The influence of children’s literature on adult literature

Just got back from a really enjoyable evening at the University of Reading where I attended a lecture called The influence of children’s literature on adult literature. Delivered by the excellent Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, she talked about intertextuality and asked whether the dynamics of intertextuality between adult and children’s literature were subject to value judgements depending on their intertextual influences. It drew heavily on her experiences of research and writing around an article (of which a vast amount is available here).

The example she gave was an episode in the Mill on the Floss by Eliot. It’s the moment where Maggie cuts her hair. There are other moments in the story which supports her points but this was the key illustrative moment. You’ll have to excuse me if I make any errors here – these are all based on my interpretation of the lecture and with no experience of reading any Eliot.

This incident is accepted as being based on Eliot’s own childhood. This acceptance springs from the general consensus of scholars on Eliot – probably initially coming from Eliot’s biographers.

However there are striking similarities to this particular passage (and many others in Eliot’s text) in Holiday House by Catherine Sinclair.

Lesnik-Oberstein published on this topic, proving pretty darn conclusively that there was a connection between the texts. Her experiences around how this was received by the academic community provided a lot of her content. I’m paraphrasing here but there was a distinct apathy and reluctance to her findings – a certain “so what” attitude. What also came clear was that there was a certain value judgement applied to this connection between the texts. A retrospective connection between an “adult text” and a “children’s text” was somehow deemed less worthy of interest than a “child’s text” being influenced by an “adult text”.

The question she proposed was “why”?

I don’t think it’s a question that can be answered at all swiftly or even conclusively. But I do think that perhaps some of the following maybe play a part in formulating an answer. I’ll apologise in advance if I become a bit disjointed!

When we read books as children we engage in a collective, transitory reading experience. Literacy is something we develop – both through formal education and informally through our personal contexts. Every child reads. Every child is actively exposed to a text – be that as an animated cartoon, a nursery rhyme or a book.

Children’s literature plays a vital – and transitory role in this reading journey. Adult literature is the destination. Children’s literature is (perhaps!) viewed as a transitory step on this journey. You read children’s books and then you grow up and read adults. Therefore if an adult book actively references a child’s book, it will actively trigger memories of the readers own personal reading experience as a child. And this isn’t something we promote as a society. We are always encouraging children to read bigger and “better” books. We package Harry Potter under Adult covers to make it “okay” to be read. Because as a kids book it’s not. You’re meant to be “past” it.

I love talks like this that throw up more questions than answers. And I’d love your points of view. What do you think? Is children’s literature the poor cousin of intertextuality or is this balderdash as far as you’re concerned?

The Puku Project

If you’re anywhere near the University of Reading, you need to keep an eye on their event listings because they have some brilliant ones specifically related to children’s literature that are quite often open to the public. As the university plays host to The Graduate Centre for International Research in Childhood : Literature, Culture, Media it attracts some brilliant visitors and also is staffed by some hugely interesting (and very open) academics.

I try to make full advantage of opportunities like these because quite often they expose you to people I would never have come across in my particular area of scholarship.

And so it is with Elinor Sisulu. I attended a lecture today at the main campus in Whiteknights where Sisulu spoke of a project she is heavily involved in: The Puku Project. The Puku Project is a network devoted to supporting children’s literature in South Africa. As the site puts it “Our goal is to help build the SA children’s book marketplace to new heights.”

Sisulu focused in particularly on the difficulties of language. She explained that a vast majority of children (she used Soweto as an example) speak  five or six  languages. The culture is highly lingual. But English, the apparent dominant language, is not. It may be spoken by people but only as a third or fourth language. This inevitably provides difficulty in the publishing world whereby most items are published in English as opposed to Language X due to financial – and often political – restrictions. The Puku Project is taking a specifically multi-lingual approach and is deliberately trying to emphasise the worth and the value of the ‘original’ text as opposed to the translation.

Sisulu also discussed the intensely powerful oral tradition still present in South Africa and across the continent. With the advent of digital media, the opportunities for sharing these stories and storytellers are immense. She suggested YouTube as an obvious example but then spoke of the lack of investment in the more basic forms of media – the radio. The potential to exploit radio is immense.

She referenced Interdisciplinary perspectives on African language publishing for children which is a project being carried out by the University which specifically discussed a lot of issues around multi-lingual African publishing. An abstract is available here.

There’s a really interesting article here on Sisulu which discusses a lot of her personal story and elaborates further on her ideas around children’s literature in South Africa and in general.

Twisting their words

This was the title of a public lecture I attended on February 9th  at the University of Reading. It was given by Dr Patricia Riddell who very kindly supplied me with a copy of the slides today following a query I had about one of the references.

The lecture was on dyslexia – and that’s a topic I know very little about. I know the basics – the “concept” of dyslexia –  but as for the specifics of how this manifests itself in a child or the difficulties it may present, I am greatly lacking in knowledge, awareness and experience.

My eureka moment came about halfway through when she discussed the concept of reading and asked us whether it was a static / dynamic task. I plumped for static, reasoning that the word is there, it’s fixed, and once it’s on the page, you read it pause move on read the next pause move on and construct a sentence of meaning.

Reading, pointed out Riddell, is a dynamic task. You’re constantly moving. The image of the word is the focal point but all around it is “white noise” (my definition) which, in dyslexic children, clouds and impairs the ability to decode the initial word.

Wow. Such a simple thing and such an obvious point.

So how do we address this? How do we help and aid dyslexic children?

We find out what they’re good at. And quite often they’re brilliant at something. You adapt and build on that. You throw out the systems that don’t work and exploit the ones that do. It was surprising to see how incredibly complex a vast amount of the ‘learning to read’ methods are – breaking down the word, for example, is much more complex than it may seem. Take the word: “through”. How on earth do we break that down? We need to know th = compound sound, ugh = uf, and that this word is not “though” which only loses one letter but sounds entirely different.

The other thing that struck me during the evening was the revelation that children can be dyslexic in one language and not the other. I was particularly intrigued by the reference to German / Italian being easier to learn due to the regulisation of the language. English has grown into being one of the most difficult and irregular languages out there - we don’t help ourselves out at all!

Genuinely fascinating and thought-provoking stuff.