Multicultural Children’s Literature and the Politics of Exclusion

By Michele Lee

A job listing for a tenure track assistant professorship to teach children’s literature, literature for middle grades, and literature for adolescents at The University of Central Arkansas was posted a couple of years ago on the graduate listserv here at the University of Florida. Although written by Central Arkansas’ English Department head, the listing indicated that applicants with a doctorate in English education were just as preferable as those with a doctorate in English. Furthermore, potential applicants with public school experience were “particularly encouraged” to apply. Although the listing indicated the position would require cross-duties in both UCA’s English Department and College of Education, in most tenure track job positions for literature, no requests for the equivalent of “practical” experience outside of teaching undergraduate classes would ever be indicated, nor would someone equipped with a doctorate in English education ever be considered just as qualified to teach literature at the graduate level. Why request this of a potential children’s literature professor?

To answer this question requires a detangling of the complicated history of English education and literature as twin fields of study. At the graduate level, this glaring division resembles a hierarchical order where literary scholars always feel their deeply involved specializations within the field are more valuable for teaching than a general pedagogical approach to the topic. But at the same time, English education at the graduate level is more concerned with pedagogical theory for teaching or researching elementary and secondary education, so the goals of each field are entirely different. The division and possible conflicts between the two disciplines are more visible at the undergraduate level, as literature majors usually have a less decisive and pragmatic career option at the end of their studies. While the general English major is less associated with any one specific employment opportunity, although teaching is predictably inferred, most education majors, on the other hand, receive field experience interning at local schools and are more likely to ensure a job teaching for a school district upon graduation. The requirement of an internship or apprenticeship likens the education major to a particular vocation where certain technical skills can be learned and applied in the field. While the substantial disdain for anything seemingly vocational associated with Arts and Letters exudes that dreaded charge of elitism, the concept of equipping future educators with occupational training rather than allowing for a focus on more philosophical discussion does seem highly problematic.

Yet, within the site of children’s literature as a field of study at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, childhood education, or the necessarily practical application of the literature at the site of the classroom, is considered a natural and essential companion to the more philosophical and theoretical study of simply the literature. This expectation of a certain practical application associated within the field gestures toward children’s literature’s tentative place in the university English department and the notion that children’s studies has not been fully integrated. The English-centric children’s literature scholar is most likely alarmed at this. Because children’s literature is somehow less valued than “adult” literature, in an attempt to become more codified and accepted within the “canon,” there has been a particular focus and fixation on classical children’s texts, a focus that sometimes relegates more multicultural, or “otherized,” texts to the background where they only retain pedagogical value.

This discussion revisits these rather complex and controversial repercussions of education and literature when viewed as equal components of the study of children’s literature. I am specifically concerned with how this composite of education and literature has affected and is exemplified by recent trends in multicultural children’s literature studies and the current academic research that is being generated in both fields. In reviewing current literary criticism about multicultural children’s texts produced by both literary and education scholars, I have found the similar approaches to the material in regards to the use of universality as both concept and argument inherently problematic. Also, many critical texts written about multicultural children’s literature, such as Maria Jose Botelho and Masha Kabakow Rudman’s recent Critical Multicultural Analysis of Children’s Literature, in an attempt to tackle both pedagogical and cultural or literary studies interests, fail to really highlight the exclusion and marginalization of non-White groups and the possibilities of multicultural children’s texts to function as social spaces where this systematic violence can be undone. This raises questions of exclusion and canon-formation as it applies to how a children’s literature field of study came about in the university, and how the application of post-colonial studies within the field to discuss the appropriation of the child reader and child figure often ignores or excludes the experiences of the non-white other within multicultural texts.

Children’s literature itself has been largely contested in terms of its value within the larger American literary canon, so it seems fitting to use it as a case study of how multicultural literature itself has only been tentatively approached, as most of the focus within the field has been on Golden Age texts. When multicultural children’s literature is studied, it is often used in conjunction with discussions of global literature, universality, or its usefulness within the classroom. In order to argue that the literary criticism concerning multicultural children’s works is mostly concerned with how to use these texts as tools of teaching, it is useful to first look closely at how some of the premier literary criticism of just children’s literature focuses on a discussion of postcolonial theory that essentially ignores or omits multicultural texts. Most of the articles that are being written about multicultural works are authored by education scholars who are particularly focused on the utility of teaching these works in conjunction with “white” mainstream books to set up a mode of comparison. This is problematic for students because it creates a model of discourse that never truly moves beyond inherent differences. Yet, even within the field of children’s literature and its cross-sections with post-colonial studies, most of the discussion has hinged on the idea of the child as being somehow appropriated and used by a more adult authoritative figure in the same way that the Other is constructed as savage and removed within certain colonial texts. The trend of identifying child as Other is further complicated with more work being done with multicultural children’s texts and issues of a global literature that is not completely tied to the Golden Age of Children’s books.

Children’s literature, as a still novel and often disregarded field, often consists of classical texts that appear readily accessible, and more importantly, familiar to undergraduate readers. Through this familiarity, a particular discussion of literary value can then be distilled to how children’s literature is often outside the larger literary canon. In evoking the possibilities and connotations of exclusion, “other” literary works, or children’s literature that is considered multicultural, multiethnic, or global, are also tentatively enfolded into this discussion. And, more importantly, distinct questions of how multicultural literary works must be studied and taught are also engaged. By looking at why English and education have become convergent within children’s literature studies and performing an extended critical analysis of current children’s literature scholarship, we can continue the vital process of engaging discussions of canon-formation and multiculturalism within literature at large. What this global literature should argue for is a definition of universality that does not create a model of equality based on the child experience, but a mode or method of discourse where works are equally worthy in terms of artistic merit and focus. We can avoid simply reverting to a one-dimensional model of universality by becoming aware of the dangers of a global literature at a moment in history where post-colonialism is not post and globalization has become a way of dispersing and purveying dominant Western culture.

Michele is a PhD student.

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