Characteristics Frequently Present in Texts Written for Children

This list, which appears at the end of the first chapter of my book The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature, emerged from a close reading of just five English-language stories for children:

Beverley Cleary’s Henry Huggins

Maria Edgeworth’s “The Purple Jar”

Virginia Hamilton’s Plain City

Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day

Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Dr. Dolittle

I chose them as a diverse group of nevertheless representative examples of mainstream children’s literature in English; The Hidden Adult includes descriptions of how I chose them and why I believe they might be representative of frequently found characteristics of children’s literature, and offers considerations of reasons why I might or might not be wrong about that.

I arrived at the items on this list through a process of closely reading the texts of the five stories.

  1. The texts imply an audience of child readers—or at least, of readers younger than their writers—and address them in terms that make their being younger a matter of significance, something that leads these readers to require special forms of address and special kinds of content.
  2. Their style is simple, at least in relation to the discourse of writing for more mature audiences.  There is a focus on actions—on straightforward reports of what people do and what it leads to—and not much detailed description of people, places, or emotions.
  3. Nevertheless, these simple, straightforward texts do tend to “resonate”—to imply more subtle complexities than they actually say.
  4. They do so by implying a more complex shadow text—one readers can access by reading the actual simple text in the context of the repertoire of previously-existing knowledge about life and literature it seems to demand and invite readers to engage with.
  5. The pictures that often accompany the texts also act as more complex shadows to them, providing the visual and emotional information the texts themselves remain silent on.
  6. There is an inherent doubleness in picture books: they offer two different ways of viewing the same events. Simple texts and their more complex shadows possess a similar doubleness, so that the picture-book story and its two discrete channels of information, one simpler, one more dense, is a basic model of narrative intended for children.
  7. The tone of the texts tends to be matter-of-fact, often, therefore, not remarking on the strangeness of some of the strange events being described and thus inviting readers to be conscious of another doubleness: a distance between the response the events seem to demand and the actual response provided. 
  8. The protagonists of these narratives are either children or childlike animals or adults.
  9. Most often, the texts invite readers to identify with their protagonists—see themselves and their own lives in terms of what happens to the protagonists and what the protagonists come to understand about it.
  10. The texts are focalized through their child or childlike protagonists, and thus offer a childlike view of the events described.
  11. While the focalization is childlike, the texts are not first-person narratives.  They report the protagonists’ perceptions by means of third-person narrators who often report or imply perceptions at odds with those of the protagonist.
  12. Since I presume that the narrator is an adult (like the adults who actually did write these texts intended for children), the texts then tend to offer two different points of view, one childlike and one adult (a doubleness to go along with the other doublenesses already mentioned).  In being different and often opposite, the two points of view imply a conflict between childlike and adult perceptions and values.
  13. Innocence, identified as a key characteristic of childhood, becomes a central subject of these texts—not just what they describe, but what they work to suggest attitudes towards.  They invite readers, not just adults but children, to think, not just about what it means to be a child, but specifically, about what it means to possess a child’s relative lack of knowledge.
  14. Inevitably, then, the texts tend to work to encourage child readers to replace whatever sense they have of themselves and the meaning of their own behavior with adult conceptions of those matters.
  15. In doing so they make the assumption the children can and do change, and indeed, that childhood is by definition a time of change, a time in which young human beings undergo the process of becoming the adults they will eventually be.  Because childhood is defined by change, the texts attempt to encourage them to change in the proper way.
  16. In doing that, they assume the right of adults to have power and influence over children.  They represent a kind of thinking about less powerful beings that can be identified as “colonial.”
  17. They do so by making safety a central concern: a key question is whether or not children are capable of keeping themselves from danger.  The usual answer is that they cannot, and that adults must therefore create safe havens for them, places where they can be safely childlike.  (Such places are usually identified as “home”; there is more about home later in this summary.)
  18. The wish to have influence over children in order to transform them into adults is inherently contradictory.  The texts often insist that children continue to need adult protection even though, or even because, they have been wise enough to acknowledge and accept adult interpretations of their behavior, the acceptance of which in effect makes them less childlike and therefore less in need of the protection they now are wise enough to acknowledge their need of.
  19. That suggests another contradiction the texts tend to express.  Childhood is a time of change, but despite changes, children continue nevertheless to be childlike and in need of adult protection.  Childhood is therefore paradoxically static as well as changing, always the same, a continuing process of becoming different which does not actually result in difference until childhood is finally over.
  20. Since being childlike is identified with lack of knowledge and being adult with the possession of knowledge, the texts represent explorations of the relative merits of knowing and not knowing.  While they arrive at differing conclusions—some view innocence as wisdom, some experience—the texts all present innocence and knowledge in clearly oppositional terms; and most of them end by privileging one over the other.
  21. Nevertheless, the opposition seems to survive the attempts at closure: the texts seem to leave space for readings that reverse the dynamic and imply meanings opposite to the ones they attempt to assert. 
  22. Because the texts encourage children both to think of their behavior as childlike and to come to an adult understanding of childlike behavior, they tend to work to construct a divided subjectivity.  They often seem to be encouraging children both to not know and to know enough to value or to dismiss the value of their not knowing.
  23. Because the texts encourage an adult understanding of childlike behavior in children, they often work to disperse innocence in the process of celebrating it; they thus encourage child readers, no longer purely childlike, to enact the childhood they have moved beyond.
  24. Such an enactment is a form of nostalgia.  The texts tend to emerge from and express an adult nostalgia for childhood as an idyll or Eden, a simpler and better time now over.  They work to impose what writers for children often identify as “the hidden child” within their memories (for whom, they say, they write their books) upon the actual children in their current audience.  They seem to do so in order to block out the knowledge of (or acknowledgment of the knowledge of?) the actual complexity and uncertainty of childhood for both children and adults.
  25. In terms of not acknowledging what children and adults actually do know about childhood: these texts work to silence child readers on the subject of any uncertainty or pain they might feel in being children or on the wisdom of allowing adults to have power over them.  They have the effect of teaching children what not to say to adults about the realities of their lives as children.
  26. The nostalgic and idyllic qualities of these texts relate their conception of childhood to other forms of Edenic beginnings, and mythic pasts.  They invite children to view themselves in the terms by which the Euro-American culture they emerge from has traditionally viewed its own historical past—in the process of experiencing a paradise they will eventually inevitably lose and regret the loss of.  In this way, they encourage children to be critical of adult thinking, and thus undermine their own efforts to encourage it.
  27. In privileging past values over future developments, the texts tend to an inherent conservatism, a wish to keep things from changing and a dislike of it when it happens.  Viewed from this angle, change is always for the worse, an idea that directly contradicts the idea that childhood is a time of change and that growth towards adult knowledge is a good thing.  Once more, the texts are ambivalent, divided and self-contradictory about their central concerns.
  28. The texts deal centrally with questions of desire as well as with questions of knowledge: what children or other childlike being want, and whether or not it is wise to want it; and also, what adults want children to be (or to seem).  As a result, they often depict the good or bad consequences of children’s wishes being fulfilled; and they often report “happy endings” that represent adults wishes for children being fulfilled.
  29. The texts tend to confirm the idea that it is adult knowledge that reveals the inadequacies of childhood desires.  Children are innocent enough not to know the danger in what they desire, and need to learn it.
  30. Nevertheless, the texts also often harbor the possibility that the opposite might be true—that it is adult desires for children, attempts either to make them less innocent or to keep them from harm, that are dangerous, and innocent childhood desires that are wise.  In both celebrate and denigrate both childhood desire and adult knowledge, the texts reveal the centrality of their ambivalence.
  31. The ambivalence emerges from the interplay of clearly established binary oppositions: home and away, safety and danger, desire and knowledge, adult and child.  Even when the opposite triumphs, it tend to do so by negating its other entirely, thus still insisting on their inherent opposition.  Because there seem to be clear winners and losers, the texts remain inherently and unceasingly bipolar.  But as I suggested earlier, the bipolarity means that losers never seem to go away.  The texts confirm what they want to oppose in the very act of imagining it oppositional—that which needs to be imagined and introduced so that it can be denied.
  32. The bipolarity becomes particularly obvious in terms of the ways in which the texts focus on questions of home and make home meaningful.
  33. Home is a metaphor for childhood as adults invent and sustain it—a protective space in which children can enjoy being safely childlike on adult terms.  (Texts written for children represent another version of the same space.)
  34. The idea of home as a safe place is so centrally significant that it exists even in contexts where home is unsafe (as, perhaps, in Plain City)—in such cases, the thrust is almost always to focus on the lack of the safety that ought to exist and doesn’t. 
  35. In making home central, the texts imagine physical space as meaningful and symbolic—invest their settings with meanings, make them representations of what the characters mean to themselves and each other.  The physical worlds they describe tend toward allegory and have ideological import.
  36. In order to make the point that home is safe, the texts imagine children as not perceiving its benefits; childhood desire is equated with the desire for freedom from home and safety, childhood with rebellion against adult values.
  37. The plots usually follow a basic pattern of movement from home to away and then back home again. 
  38. Home is identified with constriction, stasis and safety, and leaving it with freedom, process and danger.  The return home at the end seems to mean an acceptance of its constrictions in order to gain its benefits.  But since child protagonists must change in order to perceive that—cease being static—they return home tainted by the journey.  This is yet another version of the texts’ central ambivalence, their inability to decide whether childhood is and must be static or is and must be a place of change, whether children are incapable of learning or always learning, etc. 
  39. These narratives are constructed as a series of variations, succeeding scenes which replicate old elements in new, increasingly different  relationships.  
  40. The tendency to return and vary results in sequels; all but one of these texts have sequels.
  41. In the course of my explorations, I have often found myself comparing texts to traditional European fairy tales; they seem, then, to share many qualities with those tales.
  42. On the other hand, they are didactic—and therefore, have the shape of traditional fables, stories in which what happens to characters is meant to represent a path for future behavior in readers.
  43. Fairy tales are wish-fulfilment fantasies in which characters get what they want and are happy with it.  Fables tend to be stories about how characters are wrong to want what they want and learn that by getting it.  Fiction for children, rooted historically both in the tradition of fables and the tradition of fairy tales, seems to represents an ambivalent combination of the two opposite tendencies.
  44. The texts imply an audience of child readers—or at least, of readers younger than their writers—and address them in terms that make their being younger a matter of significance, something that leads these readers to require special forms of address and special kinds of content.
  45. Their style is simple, at least in relation to the discourse of writing for more mature audiences.  There is a focus on actions—on straightforward reports of what people do and what it leads to—and not much detailed description of people, places, or emotions.
  46. Nevertheless, these simple, straightforward texts do tend to “resonate”—to imply more subtle complexities than they actually say.
  47. They do so by implying a more complex shadow text—one readers can access by reading the actual simple text in the context of the repertoire of previously-existing knowledge about life and literature it seems to demand and invite readers to engage with. 
  48. The pictures that often accompany the texts also act as more complex shadows to them, providing the visual and emotional information the texts themselves remain silent on.
  49. There is an inherent doubleness in picture books: they offer two different ways of viewing the same events. Simple texts and their more complex shadows possess a similar doubleness, so that the picture-book story and its two discrete channels of information, one simpler, one more dense, is a basic model of narrative intended for children.
  50. The tone of the texts tends to be matter-of-fact, often, therefore, not remarking on the strangeness of some of the strange events being described and thus inviting readers to be conscious of another doubleness: a distance between the response the events seem to demand and the actual response provided. 
  51. The protagonists of these narratives are either children or childlike animals or adults.
  52. Most often, the texts invite readers to identify with their protagonists—see themselves and their own lives in terms of what happens to the protagonists and what the protagonists come to understand about it.
  53. The texts are focalized through their child or childlike protagonists, and thus offer a childlike view of the events described.
  54. While the focalization is childlike, the texts are not first-person narratives.  They report the protagonists’ perceptions by means of third-person narrators who often report or imply perceptions at odds with those of the protagonist.
  55. Since I presume that the narrator is an adult (like the adults who actually did write these texts intended for children), the texts then tend to offer two different points of view, one childlike and one adult (a doubleness to go along with the other doublenesses already mentioned).  In being different and often opposite, the two points of view imply a conflict between childlike and adult perceptions and values.
  56. Innocence, identified as a key characteristic of childhood, becomes a central subject of these texts—not just what they describe, but what they work to suggest attitudes towards.  They invite readers, not just adults but children, to think, not just about what it means to be a child, but specifically, about what it means to possess a child’s relative lack of knowledge.
  57. Inevitably, then, the texts tend to work to encourage child readers to replace whatever sense they have of themselves and the meaning of their own behavior with adult conceptions of those matters.
  58. In doing so they make the assumption the children can and do change, and indeed, that childhood is by definition a time of change, a time in which young human beings undergo the process of becoming the adults they will eventually be.  Because childhood is defined by change, the texts attempt to encourage them to change in the proper way.
  59. In doing that, they assume the right of adults to have power and influence over children.  They represent a kind of thinking about less powerful beings that can be identified as “colonial.”
  60. They do so by making safety a central concern: a key question is whether or not children are capable of keeping themselves from danger.  The usual answer is that they cannot, and that adults must therefore create safe havens for them, places where they can be safely childlike.  (Such places are usually identified as “home”; there is more about home later in this summary.)
  61. The wish to have influence over children in order to transform them into adults is inherently contradictory.  The texts often insist that children continue to need adult protection even though, or even because, they have been wise enough to acknowledge and accept adult interpretations of their behavior, the acceptance of which in effect makes them less childlike and therefore less in need of the protection they now are wise enough to acknowledge their need of.
  62. That suggests another contradiction the texts tend to express.  Childhood is a time of change, but despite changes, children continue nevertheless to be childlike and in need of adult protection.  Childhood is therefore paradoxically static as well as changing, always the same, a continuing process of becoming different which does not actually result in difference until childhood is finally over.
  63. Since being childlike is identified with lack of knowledge and being adult with the possession of knowledge, the texts represent explorations of the relative merits of knowing and not knowing.  While they arrive at differing conclusions—some view innocence as wisdom, some experience—the texts all present innocence and knowledge in clearly oppositional terms; and most of them end by privileging one over the other.
  64. Nevertheless, the opposition seems to survive the attempts at closure: the texts seem to leave space for readings that reverse the dynamic and imply meanings opposite to the ones they attempt to assert. 
  65. Because the texts encourage children both to think of their behavior as childlike and to come to an adult understanding of childlike behavior, they tend to work to construct a divided subjectivity.  They often seem to be encouraging children both to not know and to know enough to value or to dismiss the value of their not knowing.
  66. Because the texts encourage an adult understanding of childlike behavior in children, they often work to disperse innocence in the process of celebrating it; they thus encourage child readers, no longer purely childlike, to enact the childhood they have moved beyond.
  67. Such an enactment is a form of nostalgia.  The texts tend to emerge from and express an adult nostalgia for childhood as an idyll or Eden, a simpler and better time now over.  They work to impose what writers for children often identify as “the hidden child” within their memories (for whom, they say, they write their books) upon the actual children in their current audience.  They seem to do so in order to block out the knowledge of (or acknowledgment of the knowledge of?) the actual complexity and uncertainty of childhood for both children and adults.
  68. In terms of not acknowledging what children and adults actually do know about childhood: these texts work to silence child readers on the subject of any uncertainty or pain they might feel in being children or on the wisdom of allowing adults to have power over them.  They have the effect of teaching children what not to say to adults about the realities of their lives as children.
  69. The nostalgic and idyllic qualities of these texts relate their conception of childhood to other forms of Edenic beginnings, and mythic pasts.  They invite children to view themselves in the terms by which the Euro-American culture they emerge from has traditionally viewed its own historical past—in the process of experiencing a paradise they will eventually inevitably lose and regret the loss of.  In this way, they encourage children to be critical of adult thinking, and thus undermine their own efforts to encourage it.
  70. In privileging past values over future developments, the texts tend to an inherent conservatism, a wish to keep things from changing and a dislike of it when it happens.  Viewed from this angle, change is always for the worse, an idea that directly contradicts the idea that childhood is a time of change and that growth towards adult knowledge is a good thing.  Once more, the texts are ambivalent, divided and self-contradictory about their central concerns.
  71. The texts deal centrally with questions of desire as well as with questions of knowledge: what children or other childlike being want, and whether or not it is wise to want it; and also, what adults want children to be (or to seem).  As a result, they often depict the good or bad consequences of children’s wishes being fulfilled; and they often report “happy endings” that represent adults wishes for children being fulfilled.
  72. The texts tend to confirm the idea that it is adult knowledge that reveals the inadequacies of childhood desires. Children are innocent enough not to know the danger in what they desire, and need to learn it.
  73. Nevertheless, the texts also often harbor the possibility that the opposite might be true—that it is adult desires for children, attempts either to make them less innocent or to keep them from harm, that are dangerous, and innocent childhood desires that are wise.  In both celebrate and denigrate both childhood desire and adult knowledge, the texts reveal the centrality of their ambivalence.
  74. The ambivalence emerges from the interplay of clearly established binary oppositions: home and away, safety and danger, desire and knowledge, adult and child.  Even when the opposite triumphs, it tend to do so by negating its other entirely, thus still insisting on their inherent opposition.  Because there seem to be clear winners and losers, the texts remain inherently and unceasingly bipolar.  But as I suggested earlier, the bipolarity means that losers never seem to go away.  The texts confirm what they want to oppose in the very act of imagining it oppositional—that which needs to be imagined and introduced so that it can be denied.
  75. The bipolarity becomes particularly obvious in terms of the ways in which the texts focus on questions of home and make home meaningful.
  76. Home is a metaphor for childhood as adults invent and sustain it—a protective space in which children can enjoy being safely childlike on adult terms.  (Texts written for children represent another version of the same space.)
  77. The idea of home as a safe place is so centrally significant that it exists even in contexts where home is unsafe (as, perhaps, in Plain City)—in such cases, the thrust is almost always to focus on the lack of the safety that ought to exist and doesn’t. 
  78. In making home central, the texts imagine physical space as meaningful and symbolic—invest their settings with meanings, make them representations of what the characters mean to themselves and each other.  The physical worlds they describe tend toward allegory and have ideological import.
  79. In order to make the point that home is safe, the texts imagine children as not perceiving its benefits; childhood desire is equated with the desire for freedom from home and safety, childhood with rebellion against adult values.
  80. The plots usually follow a basic pattern of movement from home to away and then back home again. 
  81. Home is identified with constriction, stasis and safety, and leaving it with freedom, process and danger.  The return home at the end seems to mean an acceptance of its constrictions in order to gain its benefits.  But since child protagonists must change in order to perceive that—cease being static—they return home tainted by the journey.  This is yet another version of the texts’ central ambivalence, their inability to decide whether childhood is and must be static or is and must be a place of change, whether children are incapable of learning or always learning, etc.  
  82. These narratives are constructed as a series of variations, succeeding scenes which replicate old elements in new, increasingly different  relationships.  
  83. The tendency to return and vary results in sequels; all but one of these texts have sequels.
  84. In the course of my explorations, I have often found myself comparing texts to traditional European fairy tales; they seem, then, to share many qualities with those tales.
  85. On the other hand, they are didactic—and therefore, have the shape of traditional fables, stories in which what happens to characters is meant to represent a path for future behavior in readers.
  86. Fairy tales are wish-fulfilment fantasies in which characters get what they want and are happy with it.  Fables tend to be stories about how characters are wrong to want what they want and learn that by getting it.  Fiction for children, rooted historically both in the tradition of fables and the tradition of fairy tales, seems to represents an ambivalent combination of the two opposite tendencies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: