On children's literature. A lively `chat' with a critic

Booktalk: Occasional Writing on Literature and Children, by Aidan Chambers. New York: Harper & Row. 192 pp. $13.95. Aidan Chambers is one of the most articulate and important voices speaking about children's literature today. I say ``voices'' because Chambers's presentation of his ideas about criticism, children, and literature in the 10 essays included in this book have the quality of the spoken word, an ability to engage us immediately in a most interesting conversation. Here he is, jumping into one essay, ``The Role of Literature in Children's Lives'':

``A friend of mine is a tireless collector of funny stories. The other day he sent me one he'd heard on the radio at a time when I'm groaning at my desk. He tells me I work at the very times when the best funny stories can be heard on the radio. He's able to listen then for a reason that might interest you.''

How Chambers gets from this opening paragraph, through a brief narrative biography about his friend (an avid reader who quit his job as a teacher to work in a factory because it gave him more free time to read), to an anecdote (about Bertrand Russell and the taxi driver who asked him, ``Now, Mr. Russell, what's it all about, then?'' -- a question for which the philosopher didn't have an answer), to a brief discussion of the origins of narrative forms (from gossip to myth) and the inseparability of literature from life and thought, to an analysis of an Aesop fable in terms of his own childhood experience of the story, to his sweeping assertions that ``what we can do with ourselves is limited by what we can do with our language,'' to his very practical suggestions for creating more of those encounters with the language of literature for children, to his powerful closing about the lifesaving effects of literature for one disabled child -- the manner in which he leads the reader through this assemblage of elements -- this is Chambers's unique, compelling style.

Having said all this, let me quickly add that Chambers's essays are not mere free-associational monologues. Rather, they are dialogues with the reader, in the fullest, richest sense of that term. Dialogue (or as Chambers calls it in one of the essays, ``Two to say a thing'') is at the heart of a number of his essays, particularly the important ``The Reader in the Book,'' in which Chambers studies the idea of the implied reader for whom an author writes a work: ``In his book an author creates a relationship with a reader in order to discover the meaning of the text.''

For Chambers, the other side of the equation is as important: ``And the child, finding within the book an implied author whom he can befriend because he is of the tribe of childhood as well, is thus wooed into the book.'' The crucial thing is that works of literature, like the life they spring from, do not occur and are not written or read in a vacuum. Here, Chambers is very subtly applying and making accessible the ideas of Wolfgang Iser and, it seems to me, Mikhail Bakhtin, two modern critics who, along with the chic post-modern French critics (like Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes) who also appear in ``Booktalk,'' are not often encountered by the general reading public. Yet with Chambers's help they make effortless entrances to add their comments to the ongoing dialogue of literary criticism that Chambers is conducting here.

One of Chambers's singular contributions to contemporary criticism about children's literature is that his work incorporates the critical responses of children to works of literature. These firsthand observations become vital examples throughout ``Booktalk.'' They make it clear that analytical faculties do not suddenly appear when children enter high school or college. Instead, these faculties have to be nurtured, beginning at a very early age, through discussion -- no matter how basic or literal they may first seem to be -- of books. If this childhood experience is missed, it needs to be ``reconstructed'' at some later point, as Chambers describes in his account of a high school class learning how to criticize works of literature by beginning with younger children's picture books.

``Booktalk'' is chock-full of good ideas, energized and energizing, insightful, patient, funny, moving, and always aware of the authors and readers who are taking part in the dialogue of its pages. At a time when leading critics of adult literature are saying that contemporary literary criticism and scholarship have lost touch with people, Chambers has kept both his touch and his clear voice.

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