Reviews 2009

Facets of Children’s Literature Research: Collected and Revised Writings

Facets of Children’s Literature Research: Collected and Revised Writings. Göte Klingberg. Stockholm: Swedish Institute for Children’s Books, 2008. 197 pages.


Children’s literature is the most national of literatures. Even among children’s literature specialists I, coming from Sweden, cannot assume that everyone knows Maria Gripe or even Selma Lagerlöf. And, vice versa, when talking to Swedish specialists in the field I cannot be sure that they will be familiar with George MacDonald’s Victorian fairy tales. Canonical adult works of fiction travel across national boundaries more easily. Educated readers all over the world recognize names such as Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Molière, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Lorca, Goethe, Mishima, or Soyinka. In contrast, educated children’s literature readers seldom leave the safety of the national nursery. Admittedly, there are some children’s books that are known and discussed worldwide, such as Joanna Spyri’s Heidi, Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio and Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, but these are exceptions to the rule: children’s literature remains basically national. Children’s books and, as a consequence, children’s literature criticism, tend to follow linguistic, cultural and political divisions (sometimes even within countries).

However, it is also true that children’s literature, through translations and worldwide publishing, is inextricably linked. Children’s literature is global and national at the same time. Moreover, in order to say anything meaningful about children’s literature in general a mono-national approach does not suffice. If children’s literature criticism only accounts for national canons, but fails to take in the larger picture, the researcher will lose her/his perspective, not being able to make comparisons, and, in the end, producing poor research. The comparative view is needed.

I come to think of these issues when reading Göte Klingberg’s (1918-2006) posthumously published Facets of Children’s Literature. Klingberg was the grand old man of Swedish children’s literature research, a scholar and critic with encyclopedic knowledge of Swedish children’s literature. One could argue that Klingberg’s research is a prime example of the national focus of the field as a whole. But this would be an injustice, I believe. For as this study shows, Klingberg was deeply interested in the unbounded dynamics of translation and international networks that underpin the production of children’s literature in different countries and languages. He called himself a comparatist, and Facets shows how his interest in one national literature can lead to a deeper knowledge of the field of children’s literature as a whole.

For instance, in the section “Historical studies of European children’s literature in a comparative perspective,” Klingberg looks at poetry from oral tradition, the moral wonder tale, and fantasy. Often his interest has been prompted by an early Swedish translation, usually from German, French or English, from which he proceeds to track down preceding versions and variants in different languages. The comparative approach draws attention to translation issues, different views of childhood and children’s literature in different countries, and the evolution of the genre. In the chapter “The overseas flight of cock-robin,” for example, he shows how English nursery rhymes spread through translation, in some cases via Germany to Sweden.

Another chapter focuses on the authors Lucas Martini, Carl Gustaf Tessin, Arnaud Berquin, Laure Surville and David Friedrich Weinland. Here the qualities of the comparatist and the meticulous scholar are joined. Only someone who is ready to cross borders and able to do research in four or five languages could have untangled the publishing mysteries involved in the case of Berquin. In this chapter Klingberg creates interest in five forgotten authors while illustrating common themes in children’s literature: the roots of children’s literature in the education of princes, the literary fairy tale and the “prehistoric” children’s novel.

Both in the preface and in the concluding essay Klingberg voices concern that so much of his work is inaccessible to experts in the field. He opens his preface as follows: “A researcher in a minor language area is met with the difficulty to take part in the international dialogue” (6); and in the conclusion he writes, “a Swedish researcher writing in his own language will experience isolation” (186). One can therefore understand the pains Klingberg took to publish in other languages as well: German, French and English. Facets should be seen in that light. It is an attempt to bring together strands of research that Klingberg had been involved with over the years, updating the research and presenting it to an international (English-speaking) audience. Thus each chapter of Facets is a compilation of papers, articles and sections of book chapters (in different languages) which have then been edited, translated and fleshed out with new text. It is tricky, but it works. The overall structure of the book, however, is not convincing. Klingberg has inserted pointers and internal references in the text to create coherence between the chapters. Nevertheless, some sections are oddly out of place, particularly “Landscapes in British children’s novels,” which is a shorthand (ten-page) version of his charming Swedish book Besök i brittiska barnbokslandskap [Visits to the landscapes of British children’s books]. A higher degree of coherence would also have been achieved if Facets had come with a reference list at the back of the book, or indeed any reference list at all. As it is now, the reader has to hunt for bibliographical data in the notes following each chapter and section (and may not always find it).

The original idea was to publish Facets as a book. It is not clear why electronic publication was chosen in the end. If making Klingberg’s work accessible was the top priority, a free PDF-file is of course the most user-friendly approach. But an electronic publication must be as rigorously edited as a paper publication. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Facets; the referencing aside, there are several small but irritating features (faulty paragraphing, inconsistent use of typeface, etcetera), which I am sure would not have passed muster in the printed series. It is to be hoped that these flaws will be amended in due time. Despite these minor reservations, Facets is a valuable contribution to the field of comparative children’s literature.

Björn Sundmark
Malmö University, Sweden