Studying the adult in children’s literature

This week’s blog post is the third in our Studying Children’s Literature series, which examines some of the different facets of what it means to academically study children’s literature. Today’s post is brought to us by Clémentine Beauvais, who really needs no introduction at all. 

Why do I study children’s literature? Because I’m very interested in adults.

Adults are fascinating creatures, aren’t they? Their favourite thing is understanding the world around them. They have this lovely attitude of wonder and curiosity. From the dawn of humanity, they’ve always liked categorising things. At the beginning it was a little bit primitive:

‘That’s a rock and that’s a flower. That’s a pebble and that’s a seed. You can grow a flower by putting a seed in the ground but if you put a pebble in the ground you won’t get a rock. Isn’t that interesting, Grawwwkkrrr? And that’s an ant and that’s a deer and that’s an adult, but not a normal adult: a woman adult. Why not normal? Because I say so. The woman adult grows other adults. Those other adults are absolutely tiny at first, but we have observed that they sometimes grow into normal adults or woman adults, though most of the time they get ripped apart by the sabre-toothed tigers first. Remember all of this in your head, Grawwwkkrrr, until we invent writing.’

A few millennia later, the categorisation has gained in sophistication: many differences have been observed and mapped between apparently similar pebbles, apparently similar flowers and apparently similar ants. It took a lot longer for normal adults to discover that woman adults may actually have original thoughts and different subjectivities inside them, and they’re still processing that realisation, but that’s not my topic here.

As populations of sabre-toothed tigers declined, it gradually became possible to observe absolutely tiny adults with less panic that they might get eaten all the time. Observations led to the conclusion that absolutely tiny adults deserved their own label, and lots more things. Overlooking somewhat the timescale of the enterprise, it went a bit like this:

[Homo labellens labellens] ‘Let’s see… Characteristics of tiny adult: number one: can’t speak.’
[Tiny adult] ‘I can! I can!’
‘No, you can’t, sweetie pie. That’s babbling, not speaking. Tiny adults can’t speak. Let’s call them “Cantspeaks”. What’s that in Latin? it always sounds better in Latin. Infans. Duly noted. Hey, I’ve got a great idea. How about all the theorists in the history of theory remind us relentlessly, in every article about children, which is not actually that many articles, that the Latin word for child is infans, and that therefore the child can’t speak?’
[Sycophant] ‘That’s a brilliant idea, professor! Yay etymological fever!!!’
[Child] ‘But I…’
‘NEXT! Characteristic number two: child is generally quite minuscule. That is cute! Just like squirrels, which are very cute. Children… [scribbling away] equals… squirrels. Ergo, children love nature, trees, burying nuts, all that stuff.’
‘I don’t like tr-’
‘Third characteristic: children know next to absolutely nothing. That’s poignant and endlessly beautiful, because it means that we have the great responsibility to teach them plenty of stuff. At the same time, they say things that are quite profound. But they say them entirely effortlessly and spontaneously. It’s almost magical.’
[Child] ‘Magical schmagical.’
‘That, for instance, was a lovely example of a child unintentionally making a joke.’
[Child] ‘No, it was perfectly intent— ’
‘My goodness. Will that child ever be quiet? Infans, remember! You, there – give him a book or something.’
‘Which one, professor? We’ve got the complete works of the Marquis de Sade, or Finnegans Wake.’
‘Neither, you psychopath! Recent studies have been inconclusive about whether children have no sexual thoughts, or far too many; in either case, Sade would be inappropriate. As for the other one, well, we know for a fact that no one on Earth has ever actually read it. No, let’s make them a literature of their own.’
[Child] ‘Cool! I’d love to read about—’
You close your cute little mouth and stay right here while I go make that literature. Good boy.’

As the literature for children developed, the distinct category of adults called academics, who spend months very slowly writing articles with small margins and fat footnotes that will have no influence whatsoever on anything important but will make those adults feel bloody flipping miserable until they’ve finished writing them, those adults, then, began to look at that literature to see what it could do.
Several branches sprouted out of that particular sub-branch, which itself grows out of the upper-left side branch which branches out of the third ramification north by northwest five junctions down from the fourth gnarl up in the Big Tree of Knowledge.
Each branch has its own myriad twigs and twiglets, but roughly speaking:
– One’s represented by Dawn’s blog post on looking at the aesthetics of the literature.
– One’s represented by Aline’s blog post on looking at children.
– One’s represented by my blog post hic et nunc on looking at adults.

They’re never completely separate. All of them have leaves and buds that intertwine and curl around one another in a sometimes very sensual fashion. But roughly speaking, my own interests revolve around what children’s literature – and other cultural productions for children, and discourses around childhood – can tell us about the anguishes, the problems, the desires, etc. that arise for adults from the construction of that ‘normal’ category: adulthood.
In that kind of study, you try to take seriously the claims made by adults, despite being aware of how insecure, uncertain of their intentions, existentially tormented and generally dysfunctional adults are. Taking the adult/child divide as your preferred parameter for the observation of adults’ relation to the world, you look at what the literature they write for children and the type of discourse that they produce to justify that literature betrays about their odd mixture of superiority complex towards, and yet complete reverence for, the people they call children. In short, you do adult-centred children’s literature research.

Of course you have to remember, when you venture into theory like this, that the adult-adult relationship is ‘impossible’ since it is premised on an empty signifier, ‘adulthood’, which regulates fantasies and desires of adults for adults about adults. 

“There is no adult behind the category ‘adult research about adults’, other than the one which the category itself sets in place, the one which it needs to believe is there for its own purposes.” (Racqueline Jose, The Case of Mr Darling, Or, the Impossibility of Adult-Centred Research, 1984, p.10)

We have time for some questions, though not very much as I overran on purpose and only got to the main point in the last fifteen seconds. Yes?
I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complex than that.
Yes, that and numerous other caveats.  
I’m very sorry, I’m afraid I struggle to understand how one could argue that studying the aesthetics or studying the child is unrelated to studying the adult.
Thank you for your fascinating comment. I’m glad you listened long enough to find something in there to viciously misunderstand
Have you thought of perhaps adding another branch, the one interested in Derrida? Let me tell you how very much I’ve understood Derrida. Let me accentuate that -da again. Daaa.
That is a very interesting suggestion, thank you, I will carefully consider it probably never.
DerridAA!!
Yes well, just so you know, in French there’s no specific emphasis on last syllables, it just depends on context.
Lacaaaan.
I assure you there is no—
Foucaaaaaaaaaaaauuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuult.
I’ll leave you to it.
HélENNNN CixOUSS. CixOUSS. SSS.

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