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This website is a means of sharing ideas and information with all those interested in literature for children and young adults.

 

"Women's history is the primary tool of women's emancipation." - Gerda Lerner

This website began with my own love of children's literature and my belief in the power of both that literature and the children for whom it is created. It reflects many of my concerns as a professor of children's literature and grew in response to two divergent but complementary calls heard fairly consistently from colleagues in the field. The first was for more and better theoretical and critical knowledge of children's literature and the second for practical assistance in the teaching of that literature. A variety of responses to both of these have come forth, but the cries continue and our needs are still not met. As the body of literary theory grows and those of us who teach children's literature become increasingly involved with that theory and corresponding research activities, an even greater need exists for some means to bring theory and practice together.

There has been an increase in more lengthy and more theoretically based critical analyses of works for children and young people, but too often this work is assumed to be esoteric, isolated from and unrelated to either children or the teaching of children's literature. Many who teach children's literature dismiss this work as being that of those who have little sense of the child for whom the literature was created and even less for the practical problems of bringing that child and the literature together. On the other hand, there has been a proliferation of books about children's literature that describe both literary works and activities with these books but have little relation to theory, research, or even the practical problem's of one's own teaching. We are interested in what our colleagues do, but we are more interested in why they do it. Even the most exciting practices cannot just be transported from one situation, setting, and group of people to another. What teachers need is a continuing dialogue grounded in the theory and research of both literature and teaching that is focused on the particular problems of the field of children's literature.

The purpose of this website is to set forth a triad of literary theory, research, and teaching as the basis for such a dialogue.

In an age of science and technology when even literary theory bears such names as structuralism and semiotica, we may begin to think of this theory as being very precise and scientific. We must remember, however, that the purpose of such theory is to bring readers closer to literary works. In the past several decades both literary criticism and the theory that supports that criticism have shifted from a base in the literary community of readers and writers to the scholarly community of professors and university students. In the process, literary theory has become more fragmented and, many would say, more isolated, both from the literary works themselves and from the readers and writers connected to those works in the non-academic world. There appears to be no particular theory that dominates virtually all aspects of literary writing and discussion as was evident throughout much of our history.

Those who become lost in what Geoffrey Hartman and others have called the wilderness of contemporary literary theory, will find it useful to keep in mind that all theories are themselves products of the imagination. All theories are fictions, if you will, and they are much more tentative and more imprecise than the fictions of story. A theory is a metaphor imposed on discrete phenomena in order to explain those phenomena, identify commonalities, and show relationships among individual and unique objects. Literary theory, therefore, is a metaphor about metaphors. Theories are fictions without the full strength of make believe engendered by a fictional work of art, but, nonetheless, they are fictions which may lead to insight and discovery. We try to confirm our belief in theories by experience and experiment, but are, at the same time, fully aware that they are refutable and ever susceptible to modification or disproof.

Theories are judged by their applicability and their usefulness. As new phenomena are created or discovered or existing ones perceived in new ways, theory is revised to assimilate this new information. Thus, all theories are in the process of continuous revision, and when a particular theory can no longer encompass new ideas or new works of art, new theories are developed. Each theory opens our eyes to new perceptions and new perspectives, but it conceals as well as reveals certain aspects of the literary work and the literary experience. Each offers a system of useful, but incomplete, organizing constructs which continually lead to new solutions, new problems, and new theories.

Like all fiction, literary theory requires a willing suspension of disbelief, that condition of mind philosophers refer to as the world of as if. We enter into Mr. McGregor's garden or the land of Oz as if those places really exist while, at the same time, acknowledge that they are not to be found in the actual world of our everyday existence. So too we must learn to accept the statement of a literary theory as if the premises were valid, use that theory as a lens to examine the particular aspects of the literary work or the literary experience on which it sheds light, and makes what meaning we can of what we see with that light. The lenses I use to find my way through the wilderness of literary criticism are closest to those of the reader-response critics, particularly to the transactional theory of Louise Rosenblatt. My personal literary history has also been influenced by early studies based on the formalist approaches of the now old New Critics and the archetypal theories of Northop Frye. It is from this combination of perspectives that I view the theory, research, and teaching of children's literature.

Literature is, first of all, to be experienced, to be enjoyed, to be appreciated, to be loved. Each reader, in the process of experiencing a literary work, both brings meaning to and takes meaning from that work. Thus, the meaning made from having experienced that work is personal and idiosyncratic and is based on all that the reader has known and experienced outside that work. Meaning is also communal in the understanding of the human condition as expressed in and communicated by the work. Without that initial appreciation of and engagement with the work, the experience remains meaningless. The fact that teachers have assigned a particular text or even read that text aloud to students (either children or adult students of children's literature) does not necessarily mean that those students have read meaning into or out of that text. Without that process of meaning-making which is reading, there can be no progression to critical or theoretical judgment. Once this reading occurs, however, any further considerations of literary works has some general notions about the nature of literature, that is, some semblance of literary theory, at its core. Even the discussion of personal events from one's own life in response to a literary text is, on one sense, an implicit acceptance of the assumption that literature illuminates or instructs actual life experiences.

This website was created on August 14, 1995 and is continuously revised.