Q. To what extent does children’s literature reflect messages from the wider culture? How are these messages transmitted? It may seem daft, at first, to even discuss the idea that children’s literature could possibly reflect messages from the wider culture or indeed have any bearing on the child that reads them. Surely such literature be it fairytale, poem or suchlike are merely for entertainment’s sake or possibly in many cases for the parent’s sake to keep the child occupied. Perhaps in the distant past many would have sided with Hemingway in saying that “messages are for Western Union and not for books”1, but it is now not so.An increasing amount of analysts from Morison2 to Tatar3 suggest that there is more to children’s literature than simply entertainment and occupation. Many different theories exist as to what the literature can actually show us, some believe it is merely didactic and creates a moral landscape for the child, others believe that it is capable of being interpreted to give an understanding of the wider society in which it was created and that the themes within it can prepare the child for what is to come.
It is in discussing these broad theories of Socialization, Literary Criticism and Psychoanalysis we will see to what extent and how messages from the wider culture are reflected in children’s literature. It is necessary first to try to briefly unearth where and why a literature specifically for children came about or indeed why it took so long to come about as children have surely been an ever-present commodity. Philippe Arii?? s’s Centuries of Childhood claims that before the early modern era “the idea of childhood did not exist”.Before this time children were treated as miniature adults, they drank wine and beer like adults, gambled for money at cards and enjoyed similar pastimes.
Status, according to Ivan Illich was determined by class rather than age4. It seems then that childhood was a socially created phenomenon, which was a “gradual process with faint beginnings in the thirteenth century but not fully accomplished until the seventeenth century or later”5. Obviously the creation of a literature for children coincided with the idea of childhood.Early manuscripts in the fifteenth century such as Symon’s Lesson of Wisdom for All Manner Children provided instruction but not entertainment. From this time until the release of Newbery’s “A Little Pretty Pocket-Book” (1744) little had been done in the form of children’s literature. This was greatly due to the attitudes of the time that children were indeed small adults and part due also to a high infant mortality rate in that little time was spent on childhood. Literature was rare and expensive but as the idea of the familial environment being paramount and the cherishing of childhood came the regularity of children’s literature.
The earliest examples of children’s literature seems to fall under the broad category which is defined as “The pedagogy of fear: socialisation”6. Literature which falls under this heading helps to portray and construct a moral landscape, which adults think, should exist. Indeed “from its inception, children’s literature had in it an unusual cruel and coercive streak – one which produced books that relied on brutal intimidation to frighten children into complying with parental demands”7.Didacticism runs through the literature of this era which would see truth in Jacqueline Rose’s observation that a gift of a book from an adult to a child ranks somewhere between a “gift and a bribe”. This idea that children’s books are based on an idea of what is good/bad or right/wrong may seem very simple in that you tell them what to do and they’ll do it or think it but if it is not founded then there would be no need for children’s books to be policed for political correctness as they are currently.Books are obviously bought to distract and entertain children but they are also bought to instruct them as Roald Dahl observed that parents/adults have a relentless need to civilise “this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all”.
As early as 1715 when Isaac Watt’s Divine and Moral Songs asked “Have you not heard what dreadful plaguesAre Threatened by the Lord, To him that breaks his father’s lawOr mocks his mother’s word? ” such coercive literature as Tatar refers to above has been in circulation.This type of literature aimed to mould an ideal docile child who followed instruction, through stories, which either killed off their protagonists or framed them as an exemplary figure. Since it became a commercial endeavour with Newbery’s “A Little Pretty Pocket-Book” (1744), children’s literature has openly endorsed a productive discipline that condemns idleness and censures disobedience even as it hails acculturation and accommodation. Some of the stories were violently coercive and almost seemed to take the idea of moral symmetry, that is of good against evil, too far (e. g.German Struwwelpeter) in that they turned into horror stories which lost their “socialising energy”.