Reviews 2010

Fundamental Concepts of Children’s Literature Research

Fundamental Concepts of Children’s Literature Research. Hans-Heino Ewers. New York and London: Routledge, 2009. 187 pages. £65 (hardback).

This book takes as its starting point the Swedish literary theorist Göte Klingberg’s influential study Barnlitteraturforskning – En introduktion [Children’s Literary Research – An Introduction], which was first published in 1972. Hans-Heino Ewers engages in a dialogue with Klingberg, whose terminology he believes to be outdated and in some cases even obsolete. His goal is to coin new terms for key notions of children’s literature or “children’s literary communication” (3; 9), as he calls it.

This monograph is divided into four major sections. In the first, Ewers takes the classical communicative model composed of sender, message and receiver as his starting point to discuss literature for children and young adults. In this process of literary communication, Ewers distinguishes several intermediary stations, which can either pass the message on unchanged or modify it or expand the group of addressees. In the second chapter, he points out that children also receive literary messages which were not originally meant for them. He therefore differentiates between actual and intended children’s reading. Chapter Three deals with the role of mediators in children’s literary communication and how they can act as gatekeepers, influencing the process. In the next chapter, Ewers defines these gatekeeping mediators as adult co-readers of children’s literature. Possible messages in the text aimed at the adults co-reading then constitute the implied co-reader. He goes on to redefine crossover literature as literature with multiple addressees and suggests the terms monosemic and bisemic multiply addressed children’s literature to replace Barbara Wall’s “single address” and “double address” respectively, a replacement which I do not deem necessary, as Wall’s terminology is widely accepted and still works fine.

In Part Two, Ewers takes up all possible forms of literary action systems, such as production, distribution, consumption or evaluation systems. In Chapters Seven to Eleven, he sums up the specific functions of children’s literary distribution systems, such as the market for children’s books, public libraries as well as kindergartens and schools. He shows that all of these distributive systems exert some evaluative influence since their participants make a prior selection of books before making them available to the general public in one way or another. This is especially true of the educational system. Chapter Twelve provides an overview of the historical changes throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries which eventually led to the pluralisation of the distribution systems. Next, Ewers goes on to explain how the different children’s literary action systems together constitute “a kind of ‘polysystem” (96). Arguing that the individual systems are relatively independent and each sanction children’s literature according to their own criteria, he concludes that “current children’s literature seems to be a multi-stranded field with relatively weak centralization” (100). Ewers summarizes all of the chapters in this section (except for Chapter Twelve) in a table at the end. These overviews are very lucid and provide a useful tool for surveying the characteristics of the different action systems.

The third major part of the book is devoted to the semiotics of children’s and young adult literature. According to Ewers, literary communication is essentially a matter of encoding and decoding messages by means of symbols and signs, which are made tangible in a literary work. The children’s literary symbol system makes use of the same signs and combinatory rules as “elevated” adult literature, but applies them in an entirely different way, according to four fundamental children’s literary norms. Ewers identifies these norms as follows: children’s literature as didactic; as literature suitable for children and young adults; as a fully adequate form of literature; and finally as the revival of folk literature. These four norms can in turn be combined into, which Ewers presents in Chapter Sixteen. Ewers argues that the author as an organizational category, which is quite common in adult literature, is of far less importance in children’s literary discourse.

In Part Four, Ewers treats the central children’s literary norm of child suitability, which implies adaptation of the message to the child receivers on two levels: comprehensibility and appeal. Instead of sticking with Klingberg’s generally accepted term “adaptation”, he chooses to call this process accommodation, an intervention which to my mind complicates matters unnecessarily. Chapter Nineteen provides an overview of the different forms of accommodation that can cater for children’s decoding ability as well as their likings and needs: these can be code-related; paratextual; stylistic; formal/structural; genre/related; material- and content-related; thematic accommodation and finally accommodation with respect to value judgment. In this chapter, Ewers explicitly refers to his predecessor Klingberg’s theory of adaptation, at times concurring with him, at other times criticizing and complementing his views.

In Chapter Twenty, Ewers provides his audience with example analyses of two German children’s classics: Der kleine Wassermann [The Little Water-Sprite] by Otfried Preuβler (1956) and Ben liebt Anna [Ben Loves Anna] by Peter Härtling (1979). The analyses constitute a practical application of the concepts of accommodation, showing clearly what Ewers has in mind when talking of the different modes of adapting a children’s book to its reader audience. Nevertheless, contextualising and perhaps summarizing the books would have made the examples more accessible to an international circle of readers to whom these works may not be familiar. In the final chapter, Ewers comes to the conclusion that, ironically enough, it is difficult for children’s literature to fulfil the criteria of child suitability.

Overall, Hans-Heino Ewers provides his readers with a set of terms which are indeed fundamental: It deals with basic concepts of the children’s literary system and discusses evolutions in the field up to the present day. Some of the expressions do, however, appear unnecessarily complicated and therefore do not seem easily applicable at all. Moreover, the book was originally written in German and only later translated into English, “in order to make them [Ewers’ theoretical ideas] internationally available” (1). Although the publisher claims that this work is “[i]nternational in scope” (see the back cover), most examples and findings do relate to the German situation, making the work slightly less international than announced. It therefore remains to be seen whether it will be able to become a groundbreaking study that is widely used and referred to. Finally, I should add that the English translation is not always as felicitous as one might hope. Small linguistic and typographical errors appear throughout the book, and one term even is linguistically wrong: “Primarily children’s literature” should, in my view, have been better translated as “primary children’s literature”. In Ewer’s German publications, however, the terms work well and so I feel that translation problems may have undermined the inherent quality of this study.

Works Cited

Ewers, Hans-Heino. Literatur für Kinder und Jugendliche. Eine Einführung [Literature for Children and Young Adults. An Introduction]. München: Fink, 2000.

Klingberg, Göte. Barnlitteraturforskning. En introduktion [Children’s Literature Research. An Introduction]. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1972.

Sara Van den Bossche
Ghent Univeristy, Belgium