Two semesters ago, while TA’ing for a section of a British Literature I survey at NYU, I used a bit from the end of Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass to illuminate for my students the notion of multiple, interconnected universes promoted by John Donne and some other Metaphysical poets. What had been an abstruse, complex and, to be honest, really difficult to explain concept suddenly came clear to them. After some ooohs and aaahs and a few “Why didn’t you just say that?”s, one kid asked the unanswerable: “Wow, why don’t we ever get books like that in English classes?”
I say that’s unanswerable, not because there’s no answer, but because the answer is, like many questions relating to the Great Western Canon, unnecessarily complex. The truth is, there are classes offered in college where you can read YA fiction and children’s literature – but generally they’re in Education, not English, departments. In those classes, the goal is pedagogical: how to teach these texts to high-schoolers, identifying the basics of what passes for literary analysis in secondary education – theme, character, plot – the building blocks of book reports. There will be no consideration of critical theory, no attempt to historicize the texts, no substantive critical engagement with the text, at least not in the way a literary scholar would recognize. Let me be absolutely clear: this level of engagement is perfectly legitimate for the constituency to whom it is offered – budding primary and secondary school teachers and administrators. Their concerns are not the concerns of literary scholars but of educators faced with the startling range of literacies and competencies of America’s children and adolescents. Their challenge is significant and any coursework that helps them use literature to reach the kids in their classrooms, to encourage them to put down the Wii and pick up a book, and to find some point of connection, individual or universal, in a text is absolutely invaluable. I do not challenge that, not even for a minute. But none of these truths help me answer my student’s question: Why don’t you find Phillip Pullman in an English class?
The answer to my student’s question has less to do with what goes on in the training of primary and secondary educators than it has to do with the internal agonies of the literary discipline. Since the 1980s, feminism and it’s counterparts in critical theory and cultural studies have been remarkably successful in challenging the Dead White Male model of the literary canon, but this success has a price. For while identity-politics oriented scholarship has been successful in the establishment of counter-canons and “studies” areas – Women’s Studies, African-American Studies and the diverse engines of Critical Race Analysis, Gay and Lesbian Studies, etc. – the development of these parallel canons and specialized categories of discourse has effectively taken the pressure off of the DWM canon, allowing the “studies” to exist in their own bubbles, and more often than not in their own departments. Further, internecine quarrels within literature departments over the status and content of the canon of literature, agonizing doubts and defensiveness about the legitimacy of the contribution of the humanities (and literature in particular) to the 21st century research university, and shifts in emphasis away from the reading of literature to more social science, historical, and even statistical orientations in literary scholarship have all contributed to the exclusion of children’s literature, and particularly YA literature, from the standard offerings of most English departments. And thus these two discrete yet inter-related categories of literature remain under-theorized.
This is changing. Childhood Studies, one of many critical offspring of feminism and psychoanalytic theory, has emerged as a discrete channel of inquiry in many universities. The orientation tends to be more or less either historical or toward the social sciences, but children’s literature is a part of most Childhood Studies programs. Those disciplinary trends in literary studies that conspired to devalue children’s literature and exclude it from the canon are now being redeployed in creative and important ways to find a place for the literatures and cultures of childhood in the university. Book history, circulation studies, and historicism are all finding major contributors in scholars engaged in the study of children’s literature. And identity politics-oriented criticism is also making significant headway in the field; two recent collections of essays, Carol J. Singley and Caroline Levander’s American Child (Rutgers UP, 2003) and Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley’s Curiouser (U of Minnesota, 2004) converge Critical Race Analysis and Gay and Lesbian Studies, respectively, with Childhood Studies in provocative ways that open up all three areas of inquiry.
While all of this is good and important work, there still remains much to be done. Outmoded psychoanalytic criticism retains too much sway in writing about children’s literature, and this is particularly true in writing about literature for adolescents. Wouldn’t, I wonder, theory that engages the postmodern subject, say Lyotard or his successors, be more legitimate for interpreting Gossip Girl or even Harry Potter than theory based in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century psychoanalysis? Also the role of the critic as reader, and the role of early reading in shaping the adult critic, is an important emergent method of inquiry. Media theory too, I believe, has much to offer to help critics (who, we must admit, are not the intended audience of this body of literature) to understand the issues of identity in the age of hypermedia that so much YA fiction engages. And there are probably dozens of others of areas where YA and children’s literature can interrogate the established literary canon(s) and contemporary critical theory.
The goal of this blog, then, is to provide an incubator for these lines of inquiry. I have engaged friends including librarians, literary scholars, editors, and secondary school teachers as contributors and co-conspirators, and encourage other readers to jump in via comments or by offering posts of their own. The purpose in using an unfiltered public media for this incubation is to engage in dialogue with fellow travelers across the disciplines and hopefully outside of academia who are interested in contributing to the enrichment of the study of young adult literature.