Archive: July 2011
Toward a Definition of Children’s Literature

This morning I read an engaging rant on a topic close to my heart:  Whither the children’s book?1  The post came from Australian Judith Ridge’s excellent book blog, Misrule.  “Misrule” is the name of a cluttered, sprawling home (think Von Trapp family crossed with the Lost Boys) in Ethel Turner’s Australian classic Seven Little Australians.2 Mary and I have, in fact, long dreamed of one day christening our own home “Misrule” and then filling it with lots of ill-mannered children.

Ridge’s post bemoans what she sees as a trend in the book industry of labeling books written for children as “Young Adult” … some even going so far as to call chapter books “Young Young Adult.”  This is obviously a market-directed phenomenon, and thus something that will pass after a few more YA movies flop at the box office3

Of course, this new trend begs an old question:  what is children’s literature? It’s a slippery question because for every rule you put down (Rule #1: “Children’s Books Feature Child Protagonists”), you can find an adult book featuring the same trait.

After many years of wrestling with this definition, I came across one trait that might actually apply to every children’s book … and is virtually antithetical to adult literature.  It is something my wife (who studies Victorian children’s literature) learned while working with children’s literature scholar June Cummins.  Are you ready?

children’s literature assumes a teachable audience

This is not limited to books with obvious morals.  Nor does it specify that this “teachable audience” must be a literal child.  Rather, it specifies a tone in which the author is speaking to a reader who is still unformed in his/her opinions.

I understand that this is an infuriatingly-vague definition.  It’s akin to “defining” comedy as being anything that’s funny.  But unlike the a posteriori checklists obsessed with reading level and plot specifics, Cummins’ definition is both parsimonious consilient.4

What really excites me about this definition is that it might also be applied to YA books … and it goes a long way toward explaining why some Young Adult titles feel like adult books and others feel like children’s books.

  1. thanks to Fuse #8 for pointing me to the story!
  2. Seven Little Australians is a delightful book that, along with The Paper Bag Princess (Canada) and The Wonderful Adventure of Nils (Sweden), seems to have been relegated to “local favorite” rather than part of the larger international canon.  This is a pity.
  3. Note how Cowboys vs. Aliens and The Walking Dead are not being touted as a comic book adaptations — quite the change from five years ago when everything was boasting its comic creds.
  4. Which my freshman geology course instructed me was essential for any good scientific theory! Go college!
Born on the Fourth of July!

Today is the birthday of America!  Also my wife!  Last year I found an old bicycle and re-painted it for her.  As everyone knows, bicycles need names.  Mine is “Danny the Champion of the World”.  I named Mary’s after one of her favorite Dickens’ characters:  “Little Dorrit“.

I leave you all with a patriotic quote from children’s author and all-round smartypants, EB White:1

“Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.”

And while we’re at it, something from Mark Twain:

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.”

I might add that this is also why God created Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Do it, Rockapella!

  1. Thanks to Cheryl Klein for the quotes
Lewis Carroll and Portmanteaus …

I recently stumbled across commenter Lisa’s new word blog This Wretched Hive.1   Lisa writes smart, succinct posts about words old and new.  One of my favorite pieces discusses portmanteaus.  Portmanteaus are words that combine two different words to make something new:  televangelist, spork, interrobang, etc.

I love portmanteaus because when done well, they brush up against word play.  In fact, without that element, portmanteaus pretty much fail.  Consider the example Lisa discovered in her grocery store:

“Portmanteau” is actually a French word for an upright trunk that has dresser-like compartments in one half and a hanging closet in the other.2  I first discovered the word as a child when I read Lewis Carroll’s introduction to “The Hunting of the Snark.”  He observes:

Humpty Dumpty’s theory, of two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau, seems to me the right explanation for all.  For instance, take the two words “fuming” and “furious”.  Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first … if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say “frumious”.

Carroll is referring to something Humpty Dumpty says in Alice in Wonderland3 in order to explain how a reader might be able to decode the made-up words in his famous nonsense poem, “The Jabberwocky.”

A few years later, while scouring footnotes in Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice (which I read nightly for over a decade), I discovered that Alice in Wonderland was actually the first time portmanteau was used in this linguistic sense.  Way to be awesome, Lewis Carroll!



  1. The title of Lisa’s blog makes me think all blogs should be named after things Obi Wan said.
  2. I find a beautiful irony in the fact that the word portmanteau is a portmanteau — being a combination of “porter” (to carry) and “manteau” (cloak).
  3. “You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
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