cura librorum

Children’s Literature (Seth Lerer)
September 7, 2009, 09:00
Filed under: Book Reviews, Children's & YA

Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter
(Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2008, 385 pp., hardback, $30.00)

Let me just say that certain passages of this book brought tears to my eyes, because reading it affirmed what I may have known all along: the fact that being a medievalist makes you particularly prone to the symbolism and meaning to be found in the beautiful simplicity of good children’s literature. Did you know, Lerer is an authoritative Chaucer scholar! He edited one of the books I’m using in my graduate course! But I get ahead of myself.

Seth Lerer has undertaken an ambitious and sprawling project, literally from Aesop to Harry Potter. His goal in the end is not so much to focus on ‘a history of children’s literature’ as history through the lens of children’s literature, in terms of intent, purpose, and innovation of thought. Very big difference, because his book doesn’t read like a history as much as a musing on first the relationship between adults and children as shown through the literature created by adults for children.

Each chapter reads like a compactly self-contained essay, the effective caliber of which I could never dream of. Though I’m not sure I agree with the choices he made about certain groupings of literature sharing and their relative importance, he lays out his argument winsomely and well. Here’s  a sample of some of the topics that he touched on: ‘From Alphabet to Elegy: The Puritan Impact on Children’s Literature,’ ‘Canoes and Cannibals: Robinson Crusoe and Its Legacies'(here he relates Robinson Crusoe, Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh!) ‘Straw into Gold: Fairy Tale Philology’ ‘Theaters of Girlhood: Domesticity, Desire, and Performance in Female Fiction’…

Here’s a quote from ‘From Alphabet to Elegy’:

The story of the girls’ book is the story of a writer and the friend. Such books teach many things (social decorum, personal care, moral virtue); but what they teach most of all is cultivation of the imagination. Gardens, like books, may stand as places of absorption, places where the girl may lose herself in reading, in writing, or in reminiscence. Or they may be places of the theater, stage sets to be prepared for the entrance of the winning actress or actor. Hermione straddles both places, learning from the library but also directing the theater of the boys. Whether inspiring Harry to seek a new plan to win a contest or cheering him on at Quidditch, she is a mistress of the house. At times, Harry seems as much Hermione’s creation as Harry’s, and we know that she is the cleverest witch of her age.’

Now isn’t that perfectly thrilling?  Seth Lerer, who has just begun a five-year professorship/deanship at UCSD seems to me the luckiest man in the world – a man who is able to read children’s books and write about them as his profession? Apparently, he also won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism for this book, putting him in the ranks of E.B. White and co. I think it deserves it, because though he did edit the Yale Companion to Chaucer, he maintains a level of readability in this book that almost elevates the reader by inviting them into this friendly exploration. He manages to analyse without sucking the reverence for age-old honorable traditions of measured didacticism with aesthetic beauty and wonder, even nonsense and glee.

I’ll be returning back to this book whenever I need inspiration for my thesis! After all, if child is but man in small letter, than what better aim than to nurture the small letter to grow well and prosper?

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