The study of children’s literature as an academic discipline has developed since the 1980s from its roots in education and librarianship to its place in departments of literature and childhood studies. Although its practitioners position themselves at different points on the spectrum between “book-oriented” and “child-oriented,” the study is held together by the “presence” of some concept of child and childhood in the texts. The distinctions that apply in other literary systems between “literature” and “popular literature” or “literature” and “nonliterature” are not necessarily useful in this field. Nevertheless, criticism tends to fracture between a liberal-humanist and educationalist view that children’s literature should adhere to and inculcate “traditional” literary and cultural values and a more postmodern and theoretical view that texts for children are part of a complex cultural matrix and should be treated nonjudgmentally. In addition, the discipline is multi- and interdisciplinary as well as multimedia: its theory derives from disciplines such as literature, cultural and ideological studies, history, and psychology, and its applications range from literacy to bibliography. Consequently, children’s literature can be defined and limited in many (sometimes conflicting) ways: one major problem for scholars is that the term children’s is sometimes taken to transcend national and language barriers, thus potentially producing a discipline of unmanageable proportions. As a result, this article is eclectic, but it excludes specialist studies to which children’s books are peripheral or merely instrumental, such as folklore or teaching techniques. Children’s literature is also studied comparatively and internationally, with German and Japanese writing being particularly important. This article confines itself to English-language texts and translations into English.
The major reference books (Carpenter and Prichard 1984, Watson 2001, Zipes 2006) are designed for the general reader, with succinct entries and extensive illustration. Hunt 2004, Hunt 2006, and Rudd 2010 are aimed at students of children’s literature and provide a basis for the study of the subject (see also Introductions and Guides). For the online resources, a distinction can be made between the academic International Research Society for Children’s Literature and the highly practical International Board on Books for Young People.
Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Although nontheoretical and increasingly dated, this pioneering work remains an essential text. The more than 2,000 entries cover authors, characters, books, themes, and genres and a selection of national literatures.
Hunt, Peter, ed. International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. 2d ed. 2 vols. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
A two-volume collection of one hundred nineteen 6,000-word essays commissioned from world experts, including Iona Opie, Margaret Meek, Jean Perrot, Perry Nodelman, Hans-Heino Ewers, and Anne Pellowski. The text attempts to cover every aspect of the theory and practice of children’s literature; forty-six of the essays are concerned with the literature of specific countries, continents, or regions.
Hunt, Peter, ed. Children’s Literature: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. 4 vols. Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.
The ninety-nine reprinted essays in this four-volume set are the most important critical or theoretical statements about or discussions of virtually all aspects of children’s literature. The set includes work by almost every major critic writing in English; there are twenty sections, the largest being “The Theory Debate.”
Information about contacts in seventy-five countries, devoted to the promotion and distribution of children’s books and to details of the international journal Bookbird.
The IRSCL website contains not only news about the society’s activities, but also information about conferences; calls for papers; a book review section; and links to children’s book collections, documentation centers and libraries, research centers, research societies, and other related sites across the world.
Rudd, David, ed. The Routledge Companion to Children’s Literature. Routledge Companions. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.
Rudd’s Companion provides an extremely wide-ranging guide to the technical aspects of criticism and theory of children’s literature. The first half comprises eleven long essays on major themes and issues, such as gender, narratology, race, and young adult fiction; the second, an extensive annotated glossary of names and terms, a full bibliography, and a time line.
Watson, Victor, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
With more than 2,500 entries from more than 200 contributors, this encyclopedic volume covers books and authors that have “made a significant impact on young readers anywhere in the world.” There is particular emphasis on illustrators and on the importance of multimedia texts.
Zipes, Jack, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. 4 vols. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Four-volume general reference work, with particular emphasis on biographies of authors and illustrators.