The Children’s Literature course I’m teaching this term is one of several students can choose for their first-year English credit. So many of the goals of the class are interchangeable with any first-year lit class (fiction, poetry, drama, major themes): develop a repertoire of literary terms and concepts, work on close/critical reading and writing skills. Children’s literature is, after all, much like any other kind.
But we also talk about how children’s literature is different from other kinds: not just because it’s written for a specific audience (we could say the same thing about women’s fiction or romance) but because the people who write, publish, and (largely) select it for that audience are not part of the audience. They’re adults, working with all kinds of explicit and implicit assumptions about what children are like and what they need.
One way we get at some of these issues in class is by reading selections from Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer‘s The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, including their argument that children’s literature constitutes a distinct literary genre and some of the generic conventions they identify. I last taught this course in Winter 2008, when I was first getting into reading romance; reading Nodelman and Reimer now, after 5 years as “a romance reader,” I was struck by the parallels between the generic conventions of children’s literature and those of romance, and wondered how these similarities might have influenced my reading of romance.
The RWA definition of romance has two elements: a basic plot (“central love story”) and a happy (“emotionally-satisfying and optimistic”) ending. Not surprisingly, the basic plot Nodelman and Reimer identify for children’s literature is different (“a home/away/home pattern”), but they do say it has one. And texts for children typically have optimistic, hopeful endings as well.
It’s Nodelman and Reimer’s discussion of happy endings that particularly interests me here. Throughout the book, they consider the ways that adults’ assumptions about childhood limit children and serve the needs of adults, and this is reflected in their ambivalence about happy endings–quite different from the romance community’s embrace of them:
Adults tend to assume (or hope or simply like to pretend) that children are ignorant of pain and suffering. . . . Therefore they also assume (or hope) that children’s literature expresses that innocent and optimistic way of looking at things. Asked to name the defining characteristics of children’s books, most people focus on the fact that they have happy endings. . . .
The fact that texts for children express hope, and therefore typically have happy endings, raises a question about their accuracy and honesty.
The authors consider the ways that such endings might be deceptive, but their language does suggest that this “deception” is not always or entirely negative. Hopeful endings, they say, “imply a symbolic defiance of a more complete knowledge of the constrictions of reality.” That doesn’t sound so different from Cecelia Grant’s description of romance fiction as not an escape from the real world but a confrontation of it, “a tiny defiant candle held up against the dark; a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair.” Do we want children simply to accept “the constrictions of reality”? Do we want adults to do so? Or do we want them also to imagine better, happier worlds, and do what they can to bring them into being?
The best, most interesting children’s books, Nodelman and Reimer suggest, aren’t deceptive idylls. Rather, they are “ambivalen[t] about the relative values of innocence and experience, the idyllic and the mundane.” Thinking about the kinds of books being hotly discussed in Romanceland recently, and about the very different ways readers interpret and respond to them, I wonder if they do not feature similar ironies and ambivalences (depicting, for instance, gendered power relations that many readers find both seductive and troubling).
I had a preference for books with “emotionally satisfying and optimistic endings,” endings in which poetic/moral/emotional justice is meted out, long before I read much genre romance: children’s literature; Victorian high realism; (much) detective fiction. And I’m wondering, now, how much my response to the happy endings of romance has been colored by the implicit–or explicit–moralism of such books. Most children’s literature, Nodelman and Reimer argue, is didactic: the happy ending is telling us something about the way things should be. I think this is why I have trouble enjoying romance where the ending or the relationship is really at odds with my own values–I feel that I’m being told this is the way a relationship should be, even the way all relationships should be. I’m supposed to be rooting for this ending, these people, right? I think I read romance–or at least, began by reading it that way–as if it were in part didactic.
Many people don’t read romance and its happy endings that way, perhaps because they came to it with very different perspectives.
I don’t really have a point here, just ponderings. I’d be curious to know how you understand happy endings, in romance or elsewhere. What does it take for you to be “emotionally satisfied”? (Something that depends, after all, as much on the reader as on the book, which makes it a rather problematic way to define a genre).