‘Is the MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton for people who work with children?’ a prospective student asked me the other day. ‘Well yes…’ I told her, ‘…and no.’ The truth is, many of our students do have an active involvement with children and young people. Many are parents, grandparents, carers, teachers, school librarians, or child psychologists. Others write, illustrate, publish or market books for children. Reading and studying children’s literature can enrich and support this kind of professional activity, but it is not essential to work with, for, or even near children to study children’s literature (to illustrate: I have noticed a small yet significant cohort of lawyers with no obvious link to children who have recently been thriving on the distance learning MA programme).
There are lots of different reasons to read and study children’s literature, of course. One excellent motivation is simply the quality and inventiveness of much imaginative writing crafted for emerging and youthful minds – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Coraline, this is material that demands literary attention. Another reason is to discover more about how society has constructed and transmitted ideas of childhood, and exactly what kinds of cultural artefacts we have considered to be appropriate for young people at different points in history. It is also crucial to think about the way real and imagined children might encounter these fictions and to scrutinise the process whereby scratches on a page become words, sentences, character, action and meaning. Indeed, some time ago Peter Hunt called for a “childist” form of children’s literature criticism which considered what it means to “read as a child,” however hard that might be in practice.
I think there is a further purpose in reading children’s literature as adults that is often overlooked because it seems too private, too pleasurable, and is perhaps even on the edge of whimsy. And this purpose is to read certain children’s books – that is, books from our own childhood – so that they can tell us adults something about our personal histories of reading and meaning making. I recently spoke to Bath’s University of the Third Age (a lifelong learning co-operative for older people no longer in full time work) on this topic and was delighted to see a wave of memories pass through the audience as personal narratives of childhood reading were spontaneously reconstructed. Individuals recalled books that had been important to them in their youth (what Katherine Jones has called ‘generational literature’); stories that had stuck in the consciousness for some reason, whether because they made up the great literature that has retained cultural currency (classics such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays, The Secret Garden, or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) or because they had inspired private relationships with imaginative texts that transcended shifting tastes (the work of Malcolm Saville and Violet Needham were two excellent examples given by the audience).
And collectively, a room full of adults who had all been children somewhere between approximately 1925 and 1970 also managed to begin building a picture of reading habits that extended beyond the individual. Understanding the literature that shaped large parts of a whole generation (and not just the books that have survived into a generally accepted canon) might have quite an important function in understanding the population itself.
Some of the members of Bath U3A and other general readers have been helping me explore the specific processes involved when readers remember and return to books from their childhood, in a project called ‘Rereading Children’s Fiction’. The way fiction is remembered throws up some fascinating questions. Which elements are recalled most vividly? What emotions attend those memories? What literary events, characters or images are forgotten until the book is reread? And do our reading selves change completely from childhood to adulthood, or is there some aspect of rereading a fiercely remembered book that can lead to an encounter with our childhood imagination? Enough questions for a whole MA, probably – but in the meantime children’s literature continues to be published and a whole new set of generational texts are being created!