In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Images of Childhood, Adulthood, and Old Age in Children’s Literature

  • Introduction
  • Handbooks
  • The Child as Other
  • Childhood Studies and Children’s Literature
  • Historical Perspectives
  • Psychological and Psychoanalytical Perspectives
  • Innocence
  • Voice and Agency
  • Childhood and Nationhood
  • Tropes of Childhood

Childhood Studies Images of Childhood, Adulthood, and Old Age in Children’s Literature
Vanessa Joosen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0179


Children’s books are influential cultural artifacts in which ideas about childhood can be introduced, sustained, and challenged. As images of childhood have evolved in history, so the fictional young characters that populate children’s literature have been marked by a variety of attributes and tropes, and the characteristics of the envisioned young readers of these books have shifted. It is important to note that—a few exceptions not withstanding—children’s literature is created by adult authors and illustrators, so it would be naïve to consider it a straightforward reflection of childhood experience. The images of childhood that we find in these narratives are fictional constructs that may be colored by the authors’ conscious or unconscious didactic agenda, progressive ideals, or feelings of nostalgia. Moreover, child characters always serve a certain plot function, which further complicates their relationship with lived childhood experiences. In spite of cultural and historical idiosyncrasies in the literary construction of childhood, recurrent paradigms of childhood can be distinguished. Two historical views of childhood have proven to be particularly salient. On the one hand, post-Enlightenment discourses tend to view childhood as a preliminary stage in life, casting the child as a human being in the making, who needs to be educated to fulfill its potential. On the other hand, post-Romantic discourses stress the admirable innocence of childhood, which should be cherished until it is inevitably lost. Historical research explores and nuances these discourses on childhood in their respective time periods, while various critics also consider the legacy of these images of childhood in later periods. More recently, the child’s agency and the need to acknowledge the diversity of children’s experiences have come to the fore. While most critics in children’s literature studies focus on the construction of childhood, many adult characters fulfill crucial roles in narratives for the young, and adults are also involved in this field as producers, mediators, and readers in their own right. Studies of adulthood—as the child’s constitutive other as well as a future stage in the life course that the child will eventually grow into—help understand how the different stages in life are shaped in stories for the young and which ideologies they convey. Most critics here focus on those adults that have a direct relationship with the young—family members in particular—while others also consider the criteria for distinguishing childhood and adulthood as stages in life.


Most handbooks on children’s literature feature sections on the construction of childhood; these can be related to fictional child characters and childhood as a stage in life, and to the narratological concept of the implied child reader. In addition, handbooks will typically address the role of adults as producers, mediators (also called “gatekeepers”), and readers of children’s books, thus influencing the content and form of these books. Wolf, et al. 2011 is original in giving the adult practitioners in the field a direct voice. In the section “Child Suitability” Ewers 2009 details on which different levels (material aspects, paratext, style, genre, themes, structure, value judgments) constructions of childhood influence children’s books. The handbooks listed in this section all highlight the idea that childhood is not a universal given but a social construct informed by ideology; hence, it is subject to cultural, regional, and historical variation. Some handbooks (e.g., Nodelman and Reimer 2003) contain an appeal to readers to question their own assumptions about children and child readers, and several offer practical advice or fruitful models of how scholars can critically approach images of childhood without falling into the trap of overgeneralizing their own experiences and beliefs (see, for example, the case studies in Mickenberg and Vallone 2011). In Grenby and Reynolds 2011, a chapter by Reynolds further introduces the specific notion of “child-oriented” criticism, which draws attention to “childness” in children’s literature and puts the (implied) child reader central. In Nikolajeva 2005, the chapter “The Aesthetic of the Content” contains a good introduction on the relationship between children’s literature and reality, as well as on childhood studies as a field. Stephens 1992 offers general tools to analyze ideology in children’s books and draws attention to the importance of narratological features and genre. Maybin and Watson 2009 provides a good international range of case studies. Behnken and Zinnecker 2001 provides an extensive study that covers various aspects of the construction of childhood in culture and literature.

  • Behnken, Imke, and Jürgen Zinnecker, eds. Kinder, Kindheit, Lebensgeschichte: Ein Handbuch. Seelze-Velber, Germany: Kallmeyersche Verslagsbuchhandlung, 2001.

    A 1,183-page tome covering range of themes related to writing about childhood: children’s own writing, childhood memoires, trauma, families, children in society, and childhood iconography. Most chapters can either be related to children’s literature or have children’s literature as their subject matter. In German. Translated as “Children, childhood, life writing: A handbook.”

  • Ewers, Hans-Heino. Fundamental Concepts of Children’s Literature Research: Literary and Sociological Approaches. Translated by William J. Cann. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    Originally published in German. In addition to an introduction to children’s literature as a communicative form and semiotic system, it reflects on the production and distribution of children’s books. Important section on “child suitability” and its effect on various aspects of children’s literature.

  • Grenby, M. O., and Kimberley Reynolds, eds. Children’s Literature Studies: A Research Handbook. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    The introduction contains a section on “the child(ren) in children’s literature,” which draws attention to problematic generalizations when talking about children and age. Useful combination of theory and practical advice for carrying out research. Good starting point for undergraduates.

  • Maybin, Janet, and Nicola J. Watson, eds. Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    Various chapters address childhood constructs when introducing the history, market, and adaptation of stories for children. Carter analyzes child characters in romantic poetry and the Brontë sisters. Gupta reflects on Chinese childhood ideals shifting from passive servitude to individual agency in the Chinese reception of Harry Potter.

  • Mickenberg, Julia L., and Lynne Vallone, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Section titles reveal that the construction of childhood and adulthood are central to most chapters: adults and children’s literature, pictures and poetics, and innocence and agency. Most authors focus on one case study (mostly United Kingdom or United States), while exploring themes that are also relevant to the field in general.

  • Nikolajeva, Maria. Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.

    Introduces various theoretical approaches and methods of research. Chapter on the aesthetic of character offers tools to conduct character analyses, and warnings about the limits and pitfalls of this kind of research, that are invaluable to anyone studying the construction of childhood and adulthood in children’s literature.

  • Nodelman, Perry, and Mavis Reimer. The Pleasures of Children’s Literature. 3d ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2003.

    First published by Nodelman in 1992. Accessible, rich, and thought-provoking guide for reading and teaching children’s literature and understanding its place in the market, world, and literary theory. One section is devoted to “common assumptions about childhood.” Inspiring reflection on distinguishing between assumptions and facts (demonstrated with Piaget).

  • Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. London: Longman, 1992.

    Foundational work for the study of children’s literature. Offers theoretical framework and concrete tools to analyze ideology in children’s literature. Pays specific attention to child characters, families, and implied child readers as well as to the ideological construction of childhood in specific genres, such as fantasy and the historical novel.

  • Wolf, Shelby A., Karen Coats, Patricia Enciso, and Christine A. Jenkins. Handbook of Research on Children’s and Young Adult Literature. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    Wide-ranging handbook with contributions from both academics and practitioners in the field. Chapters are grouped around three themes: the reader, the book, and the world around. Various chapters pay attention to diverse experiences of childhood, in a multicultural context and in books with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) themes.

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