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The Varied Complexities of Children's Literature: A look at hidden subtexts

Girl reading a book
Girl reading a book

Children’s literature is both varied and complex, which is why scholars — such as Peter Hunt — studied the genre in great depth. "Supposedly the first PhD in the area, Hunt’s work set a precedent for children’s literature as a serious academic pursuit," his seminal Instruction and Delight (1994) laid the foundation for much subsequent debate on the subject. In it, Hunt argued that children’s literature is a unique literary system that is inherently functional, educating and entertaining its readers in almost equal measure. He noted, however, that early interactions with literature have the potential to shape young minds socially as well as culturally, influencing their perceptions of the wider world.

Let’s take a look at two distinct examples.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

J.M Barrie’s (1860 – 1937) opus Peter Pan (1904) may inspire some intriguing discourse in relation to the overarching thesis of Hunt’s work. An instant critical and commercial success, Peter Pan has been widely adapted across a variety of mediums on a global scale; the boy who wouldn’t grow up is forever imbedded in popular culture as the personification of lasting youth. However, for all its fantasy, Peter Pan is also an exploration of gender roles and adolescent sexuality. This is most evident in the characterization of the heroine Wendy, who leaves the comfortable confines of domesticity to join Peter in Neverland. As the story progresses, she fills the role of both matriarch to the Lost Boys and becomes the assumed love interest of Peter. This stands in stark contrast to the carefree lives and mischievous exploits of her male counterparts.

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling’s immensely popular Harry Potter series bridges the gap between literature that’s intended for young audiences and literature that's intended for adult readers. The author had previously stated that she aimed to recreate Nazi Germany in the wizarding world, clearly infusing adult themes into novels predominantly intended for children. It is worth noting that from an adult's point of view, J.K. Rowling seems to have done so in a way that was both informative and restrained. From a child's point of view, however, it's hard to tell how the story was interpreted. Furthermore, aside from the original book covers, specially designed jackets were released specifically for adult readers. In both cases, her work seems to speak to people across all age groups.

These selections are just two examples of the hidden subtexts found in children’s literature. Obviously, there are many more. Understanding how these subtexts influence children during their formative years, we have to study the literature they are exposed to. As Peter Hunt put it:

“The study of children’s texts is technically more complex than the study of adult books, partly because the audience is different, and their responses more obviously unknowable, and partly because of the range of texts and the range of purposes... To understand what is happening to narrative and our children we need to understand the processes of decoding texts, as well as their history and their contemporary forms: the study of children’s literature can provide us with this understanding.”

Of course, this is just one philosophy that pertains to children's literature; rebuttals have been offered by other scholars, but it's still valuable food for thought as we help navigate children and help them learn about the world.

Note* Image for this post was sourced from Pexels. This is an updated blog post from 2019.

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