Reviews 2012

Philosophy in Children's Literature

Philosophy in Children's Literature. Peter R. Costello (ed.). Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2012. 314 pages. £49.95 (hardback).

As Peter Costello accurately notes in the introduction to his edited volume, the links between children’s literature and philosophy have rarely been investigated. He is right to assert that Philosophy in Children’s Literature is the first book of its kind: fully devoted to the study of children’s books in relation to philosophical systems elaborated by major canonical thinkers. Throughout the volume, generally with sophistication and not without elegance, Silverstein meets Aristophanes, Nietzsche dialogues with the Rainbow Fish and Dr Seuss articulates Alain Badiou’s claims for a young audience. The result is a decidedly novel and engaging way of looking at children’s texts, but with the major limitation that the chapters always remain case studies rather than gateways towards larger theorisation.

Exploring the links between philosophy and children’s literature can be done in different ways. M.F. Pierlott finds three:

First, one might philosophically ask what children’s literature is or should be. Second, one might explore a dialogue between philosophical texts and ideas and those presented within a work of children’s literature. Third, one might examine ways in which a work of children’s literature opens up philosophical wonder, self-reflection, and interpersonal dialogue (Pierlott 119).

The volume is very clearly concerned mostly with the second of those propositions. The third, as Costello remarks in the introduction, is well-established within education, partly thanks to the Philosophy and Education movement, but belongs to a very different, and essentially pedagogical, type of reflection. The first, an ontological and definitional approach to children’s literature - and thus closer to what a theory of children’s literature would look like - is not very prominently tackled in the collection. The chapters, therefore, are mainly devoted to exploring the links between selected children’s texts and selected philosophical movements, thinkers, or themes, on the model of ‘X in Y’, as the title of the volume announces. This premise makes it difficult, if not impossible, to go beyond mere academic exercise; beyond the often enjoyable but ultimately anecdotal ‘enlightenment’ of a particular children’s text through a particular doctrine.

Most of the chapters do raise important questions about children’s literature, childhood, and the tricky transmission of values, beliefs and critical judgements from the writing adult to the reading child; but these important questions are asked more accidentally than purposefully, requiring the attentive reader to detect them. The interdisciplinary nature of the volume results in a notable, overarching imbalance: the contributors’ theoretical background in children’s literature criticism is often weaker than their philosophical training, marrying subtle conceptual reflection with slightly naive visions of the children’s texts. One example is Oona Eisenstadt’s study of Harriet the Spy in the light of Blanchot and Levinas. Eisenstadt’s reflection, when it comes to discussing the philosophers’ works, is extremely compelling and virtuosic. But its long introduction, going through Nodelman’s theory of the hidden adult in detail and giving a relatively banal illustration of it through Harry Potter, betrays a lack of familiarity with children’s literature theory. The striking difference between this first part of the chapter and the later, highly refined philosophical analysis, can serve as an analogy with much of the volume.

Perhaps as a result of this relative lack of acquaintance with crucial questions of children’s literature theory, the volume fails to open up philosophical reflection outside of the books selected for analysis. Costello’s chapter on the Frog and Toad books thus begins with an engaging theorisation of the existential, ‘impossible’ mutual recognition between adult and child in the didactic relationship; an impossibility compensated by the child’s quest for friendship. The rest of the chapter, going through an impressive range of philosophical perspectives, explores the complex concept of friendship in and outside of childhood. But was it ever necessary to refer to the picturebook series to make these points? It is often difficult to understand why some of the chapters use primary texts at all; let alone children’s texts. Dina Mendonça’s study of the paradoxes of fiction, which presents itself as an investigation of the ontology of the fictional utterance and the eternal question of how the reader can be moved by the fate of fictional characters, is anchored within children’s literature criticism only insofar as it sometimes uses examples drawn from Judith Viorst’s Alexander series. But these examples are, I feel, often unnecessary in an essay which reads like a summary of philosophical positions on the nature of the fictional experience. Because the Alexander books are never used to highlight what the wider characteristics of the children’s book could be, it is dubious whether this chapter is about children’s literature at all, notwithstanding its undeniable qualities as an essay on the philosophy of literature.

The problem is twofold, I would argue, with the chosen ‘X in Y’ format when discussing the interaction between philosophy and children’s literature. Firstly, it is at risk of arbitrarily attributing some philosophical systems, themes or motifs to particular children’s books, failing to show their applicability and relevance to other works. While it is certainly true that Shel Silverstein’s Missing Piece echoes Plato’s Symposium, as Pierlott’s chapter entertainingly demonstrates, such formal and ideological similarities remain on the surface of what could be a more ambitious, much-needed reflection on Aristophanes’s heritage within children’s literature as a whole. By remaining firmly fenced off in their claims, the chapters cannot truly evade the accusation of offering localised, or worse, parochial analogies between philosophy and children’s books. The use of the children’s texts in the volume ends up sounding faintly reminiscent of Slavoj Zizek’s trademark references to Hollywood movies: namely, a strategy to explicate a theory and render it more easily understandable; not truly to enhance it.

Secondly, and most importantly, the ‘X in Y’ model misses out on one major relation between philosophy and children’s literature, which Pierlott’s three propositions do not cover and which appears nowhere in the volume. This is the possibility that children’s literature criticism might in itself inform philosophy, instead of solely being informed by it. As Costello rightly points out, the child, this eternal outsider, had been neglected by philosophers (at least qua child rather than solely as future citizen) until very recently. This means that philosophers have to catch up with ‘us’, children’s literature scholars, and the knowledge we have surreptitiously acquired about the neglected encounter between adult and child. A discipline like ours, which constantly theorises the adult-child relationship and its representations, deserves to be envisaged as potentially feeding into general philosophical reflection about childhood and education. It is not enough to detect philosophical motifs and systems within children’s literature; it is essential to realise that children’s literature criticism is in itself a branch of the philosophy of childhood. This kind of reflection necessitates that we go beyond the academic exercise of ‘applying’ specific existing theories to specific existing children’s texts, and instead elaborate our own, from our expertise in children’s literature. And ultimately convince philosophers that there are many things we could teach them about childhood. This volume, though a first step in this direction, does not truly allow itself to ask the ambitious questions which could lead us all the way there.

Clémentine Beauvais
University of Cambridge, UK