Children’s Literature: Theory and Practice – Summary

Children Literature: Theory and Practice by Felicity Hughes deals with Children’s Literature as a genre within the realm of Popular fiction paper and is a must reading for getting a great understanding of the Children’s Literature.

It challenges the critics by pointing out that children’s literature which is relegated to the realm of popular fiction, is the ‘significant other’ and must be viewed as a serious form of art, as an artifact which is not merely for “family reading,” but an intellectual discipline.


Children Literature: Theory and Practice deals with the way canonization of Children’s Literature is being done within the academic and publishing circles and how it came into being as a significant ‘other’ to the elite literature, as being discussed in the essay by Christopher Pawling too. The arguments that led to the evolution of the popular fiction as “para literature” or as ‘the other’ is more or less similar to that of bracketing children’s Literature too as the other.

A child is usually seen as an innocent creature and in the early nineteenth century there was a general tendency among the Romantic Poets in England, especially, William Wordsworth, William Blake and others celebrating the child-like innocence. But at the same time, it was seen as a kind of innocence which can be corrupted by the “experiences” of these world and therefore the need to gain “supreme innocence” by going through the phase of “experience” (William Blake, “Songs of Innocence and Experience”). But as we move further in the Victorian Age, the colonial-industrial-capitalist society of the West started viewing child to be “inferior versions of the adult” who needs to be taught the values and norms of the civilization and “Culture” to incorporate him into the folds of civilization.

This kind of notion of a child obviously tends to believe that a child cannot thus have a “taste” which makes him or her be competent enough to decide what is good or bad for him. Therefore, what a child enjoys in a literary book (usually “fantasy”) is not what should be considered erudite and thus supposedly cannot be part of the so called “elite” literature which is usually considered to be taken for academic engagement. This kind of a belief is what made the canonizers of literature take a position of stamping Children’s Literature as “the other” as opposed to Elite.

This does not mean that there are not enough Children’s Literature existing and that what is considered to be “the other” is but a negligent aspect which can be marginalized. On the other hand, this supposed “other” is vast enough as Children are one of the greatest consumers of books produced by the publishing industry. This vast area of literary production cannot be overlooked in anyway and thus there is a need not only to accept the genre of “Children’s Literature”, not just as an “other”, but as an equally significant part of the literature. It is with this ambition of establishing Children’s Literature in its proper pedestal that writers like Felicity Hughes have made attempts to argue and fight for the case of Children’s literature as well as theorize to a certain extent to provide a solid base on which and from which literature usually read by children can be defended and acknowledged as rightfully academic too.

In other words, it can be said that even though writers of Children’s literature have considerable achievements in spite of a lack of critical and theoretical support only goes on to prove that children’s literature has a considerable space in the history of literature even if the theory of children’s literature is “in a state of confusion.” Felicity A. Hughes in her essay “Children’s Literature: Theory and Practice” poses the challenge to the critics by pointing out how children’s literature is relegated to the realm of popular fiction, as a ‘significant other’ so as to constitute novel as a serious form of art, as an artifact which is not merely for “family reading,” but an intellectual discipline.

To establish the argument, Hughes points out how the crisis of the novel in 1880’s led scholars to ponder over the rapid rise of the readership of the novel, which failed to provide accolade to the novel as a serious genre. Compared to poetry and drama, novel having no “distinguished classical ancestry” was stigmatized as a “low” form of art leading critics to promote “a heightened, more serious conception of novel as art” (Walter Allen). Henry James in The Art of Fiction “tried to dissociate novel from its family readership and redirect it toward what was seen as art’s traditional elite audience of educated adult males outside the home, at court, the coffee house or the club.” In other words, if novel had to gain some status as a serious art then it had to be “at the cost of being unsuitable for women and children.,” as it would feared that popularity of the novel will weaken the chances of finding the elite readership.

The common conjecture in aesthetic theory is that children cannot have aesthetic pleasure as it requires some the degree of intelligence and discrimination to be experienced, and children are thought to lacking in them. Thus, the arbitrary exclusion of children’s literature from the class of serious literature was a deliberate attempt to construct the domain of elite fiction, leading to children’s literature being classed as a branch of popular fiction. Thus, the binary opposition of detachment – involvement as the proper attitude of the reader in reading a novel became a criterion? Whereas Henry James in his The Art of Fiction emphasized on “Realism” from the writers and detachment from the readers; R. L Stevenson admired novels which made demands of ‘sympathy’ or ‘involvement.’ Moore, Booth and others of the twentieth century even emphasized on the importance of the objectivity both on the part of the novelist and the reader as a principle as that would help establish novel as a serious genre. In the process of doing so, “class, sex and age were conflated as causes of a supposed inability to appreciate the best in art and literature, those millions to whom taste is but an obscure, confused, immediate instinct.”

One of the effects of acceptance of realism as a standard was that Fantasy was immediately déclassé. E M Forster emphasizes in his Aspects of the Novel and in his lectures how “fantasy is so ephemeral that critical inspection would destroy it.” This prejudice against fantasy in the early twentieth century made it a point that any writer of fantasy is forced into writing for children. Another inevitable consequence of the way the category of Children’s literature came into being was that certain restraint has been imposed on children’s writers in the realist tradition when it comes to topics such as terror, politics and sex. Political topics of class and race have been recently been self-consciously injected into children’s realist fiction.

Your reading of Children’s literature in this course – Lewis Carroll or/and Sukumar Ray, as well as Felicity Hughes’ essay “Children’s Literature: Theory and Practice” probably has put you in some kind of firm standing in your understanding of the premise on which Children’s literature can be justified to be good enough for academic and critical engagements. You probably have realized that children too live within a socio-political and cultural world and their minds also are in some ways receptive of the ideas and ideologies prevalent in the times in which they are living. So, not only do their minds receive those ideas from the society as well as the caretakers (read parents), but at the same time their minds are formed in the process to process information and ideas in a similar process.

For example, while reading Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Saw There, you have seen that Alice’s looking glass world is but a manifestation of the Victorian society – the capitalist venture of moving up the social ladder (Alice’s journey from a pawn to a queen) the money-minded society (where everything is equated in monetary terms when Alice is in train), the calculative and manipulative society (the chess game), the competitive individualism (Lion and Unicorn episode as well as Tweedledum and Tweedledee episode) – all point to the fact that Alice’s mind cannot but avoid the Victorian upbringing as she manifests all those aspects of the Victorian society; and yet at the same time, Alice’s mind makes a critique of them by questioning some of these parameters of the Victorian society. The “questioning” mind of a child does not accept the society and its norms as it is, as an adult does; and therefore s/he usually questions the very parameter of the society as well as the adult world.

It is this “questioning” aspect of the children which is being employed by various writers to question the validity, logic as well as existence those aspects of society which are never being questioned by the adult world. This aspect of children’s literature is usually being overlooked by critics as they do not want to accept the fact that their world and its premises can be questioned. To justify that children’s literature is not a valid means to look at and to understand reality, the element of “fantasy” in children’s literature is usually highlighted and it is being said that fantasy cannot but be a valid means to gaining knowledge as well as questioning the society and the adult order.

Julia Briggs comments that “Children’s books are written for a special readership but not normally for members of that readership; both the writing and quite often the buying of them, is carried out by adult non-members on behalf of child members”. Therefore, to define children’s literature is one of the most difficult tasks as what children read is often determined and decided by adult members taking care of children. Mostly children do not pick up a book by themselves; their choice is governed by what adult think to be justified for them. In other words, the adults decide which books the child should read and why? Moreover, often the adult decision is not based on what is there inside the book, but on the information that the adult has received about the book from various sources, mostly from the publisher who has categorized the book under the section of Children’s literature probably with a particular motive. Therefore, what comes under children literature is also tricky as John Rowe Townsend says that what is considered as a children’s book is decided by the publisher – “In the short run it appears that, for better or worse, the publisher decides. If he puts a book on the children’s list, it will be reviewed as a children’s book and will be read by children (or young people), if it is read at all. If he puts it on the adult list, it will not – or at least not immediately.”

Moreover as there is a want of theoretical paradigm on Children’s fiction, as pointed out by Felicity Hughes in the essay “Children’s Literature: Theory and Practice” it becomes easier for people to categorize under children’s literature whatever their whims and fancies decide Children’s literature to be. It is not that Children’s books are few; on the contrary there are many but what is lacking is a theoretical and critical paradigm which would provide Children’s literature the place in literary world as it should be.

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