LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Perpetuation of the Canon Today

on January 31, 2013 2:39pm

The term “literary canon” is widely used in reference to a group of literary texts that are considered the finest or most important representations of a particular place or time period. A literary canon can be comprised of works written in the same country or region or within a specific time period; in this way, a canon establishes a collection of related literary texts. While literary works can of course be classified in many different ways (i.e. by theme, region, time period, topic, etc.), inclusion in the literary canon seems to apply a certain legitimacy or authority to a literary work.

As we saw in Kelly Hager’s article, the canon is largely a product of our literary upbringing, or what we read as children. We are told by our parents, our librarians, and our teachers to read the “classics,” and we do so, therefore perpetuating both their validity and popularity and securing their place in the literary canon. However, with the increased use of technology and media in the 20th century, we have seen a shift in literary influence, now coming not only from books but from television and cinema, as well, though the same end is still met.

For example, Hager describes an instance during which Betsy of Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books is encouraged to spend a “splendid” day exploring the library. This sentiment is one that is encouraged in many children’s television programs today, as well. One distinct memory I have from my childhood is the song  sang during the episode “Arthur’s Almost Live Not Real Music Festival” of the popular children’s show Arthur that encourages that encourages kids to explore the classics at their public library, mentioning authors such as Jules Verne, H.G Wells, and Ray Bradbury.

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The popular children’s television series Wishbone encouraged children to read the classics, as well. This show featured a talking dog by the same name that often daydreamed that he was the lead character in a classic literary work. Each episode portrayed a different text, and the show drew parallels between the stories’ events and the lives of Wishbone, his owner Joe, and Joe’s friends, making the classics interesting and relatable to Wishbone’s audience.
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While the two examples I have provided are specifically targeted toward children, television as a vesicle of canon perpetuation can be seen in shows geared toward adolescents, as well. The clearest example of this I think is the popular show Gilmore Girls that ran from 2000 through 2007. This show was a drama-comedy series about the close relationship between a single woman and her extremely bright daughter Rory, living in the fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut. Each episode featured Yale-bound Rory living her life, always with at least one book on hand. From Little Women to Don Quixote, Crime and Punishment to The Bell Jar, she was constantly shown reading in a corner, on a bus, at the park, wherever she may find herself. This show developed somewhat of a cult following. Soon after, “Rory Gilmore Reading Challenges”  began surfacing all over the Internet, and many girls took Rory’s literary lead and began working through the list.

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While the influence of teachers, parents, and librarians on what children and adolescence read has continued and will continue to perpetuate the state of the literary canon(s), it is clear that popular entertainment and media have begun to take on some of this responsibility, as well. I think it will be interesting to see how the dynamics of this continues to shift and change as our culture becomes more and more entrenched in entertainment and media.

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5 responses to “Perpetuation of the Canon Today

  1. mpak504 says:

    BKFINING,
    I’ve realized since the first day of class that the term “canon” is a controversial one. Like you said, what is regarded as canonical depends on theme, region, time period, topic, etc. In my opinion, “canon” can be closely related to “classic.” The classics, to me, are Marcus Pfister’s Rainbow Fish, Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, and Barbara Joosse’s Mama, Do You Love Me?, just to name a few. The classics, to me, are popular books that all the kids were reading back in the day when I was a young girl. So, why wouldn’t the classics be considered canonical texts? Isn’t a canon a collection of literary works that people need to read? I believe that these books by Seuss, Joosse and Pfister are an important part of childhood and that everyone should read it at least once in their lifetime. I could talk forever about classics and the controversial term “canon” but, nonetheless, classics and canon are both terms linked to literary works that are considered legitimate and respectable.
    Another topic we talked about in class is the involvement of adults in children’s literature. I liked that you brought up Kelly Hager’s stance on the importance of parents and librarians and teachers in children’s literature. I believe that adults have a big impact on what children read by telling children to read the “classics.” However, maybe you should also consider how Hager introduces the term “parental censorship” when it comes to controlling what children read and, especially, don’t read. Hager brings up a significant concept that the censoring by adults perpetuates canonical works; by telling children what they can’t read only encourages them to read works the adults want them to read, which are literary works seen as respectable and legitimate. So, both the acts of telling children what they can read and what they can’t read elicit young readers to pick up classics off the library shelves, as we saw through Hager’s examples in her article.
    Lastly, I agree with you about the huge impact of television, media and entertainment on literature. I believe that they have a lot to do with perpetuating the state of literary canons. Look at all the Disney films! Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid can be confidently categorized into the canon, can it not? I think that the Disney film version helped these fairy tales stay in recognition which in turn allowed the stories to stay on the shelves and be passed down to generations. Stevenson argues this in her article that film versions do have a major influence on literary works.
    As for your interest on how the dynamics of media and entertainment influence literature and canons as our culture changes, I think that we can see the results of it to this day. I recently saw Hansel and Gretel the Witch Hunters in theatres last weekend. The movie takes place in the time period where people lived in old wooden cottages and where riding horseback is the main means of transportation. However, we see the an involvement of technology which doesn’t seem to match the surroundings. Hansel and Gretel use high tech guns when they go to the mountains to save the village children and kill all the evil witches. What I’m trying to say is that media and entertainment nowadays are presenting the old fairy tales we grew up reading, with a twist and a mix of some technological advances; it’s like a modern day version of the fairy tales. I’ll be interested in seeing what Jack the Giant Slayer, a.k.a Jack and the Beanstalk, and Oz the Great & Powerful, a.k.a The Wizard of Oz, will be like. Both movies will be released this year.

  2. Emily Troilo says:

    Your point about the vehicle for maintaining the classics within the canon changing from that of books to media entertainment was a really interesting one. You see it time after time in TV shows and movies that the main character, or a supporting character, is “a reader” and is always off reading on their own. But that made me start to think, as we become a more media-focused than text-focused society, why should authors even include these canon-perpetuating lists in their works anymore? Are they? For a long time I couldn’t think of any contemporary children or adolescent books that include a list of “classic required reading.” Then I remembered that in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” the main character Charlie becomes a great reader at the urging of his English teacher. His teacher recommends many classics, by name, to Charlie and to the reader.

  3. I remember as a little girl always being encouraged to read rather than watch TV. My mom was adamant about having her children grow in knowledge from a book rather than some mindless show. But bringing up past shows like Wishbone and Arthur made me remember that there were outside sources besides school and my parents encouraging me to expand my knowledge of books. But then I think about today’s TV shows for children; Spongebob Squarepants, Phineas and Ferb, etc. are not encouraging the younger generations to pick up books like the classics. Instead they encourage kids to further their interests in technology and even more TV shows. It is sad that by the time we have children the canon will not be what we remember it as. Beautiful books like The Little Women, Anne of Greene Gables, and Pride and Prejudice will be a memory of the past and will be replaced with novels like Harry Potter, Twilight and other books. (Sorry for the HP bash, I really love those books! Just an example!) But the canon as we know it is slowly starting to disappear.

  4. thethenabean says:

    Great post, Brittany!

    I think it’s absolutely true that determining a Children’s Lit canon is problematic. Any canon is going to be controversial to an extent, because in the wide world of literary critique, there is rarely unanimity; with Children’s Lit in particular, it is tremendously difficult to determine what is “canon-worthy.”

    I think that one of the most problematic dilemmas in determining which books should be studied is that, as you said, the books that we love as children are rarely so beloved for their literary merit. Rather, we choose books based on the illustrations we loved, the voices our mother used to read them to us, the way that we identified with the characters. In turn, as adults, we favor these books for similar reasons – now combined with their nostalgic and sentimental value. Even as academic literary scholars, I suspect that many of us still prefer the books that we read (and loved) as children.

    I think, too, that any preference by children for “classics” is largely coincidental. If, for example, Little Women was a favorite as a child, it is likely for many of the same reasons that Amber Brown was. While we are able to make these distinctions later in life, it is seldom something we consider as child readers. However, this discrepancy does not necessarily hinder us completely in our attempts to develop a canon. Is Shakespeare, for example, merely judged on his reception in Elizabethan England? Or Dickens merely for his 19th century popularity? While original and intended audience is certainly important in considering a work, it certainly does not preclude it from assessment apart thereof.

    Programs that you mentioned – such as “Gilmore Girls” and “Wishbone”, definitely have their part in encouraging child literacy. While perhaps not developing a literary critique skill set per se, they undoubtedly set children on a good path towards critical thinking and subtextual analysis.

  5. laurenleshansky says:

    I definitely agree with the claim that an inclination to certain classics is generally coincidental. It’s been said numerous times that children don’t pick their own books; books are handed down to them and they either read it, or it sits on a shelf until they move out. More often than not, it seems that the books we deem “children’s classics” aren’t really for children.
    C.S Lewis said, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. . .”
    Basically that it’s only as we get older and return to these stories as adults that we truly gain an appreciation and understanding of it. I know that I was given “The Little Prince” and “Anne of Green Gables” when I was a little girl, and it took me many years of owning these books before I had the interest and comprehension necessary to really hear the music.
    It seems that the reason I felt disconnected from these popular books was because they were being recommended by older people I felt I didn’t relate with (and therefore felt we wouldn’t have similar taste). Everything being given to me was to outdated and dry, and I was more interested in the fantastic (Charmed was a very popular show then…).
    Saying that, however, I still possess that common perspective that certain well-known titles are just inherently classic children’s tales, and deserve to be treated as such. Children’s literature has tradition, works considered “masterpieces”, and specific genres and themes while maintaining a broad scope–so doesn’t that mean it holds a rank in the literary spectrum? Maybe this doesn’t necessarily mean that children’s literature is a canon, but why is that significant in the first place? It seems to be a meaningless term because it would leave the category of children’s literature amorphous.

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