Sunday, April 22, 2007

In Honour of International Pixel-Stained Peasant Day

A section from my forthcoming book....

The Child Reader and the Reading Child

In the conclusion to a previous book, Diana Wynne Jones and the Children’s Fantastic Tradition I suggested that the apparent conflict between the demands that authors such as William Mayne, Alan Garner and Diana Wynne Jones imposed on the child, and the concept of the child reader as someone who had to be tempted and coerced into reading, could be explained very simply if one took out of that category “the Child Reader” that sub-set of children who, in contrast, have to have books forcibly removed from their hands in order to gain any nourishment, see where they are going, and otherwise interact with their surroundings. Despite all the interest in getting children to read, this child, who I dubbed “the Reading Child” is rare in either the childhood studies literature, education literature or children’s literature criticism.

One reason for the absence of the Reading Child from the literature seems to be related to the insistence that children are not a market. This idea has a number of origins: it descends from the days when books were expensive and most people’s access to reading was through the local public or private lending libraries, and furthermore when the librarian’s control over child readers extended to control of tickets and of book choice. As an idea it has also been supported by Jacqueline Rose’s hugely influential work, Peter Pan and the Impossibility of Children’s Literature. Jacqueline Rose’s primary argument was that because fiction for children is not written for children, then children are unusual in having the impressions and understandings of their condition shaped and imposed upon them by others not from their own community. Up to a point, I agree with this statement but what I do not agree with is the corollary, that appears to have turned into a mantra that “children are not a market” and which I see everywhere. I want to unpick both elements of this mantra as a step towards my discussion of what science fiction for children has done, and is doing, where it’s catchment area is, and why it may not even have one.

I will start with Rose’s idea, because I think it has reinforced what was essentially a social and economic situation that even by 1930 had holes riddled throughout. Rose’s idea that children have no literature because children do not write literature, can be challenged from two directions: the first is simply that the exceptionalist model does not hold water. Writers are a tiny minority of the reading public—and many writers do not in fact read very much. If we consider who writes, then male writers are disproportionately represented in the sense that there is a higher proportion of male writers of fiction than there are male readers of fiction (the non-fiction numbers look different). The class make-up of writers is substantially middle-class, but the make-up of readers is not so easy to discern (and is confused by what people will and won’t admit to doing with their leisure time, an issue to which I will return. ). As the number of books on the market by Black writers remains relatively small, one must assume that most Black readers are reading books by white people. Similarly, gay and lesbian readers have long taken their reading pleasures where they could. To turn around and suggest that literature written by an outsider yet marketed to this group somehow excludes the notion of the literature belonging to the reading group is problematic because it excludes two notions: one, that readers are quite capable of putting a book down if it does not appeal, and that this is true also of children, and also that readers are quite capable of subverting a text to their own needs (see Sheena Pugh, 2006, on the range of slash fiction available) and that this too is quite within the reach of the child reader (see Crago and Crago’s work with their own child Anna). As it happens, there is increasing evidence of what children do want to read in their own writings, as the study of “writing by children” is expanding, and as publishers have decided that very young writers are a saleable commodity. The results are complex in that some children hate reading other children’s writing, while Christopher Paolini’s Eragon (2002) became a best seller. But when we study the printed writings of child authors, what we find in terms of content is not very different from what is on the market.

Rose’s exceptionalist model is fundamentally tied to Patrick Brown’s assumptions about the reader’s “proper” interests. To understand what’s wrong with this we need to get a grip on the idea that reading has always been a minority passion. A recent New York Times survey of children’s reading habits led to a degree of discussion the children’s literature discussion list, Child_lit about what was a “heavy” reader, and it was a shock to realize that there is a huge gap between the child who reads one or two books a week, and is considered by non-readers to be a heavy reader, and the reading practices of those who identify themselves as heavy readers whose total between the ages of 12 and 18 was closer to sixteen a week (a number of books which also has consequences for the idea of a children’s market). This revelation should persuade us to separate the functional requirements of literacy from the pleasure activity of reading.

Living in an economy that requires a functional level of literacy to survive, imbued as we are in our own culture of reading, surrounded as we often are by other readers, it is really difficult sometimes to grasp that being A Reader is as much an active hobby as being a fencer or a stamp collector. Reading for pleasure, so often communicated as a natural thing to want for our children, should be reconstituted as the equivalent to learning a sport. Seen that way some oddities show up in the literature about how to get children to read. All the literature I have read concentrates on the content of the books/comics/magazines being offered to children. Only in the field of picture book criticism have I seen any discussion of children’s understanding of the aesthetics of sound (see Chapter One, "U.S. Laureate of Nonsense: A Seuss Poetics” in Philip Nel’s book, Dr. Seuss: An American Icon, 2004), and the idea that one might enjoy reading for the sheer pleasure of getting better at it, just as one enjoys playing the violin for the sheer pleasure of getting better at it is utterly absent from the criticism of the process of reading. Seen that way, the notion of reading as a natural interest starts to disappear, and with it, the notion that there is a natural interest in certain types of reading begins to disappear.

This leads me in two directions, both of which will be important for this book. The issues of narrative complexity, or what children can cope with, and the issue of whether the values that readers ascribe to the texts they choose are valid or not.

Narrative complexity

Narrative complexity and the Reading Child is remarkably understudied. There is some work on the development of complex story telling technique (add in refs on child development) and Cragos and Cragos very carefully tracked the development of complex narrative understanding in their daughter, Anna. But most of the work on what children can and cannot absorb is to be found in the study of picture books where it is very heavily value-laden. The tension that exists is between those who see children’s lack of pre-conceived narrative structures as a state of ignorance and a distraction, and those who see the same lack of pre-conceptions as potential to be exploited and stretched.

Although it is a little unfair to cite as his current opinion a text written in 1998, Perry Nodelman’s Words Without Pictures: the Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books (1988) is an exemplar of the idea that the purpose of picture books is to teach children to focus on a particular understanding of narrative in which the “significant” is central to the frame. Nodelman cites McLuhan’s idea that non-literate people do not sift out the irrelevant but scan each image as if they were pixels; “Anyone who has watched young, preliterate children with little experience of books scan pictures in just this way, and consequently focus their attention on what are meant to be insignificant details, will appreciate the extent to which pictorial perception depends on this learned competence.” (7). For Nodelman, the focus on the centre of the frame is a gain in competence. In contrast, Helen Bromley sees the diffuse focus of young children both as a positive asset, and as something to be exploited by the clever author. In “Spying on Picture Books: Exploring Intertextuality with Young Children” (1996) Bromley asked children to identify the stories and rhymes that they recognized in The Jolly Postman. The children’s acknowledgement of their own pleasure in recognition, and their awareness that these inter-textual elements worked alongside the main narrative, Bromley described as, “theorizing their practice as readers” (103). Another text, Not Now Bernard, was rewarding for what was found in the corner of the page, “One group of children discovered that Elmer (the patchwork elephant) was to be found on the toy shelves of the badly behaved Bernard” (105). Similarly Morag Styles in Children Reading Pictures: Interpreting Visual Texts (2003) pointed out that however detailed her own analysis, small children regularly spotted things she had not (x). Styles also cited B. Kiefer’s 1993 observations, “Noticing details seems to come first and, so strong is the urge, that children often see features that adults miss and, Kiefer suggests, sharing ‘secrets with the illustrator may in turn help children become more sensitive to the artistic qualities in picture books... I found that they developed more critical thinking not only about cognitive factors but also about aesthetic factors and that this awareness was different depending on the age of the child.’(1993)”(Styles, 48) Styles, observing that older children no longer seem to disparage picture books, wonders if “ times may be changing and that increasingly older children are more responsive to visual texts than they were, and that this might be because children had grown up in a much more visual world” (xi) an idea with which David Lewis (2001) concurs. In particular, Lewis argues that picture books inculcate, “'double-orientation, the ability to look in two directions at once”, either text and picture at variance, or picture and picture (68). Lewis, Styles, Kiefer and Bromley all argue for a mode of reading that appears to be lost with age, an ability to see a wider concept of narrative in which the central tale may be enhanced by what is seen in corners or, with some texts, the central narrative or counter-narrative may actually be constructed by the “text” buried in the corners. While picture book artists and authors seem comfortable with the idea that children’s open-ness allows greater narrative complexity, many writers and editors working with the older market seem to assume that the ability to handle narrative complexity is acquired only with maturity, and that “narrative complexity” is inherent on Nodelman’s idea that there is a central narrative which should be focussed on. Again, there is little discussion of this problematic in the critical work, but some authors have addressed it: authors such as Daniel Pinkwater, Aidan Chambers, Anne Fine, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones and Tim Wynne-Jones (no relation) have all discussed the willingness of child and teen readers to cheerfully accept and “read” complex narratives which baffle adult readers. The issue matters here because when we discuss whether writing sf for children (who we assume to have a pre-scientific view of the world) is possible, one of the limiting factors frequently offered, is the issue of whether the reader can handle the world-building, cognitive estrangement and narrative complexity of modern science fiction. In chapters 2 and 8 I will be pointing out how essential this mode of reading is to the reading of science fiction, but also how relatively little of this technique we see in the science fiction written for children and teens despite the evidence, from work with children and picture books and from the developmental theorists that such complexity is within their grasp. Here though, the issue links to how we understand what children value, because it is clear that if we have an idea what children should get out of the act of reading, it can be hard to value evidence that something else is being gained as well as, or instead of.

1. Many working class women did not used to admit to reading because it implied a negligence of household duties. Then, if they did, it would be couched as “well, I like a romance” or “just Catherine Cookson”. Groundbreaking research on women’s working lives in the 1960s—need ref—revealed that far more women held paid jobs than anyone had realised, because women were under-reporting either from guilt or a feeling that part-time work was not real work. In the field of reading studies there are indications that several groups may be under-reporting their reading patterns, of which I would suggest young males and older women are the most likely categories. Alison Follos makes similar points.
2. Both Paolini’s Eragon and Austen’s Love and Freindship are intimately connected with the content and tropes of the genre they chose.
3. There are other problems with Nodelman’s discussion of primitive art, generally he seems to have ignored all the work by art historians on religious narrative art, and by anthropologists and pre-historians on artefact such as cave paintings.
There is a picture book called, Elmer the Patchwork Elephant by David McKee which has spawned eighteen sequels.