This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on September 8, 2017
Children’s Literature theory is not only my own field, and therefore dear to my heart … it is also of growing interdisciplinary interest! Of course it is of interest to literary theorists, teachers, and librarians, but I have also recently seen it referenced in discussions about inherent sexism in the STEM fields, ecological crisis, and histories of racism, to name just a few instances. Because children’s books often provide a platform for the exploration and dissemination both of social and cultural norms and social and cultural innovations, it can form a useful field of references for just about any discipline. If you would like to know how to get started, here is a list of my top five introductory texts.
Hunt, Peter (ed). Understanding Children’s Literature: Key Essays from the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Routledge, 1999. Containing entries from a number of key theorists, including Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, Perry Nodelman, Lissa Paul, and Charles Sarland, this volume covers key areas of critical debate, from ideology and politics to reader-response criticism, feminism, and reading literacy.
Nodelman, Perry, and Mavis Reimer. The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, 3rd edition. Pearson, 2002. This classic of children’s literature theory, now in its third edition, not only provides a comprehensive overview of the professional discourses of children’s literature, but also engages with some of the key controversies within the discipline. Chapters include “Teaching Children’s Literature”, “Children’s Literature in the Marketplace”, “Poetry” and “Picture Books”.
Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Vintage Books: 1962. Before you can really understand children’s culture, you first need a good understanding of exactly what the concept of “child” entails! Philippe Aries’ classic historical exploration of the family in Western culture examines everything from food to clothing, to representation in art, to show how the concept of childhood has developed over time.
Zipes, Jack. Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. Routledge, 2002. Children’s literature is far from uncontroversial, and in this volume Jack Zipes explores the ways in which children’s literature, as a site for the acculturation of children, can hide some troubling undercurrents. From its uses in education to its influence as a mass-produced product, Zipes explores children’s culture as a site for both controversy and manipulation.
Coats, Karen. The Bloomsbury Introduction to Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Bloomsbury, 2017. Due to be published this year, Karen Coat’s comprehensive introduction looks to be particularly interesting in that it focuses at least partially on young adult literature as well as the genres for younger groups traditionally focused on by children’s literature theorists. Young adult fiction has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, as well as a surge in critical interest; it is gratifying to see it examined comprehensively in an introductory volume. With chapters on topics such as nonfiction and informational literature, young adult literature on stage and screens, and posthumanism, this volume provides a critical overview which takes account of the way in which children’s culture is evolving rapidly in the information era.
Read it Again: “The Word of the Lorax Seems Perfectly Clear”: Language and Anthropocentrism in The Lorax
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on August 25, 2017
One of the texts which has been most frequently cited in discussions of environmentalism in children’s literature is Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. A chilling tale about the destructive potential of the capitalist system, The Lorax is characterized by the linguistic gymnastics so famously typical of Dr. Seuss and ends with an injunction to its readers to make sure that they care for the environment and remember the role they must play in preserving it.
However, if one looks beyond the obvious pedagogical stance of this story to the narrative and linguistic structures from which it is built, it is possible to question whether this story is really as environmental progressive as it may seem at first glance. Anthropologist Layla Abdelrahim, examining the role of children’s literature in perpetuating anthropocentric social structures and cultural constructions, implicates both language and narrative in humanistic agendas.
According to Abdelrahim, “grammar comprises a system of rules that standardize the uniform application of previously derived formulae, thus ensuring the outcome of social interactions within a class and between classes remain stable and controlled” (Abdelrahim 17). Furthermore, because it builds upon this controlled and stabilized linguistic foundation, she further argues that narrative structures themselves replicate this process of normalization, arguing that language and literacy have “provided the means to encode a self-legitimating and self-replicating civilized epistemology” (Abdelrahim 17). In other words, literature is the means by which culture encodes the epistemology of anthropocentrism and enculturates new generations. With this in mind, it is important when examining an overtly pedagogical ecological text such as The Lorax to consider not only the stated moral, but also the narrative and linguistic structures through which it is transmitted. This post will examine two problematic instances within The Lorax: the Lorax’s dialogue exchanges with the Once-ler, and the ending of the narrative.
Here the Lorax’s syntax belies his egalitarian message, ascribing ownership and agency to those who possess the human ability to speak and to name described by Derrida (32) when he asserts: “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” Lebduska argues that “In condemning the Once-ler and speaking for the trees, Seuss’s Lorax offers a biocentric defense in which nonhuman nature has as much right to existence as humanity” (Lebduska 149). However, the Lorax’s syntax, and particularly his use of pronouns, undermines his ecological message by asserting his ownership and rights with regard to nature over and above those of the Once-ler.
When he demands to know “What’s that THING you’ve made out of my Truffula tuft?”, his use of the possessive pronoun contests the Once-ler’s appropriation in terms of a prior claim of ownership through the use of the pronoun “my”, repeated again in each instance of his dialogue with the Once-ler: “thanks to your hacking my trees to the ground”; “my poor Bar-ba-loots”; and “My poor Swomee-Swans” [my italics]. According to Teorey, “the Seussian rhythm and rhyme cause the environmental message to stick in readers’ memories after they put down the book” (Teorey 324). However, the playful rhythm of the Lorax’s rant further undermines his message by making his anger a subject of ridicule; as the two characters engage in this battle of rhetoric, the reader is left without an objective outsider to the language of ownership.
Not only the language of The Lorax, however, but also the narrative structure work to undermine the message of environmental responsibility being offered. Nathalie Op de Beeck suggests the ultimate impotence of the ending, pointing out that “In the end, the Lorax can do nothing but leave his home space, and the Once-ler runs out of resources before passing the last Truffula seed to somebody else” (Op de Beeck 266). More importantly, however, the ending functions not by reimagining the relationship between human-beings and nature, or between consumers and producers, but rather by perpetuating the situation of human possession already established through language.
As Johansson argues, “the child and the Once-ler share the same fate; they both bear the responsibility and the consequences of one another’s lives and actions” (Johansson 360); this mirror relationship established by the narrative replaces the humanistic perspective of the Once-ler with that of the reader/boy. When the Once-ler tells the reader/boy at the end of the narrative that “You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds”, he literally passes on not only responsibility for nature, but also literal ownership of nature in the form of possession of the seed, to be used or abused at will.Anthropocentricism, therefore, is perpetuated both through the linguistic and narrative structures of the story, ultimately undermining its environmentalist message of conservation.
Abdelrahim argues that “People constitute the repositories for the narrative that colonizes them” (Abdelrahim 17). If this is the case, especially for children’s literature, the texts like The Lorax convey important messages about the human-nature relationship which have the potential to either reconceptualize or perpetuate exploitative perspectives.
AbdelRahim, Layla. Children’s Literature, Domestication, and Social Foundation: Narratives of Civilization and Wilderness. Routledge, 2015.
Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Trans. David Wills. Fordham University Press, 2008.
Geisel, Theodore Seuss. The Lorax. Random House, 1999.
Johansson, V. “’In Charge of the Truffula Seeds’: On Children’s Literature, Rationality and Children’s Voices in Philosophy.” Journal of Philosophy of Education, vol. 45, no. 2, 2011, pp. 359-377.
Lebduska, Lisa. “Rethinking Human Need: Seuss’s The Lorax.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 4, 1994, pp. 170–176.
Op de Beeck, Nathalie. “Speaking for the Trees: Environmental Ethics in the Rhetoric and Production of Picture Books.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3, 2005, pp. 265–287.
Teorey, Matthew. “The Lorax and Wallace Stegner: Inspiring Children’s Environmental Activism.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 45, no. 4, Dec. 2014, pp. 324-339.
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on August 11, 2017
The holocaust comes up again and and again in classroom teaching; so much so, in fact, that it can sometimes be a struggle to find fiction that makes the topic feel fresh, exciting, and relevant again. In remedy to that problem, here is a list of some of my absolute favorites: these texts have proved to be winners with students as well as teachers, offering fresh new perspectives and in-depth explorations that are great for stimulating discussion.
Marcus Zusak. The Book Thief. Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. “Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement” (From Amazon Product Page).
Judith Kerr. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Puffin Books, 2009. “Anna is not sure who Hitler is, but she sees his face on posters all over Berlin. Then one morning, Anna and her brother awake to find her father gone! Her mother explains that their father has had to leave and soon they will secretly join him. Anna just doesn’t understand. Why do their parents keep insisting that Germany is no longer safe for Jews like them?” (From Amazon Product Page).
Kathrine Kressman Taylor. Address Unknown. Souvenir Press Ltd., 2002. “This thought provoking and poignant story was written on the eve of the Holocaust as a series of letters between an American Jew living in San Francisco and his former business partner and friend who returned to his native Germany. Address Unknown caused a sensation when it was first published in 1938 by exposing early on the poison of Nazism. The significant and timeless message of Address Unknown speaks to our moral conscience and survives as a searing reminder that history can repeat itself” (From Amazon Product Page).
Morris Gleitzman. Once. Square Fish, 2013. “Felix, a Jewish boy in Poland in 1942, is hiding from the Nazis in a Catholic orphanage. The only problem is that he doesn’t know anything about the war, and thinks he’s only in the orphanage while his parents travel and try to salvage their bookselling business. And when he thinks his parents are in danger, Felix sets off to warn them–straight into the heart of Nazi-occupied Poland” (From Amazon Product Page).
Olga Levy Drucker. Kindertransport. Henry Holt & Co., 1995. “The powerful autobiographical account of a young girls’ struggle as a Jewish refugee in England from 1939-1945” (From Amazon Product Page).
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on July 27, 2017
Welcome to the second innovation of the summer for the Worrisome Words Blog: the ‘What to Read If…” Column. This column will provide a bibliographic list of introductory and interesting texts on different topics – sometimes for academic research, sometimes for teaching, and sometimes just for fun!
This week’s topic is Posthuman Theory (my current obsession). Zoe Jaques defines posthumanism as “a late-twentieth-century reaction to the anthropocentric nature of humanism” with “an explicit focus upon boundaries between humans and those that might be broadly conceived as ‘non-human others’” (Jaques 2). As such, posthumanism has strong ties with science fiction, as well as being closely related to the fields of ecocriticism and material culture.
Here’s what to read if you want to know more…
Badmington, Neil. “Mapping Posthumanism.” Environment and Planning A, vol. 36, no. 8, 2004, pp. 1341-1363.
Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Polity Press, 2013.
Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Picador, 2002.
Graham, Elaine. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others in Popular Culture. Manchester University Press, 2002.
Grusin, Richard. The Nonhuman Turn. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How we Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago University Press, 1999.
Jaques, Zoe. Children’s Literature and the Posthuman. Routledge, 2015.
Ostry, Elaine. “Is He Still Human? Are you?: Young Adult Science Fiction in the Posthuman Age.” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 28, no. 2, 2004, pp. 222-246.
Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on July 14, 2017
This week’s theory bite takes a step away from animal studies, to focus on a different relationship between humans and the environment; moving from the animate to the inanimate, this article explores “Thing Theory” and it’s relevance to three different children’s texts.
As described by key theorist Bill Brown, “Thing Theory” interrogates the complex network of relationships that characterize human “being’ within the material world around them, building on the insights of material culture about agency, subjectification, and objectification. Thing theory relies upon the distinction between the “object” – a product of subject signification – and the “thing” – an artifact fundamentally immune to or excluded from signification. Brown explains that, “As they circulate through our lives, we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture – above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things” (Brown, “Thing Theory”, 4). According to Thing Theory, however, the removal of “things” from “their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition”, disrupts this usual process of cultural signification and objectification, causing one to notice the material reality and opaqueness of the “thing” itself (Brown, “Thing Theory”, 4).
Where, then, in children’s literature do objects serve to upset the anthropocentric process of objectification, and reveal a problematic relationship between people and things? Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights, Phillip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book provide good examples.
In Northern Lights, one object in particular becomes central to the story: the alethiometer given to Lyra by the Master of Jordan College. An object of immense value and yet worthless to those who do not know how to use it, the alethiometer’s key significance is not its ability to reveal truth, but Lyra’s misplaced conviction that her purpose in the novel is to take it to her father. Given weight by this conviction, the alethiometer becomes opaque at the end of the novel, therefore, when it is revealed that Lord Asriel has no use for it; as if to enact this clouding of her understanding, Lyra “took up the alethiometer and wrapped it in its black velvet” (378). In this moment, the alethiometer is neither a tool subject to human requirements, nor a signifier of human skill and knowledge, but instead an object of mystery, resisting Lyra’s attempts to remain a stable subject as the alethiometer’s bearer. Only by recognizing the “thingness” of the alethiometer in this moment does Lyra come to understand its true importance: not as a tool she can command, but as an ally with agency and agendas of its own. This recognition is a turning point in the novel, underscoring Pullman’s message about the place of humanity in the world.
Mortal Engines, in a similar manner, removes objects from their familiar circuits within human life as a means of emphasizing human fallibility and vulnerability: as suggested by the hybridity of the title, inanimate objects in the Mortal Engines quartet of novels frequently become entangled with animate subjects. Leaving aside the fascinating question of the cyborg Shrike for a later publication, Mortal Engines initially introduces inanimate objects such as the “seedy” Tom discovers before falling from London to the Wastelands (21). Technologically obsolete, these objects are prime examples of objects removed from “their flow within the circuits of production and distribution” (Brown, “Thing Theory”, 4) by the passage of time, and in their opaqueness the reveal to the reader the illusory nature of human technological superiority.
Finally, Neil Gaman’s The Graveyard Book plays with both genre conventions and the dichotomy of living/nonliving through his portrayal of gravestones. No longer seen “through” to their symbolic signification as memorials to the dead, gravestones in this novel serve a variety of unlikely purposes, ranging from alphabet primer (33) to gateways to other worlds (43). In these roles, the materiality of these stones is emphasized in place of their usual immaterial spirituality: they are no longer signifiers but quite literally ‘stones” which frequently obstruct, support, or block the path of the living Bod who moves amongst them. By disassociating gravestones from their symbolic role in human culture, Gaiman invites readers to reconsider the place of living human beings within the wider matrix of the non-human, immortal natural environment.
For further insight into Thing Theory, you can listen to Bill Brown’s talk “The Nature of Things” on the Big Think Podcast.
Brown, Bill. A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 3, 2001, pp. 1-22.
Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. Bloomsbury, 2001.
Pullman, Phillip. Northern Lights. Scholastic Ltd., 1998.
Reeve, Phillip. Mortal Engines. Scholastic Inc., 2001.
In reading Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism, I came across for the first time the application of systems theory to literature. This unbelievably versatile theory refers to the interdisciplinary study of “systems” – any systems. In broad systems theory, a “system” is defined by its boundaries, and is also considered to be greater than the sun of its parts. An example might be a prokaryotic cell, which consists of different parts (such as the cell wall, cell membrane, a chromosome, and so on), which functioning together create a living organism. Bounded by the cell wall or capsule, the system is defined by the boundary which separates that which is inside the system to that which is outside. In a similar manner a human being, whose boundary might (somewhat arbitrarily according to posthuman thinkers) be supposed to be the skin, adds up to more than just a bundled collection of organs and tissues to become instead a thinking, dreaming, communicating human being as a result of the function of those parts together as a system.
So far so good, you might say, but how is this relevant to literature – and children’s literature in particular? Cary Wolfe explains the relevance with reference to both Jacques Derrida and Niklas Luhmann. For Luhmann (a German sociologist), what is critical about systems theory when applied to language is the concept of autopoesis – the concept that a system maintains and creates itself by controlling the flow of information between the inside and the outside of the system. Because the outside of the system consists of an overload of information, the system must selectively filter and process that information in order to define itself in the world. The prokaryotic cell selects which nutrients to take inside itself, for example, with which to sustain itself as a system, and the human being’s ears pick up certain wave-lengths of sound and filter out others, thereby influencing his or her perception of the world and his or her place within it. As Wolfe explains, for Luhmann this principle can also apply to social systems. In other words, a system such as The Roman Catholic Church or the Communist Party or the United States Government will also have a self-defined boundary, across which selected information will pass, and which will in turn be defined by the information selected. According to Luhmann, in a formula that sounds remarkably similar to Derrida’s ideas about différence, communication is what crosses that boundary and what, to all intents and purposes, defines the boundary.
Put simply, any system defines itself in opposition to what is not the system, and within a social system that difference is established through the medium of communication (although not necessarily human communication). Communication allows a binary situation to be constructed: what will be designated system, and what will be designated other – but, as Derrida has explained, those binaries must necessarily be constructed rather than absolute. They exist only in terms of the system, and have no fixed or universal reality. It is this idea that leads us not only to the text and posthumanism, but also to children’s literature more specifically.
Writing about the central dilemma that often occurs in environmental writing with regard to concepts of “place”, Lawrence Buell reminds us that “even designedly ‘realistic’ texts cannot avoid being heavily mediated refractions of the palpable world” (Buell 33). In other words, the text itself is a system, which selectively filters the information of reality to construct a new reality within the text-system, enclosed within the boundary of the text. Furthermore, that text-system is constantly re-defined by the flow of information between the system and the outside – between text and reader. What systems-theory reminds us, therefore, is the same as what Derrida reminds us: the reality and boundaries of the text are unstable, created only by the constructed binaries of the text-system itself. There is in this idea of the unstable boundary an uncanny echo of posthumanist ideas, and it is this similarity that Cary Wolfe explores at length in What is Posthumanism. The majority of posthumanist critics identify the roots of posthumanism within postmodernist and deconstructionist theory, and particularly in the destabilization of the humanist subject undertaken by theorists such as Derrida, Foucault, Levis-Strauss, and so on (Seaman 246). Wolfe makes clear this connection in his discussion of Derrida alongside systems-theory, showing how both theoretical approaches help to destabilize notions of self, text, and subject. It is Buell, however, who indicates a significant relevance of these ideas for children’s literature theory in his discussion of realism versus fantasy.
I am thinking, in particular, of a recent discussion that took place on the child_lit Facebook page, in response to a thought-provoking blog-post on diversity, “What About White Boys” shared by Roxanne Feldman. Spurred by this blog post, a theme that came up in the Facebook discussion was whether the fantasy genre did or could provide adequate reflections and interventions in what are seen as “realist” social issues such as diversity. Comments explored, amongst other texts, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses and Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, to consider how these decidedly fictional worlds nevertheless might reflect (or fail to reflect) real-life issues of race, diversity, equality, and so on. If we remember Buell’s assertion that even realist texts are “heavily mediated refractions of the palpable world” – systems, in other words, which have created themselves in opposition to carefully selected components of the “real” world – the discussion becomes one not so much of how texts reflect as of how they construct. Systems theory and posthumanism remind us that no text can provide an authoritative representation of reality: all textual representations exist as a constantly changing mediation of information between the reader (outside the system) and the text (inside the system). The question therefore becomes not only how, for example, Tolkien portrays race relations in his representation of men and orcs, but how concepts of race are negotiated between reader and text in each specific instance of the communicative act of reading. Hardly an original idea, but one that it is worth remembering: like any other system, the “children’s text” is not one half of a stable binary in which the reader is the other half; instead there is a constant play of différence between the two, a negotiation of meaning which mutually sustains and constructs both reader and text as constantly changing entities. Like the prokaryotic cell, the text is both separate from and inextricably entangled with the outer world.
Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Niklas Luhmann. “The World Society as a Social System.” International Journal of General Systems, vol. 8, no. 3, 1982, pp. 131-138.
Seaman, Myra J. “Becoming More (than) Human: Affective Posthumanisms, Past and Future.” Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 37, Summer 2007, pp. 246-275.
Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.