Associating children’s literature with slow violence may cause surprise: after all, Nixon’s concept usually unmasks injustices concerning environmental degradation. However, it has enabled us to address our increasing sense of being implicated in some troubling phenomena occurring in the production of children’s book culture and the knowledge practices related to it. In what follows, we share our thoughts on children’s book culture as a site for slow violence, while we also wonder how we could counteract its consequences, which unfold surreptitiously across generational and geopolitical scales.
A number of scholars, such as Jaqueline Rose, Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, John Zornado, and Jack Zipes, have argued, children’s literature is not for and about children but for and about adults and their ideas of what children are and may need: children’s literature represents the aetornomative social order in which the child equals deficit and the adult is the norm (Nikolajeva). Children’s literature is thus subsumed under the laws of the pedagogical, reinforcing dominant value systems so that they continue to define the past, present, and future (Nodelman, Beauvais). This view of children’s literature has been challenged with the proposition that books for young readers catalyze intergenerational kinship (Gubar) and solidarity (Deszcz-Tryhubczak and Jaques). We have suggested that the field integrate research with rather than about books to give more complex accounts of how they get entangled in more-than-human relations with readers and other actants (García-Gonzalez and Deszcz-Tryhubczak). Regardless of differences in these approaches, they agree on the deeply entrenched belief that a taste for reading literature and participating in children’s book culture is crucial for young people as a gateway to a better future: the imagined child enjoying reading literature embodies privileges. Yet such a future is claimed by the demands of the present, which is postponed for a promise of a betterment (Errázuriz and García-González). We contend that this claim for a promising future, this desire of the pedagogical project invested in young people, makes children’s literature a site of slow violence in which several exclusions keep taking place.
Slow violence occurs gradually and is not viewed as violence at all. Children’s literature is not seen as harmful, but rather as a beneficial project from which all children profit. Yet it is an institution assembled in the production and naturalization of exclusions related to class, ethnicity, gender, abilities, and other dimensions. Robin Bernstein and Donnarae MacCann, among others, warn about how Black children have been dehumanized in historic children’s books, while White children have been produced as innocent beings with promising futures. In contemporary texts, White children are overrepresented, while nonwhite are present marginally.
However, the slow violence of children’s literature occurs not only at the level of representation, but also in the entanglement of different forces that produce the intensity of children’s book culture. The Western market of children’s literature has grown exponentially in recent decades, accompanied by an extensive national and global system of prizing children’s books (Kidd and Thomas Jr. 2017). Reading promotion activities and lists of recommended books proliferate, and an accelerated growth of children’s literature scholarship too frequently, we think, limits itself to ennobling selected texts. Commenting on literature is obviously what literary scholars are trained for: we provide readings of texts, hoping that other adults engaged in the pedagogical project, such as librarians, teachers, and other reading mediators, will find them useful. Yet, while we are restrained by our discipline and institutions, we should become more wary of how our thinking and doing inadvertently contributes to the reproduction of White, Eurocentric, humanist hierarchies excluding so many other stories, ways of reading and forms of cultural creation and consumption. Recommendations of beautiful books fail to acknowledge how inaccessible they are to most of the world’s children. Our celebration of book culture is thus complicit in the reproduction of global social injustices.
Thinking of children’s literature as a site of slow violence enables us to appreciate how books and education were an integral part of what Aníbal Quijano calls the coloniality of power imposed through cultural reproduction and desire for assimilation. Usually opposed to oral transmission and to local ways of knowing, literate culture was promoted as a way to impose not only the language of the ruler, but also Eurocentric ways of producing knowledge. To counteract the workings of slow violence in children’s book culture, we need to unlearn the hierarchies implied in the reproduction of book culture in general and open it up to other texts, stories and readings—not only in oral and folk traditions, but also in new media and diverse forms of children’s culture. We can do so by asking how many ways of understanding literature are lost when we focus on book selection and promotion or on celebrating World Book Day. Who is excluded when literary reading is championed as crucial in shaping the citizens of the future? And how slow, invisible, and recurrent are those exclusions?
Cite as: Macarena García-González and Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak, “Children’s literature as a site of slow violence,” in Reimagining Childhood Studies, 18th May 2021, https://reimaginingchildhoodstudies.com/childrens-literature-as-a-site-of-slow-violence/