When I tell people that I am a scholar in the area of Children's Literature, they usually don't skip a beat.
"Oh, how great! Teachers are wonderful. They made such a difference to me when I was a child. I think it's great that you spend time teaching children about books."
The whole time I respectfully nod and smile wondering to myself if now is the time to point out that I detest teaching young children...I just like pilfering their books. For it is a long-misunderstood fact of academic life that Children's Literature scholars don't actually have any contact with children in the realm of their day jobs (unless they have some stashed away at home). In fact, I know a great many Children's Literature professors and scholars who don't have children at all--and they don't really want any to boot!
You see, a Children's Literature scholar generally reads children's and adolescent books and then writes about them for an academic--very adult--audience. Yep, I've ruminated on the diagetic levels of narration in The Catch in the Rye, the ironic ideology at work in The Giving Tree and The Giver's extreme likeness to Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon philosophy born of the 1700s.
I teach adults. Well, as adult as a 19-year-old undergraduate can be. We read children's books and adolescent literature, picture books and fairy tales, and we analyze them, just the way you might've analyzed The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick in one of your literature seminars. To most people's (my students, at least) surprise, there is just as much to analysis to be done on Rainbow Fish as The Human Stain.
Our culture produces Children's Literature in staggering amounts for a few purposes:
- To entertain
- To teach
- To train
That's right, while entertainment is high on the list, Children's Literature is just as much, if not more, about passing along our cultural ideologies as it is about bedtime. Why else would religious fundamentalists burn Harry Potter in effigy? Because it doesn't teach the right ideology for that particular group. Just as Rainbow Fish doesn't teach an ideology I'm particularly keen on. Self-mutilation for the pacification of jealous little twits? No thanks.
I've been extremely privileged over the last two-and-a-half years to take some fantastic courses on Children's Literature and help teach some Children's Literature courses myself. There is nothing more pleasurable than exploring the irony and ideological muddying of messages in Children's books. Quite simply, we adults can see children's books very differently. Some students shout the evils of "reading too much in" to a child's story, but at the end of the day, the child's story was penned by an adult, and adult readers shouldn't be expected to glean the same things from a text as a five-year-old.
But back to this scholar business. After I've raped and pillaged a children's text, I write about it at length...a term paper, a conference paper, a thesis. I go to conferences where I read my academic work to an audience of (hopefully) interested peers who similarly ravage children's books for their academic goods and share their findings in similar ways. At the end of the day, I publish what I've found (or I will someday) in academic journals devoted to the study of Children's Literature. There's even an association! An association of intellectual nuts like me.
What good is there in all this? How is it practical?
I used to think there was little of the practical in academia, and I was happy with that conclusion. I still believe that there is little practicality in the life of a Children's Lit scholar, but that which is practical is very powerful. I teach adults to read children's books with new eyes. I teach adults not shy away from the potential incongruity of the message the book is supposed to send to children and the message the adult actually gets. I teach adults that it's fine and dandy to perceive Children's Literature on multiple levels, and I teach them to talk about it and write about it. And, I hope that by seeing Children's Literature analytically, they can read a book with their child and open up a discussion. A discussion of multiple points of view, multiple perceptions, and, with any luck, a bit more sensitivity.
Ridiculously, wonderfully warped and controversial children's and adolescent novels worth reading (listed beginning with picture books and going up to adolescent novels):
- Anything by the Brothers Grimm
- The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein
- Arlene Sardine, by Chris Raschka
- Otto's Trunk, by Sandy Turner
- The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, by Jon Scieszka
- The Watertower, by Gary Crew
- Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli
- The Giver, by Lois Lowry
- Parvana's Journey, by Deborah Ellis
- Mary Called Magdalene, by Donna Jo Napoli
- American Born Chinese, by Jean Yang
- Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Push, by Sapphire