Sunday, 4 March 2012

Seven things that do not qualify you as a children's literature scholar

I am sure all my children's literature colleagues have heard silly questions and comments, such as: “You are doing children's literature – have you got kids yourself?” Isn't it a bit like asking a psychiatrist: “Are you mentally ill yourself?” What you do for a living has nothing to do with what or who you are. We have also heard aspiring students' explanations about why they want to study children's literature. For me, most of these are demeriting. So here are things that do not qualify you to be or become an expert in children's literature.
  1. I have children of my own.
To expand the argument, if you have children of your own, does it make you a paediatrician? Or a children's fashion designer? It may or may not give you some additional insights, but basically this is irrelevant.
  1. I have children of my own, and I love to read books to them.
Again, this is your private concern, and you won't be a good critic by simply reading for your children, even though it may give you some vague idea about what your particular kids like and dislike. All children are different, just as all adult readers are different, and your limited personal experience is of little help. I have children, and I used to read for them, but I carefully avoid using them as evidence in my research.
  1. I loved to read books as a child.
Maybe you loved animals, but it doesn't mean you are qualified to be a biologist or a veterinary. Every scholar of children's literature knows how vague, fragmentary and unreliable our memories of childhood reading are, and how as scholars we seek and find other qualities in books than we did as children. It is helpful if you have read a lot of children's books, but the first thing we tell our students is not to trust your memory and re-read them again and then read everything that has appeared since you were a child. This will provide a solid foundation for your studies, but simply reading books is not enough.
  1. I love Harry Potter/Beatrix Potter/Roald Dahl/Enid Blyton/Maurice Sendak/Animorphs (delete as appropriate)
Loving a particular children's author or book does not qualify you to discuss it professionally. Children's literature research is not fandom. You aren't qualified to be an art critic or a music critic simply because you like Renoir or Paganini. You need to train and learn a lot, and you may discover that it is not your cup of tea.
    5. I want to write for children
If you want to become a children's writer, taking an academic course in children's literature may save you a lot of beginner's mistakes because you will realise that all your brilliant and original ideas have been exploited scores of times and that scholars know more about plots and narration than you do. But your mere wish to write for children will not make a good scholar of you; if anything, it can be a hinder.
    6. I write for children
Creative writing and academic writing are two very different pursuits, and even the most brilliant writer may be a poor scholar. You need a lot of time and energy for both, and you cannot keep even pace. In fact, I cannot think of one single person who would be brilliant in both. If you write for children you may know a lot about the craft, but it does not automatically provide you with scholarly skills.
  1. My mother/father/grandmother/grandfather is a children's writer
This is marginal, but it happens. However, I have met children of famous children's writers who hadn't even read their famous parents' books and didn't care much. Even if your famous parent told you bedtime stories that were later hailed as best children's books ever, this does not instantly make you a children's literature scholar. But it was a good try.

So, you may ask at this point, what does qualify you as a children's literature scholar? The answer is quite straightforward: the same that qualifies anyone as a professional. Dedication to the field, profound knowledge, hard work, failures and disappointments and new efforts. You aren't born a children's literature scholar, you become one.

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