Book Review: The Hidden Adult

By Kendra Holmes

Nodelman,Perry. The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Perry Nodelman’s The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature represents initial ideas that Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan: The Impossibility of Children’s Literature presented; however, Nodelman’s text appropriately depicts children’s literature. The Hidden Adult text revisits issues that Rose proposed, in her most famous analysis of the falsies of children’s literature; investigating the validity of children’s literature, that is, its conceptualization for the “implied child reader.” Furthermore, Nodelman surveys a mixture of canonical and contemporary texts; specifically, six children’s texts: The Purple Jar, Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Doolittle, Henry Higgins, The Snowy Day, and Plain City− all written to various subgroups and ages of people− to show why the genre of children’s literature is complex and masked by adult ideologies. The text states that most literature written for the child reflects adult experience and knowledge, and the child reader is constructed around adult influence.

Nodelman presents an interesting comparison between popular literature and children’s literature, stating that they are easily assessable, they are simple in content and presentation and they appeal to various groups of people. Although these comparisons are made about children’s literature and popular literature, most of the text is dedicated to denouncing such beliefs, especially perceptions that children’s literature is a simple genre. Nodleman expands the ideas of children’s literature to different sub-topics providing reason and evidence to support his argument that the text that is “solely invested” in the child is complex and not easily understood. Unlike The Case of Peter Pan, The Hidden Adult does not try to pinpoint or conceptualize children’s literature into one functional definition; rather, Nodelman takes his readers on a journey in defining children’s literature across discourses, cultural groups, and experiences.

Time will not allow me the opportunity to compose an analysis of the entire book. However, I would like to dedicate some time to discuss two relatively important sub-chapters within the text. The first “The Hidden Adult” and the latter “Narrator and Narrate,” the former is the title of the text so it is only right that I dedicate a portion of the book review to its excellent and the latter is a creative device that is used in children’s texts and Noldeman’s own critical writing. The sub-chapter entitled “The Hidden Adult” (206) explores the inevitable possibility that children’s literature is left untainted. These texts are consumed by “sexual, cultural, historical” (208) undertones that are a result of sublime adult ideologies. The previous notion is expanded to the desire of children’s authors to express their voice (Narrator) through their text (Narrate). But while they desire to asset their voice the author must do it in a manner that will not dismiss the child as the primary audience. The Hidden Adult explains that the only way children’s books can be successful, despite the inability for the author to conceal his or her own wants and desires, is to manipulate their voice in a way that will masks adult ideologies over a transcendent child fantasy.

The methodology of the text follows a cyclical structure with a dialectical presentation. Nodelman often repeats information throughout the text to help readers—I assume—understand and respond to the content presented. He also invites readers into the conversation that he appears to have with himself, probing them to think about the complexness of children’s literature and more so the impossibility of defining it. The text is extremely long and tedious and its readers will need patience to get through it but I believe the length of the text adds to Nodelman’s attempt to define children’s literature. As previously mentioned, he invites his readers in his journey to help define the impossible, children’s literature. The text has an “active” tone, it presents information and encourages reader to dissect, deconstruct and then reconstruct children’s literature along with Nodelman. Readers are also graced with his research and scholarship as he attempts to define children’s literature; touching on notions that previous theorists came across but failed to denote. There are very few spots in the text, if any, where the reader is left inquiring about some unmerited assumption or undefined philosophy; rather, the author does an amazing job of stretching his text and answering all the questions that could be left unanswered. So while the length, repetition and tone of his text could be perceive as undesirable, it allows for him to complete and strengthen his argument which is easily identified as the complexness of children’s literature. I found Nodelman’s methodology to be extremely helpful and conducive to the topics he discussed around children’s texts. I must commend Nodelman on a job well done, not only does he discuss methods and themes within children’s literature but he also applies them to his own critical analysis of The Hidden Adult.

Perfection in most cases is a hyperbole and it is a very bold assertion to make, however, if I can not say that this text was perfect then I will say it was darn close to it. The Hidden Adult had few failures but I know a lot of the points mentioned in the methodology section could be mistaken as a poor presentation of style for a theoretical text. But I find Nodelman’s use of repetition, cyclical structure was imperative to his argument. Although I have nothing negative to say in regards to the The Hidden Adult, I think it would be interesting if Nodelman took this project to the next level and explored ideas of child figures and ideology within adult literature. What I mean by this is an analysis of the use of ideas, behaviors and experiences associated with childhood but surround by an adult issue or circumstance. I think this could be a direct sequel to the Hidden Adult, but instead it would be called the Hidden Child: Defining Adult Literature; looking at elements of adult literature and finding the child within. If what Nodelman says about uncontrollable adult beliefs finding there way into children’s literature isn’t it possible that this is an issue of the “implied adult reader.” Nodelman implies that one of the main reason why children’s literature is complex is because it has to be written by and exposed to adults, that is, there is a necessary relationship between adult and child and if one does not complete its task the other will falter. Of course adult texts are not written by children but if there is a suppressed child within every adult then we can only assume that through ones sub-conscious that those ideas of play and innocent would be projected. Nodelman touched on all these things but as theorists we would like to see them explored more in-depth in a text of its own, that will exemplify how adult and child are cyclical and interwoven.

Kendra is a second-year MA student.

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