This week we’re celebrating the wonders of children’s literature with guest posts from authors making new contributions to the field. Below, Karen Coats explains her approach to the field in The Bloomsbury Introduction to Children’s and Young Adult Literature.
In my early days as a graduate student, I asked my composition students to contact a caregiver from their childhood and find out what story was important to them when they were very young. For most of my students, the answer surprised them; many had only hazy memories of the stories that their caregivers insisted were their favorites, the truly necessary ones that they requested over and over again. They were then tasked to try to remember the story as best they could, seek out a version that they had likely encountered, and compare the story with their memory of it. The final essay was intended to be an analysis of that process—a description of what they remembered and what they forgot, an analysis of the themes and language in the story, and a reflection on if and how those bits and pieces remained present in their lives today. While some students experienced surprising epiphanies as a result of their reflections, nearly all uncovered a certain consistency of values and taste over time, finding that their favorite childhood stories continue to speak to the issues that dominate their relationships, their patterns of response to situations, and even their habits of speech.
My approach to the study of children’s and young adult literature thus operates as a sort of personal, aesthetic, and cultural archeological dig. It is a necessarily interdisciplinary project, requiring attention to the literary, linguistic, and visual features of multimodal texts, of course, but also to the historical, material, and ideological conditions of their emergence and the various methodologies that literary scholars, educators, developmental psychologists, and information specialists use to study the interaction between children of different ages and the different kinds of texts they encounter. This latter concern marks a key difference between the study of literature for young people and literature for adults, and it mattered quite a bit in the writing of The Bloomsbury Introduction to Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Unlike other kinds of literature, the academic study of youth literature takes place in multiple disciplinary homes with different emphases, resulting in what John Rowe Townsend famously noted as a gap between “child people” (educators, parents, librarians) and “book people” (literary scholars, writers and illustrators, publishers). One of my goals was to write into that gap. On the one hand, I tried to consistently remind the “book people” that audience matters, that aesthetic and ideological concerns can vary with age. On the other hand, I wanted to make history and theory friendly and relevant for people who just want to teach or write contemporary literature to or for real children and teens.
Of course, once I started writing the book, it became clear that my task of even introducing such a rich and varied field of study was as happily impossible as it is crucially important. As my students found for themselves, the texts we read as children and teens apprentice us into the modes of representation that shape our ways of seeing, talking, and relating to others. It’s a chicken and egg problem, really: do we become who we are as a result of the stories we prefer, or do we prefer certain stories because they appeal to the people we are already in the process of becoming? What kinds of stories are we making available to our children, and whose stories aren’t being told? Looking back, critically and carefully, to our own childhoods as well as to the traditions of the field helps us look forward to the kinds of stories we want to share for the kinds of selves we want to support and become.
Karen Coats is Professor of English at Illinois State University, USA. She is author of Looking Glasses and Neverlands: Lacan, Desire, and Subjectivity in Children’s Literature (2007), and co-editor, with Shelby A. Wolf, Patricia Enciso, and Christine A. Jenkins, of the Handbook of Research on Children’s and Young Adult Literature (2010). Her latest book, The Bloomsbury Introduction to Children’s and Young Adult Literature, is now available.