Becoming a Reader

At last week's Faculty Lunch Seminar Series, Einat Natalie Palkovich, who lectures at NYU Shanghai, talked about children's literature and cognitive aesthetics. The following exchange grew out of that presentation.

Tell us about your particular area of interest and what attracts you to it?

My PhD is in English literature, specializing in children’s literature, however I apply cognitive literary theory to texts -- specifically cognitive aesthetics. This is a reader response or reader reception theory, which thinks of meaning making during the reading event as a sort of feedback loop that runs between the reader, the author and the text. What I love about this field generally is that it is able to combine science and literature without losing the integrity of what I consider to be the experience of reading. Its application to children’s lit is practically unheard of, but I feel this is a missed opportunity for this field to advance and diversify. Especially since so much of what we know about cognition and cognitive development comes from the study of children. The methodology I described in my FLLS talk is unique in that it aims to overcome certain philosophical conundrums that have been problematic in children’s literature criticism, by adding a cognitive dimension to the conversation.

In the scheme of things, children’s literature is a fairly recent phenomenon in historical terms. Where did it come from and what did it replace (if anything)?

Different people from different disciplines will give you different answers to this question. Children’s literature really begins to be a noticeable presence in society -- in so much as it was being published and sold to a specific target market -- in the 1800s. This was a time of dramatic socio-cultural changes, including the rise of middle classes that led to growing literacy rates. Ideologically this is the age of Romanticism, empiricism and, eventually, the rise of psychoanalysis. So as you can see, there are many potential contributing factors to the development and spread of children’s lit.  Personally, I take the view that growing literacy rates and disposable income made reading and owning books socially desirable –- what we now call “intellectual capital.” This coincided with, and contributed to, a change in the way people took care of their children. A new notion of childhood emerges, and suddenly you find a substantial demographic that need to be entertained.

Children’s literature as something by adults who think of children as receptacles, not engaged readers? Why does that matter?

I use that description in my talk to encapsulate an attitude that prevailed in children’s literary criticism for some time. It stemmed from preconceptions of the child as something that needs to be molded. This presents the child as a passive participant in the reading event, a “receptacle” for the contents of what they read. Subsequently, for decades we had a situation in children’s literary criticism in which, even when people took a historical or cultural view of the child, they still weren’t fully engaging with the actual reader. I feel this limits us as critics because it ends up throwing all reading events into question. Not taking children’s literature seriously in the bigger picture of literature is like not taking design seriously in the field of architecture. Adult readers aren’t just suddenly born, there is no sudden magical moment when you become a participating reader –- this starts in childhood, when you first learn to read between the lines, see things anew, think about situations other than your own and empathize with others.

What are some its best authors/illustrators?

Well that is exactly the point of cognitive theory! Just because I share cognitive architecture with others, doesn’t mean that mine is furnished with the same experiences and driven by the same passions. Which books you enjoy more than others is idiosyncratic, and children have nuanced preferences just as adults do. My personal favorites are Roald Dahl, C.S Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Quentin Blake (who illustrated for Dahl) and I also love Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s children’s books and young adult novels.

Is the assumption that “Father Knows Best,” wrongheaded in this context?

Well that would really depend on what father was saying. If he is telling his child to read as much as possible, regardless of genre -- then I would say he was right, and science would back me up on this. Studies have clearly shown that children who read more are not only more advanced than their peers are linguistically, but they also demonstrate greater emotional and social intelligence. They are better at making the kinds of connections and sensitive judgments that we associate with great critical thinkers. If the father is saying: You should only read this and you shouldn’t read that -- then I would say he is wrong. Pleasure is an essential factor in maintaining interest in literature, especially during childhood when we form the reading habits of a lifetime.

Would children’s literature be fundamentally different from what exists today if the child reader were thought of differently?

I would hate to think that it would be –- there is nothing wrong with children’s literature. It is children’s literary criticism that has to adjust to what we know and are learning about children’s metacognitive abilities. The irony is that the greatest children’s authors of the past were more on the ball about this than many critics are at present. Roald Dahl frequently had to defend his work from “stuffy” critics who complained it was too satirical or gory for children. He quite vehemently argued that all he cared about was entertaining his audience, and his audience was a lot smarter than these critics realized they were. Tolkien –- who was both a scholar of fantasy fiction as well as a writer of it –- strongly believed that children were not simply credulous and unobservant readers.

What are portals? Devices for escape, discovery or practice for real life?

I introduced this in my talk as just one an example of one way in which the methodology can be applied to texts. I use fantasy portals to illustrate how literary tropes modify and change in nature and value to the reader and the hero as you move from a basic picture book to a young adult novel. Consequently, the answer to your question is: all three at some point and in some manner.

What is the place of this literature in a world of video games and commercial hype around stories that are successful?

When we read literature, a meaning making process occurs that is unique. This is partially because reading is protracted and partially because of the way our brain reacts to cues in the text that force us to mentally model images in our minds. When you play a computer game or watch a movie you have these images provided for you, and while it’s incredibly immersive you have a lot less “mental work” to do because you don’t have to fill in the “gaps” like you do in literature. That gap-filling activity forces the reader to reflect on the reading process as well as on the content of the book. This is different from a game in which there is generally less “thinking about meaning” -- less acts of interpretation and more acts of strategizing towards a target. That being said, if you play a lot of games your boredom threshold will change, you will require ever-more challenging targets that demand ever-more complex reasoning skills. The other particularly pertinent issue in relation to this question, is that nowadays popular books are often made into films and then exploited in other forms of media such as games, like Harry Potter. In this case the fantasy world of the book and the game feed one another which is great, and makes for an even richer paracosm.

What’s next?  

Academically I hope to publish my book in which I introduce the methodology I use and I hope to continue teaching at NYUSH, which I adore.