What are we talking about when we talk about agency?

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Author: Richard Flynn
Date: Summer 2016
Publisher: University of Toronto Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,391 words

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"[T]he characteristic markers of children's literature 'are all variants of and manifestations of the basic opposition between adult and child implied by the very circumstance of adults writing for children.'"

--Perry Nodelman, "Discovery: My Name Is Elizabeth" (51), quoting Nodelman, The Hidden Adult (249)

Perhaps it is unfair of me to quote this short extract from a much larger argument out of context. While it has the virtue of representing a position with which I wish to take issue, abstracting it from the context of the nuanced and leisurely argument that Perry Nodelman makes in The Hidden Adult or even from the context of the essay by him that inspired this forum threatens to reduce the statement to a convenient straw figure. Furthermore, I have a great deal of respect for Perry Nodelman; I have been reading his work since the mid-1980s, when, as a graduate student, I accidentally but happily stumbled into the field of children's literature studies. Then the editor of Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Nodelman was instrumental in helping to define that field. Nevertheless, nearly thirty years later in a review essay in Jeunesse, in which I reviewed The Hidden Adult in conjunction with several volumes of Nodelman's children's fiction, I began to delineate some problems I have with his "taxonomy of children's literature" ("Ambivalent" 140). My primary objection, as I hope to make clear in the remainder of this essay, is to Nodelman's premise that "the very circumstance of writing for children" implies "a basic opposition between adult and child" (Hidden 249; emphasis added). This premise, which underlies the arguments in The Hidden Adult, overemphasizes both the alterity of children and the separation of adult literature from children's literature. In so doing, it serves to perpetuate the idea, famously expressed by Jacqueline Rose, that children's fiction "sets up a world in which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver), but where neither of them enter the space in between" (1-2).

In several earlier essays leading up to and including my review essay on Nodelman's work, I have suggested that the opposition between adults and children is not so stark and that a once-useful hermeneutics of suspicion has devolved into a series of increasingly rote critical gestures that border on the cliched. (1) I see these automatic critical gestures implicated in an overemphasis on children's alterity, in a model of children as helpless or even as victims, implying that children exercise little to no agency in participating in and creating their culture. As someone who had been attracted to such outmoded models as Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood in my earliest critical work in the 1980s, I soon turned a critical eye on notions that valued children's separateness from adults--and on ones that viewed childhood as something under siege--to models that focus on children as capable actors. This turn in my own thinking was furthered by my participation in the late Gareth Matthews's summer seminar on "Issues in...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A484461344