Isabelle Nières-Chevrel

Speaking Time: 2006-9-22 09:30--10:00 Hall 2

Speaker: Ms Isabelle Nières-Chevrel (France)


Isabelle Nières-Chevrel

30th Ibby Conference. Macao,

“Children’s literature and social development” (21-23 septembre 2006).



Listening, looking and reading; the three media of children’s literature


What I’d like to suggest to you is a presentation on what seems to me the three main features of children’s literature, to name listening, looking and reading. A toddler can be sung to sleep with lullabies; later, he will sing nursery rhymes and will be told stories; then, he will look at the pictures when told a story from a picture book by an adult; once he will be able to read, he will be able to go back to this book and read it alone in addition to watching the pictures. When he will turn to longer stories, he will have several collections and novels available, in which texts are accompanied by pictures.

My presentation is based on the following assertion: every kind of literature - be it for adults or children - builds up from these three media: listening, reading and looking and there is an essential interrelation between the chosen medium and the literary genre that is created. Some genres are linked to listening, others to reading, and others to looking. But when examining the respective part devoted to these three media in literature written for adults and in literature written for children, we realise that it is not equivalent: listening and looking are noticeably more important in [children’s?] literature. I’ll dwell on this aspect. I will eventually emphasize on the fact that the distinction between genres as oral, written or drawn sheds a light on some aspects of the international circulation of children’s literature. Basically, the cheapest to produce are less powerful and conversely the most expensive to produce are more powerful. I will here come back to the theme of our conference.

I am French. What I say is therefore naturally based on my knowledge of children’s literature in France and, to some extent, to Western children’s literature. I hope that my comments will still be relevant to a wider cultural area and that they will resonate with the knowledge and the experience of those of you belonging to different cultural spheres.


I. The great stages in European literature.

I’d like to start with an extremely brief and simplified recapitulation of the different stages in the development of literature in Western Europe before focusing on children’s literature. Societies gave a chronological order to literary genres. We can assert that this order has to do with the natural or technical media available to mankind. The oldest medium is, without doubt, the human body. It has progressively been replaced by more and more sophisticated and expensive technical media.

The oldest literary forms are therefore linked to the voice, and consequently to space, body, gestures and rhythm. These forms are: poetry, generally accompanied by a musical instrument, epic, mythical tales, and later theatre (which does not exist in every culture) and fairy tales. In Europe, the main reference is the classical Greek culture, from Homer to Sophocles, as well as the Bible, of course. Among all these genres, there are differences in audience (who is allowed to listen to what?), in language (sacred as opposed to profane, literary as opposed to informal), in the degree in belief (one may well believe in a myth but not in a fairy tale). What they have in common is the necessary presence of the speakers and the listeners in the same space and at the same time.

The invention of writing will progressively modify the way stories are transmitted. Writing puts an end to the sole passing on of stories through memory and introduces a delay in communication in terms of space and time. The medium isn’t the human body anymore but an object – papyri or parchments - that will permit the circulation of sacred and profane texts and store their memory, for centuries. The hand takes over from the voice: copyists were numerous in Middle Ages monasteries. The decisive invention will be a technical one: paper (coming from China) and printing in the late 15th century. In the wake of this invention will appear the rise of the novel, a profane genre in prose which will undergo a first major change in the 18th century under what historians call “the second book revolution”. The term novel substitutes for the term romance and will become the major genre in the 19th century with the appearance of the press and a considerable widening of the reading audience.

The third innovation is relevant to the history of printing. This is the perfecting of techniques enabling the mechanical reproduction of pictures, and particularly of colour pictures. The industrial reproduction of pictures will lead to the birth of two new genres: comic strips and picture books. The birth of comic strips in the 19th century was largely linked, in the US, to the development of the popular Sunday press, while, in France, it was solely linked to children press for about one century. The situation is therefore quite different from the Japanese tradition of manga. As for the picture book, it will be used a little in adult literature but will fully and significantly develop in children’s literature. Comic strips and picture books are two genres that are specifically and exclusively consistent with printing. While a text, be it handwritten or printed, can always be transmitted without its medium, when read aloud, a picture cannot exist without its material medium: we can photocopy it, photograph it, and scan it; whatever the choice, there will always be a material medium.

In the 20th century, the production of “fixed” pictures is supplemented by the appearance of moving pictures with the cinema, television and digital screens. These media do not belong to the sphere of books and literature strictly speaking. Thus, I will not expand on these new media but I have to admit that they constantly interfere with children’s literature.

In order to conclude on this first stage in my development, I’d like to remind you that the introduction of any new medium meant a limitation in the scope of previous media. In other words previous media became specific to a particular aspect or genre, but they never disappeared. The written media did not put an end to oral communication, printing did not put an end to handwritten exchanges and, eventually, the cinema and television did not stop the issuing of novels.


II. Listening, looking and reading in children’s literature

What is the situation when we look closer at children’s literature? How is it organised around oral, written and drawn media? I must specify that my purpose is to analyse fiction and not documentaries.

Children’s literature appeared in the 1750s in Europe; first in Britain, in the Netherlands and in Germanic countries, then in France. It was invented among upper classes, who put an emphasis on the private sphere and constructed a new representation of children. Children were not considered as adults in miniature anymore but as different beings towards whom one was supposed to adopt a specific behaviour. The writing of texts specifically intended for children is part and parcel of this pedagogical program. Yet, such a plan could only arise and come to fruition in sufficiently well-off countries and classes so that adults did not rely on children for economical support. There had to be a sufficient number of children going to school; those schoolboys and girls should have access to leisure… and books. This is precisely why Italy and Spain developed their own children’s literature only a century after North European countries and this is why, nowadays, children’s literature is an entirely new editorial field in numerous countries in the world.

Western Europe children’s literature combines the three media I quickly mentioned when dealing with adult literature. But they appeared in a different chronological order and are used in different proportions. Listening and looking are far more present in children’s literature than in adults' literature.

With 18th century children’s literature, the emphasis was laid on written materials. This was due to the influence of the elitist culture of Enlightenment in France. It was intended for children – boys and girls – who evolved in well-off classes and who were educated by private tutors and governesses. There was no distinction between textbooks and recreational books. Books were a medium both for teaching and educating. Fiction was largely based on moral tales. These were short fictitious stories anchored in children’s everyday life telling about the dangers of having certain faults and the benefits of being virtuous. The characters, who were often children themselves, had no depth; they were mere fictitious pretexts serving the aims of the adult writer. The first heroes in children’s literature appeared with the children’s novel in the early 19th century, at the same time as the rise of the novel for adults and, thus, borrowed its themes and forms. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is, for instance, remarkable for its amazing posterity. It has indeed been at the origin of several island adventure stories for children in the 19th and 20th centuries, from Joachim Campe’s Robinson der Jüngere to Michael Morpurgo’s Kansuke’s Kingdom. The whole history of children’s novel is marked by exchanges with the genres of adult’s novel, be it the historical novel, adventure stories or, more recently, detective stories or science-fiction. Children’s novel constitutes the major part of Western children’s literature. It is its most translated genre and thus its most widely known. I will come back on this aspect in the last part of my presentation.

Considering that children’s literature has been invented in Europe in the 18th century for literate upper class children, it could therefore only be a kind of literature that would value reading. It gave little space to listening and looking. Folklore was discarded mainly because of a social division between lower and upper classes, whereas pictures were discarded for technical reasons.

18th century children’s literature developed in opposition to folklore. Arnaud Berquin, one of the first French author of children’s literature introduces his Friend of the Children (Ami des enfants, 1781) by saying that “instead of those extravagant fictions and that strange fantasy in which [children’s] imagination has for so long been led astray” (that is to say fairy tales), he will only offer “adventures they can witness everyday in their family.” The spirit of Enlightenment looked down on the tales childminsters and servants told their masters’ children as superstitious and obscurantist. This early children’s literature aimed at developing a specific cultural background for upper class children; therefore separating them from the lower classes with whom they used to share a common culture. In the history of children’s literature, this latent opposition between the elite culture and the culture of the great majority is a common theme. Besides, pedagogues blamed fairy tales for their lack of moral dimension. Miss Sarah Trimmer wrote that: « [Cinderella] paints some of the worst passions that can enter into the human breast, and of which little children should, if, possible, be totally ignorant, such as envy, jealousy, a dislike of mothers-in-law and half-sister, vanity, a love for dress, etc.”(The Guardian of Education, 1802).

French and English pedagogues agreed to criticise fairy tales. Yet, English culture seemed to have been more benevolent in acknowledging nursery rhymes, another field of folklore. From the mid-18th century, several collections for children had been published in Britain, while the very few French collections I know of are English translations dating back to the early 19th century. In France, children’s literature developed as a genre that denied its folklore, whereas in Britain, children’s literature included the rhyming poetry of nursery rhymes as well as their nonsensical and ferocious world. This opposite attitude towards oral tradition sheds a light on the respective evolution of children’s literature in these two countries. The nonsense tradition Lewis Carroll will later lend credibility to was totally unfamiliar to French Cartesianism. Even Perrault’s tales were subjected to criticism. Poet André Chénier declared on the dawn of the French Revolution that: « One day, I happened to read those Perrault’s tales, which, I have been told, are read by every child. Some are verse, some are prose. It is good to have once in one’s life red those works and those of similar insanity in order to realise how far the human mind go on its hands and knees” (1786). Romantism brought fairy tales and folklore songs back into favour. The renewed attention for folklore will provoke numerous collections in the wake of the Grimm’s brothers. Eventually, it will lead to the reintroduction of fairy tales in children’s culture. Fairy tales were no longer blamed for their lack of morality. The awareness of their virtuous scheme, in which bad people are punished and good people are rewarded, is the reason for this reversal. Yet, fairy tales published in the 19th century were still revised by writers. It was not until the 20th century that publishers dared draw directly from folklorists’ collections. We came full circle when American librarian invented “story-telling” sessions that revived oral tradition.

The quasi-absence of pictures was due to other reasons. Very early, pedagogues noticed that children were attracted to pictures. In his preface to his Orbis Sensualium Pictus, the great Czech pedagogue Comenius advised that the book be freely given to children, even at home before they were put to school, « to delight withall as they please[d], with the sight of the picture” (1658). Yet, the value of pictures was otherwise fairly undermined in Western culture. Christianity has no interdicts as to pictures but it is one of the three religions of the Book. At the top of the hierarchy is the Verb. Pictures can only be humble servants in the service of what’s written. Literacy is a frontier between those who know how to read and those who don’t: lower classes and young children are on the side of illiterate or ill-literate. Therefore, pictures are made for lower classes and children. The pedagogical value of pictures and its cultural depreciation is the reason why woodcuts were rife in 18th century folk’s chapbooks when upper class children’s and adult’s books only bear a frontispiece and a ornamental title-page, manufactured with the process of copperplate engraving, which was far more expensive that woodcutting. Nowadays, we still find this double circulation of pictures in children’s books market: one is cheap and popular; the other is expensive and reserved for the happy few. 19th century technological innovations will lead to the wide spreading of pictures in children’s literature. Picture books appeared around 1850 with the convergence of the possibility of colour printing, a new attention drawn to young children and a more benevolent attitude towards pictures. In the 20th century, some of these books even got rid of text. We can mention Italian author Iela Mari’s picture books and Japanese author Mitsumasa Anno’s.

Far from excluding each other, oral, written and drawn media are in constant interaction in children’s literature. The novel can appeal to fairy tales’ characteristics in order to create complicity with the young reader. It can borrow from the fairy tale either a situation– Cinderella’s, for instance, in Little Women when Jo is preparing for the ball-, or a character – the ogre in Countess of Ségur’s The Dourakine General -, or even an entire narrative scheme as in Jean-Claude Mourlevat’s L’Enfant-Océan , which is a rewriting of Charles Perrault’s Hop o’my Thumb (Le Petit Poucet). Many collections of stories, from Rudyard Kipling’s Just so Stories to Arnold Lobel’s Mouse Tales, stage an adult voice talking to an audience made of children as if the author aimed at uncovering both the storyteller’s voice and the private circle of communication. As for the links between pictures and texts, we know that several writers were very keen to draw their own pictures. We can mention Kipling once again in his Just so Stories, as well as Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince and Tove Jansson in her Moomin’s novels.

Listening, looking and reading are intimately linked in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll didn’t illustrate his story but he closely controlled Tenniel’s work and the laying out of the engravings is the product of their close collaboration. Listening underlies the whole book: in the initial poem – which reminds us that improvisation was the source for the written text-, in the text itself through the dialogues, the plays on words – which effects require the text to be read aloud -, and the parodies mocking recitations, prayers and children’s songs. The only poem escaping criticism is the The Queen of Hart as Lewis Carroll claimed nursery rhymes as being his aesthetic perspective. The picture book is the only genre in children’s literature that has been fully invented and has nothing to do with adult’s literature. The three media put forward in my presentation are united in the most intimate way in this genre. Children’s picture books are created in an inter-relation of texts and pictures and are designed in a way that they can be read aloud by young children. This is the one genre that fully unites “Listening, looking and reading”.

III. International circulation of children’s literature.

Finally, I’d like to show how international contacts and exchanges concerning children’s literature are reliant on the characteristics of the three media I put forward. The circulation of works of fiction is fairly different depending on the main medium used: oral, written or drawn.

Oral culture cannot be paid for; it doesn’t cost anything, it hardly circulates and it is scarcely popular abroad. Yet, we need to remember that, for centuries, tales circulated over long distances and were transmitted through waves of migration from East to West. Then tales, like populations, settled, if I may say. Within a unique national culture, tales, songs and nursery rhymes still bear numerous regional forms, which are sometimes unknown to border provinces. Oral transmission is a local, community-based medium. Nowadays, some songs and nursery rhymes are transmitted by adults in the private sphere, others by older pupils to younger at break time in schools.

Oral culture only starts circulating outside its original sphere when it looses its performing qualities (circumstances, voice, gestures) and becomes fixed by writing or recording. A recording of nursery rhymes substitutes for words of mouth, and a collection of tales for the teller’s voice. 19th century great collecting of folklore confined the tale to its sole written form but at the same time it made this old folklore clearly visible. And this heritage is what young nations put forward when they grow independent. It is known that one of the Grimm brothers’ aims in collecting stories was to build up a “treasury of German culture”. This very function as national mirror is noticeable in children’s literature. Norway remained under Danish domination until 1813. In 1888, Elling Holst published a collection of songs and games that was to become the founding book in Norwegian children’s culture: Norsk Billedebok for Barn (Norwegian Picture-Book for Children). In his introduction he emphasized the fact that his collection was one of the expressions of Norway’s “national genius”.

Songs and nursery rhymes are never entirely separated from their oral medium as long as they are rhymed and melodic. At the same time, they don’t have any international circulation. On the contrary, when collected, written and published, tales become free from the original medium: they become books and are therefore considered as any book in terms of trading law.

Printing is a medium that engendered a considerable number of occupations: publisher, translator, printer, bookbinder, distributor, and bookseller. These occupations all constitute technical and economical mediators that introduce trade talks in artistic and intellectual production.

As early as the late 18th century, some writers put their method of payment in question and wished to evolve from a payment for their manuscript to a payment based on a percentage on sales for each volume. During the 19th century, the selling of books developed in such a considerable way that international agreements were sealed to regulate publishing rights (Bern and Geneva Conventions). The US invented copyright. Places of meeting and talks were set up for the book market: for instance, the Frankfurt book fair and the Bologna fair for children’s books. Books are goods that can be exported and imported. It was for instance imported at the time when Japan decided to open up to Western countries in the Meiji era. What a surprise to me when I saw Princess Sarah, Heidi or Sans Famille coming back from Japan to France as cartoon films. Translation is a way to get round the curse of the Babel tower and to give everyone something to read in their own language. Yet, it comes with adjustments aiming at reducing the cultural gap between the source text and the target text. In Wladimir Nabokov’s Russian translation as well as in some Spanish translations of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, the mouse does not arrive in William the Conqueror’s luggage but in another conqueror’s, to name Napoleon 1st. Eventually, it must be stressed that exchanges are usually unbalanced and that they benefit the most economically powerful culture. In the 1970s, the Unesco Courier devoted an article to Brazilian children’s literature under the title: “fairies prefer blondes”. The article denounced Walt Disney Company’s domination. But far from irreparably preventing the emergence of national children’s literature, the strong presence of foreign cultures can paradoxically be an incentive to its emergence in the medium-term. In the 19th century, publisher Hetzel published Spanish translations in Paris and distributed them in Spain and Argentina. Publisher Emilio Treves drew from Hetzel’s publications to create his own publishing house in Milan. Translated books first enabled the formation of an audience of young readers, and then they offered literary models to national writers. Translation can therefore help give a culture some books until this very culture creates its own books in its own language.

Pictures are linked to the tradition of printing, but their international circulation is somewhat particular. The first particularity is a technical problem that is the availability of original illustrations, since pictures are not translated but reproduced. Before photographic reproduction, publishers had no choice but to re-draw the pictures or to have them reproduced by the publisher who owned the originals. In the 19th century, Struwwelpeter’s illustrations in the first French editions were re-drawn and had notable variations in colour. Beatrix Potter’s little books, which started to be translated into French from 1920, were published by Warne & Co, Beatrix Potter’s English publisher. Today, films enable an easy circulation between publishers.

The second problem is economical. Reproducing illustrations, and particularly colour illustrations, is expensive. This additional cost may act as a check upon picture books circulation. The first and only Russian translation of Where the Wild Things are has been published in a paper dedicated to specialists of children’s literature, Detskaya Literatura – with the reproduction of just a few very small pictures .

Writers who illustrate their works sometimes happen to insert text in their illustrations. Foreign publishers thus face a translation problem, the nature of which is not so much intellectual than technical and aesthetic: should they translate, erase or keep the text in the source language?

French and German translations of Maurice Sendak’s picture book, In the Night Kitchen, kept all English inscriptions made by Sendak in his illustrations. Consequently, an essential part of the book is irremediably inaccessible to the readers. Pictures escape the curse of the Babel tower but that doesn’t mean that their international circulation is free from comprehension obstacles. The transition from one culture to another can lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. I once told a Swedish colleague about my astonishment when I saw an illustration of Elsa Beskow’s picture book, Petter och Lottas äventyr, dating from 1929, which represented two children lost in the woods, naked. When I saw a daring gesture in it, she only saw a relatively plain illustration of Swedes’ attitude to their bodies. This book has been translated into French in 1979. It was absolutely excluded to publish it in the 1930s.

It is important, eventually, to stress the fact that pictures can, just as well as texts, be the reason why books are translated. Concerning illustrated novels, texts are favoured and the new publisher reserves the right to get rid of the original set of illustrations. The making of new illustrations may be linked to a will of domestication. The first Swahili publication of Alice in Wonderland in 1940 turned Alice into a black little girl while a Japanese publication from 1961 showed her dressed as a Japanese schoolgirl. Alice in Wonderland or Pinocchio’s status as classic books in French culture brought the publishers to go back to John Tenniel and Enrico Mazzanti’s original illustrations. But the conjoint celebrity of a writer and an illustrator can lead to the opposite editorial choice. A publisher may well re-publish a translation of Alice in Wonderland in order to accompany Anthony Browne’s illustrations. On the other hand, with picture books, the artist’s work is always the reason leading to translation, whether the artist is both the writer and the illustrator or merely the illustrator, as is the case with some of Maurice Sendak’s or Wolf Erlbruch’s works.

A few words to conclude.

I tend to think that listening, looking and reading are present in any kind of children’s literature, although these media are not necessarily present in the same proportions. But these different kinds of children’s literature didn’t develop at the same time nor at the same pace. Some are 250 years old when others are still in the pipeline. These time-gaps go with gaps in economic development, in children’s schooling and in trade power. Hence my questioning: Can what I said about 19th century Spanish importation of classic children’s literature and the role translation has played in the birth of a national literature be applied to 20th century new media? I can’t help thinking that the books market isn't as powerful as television, cinema, video games or advertising. These new media are imagination-, game- and persuasion-related industries. Their available budgets are much more important than those devoted to books, and their aim is to conquer ever larger markets. Their exportation strategies don’t seem to attach any importance to national cultures, and their modes of diffusion get round the necessary literacy of children. They lead us back to the ancient relationship between pictures and illiterate people. Is the globalisation of cultural goods so fast and powerful that it discourages any thought of autonomy and cultural diversity? Is this fear grounded or is it hard to analyse the complexity of present times? Will new national or regional children’s cultures emerge in the 21st century with these new media in the same way as happened in the 19th century with books?