Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 July 2011
Children's literature holds an odd and uncomfortable place within the canon of American literature. As Lynne Vallone has noted, “the history of the novel and the history of ‘adolescent’ or ‘children's’ literature are inextricably linked. In general, however, histories of the development of the novel fail to include children's literature, or refuse to see the implications for the novel of an adolescent … [or child] readership.” Children's literature is essentially ignored in all American literature anthologies, and it is rarely taught in literature surveys; only recently have English departments begun to hire children's literature specialists. When children's literature is recognized as significant to the larger scheme of literary production, this entire category, comprising a multiplicity of genres, is usually lumped together: hence a single entry in this volume. The exemption of “juvenile literature” from the American literary canon points to children's historical marginality as audiences and as social actors. But the effacement of children's literature from the canon can be rationalized apart from its devaluation, and tied more to the fact that “the novel” and “children's literature” might be seen as exclusionary categories.
The novel as a category, however fluid, usually presumes a level of complexity and depth and an engagement with serious social issues, such that it might be said to preclude a child reader. Indeed, the “virtually unanimous injunction against novel reading found in conduct literature, periodicals, and didactic fiction for girls and young women from the seventeenth to the twentieth century” points to what Vallone describes as “that readership's literary ‘hunger,’ “ that is, young people's desire for rich, relevant reading material.