Reexamining ethics in contemporary children’s literature

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-09-12


Children’s books were a highlight at the 29th Beijing International Book Fair on June 15-18. Photo: CFP

Words like “sentiment” and “responsibility” are frequently repeated when scholars write about children’s literature. Although all literary styles share the ethics of humanities and art, children’s literature, as a special genre with a distinctive readership, demands a greater sense of moral responsibility. This may seem self-evident, but it speaks volumes. Both in China and in the West the development of early children’s literature shows high levels of concern for ethical connotations and moral values, and these criteria form an important baseline when evaluating children’s literature and art.

Ethical contradiction

Ethical concerns in children’s literature reflect the textual nature of this genre. From its birth, this form of literature was bound by ethical contradictions and artistic dilemmas. An overemphasis on the ethical dimensions of children’s literature will limit literary expression, while, if we only focus on freedom of literary expression, children’s literature loses its purpose. In fact, the history of modern Chinese and foreign children’s literature is, to some extent, a process of constant reflection which works to overcome the aforementioned contradictions and dilemmas.

In the history of modern critique sof Western children’s literature, the focus has shifted from an emphasis on children’s literature’s function to provide ethical education in the early 19th century, to advocating for literary ontological consciousness from the 1930s on, then to the 1990s, when a re-exploration and reflection of the field’s ethical significance led to new artistic problems. A reexamination of the relationship between ethical concerns and artistic expression in children’s literature has continued since then. In the history of modern and contemporary critique of Chinese children’s literature, understanding and balancing the relationship between ethical intentions and aesthetic style is an ever-lasting topic.

Over the years, when analyzing artistry in children’s literature, critics have promoted the idea that children’s literature, in addition to having good ethical intentions, should also effectively express these values in an artistic manner. The deeper question is, what is an “artistic approach” to children’s literature? This question is complex and difficult to untangle, and often, one study will clarify part of the problem while complicating another.

There is no doubt that such complications are a necessary step in the development of children’s literature, art, and literary critique. In recent years, the idea of childhood fun, an important expressive component of children’s literature and art, has been highlighted in both literary creation and critique. No matter what kind of “sentiment” a children’s book tries to convey, it should cater to children’s interests, abilities, and reflect children’s unique aesthetic tastes. As a result, the following two conclusions have been made: First, successful children’s literature must include ethical concerns for children; Second, effective artistry in children’s literature should blend ethical intentions into its artistic creation and text. The success of a book must be based on both of these requirements, a norm which has been popularized and strengthened by current scholars of children’s literature. These two conclusions have reshaped public concepts of children’s literature and art.

This is an important step forward in understanding children’s literature and art. By placing ethical issues on par with artistic issues, and not suppressing the latter with the former, we can more precisely delve into unique problems in children’s literature and art, improving high-level understandings of childhood fun and its literary mechanisms. Meanwhile, people are increasingly aware of the decisive significance of art to these literary works.

From here, we can further explore the following questions: For children’s literature, is there an ethical intention outside of artistic expression? In other words, how does the deeply embedded artistry in children’s literature bring us back to ethical concerns in children’s literature?

Artistic dilemma

If we seek a breakthrough in contemporary children’s literature and art, we must reconsider the ethical concerns and responsibility of children’s literature from an artistic perspective.

For children’s literature, sentiment and responsibility are ethical topics as well as artistic ones. The ethical concerns of children’s literature cannot be separated from artistic expression or the support of artistic forms in children’s literature. Ethical expression itself is an artistic expression, and there is no ethical message which is independent of artistic forms.

American poet and literary critic John Crowe Ransom said ethical considerations fall under the purview of the “structure” of literary works, and they are not what make poetry different from other works. He believes that literary criticism should delve into the “texture” of literature and explore how literature endows various textual works with the essence of poetry. [In Ransom’s view, the structure of a poem is composed of elements that promote the poem’s logical and discursive development. This part of the poem may be accurately paraphrased. The “texture” of the poem is a quality that eludes paraphrasing. It is an artistic feature which is not completely relevant to the poem’s logical achievements. Its appeal is non-discursive.] Today, Ransom’s analysis remains clear, but it is only a partially satisfying expedient. Are the “structures” and “textures” of literary works completely independent□ More than half a century later, the complex relationship between the two still leaves much to the imagination.

For many years, the creation and critical analysis of children’s literature was more prone to valuing a work’s “structure” over its “texture,” often because the theme, values, emotions and other “structural” factors conveyed by a text are easier to evaluate in works, leaving the subtle and mysterious textures woven through literature out of critical discussions.

In recent years, children’s literary criticism has pivoted toward the “textural quality” of literature. However, in many cases, we still tend to understand the existence of “structure” and “texture” in children’s literature via the lens of dichotomy. This makes it difficult to further analyze some literary “texture” from the level of linguistic artistry. What’s more, the “texture” here not only involves literary techniques and their formal presentation, but also interacts with a book’s “structure.” For literary works, the two are inseparable and interdependent. Poor artistic expression cannot convey high quality ethical sentiments or responsibilities, and vice versa.

With this in mind, our approach to artistic criticism of children’s literature is realigned. In recent years, it has become evident in thematic writing and publishing that ethical concerns and responsibilities are playing an important role in the creation and dissemination of many works. In most cases, structural considerations speak to the meaning of the work, whereas the value of the artistic “texture” is sometimes overlooked. When promoting new publications, more attention has been paid to the ethical concerns and moral responsibility of the works. Some artistic compromises seem necessary and tolerable because of ethical responsibilities and the legitimate importance of a book’s moral claims.

However, in children’s literature, as in all literature, “structure” does not exist independently from “texture,” nor do ethical concerns and moral responsibilities exist independently from artistic expression. Slogans such as “upholding traditional culture” and “cultivating a sense of patriotism” can be used to summarize the theme of the work, but at the same time, the writing needs to be up to the standard of artistic expression. Similarly, writing about traditional culture, if it only scratches the surface, will not be relatable to people in the modern era.

Steps forward

An artistic problem is also an ethical one. When we find a problem in the artistic expression of a book for children, it is not only about the art, but also affects the ethical concepts, thoughts, and emotional problems related to children. This does not mean that an artistic expression can always be traced back to an ethical concept. Most of the time, the author starts with an ethical standpoint and intention, but unknowingly runs askew of his original intention, which calls for a deeper reflection on art and ethics.

In the context of literary criticism, all conceptual entities are inherently linked to the tangible presence of literature, and are determined and shaped by it. The same is true for children’s literature. Therefore, with specific works of children’s literature, potential problems in their ethical foundations can be seen in defects within the artistic expression.

For example, in the writing of some children’s novels, childhood fun is narrowly defined as a variety of childish and funny words and deeds. Behind this seemingly innocuous expression is actually condescension and insouciance towards children. To clearly identify the problems in this kind of artistic expression, it is necessary to reflect on the ethical representation of childhood. Other children’s stories are magnificent but lack artistic truth. They are full of rich rhetoric but do not include a real taste of life, which also demands a review of ethical representations of childhood. After all, the way we look at childhood, the way we treat children, determines the way we treat everything related to it. In theoretical discussions of children’s issues, sentiment and responsibility are important words, but in the world of art in children’s literature, the authenticity and purity of these words are strictly scrutinized.

In this sense, literature will not deceive us. Every written word, in some way, confesses its true self, whether good or bad. In the end, the breadth, wisdom, and affection underlying these words leaves a traceable record. Similarly, the narrowness, prejudices, and vulgarity of certain messages are also permanently archived in the works. Writing children’s literature should not be exempt from scrutiny simply because it is intended for child readers. On the contrary, it requires even greater caution and careful consideration.


Zhao Xia is an associate professor from the School of Education at Zhejiang International Studies University; Fang Weiping is the deputy director of the Children’s Literature Committee at the China Writers Association.

Editor:Yu Hui

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