The child and the book: a psychological and literary exploration. Nicholas Tucker

                  Until now, Tucker tells us in his introduction, books on children’s literature have been historical surveys, accounts of contemporary books and authors, or pedagogical studies. He offers instead to consider ‘a previously rather neglected topic: exactly why are certain themes and approaches in children’s literature so popular with the young, and what do possible answers to this question tell us both about children and about many of their favorite book? Can the discovery of common factors in the plots or characters…..help reveal recurrent, predictable patterns in children’s imaginative needs and interests? Or looking at this relationship from another angle, can various studies in developmental psychology also sometimes explain why some literary approaches have always seemed more acceptable to the young than others?’

‘Developmental psychology’ turns out to be a certain Piaget dominated preoccupation with stages of cognitive advance together with a few brief side references to Freud and Jung and a passing mention of Melanie Klein. The developmental approach encourages an ordering by chronology, and Tucker divides his account of children’s books accordingly: First books (ages 0-3), Story and picture-books (ages 3-7), Fairy-stories, myths and legends, Early fiction (ages 7-11), Literature for older children (ages 11-14). The approach is empirical and descriptive – popular authors, tales, tendencies, subject-matter, and genres are all noted and briefly commented upon in terms that are intended to illuminate questions of their appeal and popularity. The style is fairly chatty and anecdotal and, insofar as judgements or conclusions or definite hypotheses are offered, tentative and much qualified. The result feels somewhat like a protracted tour round the children’s section of an English school library by a well-informed but not very theoretically minded educationalist – lively for its variety and illustration but lacking any thesis, framework, or substantive guiding principle that would enable the mind to retain or make much of the detail.

The chapter on first books is entirely typical. It starts with the observation that the world is too much for the tiny mind and needs simplifying into clear bold unfussy visual shapes. Next a quotation from Sartre who thought that the illustrations in his beloved Grand Larousse represented men and beasts ‘in person’ as opposed to real life where ‘you met vague shapes which more or less resembled the archetypes without attaining to their perfection: in the Zoo the monkeys were less like monkeys and, in the Luxembourg Gardens, men were less like men.’ Next some avuncular advice that cloth books are not a good idea (smudgy colours and indistinct shapes) when compared to glossy wipe-down stiff-board books. Then the observation that small children do not understand perspective and prefer outlines and suggestions of objects without overlapping. Then a brief reference to Dick Bruna’s skills as an illustrator, followed by the sensible but unstartling observation that ‘the scenes and figures of any picture-book can always have a double significance…both for what such things mean objectively, and also for what they come to signify to the child, in terms – for example – of safe or dangerous, pretty or ugly, nice or nasty, silly or sensible, funny or serious or any other of the host of value judgements with which we monitor the world, but which children have to learn afresh.’ After this, nursery rhymes are introduced. Again sensible remarks are made: about their diverse origins, their usefulness in preparing children for the rhythms of adult speech, the ease with which they can be enjoyed without being understood, their coded sexual messages, their implicit violence (a nice materialist suggestion here in connection with Rock-a-Bye-Baby: ‘This contains a good example of concealed aggression often found towards the end of lullabies, inevitable perhaps when a mother’s patience is beginning to wear thin.’), their infantilisation of the adult world, and their frequent references to death. For this last Tucker offers in quick succession Jung (dreams and games about death stemming from the collective unconscious), Piaget (death as the major cognitive puzzle), and Gesell (death has no meaning for small children), but no mention of Freud or Klein or most surprisingly –  given his rich and suggestive work relating children’s play to self and absence – of Winnicot.

The rest of Tucker’s account continues in the same vein: long on example and short on theoretical awareness. Thus his reliance on a Piaget centered approach which reduces children’s sense of the world entirely to questions of cognitive competence (of a fairly rigid and blinkered kind) falls easily into a patronization of their imagination and their capacity to absorb and re-create experience in ways not foreseen by adults. That such a foreclosure is unintended by Tucker is a measure of his lack of distance from his theoretical and methodological assumptions.

There is also an unexamined insularity in Tucker’s outlook. When this combines with his tropism towards anything that is ‘popular’, the result can be irritating: to spend 10 pages on Enid Blyton’s confections (and fail to say anything that is not commonplace) seems an odd and silly waste of space and focus when set against a passing mention of Maurice Sendak and no reference at all to Arnold Lobel’s tales for the very young or Frank Baum’s Oz stories.

After his survey of the literature Tucker has a long chapter called Selection, Censorship, and Control. This moves from interesting historical details of various glossings, bowdlerisations, deletions, euphamisms, and literary versions of covering piano legs and putting dogs into underpants to present-day problems of whether sexist emphases, racial stereotypes, and anti-ecological practices should be banned from books for children. Some of those early 19th century dogs’ hindquarters must indeed have shocked: vamperish attributes of the Virgin Mary, an ass that excreted gold, and little white doves pecking out the eyes of Cinderella’s sisters are all from the Brothers Grimm. A shock quite different, though, from that felt from Nazi propaganda like ‘Never Trust a Fox or a Jew’. And whilst it may be legitimate to place the Grimms and Goebels under the common rubric of ‘censorship’, it seems unlikely that Tucker’s liberal good sense ‘Children’s literature, however, will always be picked on more often that adult books for its possible bad effects, reflecting society’s desire to produce future generations in the mirror of its own more positive values, but without its faults’ provides any sort of vantage point from which to examine literary suppression and the related issue of how societies replicate themselves.

Indeed, in a society where the sign ‘Books’ means magazines catering for every kind of philia (from paedo- to necro-), and ‘Adult’ is a substitute for porn, the very phrase ‘Children’s Books’ is beginning to feel odd. If Tucker’s carefully conscience debate is put in the context of present-day children in the British Isles, the oddity increases. Such children inhabit an environment where every pavement hoarding, railway station, piece of wasteland, and T.V. screen contains advertisement which systematically trivialize, sexualize, and obsessionalise human needs and desires in the name of a gross and unchallenged consumerism. In such circumstances worrying about artistic integrity (whatever that now means) and the excising of patronizing remarks about pigmies from a Ronald Dahl story seems a bit like stopping the draft through the keyhole when the roof has blown off.

Of course, Tucker is not responsible for the growing irrelevance of children’s literature to the way values and meanings are generated in our society, and in choosing to focus on books in the way that he has, his enterprise is a victim of larger forces. In some sense he knows this – his last chapter ‘Who reads Children’s Books?’ is a sobering account of declining readership which includes the statistic from Canada that ‘the average student about to enter college may now have seen more than 500 full-length films, and viewed some 15,000 hours of Television but read perhaps only fifty books on his or her own initiative’.

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