The construct of the child…hmm, sounds a bit like working with legos..what does this mean, exactly? People interested in children’s literature are often concerned not only with book-as-literature, but book-as-barometer, a social barometer, of how we view childhood. The quest for understanding the construction of childhood appears to be at the root of things, children’s lit-wise. This seems so dry, so far removed from actual living breathing adorable children, and yet — it is not. Consider.
It goes back, way back, to people like William Godwin (do most people know about him?) and Mary Wollstonecraft (better known – that infamous drafter of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Note: if you haven’t looked at that at least once, you really should. Kept me up nights, shivering). Did you know they were married? Did you know their daughter is Mary Shelley? Little known fact: 14-year-old Mary met Percy Shelley at her father’s publishing house/bookshop! That’s when they ran away together, went off on vacation with Lord Byron, and Frankenstein was born….but I digress. The point is, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft were very much interested in children’s literature, and the construction of childhood. (Ok – it goes back even farther, back to the Purtians and Jonathan Swift and saving babies souls. But I’ll talk about that another time). There was a raging debate at various points about the appropriateness of imagination for children – in fact fairy tales were a big no-no, for a while. Then came the 1800’s, and then the Victorian age…and the idea of the romantic child. Ah. Here we come to the rub, for me. This debate is, by the way, still going on: the one where we ask ourselves, are children innocent creatures, meant to be protected and sheltered from life until they are ready for it? Or – are they smart enough to handle real life straight on? Charles Dickens had numerous child characters, many of whom did not exactly match the concept of the “ideal” child (innocent, sweet, perfect, sheltered, etc.) E. Nesbit’s kids can be pretty naughty. And these days, it seems we want to give kids the real raw deal from pretty much day one.
Right? Wrong? I don’t know. I’m just getting into all this, but I feel it’s such explosive stuff that I simply have to write about it sometimes. So, if you’re at all interested: stay tuned.