Reviews 2011

Historical Dictionary of Children’s Literature

Historical Dictionary of Children’s Literature. Emer O’Sullivan. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2010. 274 pages. $80/£48 (hardback).

According to Scarecrow press’s website, the series of Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts aims to cover the “most interesting areas of research, scholarship, and general reader interest” ( Past volumes have covered a wide range of titles, including special interests in the media, e.g. Japanese or Polish cinema, and concentrated on other specific phenomena and country-related developments like American radio programmes, but have also treated classical topics like architecture or theatre. Volume 46 deals with children’s literature, a topic which had been perceived as marginal in the past, but is now widely accepted as a serious concern of literary research and as such also included in canonical and academic debates. With the rise of children’s fiction on bestseller lists and a growing interest in cultural studies in universities’ faculties of art, children’s literature, too, has more and more become a focussed topic of academic research.

That the author Emer O’Sullivan is highly qualified to write a work of reference on this topic is without doubt. She is Professor of English Literature at Leuphana University at Lüneburg, Germany and has published widely on children's literature, image studies, translations, and comparative literature. Amongst her publications is the widely acclaimed Comparative Children’s Literature on the intercultural exchange of children's books which won the International Research Society for Children’s Literature Award in 2001 before its translation into English which in turn received the Children’s Literature Association Book Award in 2007. The additional features to the main encyclopaedia of the Historical Dictionary of Children’s Literature especially profit from O’Sullivan’s experience.

The new Historical Dictionary of Children’s Literature, as is the practice of Scarecrow’s Historical Dictionary series, includes a list of acronyms and abbreviations, a chronology, a brief introduction, an appendix with lists of recipients of major children’s literature awards and an extensive bibliography as well as the main encyclopaedia entries. The introduction might be brief but it is precise: it includes a definition of children’s literature as written for the non-adult public from an early to an adolescent age, and comprises an account of its functions to educate and to entertain. It poses questions about its qualities, morals, “norms, values, and ideals”, adds a very short summary of the historical development of children’s literature in Europe, a limited introduction to other countries such as Canada, America and the British Commonwealth and their respective thematic differences, and it considers the relevance of its intercultural implications in a globalised world and the dominating English-centred market.

The central section features an A-Z dictionary with almost 500 entries – not counting cross references from publications to writers – which comprise mostly articles on authors, with a main emphasis on U.S. American and British people. This choice might provoke accusations of canonisation; however, a volume of this size necessarily has to be selective and the author highlights her awareness of this possible problem with an extensive section on international further reading in her bibliography. Nevertheless, the dictionary does feature information on influential Commonwealth and European authors, too. The main part also includes entries on illustrators, historical figures that influenced the course of literary development, genres, characters, themes, theoretical terms, institutes, and awards.

O’Sullivan’s awareness of literary theory and its role in the development of children’s fiction is underlined by such entries as ‘adaptation’, ‘ethnocriticism’, ‘gender’, or ‘translation’. The specification of subgenres includes next to ‘fantasy’, or ‘fairy tale’ among others also ‘animal fiction’, ‘school stories’, ‘robinsonades’, or ‘horse and pony stories’. She introduces various associations, councils, and boards that are concerned with the publication and reception of books for children, the awards that are annually granted to the best authors and publications for children, and she deals with characters such as ‘orphans’ or ‘wizards’ as well as individuals from ‘Aladdin’ to ‘Hello Kitty’.

As the title suggests, the focus is clearly on the history of children’s literature, although the contemporary market occupies its share of the volume. The introductory, very shrewd chronology reaches from the Middle Ages until today, from Aelfric to Neil Gaiman – though in the dictionary section even Aesop is recorded, as are the forthcoming Twilight films. It demonstrates the historical development of a recognised literature for children from previous text books for school, religious education, rhymes and fairy tales – there are entries in the main section on John Bunyan or the Grimm brothers – via adapted versions from adult literature like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Some of the longest entries in the dictionary are those on ‘historical fiction’, the history of ‘illustrations’ and ‘picture books’, but also on the development of ‘science fiction’. At the same time, the volume shows awareness of the growth of the globalised market, the international exchange of children's books, and contemporary processes of the publication industry as the world market is dominated by the English-language children's book.

Though not of parental interest as a suggested reading advice for their children, O’Sullivan’s Historical Dictionary of Children’s Literature proves a well-researched encyclopaedia for academic and professional purposes. The relatively short entries have to be expected from such a concise volume, which can be considered as a perfect book to start research.

The lack of further and longer entries is almost compensated by the excellent bibliography on further reading, which not only includes reference books but also lists in-depth studies on historical, theoretical, and thematic aspects of children’s literature, as well as further literature on different subgenres. In addition, the author adds information on international children's literature’s research, which is not well represented in the volume, under the heading of ‘Continents and Regions’. There are bibliographical references on the problem and tasks of translations (an issue already discussed in her study on comparative children’s literature), lists of publications on the media, reading and literacy, as well as a catalogue of relevant journals and informative websites. These numerous additions almost compensate for the restrictions posed by a single volume encyclopaedia. The Historical Dictionary of Children’s Literature proves a well-written, insightful and pleasant read and a very useful, recommended source for professional and academic research.

Imke Lichterfeld
University of Bonn, Germany