The Cambridge Companion to Children's Literature

M.O. Grenby + Andrea Immel (editors)

Cambridge University Press 2009

The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature

Daniel Hahn

Oxford University Press 2015

The Routledge Companion to Children's Literature

David Rudd (editor)

Routledge 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015 http://dannyreviews.com/
Despite the formal symmetry of their titles, the Cambridge, Oxford and Routledge Companions to Children's Literature are radically different. The first is a collection of essays, the second an encyclopedia, and the third almost entirely focused on literary and critical theory.

Of the three books, the Cambridge Companion is the one I would recommend to most people. It consists of sixteen essays which, without attempting to be systematic, give an overview of the history of writing for children and of its contexts and genres and forms and themes. The major limitations are restrictions to work in English and to printed fiction.

Like other Cambridge Companions, the pitch here is to "students and scholars", but this volume at least is more broadly accessible. The contributors take a variety of methodological approaches and are critically aware, but largely eschew theory, critical or literary: there are two references to Lacan and single ones to Foucault and Derrida; Ari├Ęs gets a few mentions but Propp and Bakhtin none. They also tend to look at a few works in more detail, providing enough background for readers who aren't familiar with them to be able to follow the discussion.

M.O. Grenby's exploration of the origins of children's literature goes back to 1744 and Newbery's A Little Pretty Pocket-Book but ventures more widely, to earlier strands and to the construction of childhood. He also touches on the genre's domestic sources and originary myths of being derived from stories told to actual children.

Andrea Immel tries to give a concrete feel for how constructions of childhood have changed by imagining a Mrs X in the children's section of a modern bookshop, looking back to Locke as "the godfather of the modern children's book", and then imagining him transported to the present to have a conversation with Mrs X.

Brian Alderson explores the physical construction of books, their covers, the incorporation of pop-ups, illustrations, and so forth. He highlights the evolution of complex production techniques and, looking at Beatrix Potter, Roald Dahl and Hans Christian Anderson, how lack of copyright control could prevent authors controlling the presentation of their work.

Katie Trumpener looks at three aspects of "picture-book worlds and ways of seeing", at international and cross-cultural connections, at tableaux and panoramas as tools for locating one's place in the world, and at modernist concerns with different perspectives.

In "The fear of poetry" Richard Flynn explores the limitations of poetry anthologies. He suggests that "an expansive view of children's poetry ... that recognises the value of both the serious and the whimsical, that recognises poetry as a social as well as a solitary pleasure, seems best designed to promote a lifelong love of poetry".

John Stephens explores the retelling of stories across time and cultures, which often involves parody and genre shifting. "The processes involved in retelling are rich and varied, but characteristically begin with raw material that is usually unstable, and usually unfixed in its origins."

Deborah Stevenson looks at early adult critical assessment of children's literature, at the role of academics in canon creation, at popular audiences and the creation of classics, and at how change promises "a chorus of canons".

Lissa Paul touches on a range of connections between children's literature and literacy instruction, around themes of alphabets, religion, communities, mothers, factories, and textbooks and tests. "As the mass-market factory model came to dominate, literacy instruction increasingly narrowed into regimented, tyrannical modes."

Judy Simons describes how, "by the mid to late nineteenth century, the separate fictional worlds of boys and girls were being demarcated with great clarity", with boundary testing in works such as Little Women and The Daisy Chain. Relaxation of gender roles has progressed to "deliberate disordering of gender identities", but traditional roles remain powerful and, with "a feminine boyishness still not widely countenanced in male characters", there is no real equivalent of the tomboy.

U.C. Knoepflmacher argues that "our finest children's books are hybrid constructs that combine a child's perspective with the guarded perspective of the former child we call 'adult'", using aspects of Mary Norton's The Borrowers and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

Lynne Vallone explores the adult-child distinction and touches on race, class, gender and size differences. "For Arthur Ransome, who based his child characters on actual children, the childhood idyll does not rely upon fairyland or sentimentalised portraits of childhood to make the distinction between childhood's freedoms and adulthood's cares."

Taking Jameson's stages of capitalism as a framework, Kimberley Reynolds traces the changing presentation of families in children's fiction: parents as educators and role models, stories about children in families, works critical or mistrustful of the family, and children functioning as families themselves.

Mavis Reimer traces the school story from its origins, through its heyday in the second half of the nineteenth century with works such as Tom Brown's Schooldays and A World of Girls, down to the present. "Giving young readers pictures of complete, self-sufficient and contained systems, the school story seeks to persuade them that they, too, have a place in the world before them."

Immel, Knoepflmacher and Julia Briggs explore the alternative attitudes to the fantastic derived from Maria Edgeworth's Parent's Assistant and John Bunyan Pilgrim's Progress. They also touch on stories about the fantastic disturbing ordinary life, about worlds turned upside down, and about wayfarers in strange lands.

David Rudd's "Animal and object stories" is one of the more theoretical essays, and one of the more polemical: "the pen [determines] which animals are to be revered, which to be feared and which to be cut up, whether as food or for other purposes. And this power carries over into children's books, where there has been a tendency to underwrite the accepted order of things."

And Roderick McGillis argues, focusing on the importance of size in the child's world and emphasizing the centrality of excess and scatology, but touching on gentle humour as well, that: "Children's humour depends largely on the body. Not entirely, but largely."


The Oxford Companion, in contrast, is basically an encyclopedia. (This is a second edition, with Hahn substantially updating a 1984 Companion by Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard.) The coverage is, again, largely restricted to the English-speaking world, with an emphasis on the United Kingdom. And the entries are almost all about authors and illustrators or about books, stories, and the characters that appear in them. There are just a few entries on other topics: genres such as school stories, notable awards such as the Caldecott medal, themes such as gender, and educationalists such as Montesssori.

The Oxford Companion is an attractive, nicely presented volume, with a readable two column layout. It falls, however, into the category of works which have to a large extent been made redundant by Internet resources. With 3,500 entries in 650 pages, most are just a paragraph or even a sentence long. These short entries are concise and informative, but few are distinctive enough to make getting a book down from a shelf and searching through it, perhaps having to follow cross-references, an attractive alternative to an online search.

Far-Distant Oxus, The (1937) A novel written in imitation of the Swallows and Amazons stories by Arthur Ransome. It was the work of two British schoolgirls, Katharine Hull (1921-1977) and Pamela Whitlock, who were aged fifteen and sixteen when the book was written. They sent the manuscript to Ransome, who recommended it to his publish Jonathan Cape. Pamela Whitlock illustrated it in the Ransome manner, and Cape duly published it. Ransome's plain style is ably imitated, perhaps even improved upon. The same authors wrote two sequels, and after the Second World War they also collaborated on a fantasy novel, Crowns (1947).
KEITH, Harold (Verne) (1903-98) American author who won the Newberry Medal with Rifles for Watie (1957), a story of a Union spy behind Confederate lines in the Civil War.

There are enough longer entries to make browsing reasonably rewarding: I enjoyed entries on familiar topics such as A.A. Milne and The Wind in the Willows and stumbled over some entirely new ones, such as the once popular and prolific but now largely forgotten writers Charles Hamilton (Frank Richards) and G.A. Henty. Apart from an appendix with some lists of award winners, however, there's nothing in the Oxford Companion to assist browsing — here a resource like Wikipedia offers vastly more aid to serendipitous connection.


The Routledge Companion appears to combine the Cambridge and Oxford approaches, with a first half consisting of eleven essays and a second half in encyclopedia format, also laid out in two columns. (There's also an eighteen page timeline.) But it has remarkably little overlap with either, being largely focused on literary theory — to the point where it might more accurately have been titled The Routledge Companion to the Theory of Children's Literature.

The approach in the essays is quite different to that of the Cambridge Companion, even though there are four contributors in common. "The Development of Children's Literature" is actually a history of histories of children's literature. And "Gender studies" is a survey of theories of gender as applied to children's literature, looking at feminist ideas and theories, gay and lesbian studies, gender performativity, queer theory, transgender studies, and masculinity studies. Other essays are less meta-critical. "Media adaptations" looks at the multiple instantiations of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, in print, audio, film, theatre, game, toys and fan fiction. And "Sidelines" surveys relatively neglected genres of children's literature such as autobiography, domestic and ephemeral works, the oral tradition, poetry and plays.

The other seven essays are "'Criticism is the theory of literature': theory is the criticism of literature", "Race, ethnicity and colonialism", "Narratology", "Realism", "Fantasy", "Young adult fiction and the crossover phenomenon", and "Picturebooks, comics and graphic novels". There's no room for any involved theory, but the style is fairly academic, as a quote will illustrate:

"Picturebooks, as Arizpe and Styles (2003, p. 19) state, are seen simultaneously as 'art objects and the primary literature of childhood'. This not only acknowledges the potential of the form but also indicates its key limitation in the perception of the audience, flagging up tensions between the flexibility of the medium and assumptions about the needs and capabilities of young readers. In both cases, then, cultural constructions of childhood (especially in relation to literacy - for long an ideological battleground) underpin and colour understandings of the medium."

Each essay comes with a useful annotated "further reading" section, with a short paragraph on each of maybe half a dozen works. Here's an example from the essay on fantasy:

Jackson, Rosemary (1981) Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, New York: Methuen // Jackson provides a comprehensive review of critical literature on fantasy, and then turns her focus to psychoanalytic perspectives. Because her emphasis is on works that disturb the psyche and create dis-ease with the status quo, her work is more applicable to young adult fantasy than to children's fantasy, which she rather dismissively relegates to the less interesting category of 'the marvellous'.

With 120 entries in 120 pages, the entries in the second half ("Names and Terms") are all reasonably substantial, and I ended up reading most of them. They really only cover theoreticians and critics on the one hand and theories and theoretical terminology on the other. There are entries on modern scholars as well as older figures, on Homi K. Bhabha, Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Clare Bradford and Judith Butler as well as Mikhail Bakhtin, Roland Barthes, Bruno Bettelheim and Pierre Bourdieu. And there are entries on topics such as abject/abjection, adolescence, agency, animation, hegemonic masculinity, humanism, and hybridity. None of these examples appears in the Oxford Companion and the two have little overlap: the only entry I have found in both is on Piaget.

The Routledge Companion is really aimed at those with an interest in — and ideally some exposure already to — literary and critical theory and not just children's literature. Some support is provided for readers without a background in theory: a short entry on the Real (in Lacanian psychoanalysis), for example, is almost completely general and not specific to children's literature. The obvious audience is undergraduate students, though lay readers not averse to critical theory may also appreciate it.

December 2015

External links:
The Cambridge Companion to Children's Literature
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- buy from Wordery
The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- buy from Wordery
The Routledge Companion to Children's Literature
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- buy from Wordery
Related reviews:
- more children's literature
- more literary criticism
- books published by Cambridge University Press
- books published by Oxford University Press
- books published by Routledge
%T The Cambridge Companion to Children's Literature
%E Grenby, M.O.
%E Immel, Andrea
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2009
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780521687829
%P 293pp

%T The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature
%A Hahn, Daniel
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2015
%O hardcover
%G ISBN-13 9780199695140
%P 663pp

%T The Routledge Companion to Children's Literature
%E Rudd, David
%I Routledge
%D 2010
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780415472715
%P 320pp