Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates to 1855

[ 14]
Beverly Lyon Clark
The term “audience” has only relatively recently come
to acquire its dominant modern meaning, referring to
the viewers of an entertainment or readers of a book.
The earliest such usage listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates to 1855. Earlier meanings include
“[t]he action of hearing” (dating from c. 1374) and a
“[f]ormal hearing,” often with royalty or with a judge
(from 1377). Derived from the Latin audire, to hear, the
term has a special resonance for children’s literature,
for the youngest children are not readers but rather auditors of literature, truly an audience. Indeed the broad
term “audience” better captures the many ways in
which children consume literature—and other aspects
of culture—than does “reader,” the generally preferred
term in literary criticism.
Raymond Williams (1976/1983a) did not include
“audience” in his Keywords. The term does receive an
entry in New Keywords, edited by Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris (2005), though
David Morley’s account focuses almost entirely on the
audience for mass media, especially addressing the extent to which such an audience is passively susceptible
or actively shapes the messages received. This question
of agency has been central to examinations of children’s culture, broadly considered. Given that most
scholars condescend to children, assuming them to be
passive and hence mere pawns, a popular approach in
cultural criticism has been to castigate the media, arguing that our children must be protected from its effects.
Since at least 1965, when the librarian Frances Clarke
Sayers fired a salvo (Sayers and Weisenberg 1965)—and
perhaps even from 1938, when Anne Carroll Moore expressed her concern—critics have deplored how reductive and saccharine Disney products are, for instance.
Yet a few cultural critics, such as Ellen Seiter (1993)
and Gerard Jones (2002), highlight some of the ways
in which children respond actively, perhaps reshaping what they see on television and elsewhere or using
comic books to mitigate anxieties. Similarly, an extensive literature attends to the numerous uses of Barbie,
that icon of modern children’s culture—even if the
most radical uses (Barbie as dildo) are often associated
with adults (Rand 1995).
My focus here, however, is on “audience” with respect not to popular culture but to literature. The concept has a special salience for children’s literature, beyond the root associations with the auditory, for this
literature is not by children, as the possessive might
conceivably imply, but rather literature read by or to
them: it is defined by its audience. Yet how exactly
audience defines it is subject to debate. Scholars disagree, for instance, as to whether it is defined by being intended for children (e.g., Nodelman 2008b) or is
simply literature that they read (e.g., Lerer 2008). Does
a book appropriated by children, such as Robinson Crusoe (Defoe 1719), count? Do books that a publisher markets for children count, even if an author didn’t have
Copyright 2011. NYU Press.
All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or applicable copyright law.
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Audience Beverly Lyon Clark
[ 15]
such an audience in mind while writing? Scholars also
disagree whether to focus more on the “book” or the
“child” in their judgments, but even the “book” people
cannot altogether forget the target audience: “Naturally a knowledge of and sympathy with children is
. . . vital,” notes Brian Alderson in “The Irrelevance of
Children to the Children’s Book Reviewer” (quoted in
Hunt 1991).
Beyond debates within the field, the study of children’s literature raises intriguing theoretical questions
of broader interest that are too often missed by mainstream literary theorists, who generally ignore children’s literature. However well Stanley Fish’s (1980)
concept of an “interpretive community” might work
for adult readers, how does one define such a community for children’s literature? Where might one find an
interpretive community purely of children? As Deborah Stevenson (1997) notes, “The best child readers rise
longitudinally [to a different reading level] rather than
exerting power latitudinally, which means that there
are no child gatekeepers of the canon.”
Children’s literature also points to the multiplicity
of address of literature—necessarily so, given that no
other literature so thoroughly excludes the intended
audience from the various aspects of production. Very
few young people have written, edited, published, or
sold books. And relatively few children directly buy
them; even if a smaller proportion of children’s book
sales are now to libraries than was the case in the
1960s, librarians, teachers, and parents are still the
primary buyers (Stevenson 1997). The result, as Zohar
Shavit (1986) and others have noted, is that children’s
literature always has at least a double address: the children who are the ostensible audience and the adults
whose decisions make it available. Given that the decision makers are not part of the ostensible audience,
the nature of children’s literature very much depends
on how adults construct childhood and children.
Indeed, Jacqueline Rose (1984) would argue that it is
impossible for adults truly to know children—rather,
they are always constructing them. If adults construct
children as beings to be molded for the future, then
children’s literature may be conceived as an important
part of this molding—and therefore as necessarily didactic and needing to be monitored or censored. Others, following a Romantic construction of childhood,
feel that children’s literature should provide wings for
the imagination. Yet maybe we should not lose sight
of the fact that children are not just passive; they can
be active agents too, constructing what they read—and
For children are real, too. A focus on the duality of
the audience may, in fact, occlude its multiplicities,
masking the heterogeneity of children. Who exactly
comprises the target audience for children’s literature? Some scholars study the kinds of address created
within a work, the narratee or the implied reader (Wall
1991/1994); others examine the reading processes of
actual child readers (Benton 1995/2005). Children
differ among themselves—by age, for example. When
does childhood end? Is the audience made up only of
those under the age of, say, twelve, or does it include
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Audience Beverly Lyon Clark
[ 16]
adolescents? But children also differ by gender, race,
class, nationality. Focus on “the child” as audience too
often misses the real differences among children.
In any case, what we now consider to be children’s
literature arose through early market segmentation.
Literature for children wasn’t always separated from literature for adults. Early literature in the West—mystery
plays, ballads, folk tales, sermons—embraced children
as part of its audience. Even later, literature for children long overlapped with that for the laboring and
later working classes: children often read chapbooks,
evangelical tracts, and dime novels. What is often considered children’s literature per se—an imaginative literature directly targeting children—is generally seen
as arising in the eighteenth century, along with the
middle class, whether or not one dates the first work of
Anglophone children’s literature precisely to 1744 with
A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, published by John Newbery
(Darton 1932/1982). For most of the nineteenth century, nevertheless, writers and their gatekeepers often
assumed they should publish nothing “that could not
be read aloud in the family circle,” to quote an editor
of Harper’s Monthly in the 1890s (Mott 1938): they assumed that the young would be part of the general
readership. And works that ostensibly targeted children, and which subsequent readers have classified as
children’s literature, were often read by adults as well—
not just in the company of children, as now with a bedtime story, but independently.
In the United States, boy books—most of which
we would now consider children’s literature—were
for young and old, and juvenile domestic stories were
not clearly separated from ones for a more mature audience. Little Women (Alcott 1868–69) was enjoyed by
“[g]rave merchants and lawyers,” “clerks,” “the civil
engineer,” “the boy in the elevator” (Stearns 1895). In
the nineteenth century, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain 1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
(Twain 1884) were seen as equivalent books, usually
mentioned in the same breath; only in the twentieth
century did Tom Sawyer devolve into a children’s book
and Huckleberry Finn ascend to hypercanonicity, to use
Jonathan Arac’s term (1997), as a prime candidate for
the great American novel (Clark 2003).
I use “devolve” advisedly. Late in the nineteenth
and especially early in the twentieth centuries the
canons of taste changed. As the cultural gatekeepers
shifted from the likes of magazine editors to the professoriate, and Herman Melville’s star, for one, ascended,
only works (especially those by white men) seen as
targeting an adult audience came to be seen as worthy
of the highest approbation. Children’s literature came
to be seen as inferior. If, in 1893, “The Best American
Books,” published in the literary journal The Critic, included Little Women and Little Lord Fauntleroy (Burnett
1886) among its top forty, twentieth-century lists of important books rarely included works we now classify as
for children.
In the twentieth century, the academy did not provide a friendly audience for children’s literature. Now,
however, as academic departments devote courses
and programs to children’s literature, as books such as
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[ 17 ]
those in the Harry Potter series have reached a crossover audience, as publishers seem to welcome such
crossovers (Beckett 2009)—and, indeed, as books such
as Keywords for Children’s Literature are published—
change would seem to be afoot.
Kelly Hager
The Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) definition of
“body”—”the material frame of man (and animals)”—
immediately sets before us one of the term’s principal
controversies in children’s literature. That is, what Peter Hunt (1984) would call the adultist, not to mention
the sexist, nature of the OED’s language reminds us
that the matter of the corporeal is often not deemed
proper for the consideration of children and is frequently bound up with questions of gender and the
adult body. But when we consider the OED’s elaboration on this definition—“the material body and its
properties”—the physical nature of the human body
becomes more clearly a matter of interest and importance to the study of children’s literature and culture.
David Macaulay’s picture book The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body (2008) describes
the parts of the body and its functions. The American
Girl Just Like You® doll comes made to order with “hair
and eye color” and “skin tone” “to match” the girl who
buys her. And the Cookie Monster describes his new
healthy eating habits in his “Healthy Food” rap, part of
Sesame Street’s new “Healthy Habits for Life” initiative.
As just these few examples suggest, children’s culture
reveals an overwhelming interest in describing, depicting, and reproducing images of the body in order to
educate, orient, and delight the child consumer.
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