Reviews 2014

Reading for Learning: Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature

Reading for Learning: Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature. Maria Nikolajeva. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2014. 228 pages. €95.00 (hardback).

Maria Nikolajeva’s latest tome reflects her shift from a Department of Comparative Literature to a Faculty of Education. Although first and foremost a literary scholar, in Reading for Learning she places the child reader of children’s literature in the spotlight as she maps out the value of cognitive criticism for children’s literature. Cognitive criticism – also known as cognitive poetics, cognitive literary theory, cognitive narratology and literary cognitivism – combines research within the neurosciences, linguistics and psychology with the study of literature to plumb fiction’s vicarious pleasures for insights into human-human relationships as well as to consider how human-human relationships might cast light on human-fiction connections. Common topics in the field include investigations of empathy, emotions and ethics, but can also include studies of such varied topics as how paintings reflect cultural history or how metaphors reveal the embodied nature of our thinking. Cognitive criticism signals a return of the reader, not as a figure responding to gaps in a text as envisaged by the reader-response critics of the 1980s, but as an autonomous, embodied thinker. Nikolajeva’s study considers the implications for child readers; her starting point being that children’s literature needs to take the young readers’ limited cognitive skills into account. Her goal, reflected in the title, is to consider what children learn from reading literature by examining “the ways literary texts are constructed to maximise, or perhaps rather optimise reader engagement” (4; italics original). This is a study of literary texts, not an empirical study of readers, although her work invites other researchers to follow such lines of enquiry.

The study is divided into eight chapters with a brief introduction and conclusion at either end. The chapters are paired such that Chapters 1 and 2 consider knowledge of the world, Chapters 3 and 4 cover knowledge of other people, Chapters 5 and 6 and concerned with Knowledge of the Self and the final pair is devoted to ethical knowledge. In each case, the odd numbered chapter outlines the theory and the even numbered chapter offers an application of the theory to studies of specific works of children’s literature. This unusual arrangement certainly affected my response to the text. On my first reading, I found the format alienating, in no small part due to the linguistic forms Nikolajeva favours. As in her earlier studies, she makes bold declarative statements and sweeping generalisations as she lays out the field in broad brushstrokes. In her earlier studies, such claims were then backed up with applications to a wide range of children’s literature from around the world. In this study, the applications are separated and so the odd numbered chapters do seem rather dogmatic and the even numbered chapters leave the reader to do the work of recalling the theory. The strength of this approach became evident to me on my second reading and later when I endeavoured to apply her ideas to my own material. On later readings, the division of theory from application clarifies the central arguments as one is not lost searching through a discussion of a literary text to pick out those aspects of the theory one wishes to evaluate. The theoretical concepts are easily identified (although a more comprehensive Index would have been appreciated), easily applied and, it should be added, easy to cite. Similarly, the discussion of the works of children’s literature are easy to follow on later readings, not least because each work is presented as a case study, and so sufficient information is provided to enable one to follow the discussion even if one has not read the particular book.

The section on ‘knowledge of the world’ provides an alternative approach to addressing issues such as child readers’ ability to distinguish ‘facts’ from ‘fiction.’ The carefully nuanced theoretical text draws our attention to the role of language in communicating knowledge, and the potential of literary texts for generating the cognitive and metacognitive skills needed for critically assessing information. This approach deliberately muddies the distinction between realism and fantasy. Nikolajeva illustrates her points by foregrounding the ‘true’ biological knowledge one can gain from reading a work of obvious fantasy, and the ‘false’ information contained in a supposedly realistic historical novel.

Knowledge of people – one’s self and others – has been extensively discussed in existing scholarship within cognitive criticism by Suzanne Keen, Blakey Vermeule and Keith Oakley to name just three. Nikolajeva’s original contribution to the field of children’s literature scholarship includes addressing how this works in relation to picturebooks. Visual images are also used to convey knowledge, including ways of knowing that are difficult to capture in words, such as emotions. Using her earlier work with Carole Scott as a springboard, Nikolajeva engages with image-text relations, concluding that “visual ekphrasis produces a more direct and immediate affective response, but also that the word/image interaction allows ambiguity and more open interpretation” (126). Her study of the self takes her into an investigation of memory, a topic which challenges simplistic understandings of what constitutes ‘knowledge.’

The final section on ethics resonates to Roberta Seelinger Trites’s observations in Disturbing the Universe on how adolescent fiction addresses the adult-adolescent power (im)balance. Where Trites drew our attention to how transgressions of the ethical codes and breaking the rules were deemed necessary for maturation and acceptance of social values, Nikolajeva considers how such actions generate ethical knowledge. Rather than investigating teenage fiction for evidence of adult authors imposing their world view on seemingly hapless readers, Nikolajeva focuses on how characters’ ambiguous ethical values can promote readers’ affective and cognitive capacity for responding to complex moral issues.

Reading for Learning is a ground-breaking study which “endeavours to bring children’s literature research to a new theoretical level” (20). It succeeds in doing so, not least because of the way in which it moves children’s literature scholarship away from somewhat solipsist commentaries on the construction of the child within the text or mechanical assumptions about the value of literature in education towards a nuanced consideration of how the child-reader reads. In doing so, it proffers potential for breaching the literature-education divide that has marred our field of study for too long.

Lydia Kokkola
Luleå University of Technology, Sweden