hamlet Kenneth Branagh plays is not the Hamlet Laurence Olivier plays. He is, still, Kenneth Branagh—Kenneth Branagh playing Hamlet, being the Hamlet that only Kenneth Branagh can become. And yet, magically, both Branagh and Olivier are Hamlet-the same character in the same situation in the same play, and a person audiences believe in and have feelings about as they watch the play, or movie about him. Similarly, although all readers read the same text differently, they are nevertheless all reading the same text-and the text does imply a way of being read. The implied reader does represent a set of constraints upon readers’ freedom to make a text mean anything and everything. On one hand, then, texts are not open to any and all ways of making them meaningful. A specific reader is implied. On the other hand, texts can’t possess just one specific meaning. Readers must draw on their own experiences to fill the roles offered in their own way. In becoming the reader a text implies, then, readers are not in the process of losing themselves in the text. And equally, they are not in the process of losing the text in themselves.
When reading does seem like a matter of becoming lost in a book, as the common phrase goes, that’s because of the extent to which readers have taken on the role the text invites them to take on-a process that often leads them to lose sight of their own involvement in it. But, says Iser, “even though we may lose awareness of these experiences while we read, we are still guided by them unconsciously, and by the end of our reading, we are liable consciously to want to incorporate the new experiences into our own store of knowledge” (Act of Reading 37). If readers are to make what they read meaningful to themselves—to incorporate it into their sense of who they are and what their world means—they need to be aware of the ways in which they drew on themselves to make a literary experience happen.
It’s this sort of awareness that we want to encourage in readers of Pleasures of Children’s Literature. If you’re reading this book, we’re assuming you’re interested, not just in enjoying the pleasures of children’s literature, but also in developing a better understanding both of the pleasures and of the literature-of finding ways of incorporating these things into your own store of knowledge. Becoming aware of the specific readers texts imply and becoming aware of how you yourself take on those roles can help you to learn a great deal both about texts and about yourself as a reader.
Peggy Whalen-Levitt suggests how you might do that when she encourages readers to try to describe literature “in terms of what a given text calls upon a reader to know and to do: to know, in terms of experience of both life and literature; to do, in terms of producing a meaning for this particular text, in time, from start to finish” (159). Following Whalen-Levitt’s suggestion, readers looking at the first few lines of “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” might produce a list like this:
What a Reader Is Asked to Know
· What an owl is, what a pussy-cat is, what the sea is, what a boat is, and what it means for something to be beautiful
· How unlikely it would be in real experience for an owl and a pussy-cat to go to sea together, especially without any human beings around
· That pea-green is a color; what color it is and how it relates to peas (and what, therefore, peas are)
· That the word “pussy-cat” implies a different attitude to the animal in question than the word “cat”—and what the attitude is
· How to read-including specific reading skills such as knowing what sounds letters of the alphabet stand for and that, in English, at least, one proceeds from left to right and top to bottom
· What words mean in the English language, and how their order and the conventional rules of grammar imply their relationships to one another
· Why words such as “Owl” and “Pussy-Cat” might be capitalized
· That literary texts describe things not necessarily true for reasons other than providing factual information or accurate descriptions of reality
· What a poem is and how it is different from a non-poetic text
· That reading about something impossible such as owls and cats going to sea represents a traditional form of literary entertainment and might offer not just confusion but pleasure as well
What a Reader Is Asked to Do
· Convert the symbols on the page into words, and read the words-omprehend their literal meanings individually and then together
· Understand that the text is literature and so expect the pleasures offered by the reading of literature (some of which we list at the end of this chapter)
· Understand that it is a poem and so pay attention to its patterns and rhythms and to other qualities that mark it as poetry (See chapter 11)
· See it as the beginning of a story, and so understand it raises questions about who the owl and the pussy-cat are, how they relate to each other, and why they’re going to sea
· Expect the rest of a story and, thus, wonder about what these events might lead to what will happen next, and how it might be caused by the events described here.
This is a very partial list. There are many other aspects of the repertoire of the poem that we’ve not mentioned, many of them relating to strategies we discuss later in the book. There are bound to be other things we’ve not even been aware of enough to notice. It takes careful attention for readers to figure out what they often take for granted. But for understanding how texts invite readers to interrelate with them, the effort is well worth it.
Determining the implied readers of literary texts is particularly useful for adults reading and trying to understand texts written for children. The implied readers of these texts are children-the children writers imagine as their audience as they write. When readers respond to these texts as intended, they take on the roles of those children. If Iser is right about the reading process, they cannot in any literal way become children submerge themselves in the role so intensely that they lose sight of themselves as adults and their own different experience. They have no choice but to read at the place where the implied child reader and their own adult selves meet. But if they train themselves to do that with some awareness, they can both enjoy it and learn from it.
Note that reading in this way does not mean pretending to become your own previously held idea of what a child is. Nor, as Perry’s students’ experience with “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” suggests, does it mean that you should be thinking about how other readers might respond. Don’t tell yourself to be childlike as you read, for you aren’t and can’t be. And don’t concern yourself with whether children would understand the text or be frightened by it, for you can’t really know. Instead, let the text happen to you. Let it guide you into the specific role it offers you. After you’ve done that, you can stand back and consider the implications of what you have been invited to become—of the role itself and the strategies it invited you to use. What did the text expect its reader to know and to do? In other words, what are the repertoire and the strategies of the “child reader” it has implied? And how do those qualities compare with your own and with those of the actual children to whom you might recommend the texts?
This sort of reading and thinking has a number of benefits:
- Doing your best to take on the role a text implies provides you with an authentic reading experience to think about and consider further—authentically your own, and also an authentic attempt to take on the role of the reader the text implies.
- In discovering how the repertoire and the strategies of the reader implied by a text intended for children vary from your own, you can learn what is distinctive about what the text offers.
- In thinking about the repertoire and the strategies that the implied readers of various children’s texts share, you can learn something about the characteristics of children’s literature.
- By comparing your perception of a text’s implied reader with children you know, you can determine what particular repertoire or special strategies of meaning-making might be required to understand and enjoy that particular text. You can decide whether the children you know are likely to be familiar with this repertoire and these strategies-and if they are not, how you might help them develop this knowledge.
Another significant issue arises from a consideration of the implied reader of texts of children’s literature, and it too relates to the question of adult readers. The mere fact that there are enough adults with an interest in children’s literature to warrant a book like Pleasures suggests that something we took for granted earlier-that the implied readers of children’s literature are children-may not be completely true. As we discuss in chapter 6, most of the people who select and purchase children’s books are adults. Surely writers and publishers who know that are astute enough to keep that actual audience in mind as they write, and to provide a role for them to engage with. Indeed, a number of theorists believe that texts of children’s literature characteristically have two implied readers. “After all,” says Jill May, “children’s books are read by adults and children, so the books do not have one audience. As texts with dual (or multiple) audiences, children’s stories hold more than one meaning” (55). Noticing that “the children’s writer is perhaps the only one who is asked to address one particular audience and at the same time appeal to another” (37), ZoharShavit argues specifically that texts of children’s literature have “two implied readers: a pseudo addressee and a real one. The child, the official reader of the text, is not meant to realize it fully and is much more an excuse for the text rather than its genuine addressee” (71). In other words, the actual adult implied reader of texts of children’s literature knows more than the official child it implies; these texts invite adult access to a repertoire of knowledge and strategies the official child reader doesn’t possess and isn’t supposed to notice.
Seen from this point of view, the repertoire of information about rings and such that ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” engages is intended for adults, not for child readers, who are unlikely to know these things and who will simply be charmed by the poem’s nonsense. Similarly, commentators often suggest that allusions to paintings by artists such as Magritte in the picture books of Anthony Browne are there for adult teachers and critics to notice, not for the implied child reader. The trouble with ideas of this sort is that they seem to depend on the kinds of generalizations about children that got Perry’s students into trouble in their responses to “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat.”
Test the possibility of a double implied reader. First, think about a text of children’s literature in terms of the child reader it implies. Then think about aspects of the text that it might he inviting an implied adult reader to engage with-matters the implied child reader would not be aware of. Is there indeed a second implied render who knows more than the “official” child reader? What did you have to assume about child and adult readers to arrive at your conclusion?
Children’sLiterature and Adult Literature: Differences and Similarities
A consideration of implied readers makes it clear why children’s texts are different from other texts and even, to some extent, howthey are different, and how adults who read both must read them differently. There’s obviously a great distance between the reader implied by a Mother Goose rhyme, who doesn’t need to know much more than that words put into patterns can be fun to listen to, and the reader implied by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, who must be conscious of the history of the world and many of its mythologies.
But readers can’t have a satisfying experience of either of these poems unless they’re willing and able to take on the role of the specific reader that each of them implies and is designed to make readers take on. And readers can’t understand either of them unless the readers can stand back from the experience each has offered and explore what they have been asked to know and to do. The two poems are equally “literature,” and therefore similarly offer these pleasures common to all literature.
The title of this book, The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, suggests how centrally it focuses on the question of literary pleasure. While we concentrate on the ways in which children’s literature is distinct from other kinds, we do so in the belief that the differences are less significant than the similarities, that the pleasures of children’s literature are essentially the pleasures of all literature.
The Pleasures of Literature
Before reading this section, think (or have children thing) about the pleasures of literature. What kinds of literary experiences do you enjoy, and what about them do you enjoy? What other literary pleasures might you like to be able to experience?
What are the pleasures of literature? It’s a longstanding cliché of literary criticism that literature accomplishes two things for readers. It teaches and it pleases. For many people, unfortunately, pleasure is merely the part of their experience of literature that doesn’t teach-the part they don’t have to think about. Indeed, some people say pleasure can’t be thought about, because it is the opposite of thinking-a state of being our minds and bodies enter when our thoughts are turned off. To try to think about pleasure would be to betray it, and probably to kill it. From this point of view, someone thinking about pleasure is no longer experiencing pleasure.
For those reasons, furthermore, people tend to have a hard time talking about literary pleasure even when they try to. In classrooms and in scholarly journals, the focus of discussion of literature tends almost always to be on what texts teach or reinforce-what they mean. As a result, people often have complex strategies for exploring meanings, and a large vocabulary to describe their explorations. But they rarely have equivalently complex strategies and language for describing and exploring the pleasures texts offer.
This view of pleasure is especially prevalent in discussions of children’s literature. Many adults assume that children should read primarily to learn, so their response to texts for children focuses on the messages those texts might teach. After determining a text’s message, many adults might express the opinion that children will like the text as well as learn from it. But these adults would probably have a hard time describing how—what the pleasure specifically is, what it feels like, how readers go about experiencing it. Indeed, many adults might even resist thinking about these things, and resist encouraging children to think about them. It’s a common assumption that the pleasure texts offer is just the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down—it is there to make the reception of the beneficial message palatable. Paying too much attention to the sugar might make it seem less sweet and prevent it from doing its medicinal work.
As authors of this book, we don’t share those opinions. A basic principle of Pleasures of Children’s Literature is that pleasure is not the opposite of thinking—that thinking is a pleasure, and that pleasure can indeed be thought about. Furthermore, we believe that it should be thought about, for two reasons.
First, it’s important-the most important thing about literature. Those who like to read know that, whether they are children or adults, they do it primarily because they enjoy it, not because it’s good for them. Even if people do sometimes read because it is good for them, they take pleasure in how and what their reading makes them think. If adults are going to recommend works of literature for children and to children, we believe the recommendations should be based on the aspects of reading that make committed readers want and like to read.
Second, readers who don’t think about the implications of what they want and like may be left wanting and liking things that aren’t necessarily good for them-things that might even be dangerous. In this book, we consider a variety of ways in which the world tries to shape people for its own purposes, not necessarily for their own good—to shape even their sense of who they are and what gives them pleasure. If adults wish to free themselves as much as possible from that sort of shaping, and to help children free themselves from it, then they need to be aware of how it works. A deeper consciousness of the pleasure texts offer, how they offer it, and why they offer it—in the service of what values can only benefit both adults and the children in their charge. As Roderick McGillis says, “the crucial thing is gaining authority on the part of the reader. critically is a liberating activity. It is also fun” (204).
Do these two reasons for thinking about literary pleasure contradict each other” Can one both focus on books for the pleasure they offer and focus on ways in which the pleasures might be dangerously manipulative?
So what, then, are the pleasures of literature? The theorist Roland Barthes suggests they are of two sorts: one he calls plaisir (or pleasure); the other he calls jouissance (or bliss). In an unsettlingly paradoxical statement, he suggests these are found in two different kinds of texts:
Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language. (14)
The fist of these offers the pleasures of the familiar. It gives readers what they expect and like. The second offers the pleasure of the strange. It upsets readers’ expectations in ways that free them from the familiar. For Barthes, this means above all a freedom from being the person readers have been told they are by the culture they exist in and have come to believe they are and must be—which is most significantly, for Barthes, someone often prevented by guilt or law from indulging in bodily pleasure. “The pleasure of the text,” he says in a description of jouissance, “is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas I do” (17).
At first glance, texts of children’s literature might seem to consist mostly of “texts of pleasure.” “Texts of bliss” tend to be noticeably anarchic, weird, innovative in structure and content. With the exception of nonsense verse, these are not texts most adults would identify as comprehensible by children. Furthermore, many adults spend much of their time trying to dissuade children from paying attention to the “ideas” their bodies have that are at odds with the socially acceptable ones. These adults are unlikely to offer children access to texts that encourage indulgence in such ideas. In fact, as we discuss in chapter 9, texts of children’s literature tend to follow familiar patterns in fairly straightforward ways and provide fairly straightforward meanings and messages, and their object often is to make children comfortable with the world as adults understand it.
Nevertheless, William F. Touponce suggests that a focus on the messages these texts teach may cause adults to neglect ways in which they may operate as “texts of bliss”: “in actual critical practice an allegorizing tendency tends to take over and displace the spontaneous pleasures of the text” (175). Allegory, the reading of literal characters and events as symbols of abstract ideas, “tends to do violence to the spontaneous nature of textual pleasure by making the text exemplify some narrative of moral explanation” (176). Furthermore, says Touponce, by focusing on the ways in which texts hold together-the formal elements that make them seem complete and familiar-readers tend to ignore their disruptive, bliss-causing aspects: “Because formalism identifies pleasure with formal patterns of meaning . . . , it cannot easily recover pleasures that exceed structural functioning” (177).
If Touponce is right, then readers might read texts of children’s literature for both the plaisir and the jouissance they offer-for both the comfort-making ways in which the texts fulfill expectations and the bliss-making ways in which they defy them. If the experience of literature is genuinely transactional, it always represents a meeting point of what texts invite from readers and what readers do in response to the invitation. As individuals with distinct characters and histories, readers always do some combination of what they are supposed to do and something different. Individual readers might choose to feel bad about either of these. Some might see doing what is expected as numbingly conformist, and others might see not doing what is expected as simply wrong. But it seems preferable to celebrate both and to enjoy both-to acknowledge and indulge both the plaisir of expected patterns and meanings and the jouissance of unexpected disruptions and resistances.
Furthermore, that can be done in a wide variety of ways-all of them potentially sources either of plaisir or of jouissance or of both.
· The pleasure of experiencing sounds and images in and for themselves-as pure sensory activity outside and beyond the realm of shared meanings and patterns.
This is the essence of jouissance—bodily pleasure.
· The pleasure of words themselves-the patterns their sounds can make, the interesting ways in which they combine with one another, their ability to express revealing, frightening, or beautiful pictures or ideas.
This is the point at which jouissance begins to shift into plaisir. There are a variety of ways in which texts work to provide readers with plaisir:
· The pleasure of having one’s emotions evoked: laughing at a comic situation, being made to feel the pain or the joy a character experiences.
· The pleasure of making use of a repertoire of knowledge and strategies of comprehension of experiencing mastery of what the text expects of its readers.
· The pleasure of recognizing gaps in repertoire and learning the information or the strategy needed to fill them, thereby developing further mastery. (“Gaps” is another term used by theorists of reader response, which we discuss in more detail in chapter 4.)
· The pleasure of the pictures and ideas that the words of texts evoke-the ways in which they allow one to visualize people and places one has never actually seen or think about ideas one hasn’t considered before.
· The pleasure of finding a mirror for oneself-of identifying with fictional characters.
· The pleasure of escape--of stepping outside oneself at least imaginatively and experiencing the lives and thoughts of different people.
· The pleasure of story-the organized patterns of emotional involvement and detachment, the delays of suspense, the climaxes and resolutions, the intricate patterns of chance and coincidence that make up a plot.
· The pleasure of storytelling—the consciousness of how a writer’s point of view or emphasis on particular elements shapes one’s response.
· The pleasure of structure—the consciousness of how words, pictures, or events form cohesive and meaningful patterns.
· The pleasure of one’s awareness of the ways in which all the elements of a literary work seem to fit together to form n whole.
· The pleasure of understanding—of seeing how literature not only mirrors life but also comments on it and encourages readers to consider the meaning of their own existence.
· The pleasure of gaining insight into history and culture through literature.
· The pleasure of recognizing forms and genres—of seeing similarities between works of literature.
· The pleasure of formula—of repeating the comfortably familiar experience of kinds of stories one has enjoyed before.
The last of these is obviously a concentrated experience of plaisir. There is also a pleasure opposite to that of formula—something more a matter of jouissance:
· The pleasure of newness—of experiencing startlingly different kinds of stories and poems.
But remember that even formulaic texts have the potential of offering a form of jouissance for a reader who chooses consciously or unconsciously to resist them or even simply to be aware of how the texts go about inviting specific forms of response:
· The pleasure of seeing through literature—of realizing how poems or stories attempt to manipulate one’s emotions and influence one’s understanding and moral judgments in ways one may or may not be prepared to accept. (There is more about this process, sometimes called “reading against a text,” in chapter 8, and in the discussion of negotiated and oppositional readings in chapter 10.)
· The pleasure of exploring the ways in which texts sometimes undermine or even deny their own apparent meanings. ( for this kind of pleasure is the basis of the kind of literary theory called deconstruction. We say more about it in chapter 10.)
· The pleasure of developing a deeper understanding of one’s responses and of relating them to one’s responses to other texts and to one’s understanding of literature in general.
Finally, there is the social pleasure literature offers:
· The pleasure of sharing experiences of literature with others (reading to others, for instance).
· The pleasure of discussing with others their responses to texts one has read.
The list we’ve just provided focuses on verbal texts. But books for children often include pictures as well as words, and these visual texts have their pleasures also. If you think about your responses to illustrations in children’s books, you may discover that there is a visual pleasure equivalent to each of the verbal ones we mentioned.
These different pleasures of texts all involve the act of entering into communicative acts with others. Responding to a story or to a picture is a meeting with a text that conveys the flavor of a different personality or experience and allows readers to express and better understand their own personalities and experiences. Talking with others about a text one has read is a meeting (or a pleasurable lack of meeting) of different minds. Passionate readers read literature to experience something they didn’t previously know or, at the very least, an unfamiliar version of a familiar idea and experience. They talk about literature to enter into a dialogue with others about it, because good stories, poems, and pictures have the ability always to be newly rewarding—whenever their readers hear new ideas about them, share new experiences of them, have newly experienced texts to compare them with. In other words, the pleasure of literature is the pleasure of conversation—of dialogues between readers and texts, and between readers and other readers about those texts.
Understood as conversation, literature exists both in and out of the actual written texts or films or TV shows that contain stories and poems. In a sense, it is the entire body of writing, and of the thoughts people have had about writing, and also all of the differing aspects of life that have ever been written about. One text reminds its readers of another text. Those readers’ conversations with others about texts lead them to see connections with still other texts, with other conversations about texts, with aspects of their lives and their knowledge of the lives of others throughout history. In these ways, all literature and all experience of literature is tied together—a network of ideas and stories, images and emotions. Literary theorists call this intertextuality. Every time you read a text or discuss your response to a text with someone else, you become part of the network. You learn more about the components of the network and, in your own response and conversation, add something to it. All readers and all people who discuss their reading are in the process of making literature, of making it mean more to themselves and to others.
This process of making literature meaningful includes children. A child’s response to a poem, based on limited experience of both life and literature, may seem to be less complicated in some ways than the response of English professors like the authors of this text. But the child’s response may also be more complicated in other ways. It’s certainly no more and no less significant than the responses of English professors. In being different, it adds to the possible meanings texts engender and thus enriches literature as a whole.
Nevertheless, exactly because literature is an interconnected network of texts and responses to them, the child and the English professor can learn from, and gain pleasure from, each other’s responses.
Share a story or a poem with some children, and discuss their response with them. Does it differ form your own? Can you see ways in which the discussion might enrich either their knowledge of literature or your own?
From the professor, or from other adults, the child can learn useful repertoire and strategies. The ability to respond to literature with an understanding of its subtleties, and with a flexible attitude to the possibilities of meanings it might convey and emotions it might arouse—in other words, the ability to enjoy literature—is a learned skill. People who enjoy reading may have developed their own skills for enjoying literature unconsciously, simply by reading a great deal. But many people who have read less can be encouraged by sensitive teachers to learn the skills of literary enjoyment. Children in particular can learn to become more perceptive readers of literature—and greatly increase their pleasure in the act of reading as a result. The next chapter explores ways in which adults might help them to do so.
In return for offering children something of their own sophisticated skills, adults can gain something equally important from their discussions of literature with children. They can learn to share some of the more immediate, more sensuously direct, and less guilty pleasure that many children, too inexperienced to have learned otherwise, can still take from literature, specifically children’s literature. They can learn to laugh at the jokes as hard as some children do, to become as involved as some children can—to be as bodily oriented or blissfully resistant as some children are. They can learn that children’s literature, because it invites and encourages this sort of intensity, can be a real pleasure for adults.
All engaged readers, adults or children, read intensely, without fear of strangeness or boredom with familiar pleasures and with commitment to the experience offered. And all engaged readers, adults or children, think intensely about what they read, with the courage to learn what exploration of their responses will tell them about texts or about themselves. The Pleasures of Children’s Literature expresses the faith that both adult students of children’s literature and the children they teach or raise can become this sort of engaged reader, able to experience both plaisir and jouissance, and able to take pleasure both in the experience of literature and in the understanding of that experience.
Barthes. Roland. The Pleasure of the Text.Trans. Richard Miller.: Hill. 1975.
Iser. Wolfgang. TI7e Act of : A Theory of Aesthetic Response. : Johns UP, 1978.
---The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. : Johns UP, 1974.
Lear. Edward. "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat."The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear.Ed. Holbrook Jackson.: , 195 1.
May, Jill P. Children's Literature and Critical Theory: and Writing for Understanding. : UP, 1995.
McGillis, Roderick. "The Delights of Impossibility: No Children, No Books, Only Theory." Children's Lit. Assoc. Quarterly 23.4 ( 1998-99): 202-08.
Rosenblatt. Louise. "The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work: Implications for Research." Researching Response to Literature and the Teaching of Literature: Points of Departure.Ed. C. R. Cooper. : Ablex, 1985. 33-53.
Shavit, Zohar. Poetics of Children’s Literature.: U of Georgia P, 1986.
Touponce, William F. "Children's Literature and the Pleasures of the Text." Children's Lit. Assoc. Quarterly 20.4 ( 1995-96): 175-82.
Whalen-Levitt, Peggy. "Pursuing the Reader in the Book."Children and Their Literature: A Book. Ed. Jill P. May.: ChLA, 1983. 154-59.
What exactly is a children’s book? How is children’s literature defined as a genre? A leading scholar presents close readings of six classic stories to answer these questions and offer a clear definition of children’s writing as a distinct literary form.
Perry Nodelman begins by considering the plots, themes, and structures of six works: "The Purple Jar," Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Doolittle, Henry Huggins, The Snowy Day, and Plain City—all written for young people of varying ages in different times and places—to identify shared characteristics. He points out markers in each work that allow the adult reader to understand it as a children’s story, shedding light on ingrained adult assumptions and revealing the ways in which adult knowledge and experience remain hidden in apparently simple and innocent texts.
Nodelman then engages a wide range of views of children's literature from authors, literary critics, cultural theorists, and specialists in education and information sciences. Through this informed dialogue, Nodelman develops a comprehensive theory of children's literature, exploring its commonalities and shared themes.
The Hidden Adult is a focused and sophisticated analysis of children’s literature and a major contribution to the theory and criticism of the genre.
Perry Nodelman is professor emeritus of English at the University of Winnipeg and author of The Pleasure of Children’s Literature and Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. Professor Nodelman is also an accomplished author of children’s books such as Behaving Bradley.
"Perry Nodelman is a leading scholar of children’s literature and The Hidden Adult is arguably his magnum opus."
— Beverly Lyon Clark, author of Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America
"A 'must' for any collection catering to librarians or any studying children's literature, especially at the college level."
— Midwest Book Review
"Without question essential reading for professionals of all stripes engaged in the study of children's literature."
— BCCB, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"Drawing on his deep understanding of literary scholarship, postmodern theory, and children's literature for this learned work, Nodelman builds extensive arguments informed by philosophy, psychology, and culture studies as well as literary criticism. Highly recommended."
"The capstone of a long and distinguished career, by an author who relishes the complexity and ambiguity he finds inherent in books intended for children."
— School Library Journal
" The Hidden Adult is ground breaking; it will inform the study of children's literature for a long time to come."
— Children's Literature
"This is a massively important book. Go buy it."
— Peter Hunt - Children's Literature Association Quarterly
"It is without question essential reading for professionals of all stripes engaged in the study of children's literature."
— Professional Connections: Resources for Teachers and Librarians
"Orbiting around children and their books are hundreds of academic books and courses, puzzling out what children’s literature is, and what it does, and how it works. A lot has been thought and written about this (some good, some bad) – and Perry Nodelman’s brilliantly comprehensive and accessible analysis pulls it all together. No need to keep re-inventing the wheel of defining children, children’s books, response, literature, value, or why and how we talk about these books... it’s all here. This book shows the kind of knowledge that I only wish I had – and it’s a model of readability and generosity of spirit. Anyone who wants to know what has been thought about children and books – from the absolutely essential to the rather strange – could not find a better place to start."
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