Reviews 2010

Jeugdliteratuur in perspectief [Children’s literature in perspective]

Jeugdliteratuur in perspectief [Children’s literature in perspective]. Rita Ghesquière. Leuven and Den Haag: Acco, 2009. 240 pages. €33.25 (paperback).

In the 1970s and 1980s the study of children’s literature expanded in Flanders and the Netherlands. Rita Ghesquière published the first academic textbook exclusively dealing with children’s literature in 1982 (Het verschijnsel jeugdliteratuur [The phenomenon of children’s literature]). Although the book was written in Dutch, children’s literature was approached as an international (mainly Western-European) phenomenon. Discussing a wide variety of aspects of children’s literature it has been a good introduction to the specificities of literature for young people for almost three decades. The publication of a revised edition proves how, in spite of recent setbacks regarding, for example, the attention given to children’s books in daily newspapers, interest is still blooming both in and outside academia. In Jeugdliteratuur in perspectief (Children’s literature in perspective), Ghesquière incorporates recent publications on children’s literature, discusses new insights and examines the latest developments in the field.

Referring to Even-Zohar’s polysystem theory, Ghesquière approaches children’s literature not as a derivative of literature for adults, but as a literature in its own right and with its own dynamics. In the preface, she states that the position of children’s literature, both within the literary field and in relation to adjoining domains such as pedagogics and philosophy, has changed since the first edition of her book. The same holds for the image of the child (7-8). This observation has lead to a thorough reader oriented description of the wide range of aspects of children’s literature in the new edition. Whereas the perspective of a well-read adult often shone through the explanation of the phenomenon in her first book, Ghesquière’s revised version is much less colored.

The book is composed around the specific communication situation of children’s literature. Ghesquière claims it is essential for the nature of children’s literature that, unlike literature for adults, the communication situation of children’s literature consists of two separate motions: before the actual child is able to read it, the book has been read, selected and evaluated by adults (23-24). Therefore, after a first introductory chapter on the history and nature of children’s literature, Ghesquière dedicates each chapter to one of the agents in this specific communication situation.

The second chapter is dedicated to the several senders of children’s books. Next to authors, their psychological and social motivations for writing for children, illustrators and publishers, Ghesquière appropriately spends a long and very up-to-date paragraph on translators of children’s books, as a large part of children’s literature, especially in small countries, consists of translations (41). The third chapter deals with the child reader as the overt addressee of children’s literature. Both psychological and sociological aspects of reading are passed in review. The complicated interplay between the senders and this child audience is the subject of Chapter Four. Ghesquière expounds the fundamental asymmetrical communication situation between the sender and the addressee very clearly by showing how children’s books deal with death and sexuality. Next to this asymmetry on the level of the production of children’s literature, the asymmetry on the level of the distribution of children’s literature is critically discussed. The fifth chapter deals with the interesting issues of the function, the effect and the reception of children’s literature. However, the discussion of the function of children’s literature would have benefitted from a more clear separation of the intention of the sender and the subsequent or other ideologies imposed on the text. Ghesquière does mention the function of a text is closely connected to the intention of the author, but she does not elaborate on her short declaration of the existence of additional functions, either consciously or unconsciously written into a children’s text (111).

Ghesquière graces her theoretical accounts with a rich repertory of examples. The descriptions and quotations from many children’s books, both older and very recent ones, show her extensive knowledge and expertise on the subject. In some cases, one has to be familiar with the works mentioned to be able to relate the quotation to Ghesquières argument on a deeper level than just as an illustration. Ghesquière does not elaborate on all the examples she mentions, thereby sometimes missing the chance to demonstrate the uniqueness of a particular genre for children or to work out thought provoking border crossings. The book might have gained from having fewer, but more elaborated, text examples.

Although the social, psychological and communicational dimensions are the focus of the first five chapters, the last and longest chapter is completely dedicated to the ‘text’. The overview of genres is quite brief, but the discussion of the success of series books is very interestingly developed. Ghesquière has rightly changed her short paragraph on the success of ‘trivial books’ from her first book into a discussion of the success of series, which makes her discussion less judgmental. She has also chosen to discuss different examples from those mentioned in the first edition. Ghesquière has selected four series for particular attention, covering both series that are successful with children (Geronimo Stilton and Harry Potter) and series that have met with the particular approval of adults (Polleke, written by the laurelled Dutch author Guus Kuijer and the Dance sequence by Aidan Chambers). She succeeds in nuancing the division between child and adult approval by showing that the disapproval of series that are successful with children is sometimes based on the lack of reading the whole series (Potter). Moreover, her reader oriented approach leads her to caution adults for criticizing books that they themselves (no longer) like to read, but which are (still) appreciated by children.

Discussing children’s literature as a literary phenomenon and not limiting the discussion to Dutch and Flemish children’s literature makes Ghesquière’s book a very good introduction to the phenomenon of children’s literature for students, teachers to be and others interested. Her critical discussions and the many suggestions to build on her observations and conclusions are inspiring. Moreover, opening by claiming that the position of children’s literature both within the literary field and in relation to adjoining domains has changed, just as the image of the child has, makes curious about a more concrete interpretation of the last thirty years. Ghesquière has brought her book up to date regarding the international (Western-European) state of affairs in social, psychological and literary child studies and in children’s literature itself, but she has not changed her main argument concerning the nature of children’s literature. The comparative perspective she puts forward in the beginning raises very interesting questions about the development of children’s literature as the outcome of a process of (de-)autonomization and a different idea of the child reader in the last decennia of the previous century and the first decennium of this one. For example, what are the implications of the growing tendency to approach children directly as consumers on the communication situation of children’s literature? And how does children’s literature deal with the fact that ways of communication between adults and children are expanding greatly through new media? Ghesquière’s book is a goldmine of information on the complex field of children’s literature. That it also conjures up new questions goes to show the dynamics of the field and also demonstrates that Jeugdliteratuur in perspectief is not only an up-to-date introduction, it is an inspiring starting point for new research as well.

Sanne Parlevliet
University of Groningen, The Netherlands