by Peter Hunt
We have been looking at examples of images of the child reader in the book, being read by the child reader outside the book – although ‘outside the book’ isn’t really an adequate description of what is going on, because if the book is a success then the reader is, in some strange way, absorbed into the book. But when this happens, and the reader with the book identifies with the reader in the book, how and why does it happen?
One theory was put forward in another classic critical text from the golden age of the unique children’s literature journal Signal - Peter Hollindale’s Signs of Childness in Children’s Books (Thimble Press, 1997). What characterises a successful text for children, Hollindale suggested, was the presence of ‘childness’ – the quality of being a child – and it is a quality that is ‘shared ground … between adult and child.’
He goes on:
I wish to argue … that childness is the distinguishing property of a text in children’s literature … and it is also the property that the child brings to the reading of a text. At its best, the encounter is a dynamic one. The childness of the text can change the childness of the child, and vice versa. On other occasions of reading the encounter is only a mirroring – conservative and confirmatory.
Hollindale is proposing a wide theory of children’s literature, but is worth borrowing his idea of childness and applying it to our present project. He sees children’s literature as an event, an interaction between child and adult and book – what I have described elsewhere as being the mutually respectful negotiation of the Tom Tiddler’s ground between adults and children. Empathy derives from sharing, and childness, as Hollindale defines it, is the basis for that empathy: ‘For the child, childness is composed of the developing sense of self in interaction with the images of childhood encountered in the world…’ and these naturally include the images of childhood within books – and especially the image of the child reading in books.
Successful reading depends to some extent on empathy: we like what we see when we read. Obviously, childhood changes with time and place, and concepts of childness change at the same time. Similarly, empathy is a very vulnerable concept: a writer who seems empathetic to the needs of children, recognising childness in them and in herself or himself, might seem to some adult readers to be manipulating the concept for her or his own ends (whisper it, as in the Case of Roald Dahl).
Nevertheless, the validation of reading by the presence of reading children in fiction sends a strong empathetic message. And as Hollindale observes, this is uniquely an attribute of the book.
It is precisely the conjunction of exterior with interior action…which gives the children’s book its special place in helping a reader to build and diversify her sense of childhood possibility…. The representation of childhood for children [on film and television] is sparse and incomplete…Children who do not read books are exposed to a fictional life made up almost exclusively of adults. What we see is – to use an ugly word for a fairly ugly phenomenon – the defictionalising of childhood.
The acknowledgement of shared ‘childness’ through shared, empathetic reading is a powerful antidote to this accelerating trend.