Philosophy in Children’s Literature is an anthology of essays that attempt to show the philosophical underpinnings of selected texts in children’s literature. One way of reading this book is to answer a question: Is philosophical thinking relevant to children’s literature? The very presence and details of each individual essay would be a resounding yes. Another question which is less obvious to me is: who will benefit from reading this book? The following review will try to give an answer to this latter question and this shall be the basis of my critical focus.
The anthology is organized into chapters on picture books for texts oriented for younger children and essays on ‘chapter books’ for older children. The last four essays provide a form of point and counterpoint format; where two pairs of essays relate to texts giving alternative philosophical interpretations of the same work. This serves as an interesting editorial decision, as Peter Costello, the editor, makes a point in the introduction of how children’s literature can have multiple avenues of interpretation.
What I found interesting about the chapters on the picture books was that many of the authors took the pictures as aesthetically relevant to their criticism. Essays like Mills’ piece on The Rainbow Fish or Murris’s essay on Angry Arthur have an enriched perspective in taking into account the powerful ways that illustration conveys not just a literary message, but can contribute to a philosophical moral. Jones’ essay on The Mysteries of Harris Burdick highlights the indispensable role that the illustrations have in understanding that specific text.
Though the title of this collection would strongly imply that this is a book referencing philosophy and philosophers. There are essays that draw from outside of philosophy Carlson’s essay on ‘Are you my Mother?’ draws from psychological and health studies in early childhood experiences relating to the importance of maternal relationships and the distress that can come from a child’s separation from their mother. Likewise, Miller and Radeva draw from feminist, ecological and liberal political ideas as a way of illuminating potential ways in which we can interpret The Giving Tree.
Within a philosophical locus, the essays go over a broad range of topics. Some of the authors draw from aesthetics (Mendonca); philosophical anthropology (T. Lewis, Lerman) and many of the essays focus on ethics and character as a way of interpreting the texts. The essays with an ethical and moral focus that form the strongest essays in this collection. Pierlott’s reflection of how Plato’s account of love in the Symposium relates to Silverstein’s Missing Pieces is a particularly well written and convincing essay. C. Lewis compares Aristotle’s virtue (or eudaimonia) theory with another ethical account which he called Eireneism, both of these are accounts of the good life. Lewis uses The Cricket in Times Square to illuminate the ways in which eudaimonism is a deficient vision of the good life, because it precludes the importance of compassion in human relationships, which is exactly where Eireneism picks up. These essays are written very accessibly, for an audience who is unfamiliar with academic philosophy and they are written with a conviction that shows the real value in focusing on children’s literature with a philosophical lens.
This anthology is flawed by the presence of certain essays which are distinctly difficult to read, and in one case, unreadable. It makes me wonder who the intended audience of the collection it is supposed to be when there are essays like ‘Lovingly Impolite’ by Lerman, and Eisenstadt’s essay on Harriet the Spy. The philosophical ideas referenced, as well as the author’s particular writing style and use of diction make certain essays hard to grasp even for one who has a background in philosophy. I dare not think how impenetrable and off-putting these essays would be for a non-philosopher, and more importantly, this is deeply discouraging for anyone who takes a serious interest in the subject of children’s literature.
To conclude, I would have thought a book like this should be made to appeal to an audience wider than philosophers. Those who are scholars in literary criticism, education studies or even psychology that may find some of the essays insightful on the ways that children’s books can be used. Children’s books reflect on conceptual issues like how to be happy, the nature of friendship or the role that anger plays in our lives. This kind of intellectual program would have interdisciplinary relevance and and also works as a fruitful area of philosophical inquiry in its own right. However with the difficulties in readability of some essays, the noble effort of this collection is undermined by the unnecessarily obscurantist style of writing from certain authors. Such obscurantist essays are often symptomatic of what gives philosophy a bad name to the general public and demand a level of patience and attention that I expect many general readers will not have. Despite this, there are some essays which are well-written that can have a wider audience.
© 2013 Michael Pereira
Michael Pereira has an MA in Philosophy and a BSc in Sociology and Philosophy. Michael has given talks on various topics from Kant's philosophy of science to the philosophical underpinnings of ecology. Michael's main blog is 'Noumenal Realm'. Michael's academic areas of interest are Kant's theoretical philosophy and Kant's (supposed) relevance to contemporary philosophy of science.