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La littérature de jeunesse: Pour une théorie littéraire [Children’s Literature: Towards (/For) a Literary Theory]

La littérature de jeunesse: Pour une théorie littéraire [Children’s Literature: Towards (/For) a Literary Theory]. Nathalie Prince. Paris: Armand Colin, 2015. 2nd ed. 247 pages. £20.83 (hardback).

Nathalie Prince’s compact, eminently readable Children’s Literature: Towards (/For) a Literary Theory (currently in its second edition, with a preface by Jean Perrot) is a precious addition to a still small corpus of theoretical texts on children’s literature in the French academy. Prince is not the first scholar to claim to be working towards a literary theory of children’s literature, but her simplicity of tone, conceptual precision and creativity in doing so makes her own attempt particularly compelling.

Prince contends that children’s literature may be a genre, though not in the usual acceptance of the term. An introduction recalls the inherent paradoxes and questions, typical of Children’s Literature 101s, of that category of text we call children’s literature: what children? what texts? what is a child and what is a book anyway? (Is a book shaped as a whale still a book?) The tensions between popular success and elite taste, between pedagogy and aesthetics, between narrative recipe and originality, are mapped. The generic characteristics of children’s literature do not lie entirely in its narrative patterns, its materiality, its intended audience, its history, its creators. As a result, Prince’s vision of children’s literature is that its generic nature is irremediably distributed, pluralistic; any theoretical approach must work across all its facets.

The book is divided into three main chapters. The first one provides a historical overview of children’s literature, closely associated to the evolution of a "feeling of childhood" (sentiment de l’enfance) in society, to the rise of the literate middle class, and to the increased profitability of book publishing, using a mostly Francophone and Anglophone corpus. The history of children’s literature, Prince argues, is that of a "hyper editorialised" type of text. Telling this history means telling "the history of the editorial consciousness of the childly" (69) (I am here using Peter Hollindale’s aptly vague term (in Signs of Childness in Children’s Books, 1997) to translate Prince’s equally mysterious la chose enfantine). The chapter is extremely useful to all scholars of children’s literature, and particularly to students tackling the field for the first time. But it is not only worthwhile for its descriptiveness; it is also analytically very rich, deep and gripping, as well as extremely pleasant to read (as indeed is the whole book), nimbly convoking, in characteristic French style, Ariès, Foucault, Rousseau or Hegel. Prince’s view of the history of children’s literature is indubitably a narrative of progress, which might be debatable, but she makes some particularly astute points regarding the maturation of children’s literature into a gloriously self-referential field in the latter half of the twentieth century. At that point, it may be said, children’s literature leaves aside the anxiety of influence from "adult" literature and starts to take itself as a reference, thinking about, recapitulating, and referencing its own history.

The second chapter is entirely focused on character. Prince argues that in children’s literature there is a "reciprocal determination of genre and character," whereby characters are as useful for the plot as the plot is designed around them. Characters are, she states, most often scripts, "already thick, already constituted, already textualised, participating in a common and traditional imaginary" (92). The animal in particular is "oversignificant" (sursignifiant) (93). Prince’s analysis of the onomastics (the aesthetics and structures of naming) in children’s literature is of great interest; she shows masterfully the tendency for name, character and plot to be bundled together in the production of meaning, a feature that is exceptionally determinant in this kind of literature.

The third chapter turns to the particular poetics of children’s literature, delving into a rather fascinating phenomenology of the child reader. Prince quite convincingly slips into the head of a child reader, pinpointing specific questions raised by the fact, which she sees as "radical and prominent," of the lack of reading competence of the child relative to the adult: "Children’s literature is not so much as teaches to read"; it "creates inchoately, through a kind of literary Pygmalionism, its own readers" (132). The reading process is thus always also a process of learning to read, unpredictable and erratic. As Prince argues (quite in line with current empirical research on child readers of picturebooks) the child reader often "misses its identity" of model, implicit or target reader; even is s/he is already able to read, the child is a reader of details, a rereader, a reader who frustrates the adult co-reader by asking to stay longer on an apparently uninteresting page, or an asynchronous reader who decrypts the meaning of a picture before the adult has finished reading the text out loud. "There is an aesthetic and emotional economy [of the children’s book] that escapes the adult as well as the writer" (140), Prince seductively hypothetises. Later she states, against many commonly held perceptions, that the child reader is antistructuralist, "non-Proppian": "His imaginative schema is not structured as crisis and ending" (id). This claim might make cognitive narratologists, psychoanalytical critics, structuralists and many educators jump; yet there is something compellingly correct about Prince’s observation. The child reader’s engagement with the text may be partly scriptive, "Bettelheimian" or Proppian, but it is not fully so, and Prince is shrewd to suggest that the fundamental difference of childhood reading from adult reading might lie precisely where it is not.

Just like the picturebooks she explores, the richness of Prince’s book is in the details, and in that final chapter we are particularly well-served. She goes on to identifying a number of poetic devices of children’s literature; the poetics of the wink or referentiality, with the associated metacritical issues: may we judge a children’s book’s intertextual sophistication when its intended readership does not possess the competence to identify the references? The end of the book gives us a brilliant deconstruction of the conception that children’s literature is "simple." From that little word, "simple," Prince unfolds a vast amount of different poetics. Children’s literature, she states, has simplicity in its DNA; it was, to begin with, a literature of simplification (152), that is, of abridgments, adaptations, etc. Iconicity is another reason why it has been identified as simple: it is direct, already present to the eye. Children’s literature is simple in its primary aim, too: to trigger the desire of the child to seize the object-book. Simple in tone, often, too, yes - but where others see "baby talk," Prince talks of "the poetics of babbling" (poétique du balbutiement, 155); where others lament the repetitiveness of the genre, she details the poetics of "reiteration, redoubling and repetition" (156); where others wince at a too-soft visual landscape, she studies the aesthetics of curves (174). All these subparts are little gems of children’s literature criticism.

Children’s literature, she concludes, is the "child of Poros and Penia" (176), namely of excess and of poverty. It has an aesthetic of plenty, of incomprehension, of nonsense and complexity, of the mystery of script for the reader who cannot read. Yet it also has an aesthetic of simplicity, indeed of impoverishment of meaning, which paradoxically opens gaps for the imagination of the reader. Simplicity here is more strictly purity, or exactness: saying just enough.

Following the general conclusion, which gracefully qualifies children’s literature, quoting Nietzsche, as "a dancer with chains" (193), Prince provides an extremely useful appendix of extracts by canonical philosophers and authors, from Montaigne to Barrie to Bettelheim to Colette, about children’s literature; a precious resource for students in the discipline, especially those coming from other fields, philosophy, literature or psychology. Following this, a long bibliography is given, split into generic and critical categories.

Prince’s book, as all such works attempting to tread vast theoretical ground, is not without its issues. Apart from Perry Nodelman, who makes discreet appearances throughout the book, none of the great contemporary theorists of children’s literature in the English-speaking world, such as Zohar Shavit, Peter Hunt, Roni Natov, Lawrence Sipe, who have been at work since the 1970s, are mentioned in the text. Particularly puzzling are the absences of Maria Nikolajeva’s ample theoretical work, notably on character (The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature, 2002) and on aesthetics (Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic, 1996), and of Jacqueline Rose’s landmark Case of Peter Pan, Or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1984) – especially considering Prince’s analysis of what she calls "Peterpanism," the mystery of the child addressee, which tackles exactly that question. Another quibble is the relative conservatism of the corpus, heavily skewed in favour of very canonical or classical children’s literature on the one hand (the Comtesse de Ségur, Lewis Carroll, Carlo Collodi), and of école des loisirs-style contemporary French literature on the other, disproportionately male-authored and aesthetically bourgeois. Finally, adolescent literature is conspicuously absent. This would not be an issue in itself if that omission was clearly delineated, but in fact adolescent literature is quite violently disparaged when it rarely appears; Prince says that it "locks the young reader in a form of navel-gazing" (96), which, surely, is hardly a fair generalization, and that it "excludes in a radical, indeed even brutal way, any other type of reader, whether younger or adult. Even though the text is closer to that of the adult, the adult can hardly read it without being bored, because the space of recognition of the character works through exclusion" (97). This is an especially curious notion at a time when a large proportion of the readership of adolescent literature is made up of adult readers.

But overall Prince’s book is the kind that makes you think again about the field, restructure your reflection, ask yourself new questions. It provides rigorous, exportable theoretical and conceptual tools. It is also an excellent resource for students, at the same time descriptively and analytically rich, and very accessible. Finally, it is beautifully written, well-paced, often funny, with many delightfully inventive moments, and a nice bank of pictures. It evidences, more widely, the dynamism, elegance and thoughtfulness of current Francophone research in children’s literature.

Clémentine Beauvais
University of York, United Kingdom

Works Cited

Hollindale, Peter. Signs of Childness in Children's Books. Stroud: Thimble P, 1997.

Nikolajeva, Maria. Children's Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic. New York: Garland, 1996.

---. The Rhetoric of Character in Children's Literature. Lanham: Scarecrow P.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, Or the Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984.