Identification in Children’s Literature

Earlier this week, I was listening in on (well, really more of watching) several people far smarter than I am on the Child_Lit listserv out of Rutgers discuss the possibility of children’s (or young adult/YA) literature not being “about” a child or teen. Books like Marcus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger and Richard and Florence Atwater’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins were offered as potential examples, but, as with many of the discussions on the list, no formal conclusions were drawn.

I was reminded of the observation that, unlike many types of literature, when we talk about children’s literature, we talk about literature being written for a group of people the author does not identify with. When we say “African-American literature,” we generally are talking about literature written by and about Black people in America. Similarly, “gay fiction” is usually written by and about gay people. It’s very puzzling to think, then, about a “children’s literature” that is “for” and (usually) “about” a generally well-defined, socially-sanctioned (and -constructed) group of people that the author fundamentally no longer identifies with. This idea is, in some ways, the departure point for Perry Nodelman‘s The Hidden Adult, as well as several other extended meditations on children’s literature, so I don’t wish to pretend that this ground hasn’t been trod.

What I have been thinking about is the way these distinctions get blurred funnily when the two are combined: How do we define “Native American children’s literature”? Or “gay children’s fiction”? The answers, clearly, are not going to be hard and fast. Usually, we won’t be finding Native American children’s literature being written by Native children. Strangely, though, we find that often books we call “Native American children’s literature” isn’t written by a Native adult, either.* Similarly, some of the biggest hits in “LGBT children’s literature,” at least until recently, have been written by cis- and straight-identified folks. (I’m looking at you Ellen Wittlinger, Robin Reardon, and Francesca Lia Block; although I’ll qualify that with a note that Nancy Farmer and David Levithan (and others!) have had a huge impact on the development an LGBT children’s canon.)

This is really just more of an observation more than anything else, really. I’m definitely not going to say that I find this as unequivocally a problem–just a curiosity, more than anything. I refuse to suggest that it’s not possible for someone to write a story about someone unlike them, or even to suggest that it’s not possible for them to do it really, really well. (I love Block’s Weetzie Bat series a whole, whole lot.)

In doing some hypothesizing about the phenomenon, I just wondered whether it’s possible that there’s a link here. Is the fact that a children’s author is already written for an audience unlike them/writing characters unlike them make them more likely to wish to take the “unlike-ness” a step further and explore other identities? Is the dismissal of children’s literature as “serious” playing a role? (“It’s okay for me to go out on a limb and try something different–it’s just a kid’s book. No one’s going to care if I get it wrong.”)

*Admittedly, I am blurring some lines. Often, we more properly refer to “Native American children’s literature” as that which is written by a Native person or at least someone with deep, authentic connections to what it means to be Indigenous, and talk about “children’s books with Native content” for the overarching idea of books with, well, Native content, whether it’s written by someone qualified to represent Indigenous people or not.

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