Can literature for the young be analysed as an exclusively academic exercise? To engage with the genre, critical perspectives are as important as a sense of fun…
Children's literature is at the intersection of at least three major areas of experience – that of the readers – children, the writers who are, most of the time, adults, and academics, who are adults too. Does this make it an area which is too heavily populated by protagonists who end up not being the central players? It is indeed a peculiarity of the field that both the creators and the analysers are not active participants of childhood, and therefore, can have only a slightly removed engagement with it – through memories of their own childhood, and through observation. This is a paradox that Reading Children recognises in its introduction itself, and reveals a self-reflexivity about its subject: children's literature reveals much more “about adult preoccupations and fears than about adults themselves.” The lenses through which the studies are carried out are primarily historical, sociological, feminist, and on occasion biographical, (although of course there are intersections between these fields) and the sense of self-reflexivity is carried on into each article in the book.
The book is a collection of eleven articles which are roughly chronological – the early articles concentrate on Kipling and Indian writing for children in colonial times, Victorian literature and German literature in the nineteenth century, and the later ones on literature such as Winnie the Pooh, and the Amar Chitra Katha series.
Sue Walsh's article on Kipling's Mowgli Stories reveal that the Jungle Books are the subject of much academic debate. She argues that the Mowgli stories are the “perspective of the white colonial boy-child born and raised in India.” Through the deconstruction of the meanings of ‘human' and ‘animal', and through further intricate linguistic analysis of the text, she uncovers ambiguous identity constructions that Mowgli strives towards. The Jungle Books can no longer be read simplistically as stories about an Indian boy who grew up in the jungle with animals who loved and protected him.
Stories about animals have always been a part of Indian literature and mythology and the ethos of the lives of children. The stories of Dhan Gopal Mukherji, which Rimi Chatterjee reads as a foil to Kipling, have a haunting lyricism in their description of animal lives – indeed, animals are almost always the lead characters in his stories. In his life which he largely spent in America, though, he was a deeply unhappy individual haunted by a sense of exile, and whose writing towards the end of his life focussed on an exaggerated sense of nostalgia for a spiritual India.
Echoes of a sense of nostalgia are to be found in another context .Of all genres of children's literature, the fairy-tale is perhaps considered quintessential children's literature, mainly due to their happy endings just before a crisis. Yet, Gabi R. Kathofer traces their cultural invention in Germany to a sense of longing for national unity in the early nineteenth century, a time of great national and cultural insecurity in Germany. In the search for cultural identity and stability, the fairy tale was, extraordinarily, an invention that offered ground for reconciling home and foreignness.
Rigorous analysis of this kind is balanced by articles that offer information on the lives of writers, some of them little known to us. Barnita Bagchi's paper is a lively and affectionate tribute to the Bengali writer Leela Majumder, who to all appearances was a staid school teacher at Shantiniketan.
But she was also a prolific writer who with her restless travels, and varied career wrote an energetic series of stories for children. Although these may be read with a feminist slant, Bagchi is quick to state that Majumder cannot be fitted into a neat category such as feminist literature.
With all the literature there is for children in India today, there will always be children who simply do not read for pleasure. The Amar Chitra Katha has for decades been the non-reading child's answer to engagement with books. Aryak Guha opens a window to the origins of this genre in his article, in which there are interviews with Anant Pai, the creator of the Amar Chitra Katha. It is a fascinating account of how the series began primarily with an commitment to bringing Indian myths and folklore to children, rather than the ubiquitous Enid Blyton.
These, and many more articles in the book have been motivated by a genuine concern to understand children's literature in a context that is wider than that within which the writer is situated. The number of perspectives included make it a valuable resource for teachers, scholars, parents, and anyone interested in children.
Reading Children: Essays on Children’s Literature, Ed. RImi B.Chatterjee and Nilanjana Gupta, Orient Blackswan.
Keywords: children's literature