Preface to Children’s Literature: Changing Paradigms and Critical Perspectives in Ireland and Beyond

Author: Anne Markey (The Irish Society for the Study of Children’s Literature) and Aedín Clements (University of Notre Dame)

Rethinking children’s literature lies at the heart of the mutual investigation in which the various contributors to this issue of Breac are involved. Since their emergence as a distinct branch of Anglophone print culture over the course of the eighteenth century, books for young readers have reflected diverse and changing adult concerns and values. While early commentators, including the socially conservative Sarah Trimmer and the more radical William Godwin, were acutely aware of the ideological power of children’s books, it took two centuries for the study of children’s literature to achieve academic respectability. The establishment of the Children’s Literature Association in the United States in 1971, followed by the adoption of children’s literature as a division of the Modern Language Association in 1979, resulted in an increasing acknowledgement of the cultural, social, and political significance of different types of books for children and a concomitant appreciation of the value of the academic study of such texts. Before and since the 1970s, boundaries for what has been considered “proper” for inclusion in children’s books have shifted, and continue to shift considerably, reflecting broader socio-cultural changes and developments. Critical approaches to children’s literature have been similarly influenced by shifting ideological imperatives. In Ireland and elsewhere, the study of children’s literature emerged in institutions involved in teacher-training and is currently guided and shaped by the recognition that it is a complex, challenging, contested, and continually expanding field. With this issue of Breac, we hope to foster further study of the adult anxieties and concerns present in books for young people and to identify key challenges facing critics of children’s literature.

In “Critical Writing on Irish Children’s Literature since 2000,” we showcase the breadth of existing scholarship in the field. This guide includes citations of books and articles published since the turn of the century on work by Irish authors and illustrators, work set in Ireland, and on children’s literature where an Irish author, illustrator, or work is discussed. Both English and Irish-language works are covered.

Karín Lesnik-Oberstein engages directly with some strands of contemporary criticism in “Children’s Literature: Sexual Identity, Gender, and Childhood.” Focusing on critical discussions of the cross-dressing, transgender, and transsexual child, she provides a convincing and ultimately caustic evaluation of recent critical approaches to the construction and representation of gender and sexual identities in contemporary texts for children. Her astute, thought-provoking analysis reveals how outdated dimorphic notions of sex and gender are often directed and determined by specific misunderstandings of Judith Butler’s theoretical arguments about the constructedness of both gender and sexual identities. Such misunderstandings underpin critical discussion not only of these issues in children’s literature but also of the contructedness of childhood itself. Lesnik-Oberstein’s essay exemplifies the type of intellectual rigor and masterly marshalling of complex theoretical viewpoints that she implicitly identifies as lacking in some contemporary children’s literature criticism.

Maria Nikolayeva, meanwhile, demonstrates the benefits of cross-disciplinarity through her application of insights from the relatively new and expanding, if contested, field of cognitive criticism to a range of non-mimetic children’s texts. In “Navigating Fiction: Cognitive-Affective Engagement with Place in Children’s Literature,” Nikolayeva combines recent findings from experimental research into cognition with informed analyses of canonical and non-canonical works for young readers by Irish and English authors—including C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Michael Scott, and Celine Kiernan—to argue that reading fantasy is good for young people because it stimulates their cognitive, emotional, ethical, and aesthetic development. This argument implicitly suggests that children’s literature, particularly fantasy literature, has the power to improve society.

By contrast, in “Whiteness and the Racialization of Irish Identity in Celtic Tiger Children’s Fiction,” Clíona Ó Gallchoir argues for the radical potential of realist children’s fiction. Ó Gallchoir begins her discussion of adult concerns about national identity by establishing persuasive links between increased inward-migration during the Celtic Tiger period with a new racialization of Irish identity and a conscious affirmation of the “whiteness” of that identity. She then focuses on three realist texts, published between 1993 and 2004, that engage critically with race and its relation to Irish identity. Noting that Irish children’s literature has been relatively silent on the subject of race since 2004, Ó Gallchoir calls on contemporary authors of children’s books to demonstrate their support for a truly inclusive Ireland through the representation of the experience of Irish children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. From Ó Gallchoir’s perspective, myriad social and cultural experiences need to be made available to young readers if realist children’s fiction is to achieve its radical potential.

The construction of national identity in an increasingly globalized world is examined from an historical perspective in “Rapairí agus Réabhlóidithe: Lárnacht an Fhicsin Staire i gClub Leabhar na Sóisear, 1956-1966.” Here, Róisín Adams stresses the importance of market forces to the publication of Irish-language historical fiction during a period when Ireland was casting off the insularity that followed independence. Conceived as antidotes to imported English-language reading material for children, these works, perhaps unsurprisingly, aimed to develop a sense of national identity by fostering a deeper awareness of the Irish past, but more unexpectedly, they also frequently demonstrated the many international dimensions of that past. In this way, these publications encouraged young readers in an era of increasing modernization and globalization to recognize that contact between Ireland and the wider world was nothing new and so was not in itself threatening or inimical to a secure sense of what it meant and continues to mean to be Irish.

In a related vein, Kimberley Reynolds draws on once popular but now critically neglected texts for children in “Mending a Hole in the Cultural Memory: Forgotten Radical Children’s Books Published in Britain between 1920 and 1950” to challenge dominant perceptions of Britain during the period as a place of crisis, decline, pessimism, and anxiety. Examining a representative and eclectic range of left-wing publications that either looked beyond Britain as part of their internationalist ethos or that celebrated British diversity, Reynolds shows how these works promoted possible future worlds in which populations are no longer divided on the basis of wealth, class, education, sex, race, ethnicity, or age. Acknowledging the difficulty of ascertaining the impact of these works, Reynolds recommends moving beyond contemporary reviews and sales figures to interviewing people who can recall buying and reading them when they first appeared. In other words, a paradigm shift could invigorate the study of children’s literature and help repair the gaps in cultural memory that evolve over time.

Another paradigm shift is advanced by Jones Irwin in a wide-ranging discussion of the philosophical dimensions of ideological shifts in the use of children’s literature as a didactic tool in state schools. Following a discussion of the ethical problems posed by the use of texts for children to control young minds, particularly in the classroom, Irwin points towards the rich potential of the curricular use of narratives of resistance for young readers. Focusing on Goodness Me! Goodness You! (GMGY) program, Irwin demonstrates the liberatory potential of children’s literature, particularly poetry, in this radical primary school curriculum in ethics and religion, which has been developed specifically for use in multidenominational Community National Schools in Ireland.  

In “Painting the Town Red: The Challenging City in Picturebooks,” Valerie Coghlan queries why urban settings are not more common in picturebooks and discusses the unease with city life that characterizes examples of the genre that do deal with that theme. Coghlan argues that the majority of these texts are not didactic and that their visual elements can appeal to children on levels sometimes thought to be beyond their capacities. In consequence, they demonstrate how picturebooks of a high artistic standard can provoke reflection, while respecting the reader’s intelligence and ability to interrogate prevailing ideologies.

In an incisive review of the National Collection of Children’s Books (NCCB), a two-year project funded by the Irish Research Council, Máire Bhreathnach outlines critical disagreements about the definition of what constitutes a children’s book to highlight one of several conceptual and methodological flaws that undermine the usefulness of what could have been a valuable online resource for Irish and international scholars. Applauding the inclusion of Irish-language children’s books and schoolbooks in the NCCB catalogue, Bhreathnach convincingly queries the exclusion of other significant texts for children and the inclusion of books, including collections of critical essays, primarily addressed to adults.

Lissa Paul demonstrates how archival research can invigorate not only children’s literature criticism but also literary criticism more broadly in “Eliza Fenwick: Writing Life and Literature in Cork.” Drawing on largely unpublished manuscript letters written between 1812 and 1814 when Fenwick was working as a governess in Cork, these letters show that Fenwick—who viewed her one published novel as a superior literary endeavor while regarding her nine made-to-order children’s books as examples of hack-writing—prefigured Roland Barthes in pondering the differences between the work of authors who appreciate the intellectual, cultural, and social implications of what they compose, and the work of those who do not. Paul’s engaging account of Fenwick’s literary career shows that she produced both types of work and suggests that life experiences, gender conventions, and market forces, rather than innate talent, may explain the differences between them.

The use of literature as a way of understanding and coming to terms with the world we live in is of particular interest to adult readers and critics of children’s literature. In “Death and the Monster,” Roni Natov combines personal reflection with insightful critical analysis to explore how literature can help children cope with the finality and brutality of death. Her discussion of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls is grounded in the belief that children should not be protected against a knowledge of death.

Claire M. Dunne traces the path of Irish-language drama in education, examining the reduction of drama to a language-learning methodology and discussing alternative approaches. She discusses the use of political-historical drama during the Revival, contrasted to drama in today’s classroom. The analysis covers contemporary collections of plays for primary schools with their implicit and explicit advice to teachers on their use in the classroom. The emphasis of language-learning over dramatic art is discussed with a balanced and thoughtful explanation of the education of teachers and of their constraints within the curriculum.

Drama, more specifically the art of adapting or retelling a dramatic work, is examined in James Sullivan’s presentation of Padraic Colum’s The Second Shepherds’ Play, a text that is published here for the first time. Sullivan demonstrates the art of adaptation for his audience, here used by Colum in his “condensing” and “rearranging” of the fifteenth-century English play, which later became an important aspect of Colum’s successful children’s writing, such as his retelling of Pacific island folk tales for his The Legends of Hawaii.

Overall, then, the essays presented here challenge past and current critical, epistemological, and methodological approaches to the study of children’s literature in Ireland and beyond. We hope that the questions raised will help invigorate the field and foster further discussion about the discursive structures and frameworks that underpin it.

Finally, we would like to dedicate this issue of Breac to Robert Dunbar (1940-2016), a gentle man and generous scholar who championed children’s literature and pioneered its study in Ireland. With characteristic courtesy, Robert wished us every possible success with the issue when it was first mooted and we hope, and like to think, that he would have been pleased with the result.