Often times I consider this question; what is children’s literature? In a vain attempt to form a single definition. I know this is a fools errand. There is no single way to define what is by its nature a diverse genre with such a complicated and misunderstood history. This is further complicated when we stop to consider that what is written and by this I mean the intention of the author is not always what the reader understands. The act of reading is itself a collaborative effort and as such is prone to changes of interpretation. So there can be no answer to this question unless we define it by saying children’s literature is whatever we wish it to be. This is of course a cop-out so it is usually best to leave the question unanswered. And yet, I keep coming back to it. With each reading the question is renewed.
Today it struck me, I can answer the question! How you might ask? Simple, I can answer it by taking one simple definition as it comes to me and when another definition comes along I can add to or discard the previous one. Certainly this would not hold water under critical scrutiny that demands concrete answers, or at least answers than can be conveyed with some sense of authority. But criticism and its commensurate authority only goes so far before the student or the teacher (aren’t they really the same) must be willing to take things as they are and leave it at that.
And so, today children’s literature is Contradiction and Consequence….
By this I mean that it is something that deals with the contradiction’s of and in life; contradictions that are more acute because the child is a dependent who relies on grown-ups and on rules that are often seen as mysterious, unfair and hypocritical, and the consequences of failing to understand how those contradictions should be understood and how they should be related to their egotistical (and here I use the word in a positive sense) desires which are fiercely independent and yet must somehow be made to fit into, or at least not interfere with societies (and grown ups) rules and restrictions. If I may quote from Natalie Babbitt and a speech she gave to the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. “Rules are there for guidance and protection. Except sometimes. Is it all right to kill people? No. Killing is immoral and illegal. Except sometimes*” and that is contradiction and consequence.
* The Ann Carroll Moore Lecture at the New York Public Library, 1989