The influence of children’s literature on adult literature

Just got back from a really enjoyable evening at the University of Reading where I attended a lecture called The influence of children’s literature on adult literature. Delivered by the excellent Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, she talked about intertextuality and asked whether the dynamics of intertextuality between adult and children’s literature were subject to value judgements depending on their intertextual influences. It drew heavily on her experiences of research and writing around an article (of which a vast amount is available here).

The example she gave was an episode in the Mill on the Floss by Eliot. It’s the moment where Maggie cuts her hair. There are other moments in the story which supports her points but this was the key illustrative moment. You’ll have to excuse me if I make any errors here – these are all based on my interpretation of the lecture and with no experience of reading any Eliot.

This incident is accepted as being based on Eliot’s own childhood. This acceptance springs from the general consensus of scholars on Eliot – probably initially coming from Eliot’s biographers.

However there are striking similarities to this particular passage (and many others in Eliot’s text) in Holiday House by Catherine Sinclair.

Lesnik-Oberstein published on this topic, proving pretty darn conclusively that there was a connection between the texts. Her experiences around how this was received by the academic community provided a lot of her content. I’m paraphrasing here but there was a distinct apathy and reluctance to her findings – a certain “so what” attitude. What also came clear was that there was a certain value judgement applied to this connection between the texts. A retrospective connection between an “adult text” and a “children’s text” was somehow deemed less worthy of interest than a “child’s text” being influenced by an “adult text”.

The question she proposed was “why”?

I don’t think it’s a question that can be answered at all swiftly or even conclusively. But I do think that perhaps some of the following maybe play a part in formulating an answer. I’ll apologise in advance if I become a bit disjointed!

When we read books as children we engage in a collective, transitory reading experience. Literacy is something we develop – both through formal education and informally through our personal contexts. Every child reads. Every child is actively exposed to a text – be that as an animated cartoon, a nursery rhyme or a book.

Children’s literature plays a vital – and transitory role in this reading journey. Adult literature is the destination. Children’s literature is (perhaps!) viewed as a transitory step on this journey. You read children’s books and then you grow up and read adults. Therefore if an adult book actively references a child’s book, it will actively trigger memories of the readers own personal reading experience as a child. And this isn’t something we promote as a society. We are always encouraging children to read bigger and “better” books. We package Harry Potter under Adult covers to make it “okay” to be read. Because as a kids book it’s not. You’re meant to be “past” it.

I love talks like this that throw up more questions than answers. And I’d love your points of view. What do you think? Is children’s literature the poor cousin of intertextuality or is this balderdash as far as you’re concerned?

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