“our greatest pleasures and our deepest fears:” On Reading Children’s Literature

[What follows below is an excerpt from the introduction for students in Reading Children’s Literature, Second Edition on the varied experiences that arise when studying children’s literature.]

As we’ve noted, some readers worry that analyzing cultural texts interferes with pleasure, but we might also note how unsettling it is to be confused by a text or uncertain about its meaning. Learning a new skill or achieving comprehension of ideas can be a source of great relief and satisfaction. Just as understanding the history of art and artistic movements can help a viewer make sense of a work of art in a museum, thereby deriving pleasure from understanding the work’s meaning or composition or its place in a larger movement or history, understanding the history of children’s literature and how children’s literature works can enhance the pleasure of reading it and allow us to reread with pleasure. For instance, a complex work such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland contains numerous allusions to other literary texts and historical events. While the nonsense and strangeness of the book can be enjoyed without recognizing these references, understanding them allows readers to notice jokes they might otherwise miss, allowing new and different pleasures to be discovered.

Children’s literature can also be unpleasurable. It can generate anxiety or discomfort or depict frightening and disturbing elements. The disorienting quality of reading children’s literature could be upsetting to some readers, as might the terrifying scissor-man of Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter (1845), who chops off the thumbs of children who refuse to stop sucking them. The unhappy fates of the children in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) or in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning (1999) might be frightening, as might historical fiction for children about war and atrocity, such as Toshi Maruki’s Hiroshima No Pika (1982), a picturebook about the bombing of Hiroshima, or Myron Levoy’s Alan and Naomi (1977), a children’s novel about a girl traumatized by seeing her father killed in the Holocaust. Readers seek out literature about terrible things for many reasons, including helping them to work through challenging or horrible experiences or feelings.

Children’s literature can reveal both our greatest pleasures and our deepest fears or concerns. Understanding what pleases or frightens us the most is absolutely key to understanding what it means to be human and how human beings relate to and treat one another. In evoking childhood memories, children’s literature provides access to our most foundational emotions or experiences; it is thus one of the few ways adults can maintain a connection to childhood. Following Jerry Griswold, the scholar and critic, we find the expression in children’s literature of basic pleasures and fears to be especially insistent, suggesting that we can learn about some of our most deep-seated needs and pleasures through studying works for children. By examining what it is about childhood that triggers adult nostalgia, we can learn about our most potent and long-term fears, anxieties, pleasures, and desires.

Posted on March 5, 2019