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Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter

reviewed by Karen Roggenkamp - October 13, 2008

coverTitle: Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter
Author(s): Seth Lerer
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226473007, Pages: 385, Year: 2008
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In recent years, American and British presses have served up an ever-expanding menu of books examining the history of children’s literature. One of the latest offerings arrives in Seth Lerer’s Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History, from Aesop to Harry Potter. For readers who seek a rich, cross-cultural and trans-national analysis that spans nearly three centuries of narrative, Lerer, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University, provides an ambitious and nuanced meditation on reading, childhood, history, and books, arguing not for children’s literature as an isolated genre, but as an experience that spans generations and genres.  

While many other histories of children’s literature offer what I might characterize as a more workmanlike survey of literary movements and of texts written for and marketed toward young readers, Lerer presents a reading that crosses cultures and periods, placing into conversation works that might not ordinarily be read side by side (The Wind in the Willows next to Harry Potter, and Aesop with Winnie-the-Pooh, to name just two examples). Indeed, as Lerer argues, “Children’s literature is world literature” (p. 11). At times reading almost as a personal reflection on the nature of reading and nostalgia, Children’s Literature emerges as a series of interlocked essays which readers can mull over and savor. This is not to suggest that the book is not packed with solid research, searching analysis, and convincing theory based on detailed textual analysis. Far from it. Indeed, one of this book’s strengths lies in its masterful discussion of classic texts and their contexts—even as it jars those texts into relation with narratives from other contexts.

Lerer’s history, as he tells us in the final chapter of the book, lies within the scholarly field of “the history of the book,” which examines authorship, reading, publication, dissemination, and print technologies. Each chapter examines not only books as isolated entities, then, but as objects in and of themselves, works that operate in concert with a whole range of paratexts, metatexts, and print contexts. Lerer is concerned with the reception of children’s literature, the readerly experience, the very form of the book in the hands of the reader. And it is this focus that links disparate elements of his history.  

Children’s Literature opens with an examination of children’s literature in classical Greece and Rome, focusing on the child-centeredness of the Romans and the adaptation of adult narratives for use by young readers. Lerer highlights pedagogical practice and a classical “selfhood” that, as he puts it, “emerged through linguistic performance” of appropriate narrative works (p. 21). In the process, children in Rome learned not only reading and performance, but the language of citizenship as well. Turning to Aesop, which has lain at the center of instruction and entertainment for centuries, Lerer posits that through fables “a child may reimagine the institutions, individuals, and idioms of everyday experience” (pp. 36-37).  

Subsequent chapters test these introductory claims. One chapter, for instance, takes on medieval childhood literature, with its conduct manuals, primers, lullabies, and dramas. Lerer maintains that to study children’s literature of this era—indeed, to study children’s literature of any era—is to study as well the literature and ideals of adulthood. Perhaps nowhere is this ideal as evident as in the literature of the Puritans, a child-centered group if there ever was one, but also believers in strict doctrines of childhood damnation who transformed their “sense of persecution into narratives of children’s literature” (p. 82).

Out of an eighteenth-century Lockean pedagogical philosophy that expanded ideas about instruction and delight, as well as a Roussean romanticism that finally positioned the child as an innocent, the literature of the nineteenth-century Golden Age emerged, and here Lerer examines such authors as Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Grahame, L. M. Montgomery—even Charles Darwin comes under scrutiny. Later chapters examine Judy Blume, Francesca Lia Block, Dr. Seuss, and, of course, J. K. Rowling. Through it all, Lerer widens the scope of his study beyond an author-by-author survey, extending his analysis toward such issues as library association prizes, style and its ligature with public behavior, and irony in a post-literary age. Committed as he is to social and historical contexts, Lerer is careful to include commentary on shifting standards of pedagogy, family structures, and technologies of print.

If one of this book’s strengths, however, lies in its trans-national, trans-cultural nature, those very qualities are, arguably, also the book’s weakness. Lerer’s presentation of literature does not account sufficiently for significant cultural differences, not to mention race, ethnicity, and social class. Indeed, Lerer uncritically presents a book culture for children that, for nearly three thousand years, has been predicated on economic standing. In discussing medieval reading, for instance, he argues that the printed “Aesopica was always there” for children (p. 57). That may have been true for a certain class of readers, but it was not true for the majority of children, a point Lerer fails to qualify. He may provide a glimpse of childhood, then, but it is a particularized childhood at best.

Still, Lerer’s book is provocative reading for the historian of children’s literature and of childhood itself, and criticisms of the book seem thin indeed. This ambitious volume is a welcome addition to the growing canon of histories of childhood and reading.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 13, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15408, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 2:40:08 PM

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About the Author
  • Karen Roggenkamp
    Texas A&M University, Commerce
    E-mail Author
    KAREN ROGGENKAMP, Assistant Professor of English at Texas A&M University, Commerce, specializes in early American literature and the history of children's literature. She has published her work in such places as The Lion and the Unicorn, American Literary Realism, and American Periodicals, and she is working on a book project about children's editions of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
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