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History And Tradition In Childrens Literature

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3659 words Published: 28th Apr 2017

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The influence of history and tradition of children’s literature is of great importance in the novels and books that are written and published today. Not only do they give a framework for the author to work from, they also give the reader an insight into the type of novel that they are going to read. Depending on the type of book we are reading its traditions and history could stem back to oral tale and traditional fairy stories or more recent advancements of the Victorian books for boy s and books for girls. This essay will trace the development of tradional and historial methods and how they have influenced popular childrens fiction today but also look at the ways in which popular fiction has advanced and developed to appeal to youngsters today. I will be looking closely at BlocK 1: Instuction and delight; Block 4: The prestigious and the popular; Block 6: Contemporary trends and also touching on Block 5: Words and pictures, I will use these alongside the most recent UK Carnegie Prize winner Bog Child and the very popular Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, it will also touch on other stories and novels to show comparisons and developments. All of the traditions and histories of children’s literature have influenced popular fiction of today and is important that these methods are recognised and accredited.

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Children’s literature consists of a wide range of genres such as fantasy (folk tales, fables, myths and legends), fiction (science fiction, and historical fiction), informational books, picturere books, biography and poetry. Children’s literature has been used to develop language, literacy and creative thinking skills. It also functions as a character development tool to shape behavior and attitudes. Knowing all aspects of children’s literature is crucial for parents, educators, and librarians who play a major role in selecting reading material for children and thus influence the reading habits, behaviour and attitudes of children. ‘Children’s authors should be aware of the power of language, its possibilities and also the dangers it presents in terms of manipulating children,’ Professor Nikolajeva said. ‘A lot of people presume that writing children’s literature is relatively simple, but in fact it demands great sophistication’ (Kirk, Tom).

Word play is a very important role in children’s literature. The nonsense speech and strange puns help young readers develop, even though they sound completely nonsensical to adults. This curios language helps young readers understand the difference between the imaginary and the symbolic. A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young and the many adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh is a prime example of this. As Jackie Wullsclager in her essay ‘A.A. Milne: When We Were Very Young’ explains – when Milne began writing there was a shift from the passionate beliefs of the Victorians and of the ‘earnest idealism’ (133) of the Edwardians and ‘had turned into pure escapist whimsy: mawkishness based not on a desperation to be flippant, unchallenged, intellectually and emotionally cosy’ (133). The world that Milne created for Pooh and his friends is one of complete fantasy and escapism, this is in complete contrast to Bog Child which explores and exposes the dangers and insecurity of life in Ireland during the 1980s although Dowd does give the reader and Fergus an escape through the discovery and revelation of Mel’s life in A.D. 80. Where Milne uses fantasy and escapism, Dowd uses historical realism. However, there is an element of realism in Milne’s work too – the back drop for his work is the Edwardian world.

Language plays a very important role in children’s literature and is used in various ways. The language of A. A. Milne teaches children about the importance of words and the power of language. Christopher Robin unlike the other characters is able to distinguish between made-up words and real words and understands what they mean. This is much the same as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone the bookworm Hermione knows more magic words than most other wizards of her age group because she sits down and studies the spells from her books she knows spells such as ‘Alhomora’ and ‘Evanesco; that her contemporaries do not. By exploring language both Milne and Rowling through their ‘books also show that language is a flexible tool which, as well as giving meaning to the adult world, can be used creatively to lend expression to children’s own imaginations’ (Kirk, Tom). Bog Child is cross over fiction and so the language in it is ultimately adult (the teenagers who this book is aimed at are not patronised with childish language and gentle themes). Siobhan Dowd’s novel Bog Child discusses very real history – the political and religious discontent that happened between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is not softened. Set in 1981, Bog Child brings modern readers back into the center of the discord over Northern Ireland. Eighteen-year-old Fergus McCann lives with his family in the northern counties, which are held by Great Britain. The family is embroiled in the fight for independence against the foreign holders. In fact, his brother is currently in prison and has started a hunger strike, and he is not alone. There are other men in the prison doing the same, and some have even died from it. This leaves Fergus extremely worried about the safety of his brother.

While all of this is taking place, Fergus is also involved in a historic mystery. He has been working with his uncle across the border in the Republic of Ireland. As can be imagined this is illegal, but it is worth the risk to farm peat for use as fuel, which could be a major source of income on the black market. In the process of working, Fergus comes across the body of a bog child, a girl who had been placed in the bog during the Iron Age. As the archaeologist work on processing the details, along with his Fergus’ help, it quickly becomes clear that the girl died under terribly violent circumstances.

At the beginning of the Winnie-the-Pooh series Christopher Robin is just a young boy at the start of his education, him and Pooh go in search of the North Pole and when Pooh asks what it is Christopher Robin replies ‘It’s just a thing you discover’. Throughout the series Christopher Robin grows up and learns to read a write and understands the power of language, he is able to scare Pooh and Piglet (who are lesser-educated) with stories of Heffalumps and Woozles. In much a similar way Harry Potter and Hermione (and other muggles) need to learn the wizzarding language so that they can get by at Hogwarts and be a part of the wizzarding world. Bog Child is written in dialect and through this the reader is able to connect with and understand the characters and the setting more. We also see the character of Fergus develop throughout Bog Child we are introduced to a young man we seems to have few worries, by the end (when he leaves to go to university) he has changed into a young man who is not only leaving to enter the next stage of his life but one who has been educated in the realities of life. He has lost his brother, he has seen for himself the realities of the Irish political situation and he has learnt about the life and death of a ‘bog child’. Fergus’s final few months with his family presented him with a real learning curve and once again we are presented with a story in which education (both accedemically and of life) enhances a person and enables them to move forward.

Another similarity that crops up between Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Winnie-the-Pooh is that of the role of the adult. A. A. Milne did not write Winnie-the Pooh for children, he wrote them for the child within us and Harry Potter’s success meant that it was also published with an adult cover so that it too appealed to adults. Bog Child being a book for teenagers crosses the line of adult fiction. Many parents will remember the Thatcher years and the war between Catholics and Protestants (it still continues to a lesser extent today).

‘All Harry Potter stories have something to say about the ways in which we currently think about childhood, adulthood and the family; about the relationship between education and work; and about questions of good and evil, personal and collective responsibility’ (Blake, Andrew, p. 309), I feel that this is true of all of the books mentioned so far. Winnie-the Pooh celebrates childhood and the imagination but also how education helps a person to develop and move on it also highlights the importance of collective of collective responsibility (in Milne’s case, friendship) and how working together and helping one anther is more fun than doing it alone. Bog Child certainly covers all of these issues, we are presented with a family of six, mum, dad, two sons and two daughters. The two daughters are protected from the truth of the eldest brother…… and enjoy their childhood playing and swimming. Fergus grows up through the novel and becomes a young man who understands the truth about his country’s political unrest and helps conceal the truth from his sister by taking them swimming but he also get bribed into helping (or thinks he is helping) his brothers cause by couriering parcels from one place to another. He is also educating himself so that he can better himself and move away so that he does not get caught up in all of the troubles. Fergus seems to understand the political stance that is being taken and why and through this he is able to grow and develop as a person and to see the rights and wrongs of what is going on. All three of these stories can be seen to be influenced by the tradional fairytale.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone can also be seen to follow the traditional pattern of fairy tales. Jack Zipes in his essay ‘The Phenomenon of Harry Potter, or Why All the Talk? Explains that the formula for a fairy tale contains four parts: ‘Part I. Prison… Part II. The Noble Calling… Part III. The Heroic Adventures… Part IV. The reluctant return’ (294). It is easy to see this pattern occurring in both Rowling’s novel and the classic fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood. This is certainly not a structure that Bog Child follows. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as highlighted by Nicola J. Watson draws upon and updates the ‘long-standing traditions in children’s fiction. Scholars have noted Rowling’s revival of the boarding-school story… with its stock cast of characters… and its stock events’ (288). The structure of the historical novel that Bog Child follows is very different to that of the fantasy/magical realism that is presented to us by Rowling’s. The new historical novel uses the past as its backdrop and the characters a fictional. The social situation of the plot is very important but it is the characters who dominate the story. The 1981 Northern Ireland time plot is very important to the novel but the Stone age storyline is not, this is merely an interesting enhancement but otherwise irrelevant. This is in sharp contrast to ‘[T]he creation of the Magic world’ (Gupta, Suman, p. 297) where things and events are not questioned they are just accepted, ‘this is why things are magical in the Magic world’ (Gupta, Suman, p. 297). In Bog Child, all events are questioned, such as Thatcher’s decisions, the placement of the British army and the hunger strike. Time is not a very important feature in Harry Potter but the fantastical place setting is – this provides the reader with the contrast the story needs to make it more fantastical and also provides the escapism from the mundane that Harry needs, the same could be said of Mel in Dowdes’ novel, the Stone age dream/story provides Fergus with an escape from the reality of his own life and the world in which he is living.

The earliest forms of what we today consider to be children’s literature was actually intended for adults. The oral myths and legends of traditional texts were created to explain natural phenomena. The tales were often told around a fire or in court in the form of ballads, sagas and epic tales, to an audience of both adults and children.

Children’s literature generates all kinds of questions and these questions are vital. Children’s literature above any other kind is a power struggle – it has been written for children’s by adults, ‘and this means that like it or not, adults are exercising power, and children are either being manipulated, or resisting manipulation’ (Hunt, Peter, p. 14) this is where the question on whether children’s literature is written to instruct or to entertain. Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd seems to embody both of these. Bog Child is classified as historical realism and by using this genre Dowd has to provide the reader with a certain amount of historical facts, she informs the reader of religious divides that exist in Ireland (both north and south) and the political and personal/social tension that this breeds. ‘Mel’ (who is found in the bog by Fergus) is delivered to the reader through Fergus’ dreams – it is this mixture of truth and fiction and the everyday going life of a teenager growing up surrounded by this tension that provides the entertainment in this novel and light relief through Fergus’ relationship with Cora and his boyish banter with his friends. Some writer’s claim to write purely to entertain however, this is not completely possible because writers ‘have their own ideological stance, their own ideas of what is right and wrong, their own way of seeing the world, and it is impossible that they should not in some way convey this in their writing, manipulatively or not’ (Hunt, Peter, p. 15). J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a great example of this; Rowling’s does not provide the reader with this depth of historical knowledge but does provide entertainment as the reader follows harry and his friends and enemies through his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If there is any instruction in Rowling’s novel it is that life contains struggles and things do not always go our way but in the end good over comes evil and events (however unfortunate) happen for a reason.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone contrasts nicely with Bog Child. Harry Potter fits into the genre of fantasy while Bog Child is deemed as an historical novel. Fantasy novels contain magic, mythical creatures or other supernatural elements which co-exist invisibly with the mundane world, with the majority of people none the wiser. Historical novels must be well researched and have a realistic historical backdrop, the past must be truthfully represented.

Bog Child explores political conflict, personal heroism, human frailty and love and death. These themes are explored in both Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Coram Boy. J. K. Rowling’s book addresses ‘many of the anxieties in our changing political and cultural world’, these issues need to be addressed(in both Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Bog Child so that the reader can truly understand where the author is coming from. In 1997 the Labour Government (under Tony Blair) took over from John Major’s Conservative government, (it is worth noting that the time frame in Bog Child is also under conservative rule). Under Conservative rule Great Britain and Northern Ireland were governed by ‘Parliament Lords [that] preserved the feudal system’ (Blake, Andrew, p. 304) there was also great unrest in Northern Ireland (which is shown in Dowdes’ novel) but since 1998 there has been great change and ‘the peace process in Northern Ireland resulted in the return of devolved government, with the potential for closer ties to the Republic of Ireland’ (Blake, Andrew, p. 304). Rowling’s has certainly rebranded Britain in her books. ‘Before Harry Potter, the 1990s children’s books tried to deal directly with the ‘real’ – and an uncomfortable real at that… Whatever its sociological accuracy, this politically correct mode of literary production was out of kilter with the 1990s times; Harry Potter, on the other hand, was right on the button’ (Blake, Andrew, p. 305). Bog Child fits into the 1990s stereotype – it exposes the political and personal reality of many organisations and individuals who lived in Northern Ireland during the early 1980s and the imposing power of Margaret Thatcher.

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Blake explains that ‘Harry Potter is part of this political and cultural world… Hogwarts represents the multicultural England… And although there is a class system in operation at Hogwarts, it doesn’t dictate the plat as you would expect from a Victorian novel or even a 1920s public school story’ (Blake, Andrew, 308). In a sense the society in Bog Child seems to reflect that present in the Victorian novel because the population is controlled by a higher power and no matter what the working class do to be heard (going on hunger strike for example) they are still ignored, this is the type of class system that the Conservative party of the 1970-80s seemed to support and represent.

There are many similarities between Bog Child and Coram Boy. Both are historical novels with political purpose. Bog Child tells us the story of Fergus and Mel. Fergus is an eighteen year old living in Northern Ireland during the Thatcher years, his brother is on hunger strike in ‘The Maze’ and soldiers have taken up evidence everywhere. Mel is a stone-age body that he found and her story unravels itself to him in his dreams.

Both the modern and the Iron Age stories deal with political destiny and self-sacrifice; each features a protagonist under huge pressure to unite a fragmented tribe. With such conflict comes sadness, an undertow of psychological darkness, but also a belief in love’s power to redeem the human soul, and even, perhaps, the future of mankind. As Mel dies, she tells us that ‘Silver light fizzed and shot apart. Love fell in particles, like snow’.

Children’s literature is written, published, marketed and purchased by adults and given to children for their education and entertainment. The first literature written specifically for children was intended to instruct. Generally speaking this confirms that it is the intended audience rather than the producers of the texts that define the field of what is and is not children’s literature.

Children’s books reflect and embody the ideologies of the culture in which they are written and the period’s assumptions of children and appropriate behavior. ‘Fiction is fiction, and children’s books say a great deal to adults about the relationships of adults to children, or about the concept of childhood at a particular period, rather than portraying actual childhoods’ (Hunt, Peter p. 14). This generally means that children’s literature embodies adult concerns and concepts of childhood opposed to the topics that I child might chose for oneself.

The book that wins the Carnegie Medal should be a book of outstanding literary quality. The whole work should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards.

Both Bog Child and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone have been greatly received and have both won prizes as literary works. They have also both been adapted Bog Child for the stage and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a film.

Through close analysis ofBog Child, Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone and touching on other novels from the course I have been able to explore the various themes that are apparent in Children’s literature and how the traditions and history of children’s literature has influenced children’s authors today in their writing of children’s fiction. By researching as far back as tradional fairy tales and oral tales I have been able to expose the roots of children’s fiction and this then led me onto whether children’s literature was ment to instruct or delight and what makes children’s literature popular and how the power of the publisher has influences and effected how we able to access different types of literature be it on film or stage. Bog Child and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are excellent examples of how the children’s novel has changed and adapted over the years but also how they have both stuck to the traditional structures of children’s book writing. Children’s Literature, much like a cultural construct continues to evolve over time. Children’s literature is defined and comprised by texts that have been specifically written for children and also texts that children have chosen to read and the boundaries between children’s and adult’s literature is surprisingly smooth.

Kirk, Tom www.admin.cam.ac.uk/news/press/dpp/2009051305 (16th May, 2010).


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