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Review of Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction, by Maria Nikolajeva

By Joseph T. Thomas, Jr.
Nikolajeva, Maria. Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2005.
Figure 1. Cover of Aesthetics Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction

1992 saw the publication of Perry Nodelman’s Pleasures of Children’s Literature. Over its multiple printings and editions (the newest co-edited by Mavis Reimer), Pleasures of Children’s Literature has reigned supreme in the world of children’s literature textbooks, especially those used in courses taught by English faculty. Nodelman’s approach sets it apart from the other textbooks of its kind, as it focuses on the “pleasures” children’s texts can offer to both children and adults. However, he avoids condescending to children, for he defines pleasure broadly, recognizing that some children – like some adults – take pleasure in more than plot, more than character. So it’s hard out there, as they say, for textbook authors, as their efforts are immediately compared – often unfavorably – to Nodelman’s touchstone of a book. One suspects that Pleasures is the reason we don’t have more children’s literature textbooks positioned from within the discipline of English Studies (as opposed to Education). Imagine the number of readers’ reports that include the sentence, “Nodelman’s already done it – and he did it better.”

So I was understandably excited when I heard of the release of Maria Nikolajeva’s Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature (2005). In Pleasures, Nodelman and Reimer – while they attend to aesthetic matters – adopt a cultural studies perspective. The title of Nikolajeva’s offering, however, suggests a book that organizes around aesthetic questions specifically. Readers of ImageTexT – especially those of us who are teachers – would no doubt find this sort of inquiry eminently useful, as there are all too few textbooks which wrestle with the tricky issue of aesthetic value and the ideological roots of such value. Unfortunately, Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature fails to deliver on its promises, and suffers by comparison to Nodelman and Reimer’s effort in every way except for price: weighing in at $47.00, it is $17.00 cheaper than Pleasures. Nikolajeva’s promising title is misleading. By aesthetics, she seems to mean structure, as in structuralism, and, even more narrowly, narrative theory. Despite its title, Nikolajeva’s book does not focus on aesthetic issues. It is a book on narratology (and a good one – if you find that theoretical approach interesting), but one that largely sidesteps the questions that the last half-century of theorizing has raised. The book is a largely tacit repudiation of post-structuralism and post-modernism, a repudiation of cultural studies and the political implications of the same. Ultimately, it is a return to structuralism (disguised as aesthetics).

For instance, in her preface, Nikolajeva notes that “students gladly accept critical theory and the analytical tools it offers as long as they are presented in an accessible and meaningful way, that is, not theory for its own sake, but theory as support for the concrete study of literature” (vi). She later uses the word “toolkit” for theory, suggesting that theory offers simply a set of “tools” useful in the discussion and analysis of something unproblematically called “literature,” or, in this case, “children’s literature.” Nikolajeva sidesteps the fact that a great deal of theory questions both the idea of literature (with a capital L) and the cultural assumptions that undergird such a category; indeed, she sidesteps the fact that the “literary” study of children’s literature, like the study of comics, emerges from such theory and the refiguring of the canon such theories allowed. The introduction asks “whether children’s literature is different from any other kind of literature, what we normally call adult, or general, or mainstream literature” (xi). The contested nature of “what we normally call adult, or general, or mainstream literature” is ignored, as is the contested nature of “children’s literature” itself. In a later chapter, “The Aesthetic of the Medium,” she begins promisingly:

Today children’s literature exists very much on the crossroads of different media: film, theater, television, video, music, computer games, and so on. The spin-off products, including merchandise (toys, clothes, office supplies, and the like), often play a more important role in the promotion of a book than the book itself. The area is much too large to be covered in merely one chapter; besides, many questions will take us away from the field of children’s literature into culture and media studies. (223)

Ignoring the fact that theories of intertextuality question the easy line between a book and its “spin-off products,” I’m unsure that “the field of children’s literature” and that of “culture and media studies” are so easily distinguished. Certainly, readers of ImageTexT – and more broadly readers of comics studies and interdisciplinary word/image studies – have a legitimate interest in testing that distinction as well.

Similarly, she does not appreciate that some Marxist theories have alerted us to the fact that the toolkit model implies a liberal humanist perspective on literary studies, just as they have called into question the primacy of this perspective. Furthermore, as Terry Eagleton points out in his own textbook, An Introduction to Literary Theory, the liberal humanist perspective is often “less liberal than it looks at first sight [, … as] a reader with strong ideological commitments is likely to be an inadequate one” (69). Although Eagleton is discussing here Wolfgang Iser’s belief that literature should “transform” readers, his insights are appropriate in this context as well: the toolkit approach (so commonly used even in graduate theory classes) suggests that theory is simply a means to an end, and that end is the analysis of something unproblematically called “literature”; perhaps more vexing, this approach also reinscribes a stable, liberal humanist notion of the reader. As Eagleton writes, “Everything about the reading subject is up for question in the act of reading, except what kind of (liberal) subject it is: these ideological limits can be in no way criticized, for then the whole model would collapse” (69). Again, readers of comics scholarship, with its abiding interest in cultural studies, including audience studies, are likely to find Nikolajeva’s assumed reader too narrowly straitjacketed and her model of criticism too beholden to an old-fashioned ideal.

In her conclusion, Nikolajeva instructs her readers how to choose an “appropriate” critical method of analysis. She suggests that some methods are more “suitable” than others, noting that the “prerequisites” we should take into account when making this choice all involve “appropriateness,” as in, “Is the method appropriate from the point of view of your material?” (270). She notes, “In the natural sciences, this [toolkit approach] corresponds to creating a theoretical equation and building adequate equipment to conduct an experiment” (270). Here we see a reliance on empiricism, suggesting that we can somehow discover which method is a more or less appropriate tool for analysis, that there are testable – provable – answers to these questions. Thus, we are taken back to an earlier era of criticism which justified itself in scientific terms. Nikolajeva does allow that there may be value in using a method that initially seems inappropriate for a certain text, writing, “It is […] a greater challenge to adapt a method to something else than it was originally proposed for” (270). However, she holds onto the idea that all of these methods are only useful and appropriate for the analysis of literary texts, isolatable, knowable texts that theory assists us in “examining.” Nikolajeva elides the fact that many contemporary theories are antithetical to the project of “examining” literary texts, that they are not analogous to a “bulldozer” or a “tiny blade” or a “divining rod” (270). (Similarly, I might add, she forgets the interdisciplinary nature of much contemporary theory – especially the cultural studies model familiar to readers of ImageText.) She writes, “Before we have decided what the purpose of our work will be, we cannot pick the necessary instrument” (271). The poststructuralist tradition, for instance, would deny the easy scientism of such assertions.

What’s more, Nikolajeva’s view of readerly pleasure (and purpose) is disconcertingly narrow, especially when compared to the much broader view found in Pleasures of Children’s Literature. She writes that “basically, we read fiction because we are interested in human nature and human relationships as revealed through fictive characters” (145). In a textbook ostensibly about aesthetics, this assertion comes across as particularly problematic. Who is the “we” here? Have all humans in all times and all places really engaged with fiction because they are interested in “human nature” or “human relationships”? Are there not other concerns which might trump such interests? Might readers – or auditors, since many forms of fiction are oral in nature – also take pleasure or find interest in, say, aesthetic concerns – textures of language (syntax, vocabulary, music, etc.), narrative voice, metaphor, structural complexity, intertexuality, and a host of other features? And what are we to make of narratives whose means of delivery are at least partly pictorial in nature? Are the pleasures of picture books and comics, for example, reducible to Nikolajeva’s formula?

Herein lies a final, overarching difficulty with Nikolajeva’s textbook. Just as its underlying theoretical position is a bit old-fashioned, so is its voice. Nodelman’s text is opinionated and argumentative, thoroughly positioned and at times confrontational. Yet his text foregrounds these facts, asking students to engage with his ideas, to refute them, to discover his own blind spots. Nikolajeva’s text, however, is also opinionated and thoroughly positioned, but never overtly confrontational – in fact, she uses the royal “we” throughout the book, and at the end of the chapters, she encourages readers to “go further,” as if it’s always onward and upward, as if “we” are always building on previous, rock solid ideas instead of discrediting or rewriting insufficient ones. So, when Nikolajeva concludes with sentiments like, “no theory is better than any other,” I raise an eyebrow. Surely she doesn’t really believe this, and surely her book would be better if she did not pretend to.

Posted in Volume 3, Issue 3: Comics and Childhood