Last Wednesday, I presented a paper at the annual Pop Culture Association/ American Culture Association conference. My paper was part of the “Children’s Literature and Culture” section.
My panel consisted of myself and two other women, and we all had papers that focused on children’s literature and gender. The first presenter talked about the history of Strawberry Shortcake and the show’s changing relationship to feminism and capitalism, while the second discussed social and gender roles in Eloise and Madeline by analyzing several illustrations. In my paper, “Who’s That Lady: Class and Gender Performativity in Countess Kate and The Princess Diaries,” I argued that Countess Kate (a Victorian novel by Charlotte Mary Yonge) and The Princess Diaries reveal that both nobility and gender are performative, and that the performance of nobility constitutes the performance of gender. Though the focus of the panel was gender, I loved that we all ended up talking about both gender and class, as one can never really be considered without the other.
When I decided to write about the panel, I had initially intended on recapping the three presentations because I found them all to be very interesting and insightful. However, as I thought back to the presentation, there’s something else that kept distracting me, and that is the legitimacy of children’s literature and culture as a topic of study to begin with.
My paper was a bit different than the other two, and one of the main differences was that the other two began by discussing why it’s important to study children’s literature and culture. I didn’t bother mentioning this because for me, that’s a given. In my graduate program, we all know how important the critical examination of children’s literature is–it goes without saying. The more I thought about the fact that these women felt the need to justify themselves (especially at a conference that celebrates the study of a lot of random stuff!) the more irritated I became.
I’m no stranger to the fact that children’s literature is like the red-headed stepchild of literature and literary studies. People assume that children’s books have no substance and are not worthy of serious academic study. When I tell people I’m getting a Master’s in children’s literature, 9 times out of 10 they say something like “Oh, well that sounds fun!”
Fun….well yes, I read some amazing books, work with amazing people, and have really interesting discussions…but when it’s midnight and I’m surrounded by essays by literary theorists and I’m racking my brains trying to speak intelligently about complex topics or crying because I’m so exhausted after completing a 100 pages worth of picturebook illustration analyses…no I wouldn’t call that fun. It’s hard work and it’s incredibly rewarding, but it’s not easy-breezy fun.
It would help if people would pause for a moment to consider what children’s literature actually is. It’s not written by children. It’s written by adults FOR children, and therefore contains a lot of information about the adults who write, publish, buy, sell, teach and read it. How do we as adults perceive children and childhood? What do we want childhood to be? What values do we want to instill in children?
All literature (and other media) is chock full assumptions and messages, serving to transmit ideology to readers. We don’t think twice when someone studies literature and media for adults, and the same should be true of literature for children.