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Value dimension offers a new tool to guide criticism of children’s literature
Author :  LI LIFANG Source : Chinese Social Sciences Today 2016-12-22
A staff member of a library in Chongqing introduces children’s books to kindergarteners. In China, various organizations, households and schools are carrying out all kinds of activities to promote reading among children.
Throughout the world, the publication of works aimed at children has been widespread since printing was invented. As a genre, juvenile literature has a history of less than 300 years.
China introduced the concept of modern children’s literature during the New Culture Movement of the mid-1910s and 1920s. Disillusioned with traditional Chinese culture, scholars called for the creation of a new Chinese culture based on global and Western standards. Through nearly a century of development, China has explored a path based on its own society and culture, achieving significant progress that offers valuable reference for juvenile literature worldwide.
At present, China highlights the importance of improving criticism standards to better guide the development of children’s literature. Value-based thinking has been put forward to provide a new dimension that will improve criticism of children’s literature.
In China, the concept of value-focused thinking functions as an effective approach to studying children’s literature. Above all, it is significant to reflect upon what dialogues should be created among multiple subjects involved in literary activities.
Specifically targeting children, juvenile literature faces basic theoretical questions: Why and how adults should write, what topics should be covered, and why children should read. Though these questions consistently remain a focus of debate, interpretations change with time.
At present, children’s literature in China has entered a prosperous period, which highlights the importance of establishing a system of values for literary criticism. To this end, it is important to summarize and analyze the rules of the evolution of literary values in the context of China’s social and historical development. Also, the approach of interdisciplinary studies should be adopted to fully recognize the value of children’s literature in social realities.
In the process, multiple factors constituting the meanings of juvenile literary works should be identified and elaborated, such as national ethos, cultural inheritance, educational purposes, expectations of family, interests of related cultural organizations, emotional expression of adult writers and psychological needs of children.
Value-focused thinking helps define the elements that constitute literary aesthetics, helping us to better understand the creation and transmission of children’s literature. Furthermore, it sheds light upon setting standards that properly guide criticism of juvenile literature, making basic theoretical research closer to the essence of juvenile literature.
The creation of children’s literature is based on adults’ understanding of the experiences and mentalities of children. When children read these literary texts, they resonate with the aesthetic world created by adults, placing them in a position of dialoguing with themselves.
Adult writers try to immerse themselves into the physical and psychological world of children. Simultaneously, they express care and imply guidance while infiltrating social regulations and values in the process of writing.
Thus, juvenile literature creates a two-way dialogue between children and adult writers. Children lead adult writers to the charm of childhood, enriching the intellectual world of humanity. Adults try to persuade children to adopt utilitarian and socialized attitudes toward life when growing up. However, it should be noted that the two-way dialogue is a process of equal interaction.
As a consequence, involvements in literary activities differ for adult writers and children with different backgrounds. Through their works, adult writers attempt to exert influence on children in terms of individual, cultural and ethnic ideologies. The purpose, however, might not be achieved if the subjectivity of adults is overemphasized while that of children is neglected, which would lead to an imbalanced dialogue.
Moreover, there will be an even worse imbalance if adult writers deliberately produce low-level reading materials to adapt to the tastes of children or to cater to commercial interests. Though it seems that they show respect for the subjectivity of children, some bestsellers that fail to offer guidance in the cultivation of values, in essence, underestimate the potential of children. Such irresponsible practices go against the purpose of creating a rewarding dialogue between children and adults.
Popularity of reading
Since the reform and opening up, China has witnessed substantial progress in children’s literature. In the first decades of the 21st century, children’s literature has experienced prosperity driven by economic development and cultural progress as well as the reform in family and school education. In addition, various awards have been established, encouraging an increasing number of writers to contribute to the field. In particular, some renowned writers have set about creating literary works for children. In this context, the types of narratives in juvenile literature have become diversified.
Also, there is an increasing trend in reading juvenile literature works. Households, schools and non-profit organizations carry out all kinds of activities to promote reading among children. In addition to authorities, people from commercial and non-profit organizations, Chinese language teachers, writers and critics also play a significant role in promoting the reading of juvenile literature works.
It should be noted that promoting reading of juvenile literature works will have significant influence on the innovation of education concepts. And reading has been hailed by educators as the best way to fix the failings of the existing education system, which is going through development bottlenecks.
Relative to the momentum of creation, publication and reading, basic theoretical research and criticism of children’s literature are lagging seriously behind. Due to the stereotype of the low entry barrier, critics of juvenile literature may have multiple identities, which could influence their standpoints and perspectives when they conduct critical analysis. The problem in this regard is the lack of professional, theorized and objective criticism. Moreover, there is a lack of critical theory based on value-focused thinking that can guide the evaluation of juvenile literature.
Reflection on criticism standards and the evaluation system has become a hot topic in recent years. However, people more often deal with symptoms, such as criticizing the commercialization of children’s books and questioning the practice of recognizing writers according to the response of children. They fail to address the root cause: The evaluation standards still follow those of Western classics. Thus, it is now an urgent task to establish convincible evaluation standards in line with national culture.
The value-based perspective probes into questions of what meanings children’s literature has, who can benefit from children’s literature, and how to give full play to its role. Only by answering these questions are we able to improve the evaluation system and bring better understanding of children’s literature. More importantly, we need to fully understand the concepts of juvenile literature and the principles of evolution in the context of historical traditions, social culture and transformations while learning from excellent experience of other countries.
Li Lifang is from the School of Arts at Lanzhou University.