Posted: March 18th, 2023
The discourse of children’s literature offers ample opportunity to explore pathways of critical literacy. Children’s literature reflects social norms at their point of construction, making critical literary analysis potent and fruitful. Moreover, changes in children’s literature reflect shifts in lifestyle, norms, and political climates. The language, style, tone, diction, and content of children’s literature provide windows onto a culture. Australian children’s literature is a unique canon of work. Tracing the evolution of Australian children’s literature from the early to the late 20th century reveals the ways Australians created, managed, and maintained a national identity distinct from any other Commonwealth nation. Children’s literature became an arena upon which Australians asserted and manipulated identity, social norms, politics, and ethics unique to the continent.
One need not look far to find examples of ways Australian authors helped to create and solidify a national identity. Perhaps the most iconic of all Australian children’s characters is Blinky Bill. Reflective of the ANZAC solidarity budding and brewing during the early to middle twentieth century, Blinky Bill and his buddies provided a cavalry of characters that children down under could relate to and draw from. Young readers absorbing their national identity logos from the books they read became the next generation of social architects, politicians, and artists. Ethel Turner’s “Seven Little Australians” accomplished something similar to what New Zealander Dorothy Wall did with Blinky Bill. Turner’s “Seven Little Australians” banked on the capital of human characters rather than anthropomorphic marsupials to form national identities in the middle of the twentieth century. As World War Two came to a close, the ANZAC identity as separate from that of the colonial powers was solidified. Mary Grant Bruce was another of Australia’s authors who helped develop a singular mythos from which readers could formulate national pride and a cultural ethos.
Within and outside of Australia, English-language children’s literature shared several elements in common. For example, the children’s literature of the early to mid-twentieth century was characterized by strong narrative voices that overtly shape reader ethics and norms. Fable-like stories like James Thurber’s “The Unicorn in the Garden” explores romantic themes that teach readers to navigate the modern material world without losing childlike wonder. The story incorporates a poignant theme of role reversals to explicate some of the same elements that Mary Shelley introduced decades earlier in Frankenstein: that science is not authoritative.
Gender is of course one of the key threads in the discourse of children’s literature. While many of Australia’s most notable authors of children’s literature have been female, Mary Anne Evans opted to assume a male moniker. Themes of gender equity have also been explored in Australian children’s literature. For example, Mary Grant Bruce makes sure to dismantle traditional gender roles and norms. As Shore (1997) points out, “critical literacy is language use that questions the social construction of the self.” Children’s literature allows young readers to engage with complex themes and concepts related to social norms, identity construction, and stereotypes (Leland, Harste, Oceipka, Lewison & Vasquez, 1999).
Changes in and to children’s literature mirror, as well as construct, changes in social norms. For example, the 1908 book by Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows, is a frolicking fantasy tale starring a cast of anthropomorphic animals. Themes of camaraderie, friendship, and adventure do not serve as vehicles for political discourse. When Jan Needle published Wild Wood nearly a century later in 1981, the author imbued the basic structure of Grahame’s story with political awareness. Issues like social justice are explored in Wild Wood, issues that were not touched upon in Wind in the Willows. A similar vehicle of storytelling was used for a different literary function. Both 1908 and 1981 were times ripe for the exploration of labor issues and class-consciousness, and it is in many ways ironic that Needle would have been more overtly political than his forebear.
There seems to have been a deliberate awakening of a special children’s identity in the literature of the early twentieth century. Even before the turn of the century, authors like Ethel Turner were inspiring young readers to view reading and literature as keys to personal and psychological development. Among the opening lines of “Seven Little Australians” is the marvelously mischievous, “Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are.” Young readers are here allowed to celebrate the expression of childlike mischief, in the same way that readers of “The Unicorn in the Garden” are able to embrace the realm of magic without completely denying the importance of reason.
Readers of children’s literature have contemporized their reading habits considerably. The lighter-hearted children’s literature from Leslie Reese’s award-winning The Story of Karrawingi the Emu to Axel Poignant’s Piccaninny Walkabout do not outwardly address issues such as race, class, gender, and political power. Yet older examples of children’s novels and storybooks are readily incorporated into a canon that highlights the importance of critical literacy in the classroom. Morals and moralizing can be disguised, thinly or not, in children’s literature. While there are certainly differences in tone, style, and execution between early twentieth century and later works, children’s literature remains a powerful vehicle for social identity construction. Australia’s unique canon offers ample opportunities to explore the evolution of critical discourse in children’s literature.
“Children’s Book of the Year Awards.” Retrieved online: http://cbca.org.au/awards.htm
DAWCL. Website retrieved: http://www.dawcl.com/introduction.html
Leland, C., Harste, J., Ociepka, A., Lewison, M. & Vasquez, V. (1999). Exploring critical literacy: You can hear a pin drop. Language Arts, v77 n1 p70-77 Sep 1999.
Shor, I. (1997). What is critical literacy? Journal for Pedagogy, Pluralism, and Practice. Retrieved online: http://www.lesley.edu/journals/jppp/4/shor.html
Thurber, J. (1939). The unicorn in the garden. Retrieved online: http://english.glendale.cc.ca.us/unicorn1.html
Turner, E.S. (1894) Seven Little Australians. Retrieved online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4731/4731-h/4731-h.htm
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