Donovan on Jenkins, 'The Children's Culture Reader'

Author: 
Henry Jenkins, ed.
Reviewer: 
Ellen Butler Donovan

Henry Jenkins, ed. The Children's Culture Reader. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998. x + 532 pp. $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8147-4232-7; $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-4231-0.

Reviewed by Ellen Butler Donovan (Department of English, Middle Tennessee State University)
Published on H-Childhood (March, 1999)

Drawing from the work of scholars in various disciplines including history, literature, communications, education, sociology, anthropology, women's studies, and cultural studies, Jenkins has collected forty-one essays or excerpts that analyze children's culture and childhood as an historical and cultural idea. The collection is organized into three topics and a sourcebook. Twenty-four essays are evenly distributed among the topics of "Childhood Innocence," "Childhood Sexuality," and "Child's Play." The sourcebook, a collection of excerpts from advice literature for parents written between the 1920s and 1970s, contains seventeen documents, but comprises only about ten percent of the collection. All but three of the essays in The Children's Culture Reader were published prior to this collection, most of them during the late 1980s and 1990s. The number of documents included in the book and their range make this an ambitious collection.

In a useful introduction entitled "Childhood Innocence and Other Modern Myths," Jenkins both previews and synthesizes the topics and perspectives of the essays as well as grounds the issues in contemporary life by discussing the speeches of Susan Molinari and Hillary Rodham Clinton at the 1992 presidential conventions. Jenkins also sets out the ambitious purpose of the Reader: "The essays ... will be centrally about childhood, how our culture defines what it means to be a child, how adult institutions impact on children's lives, and how children construct their cultural and social identities" (p. 3). He believes that the book will "challenge some key assumptions ... rejecting the myth of childhood innocence in order to map the power relations between children and adults. This book avoids texts that see children primarily as victims in favor of works that recognize and respect their social and political agency" (p. 3). At the conclusion of his essay Jenkins comments, "The Children's Culture Reader seeks modes of cultural analysis that do not simply celebrate children's resistance to adult authority but provide children with the tools to realize their own political agendas or to participate in the production of their own culture" (p. 30).

Does the collection fulfill this claim? Yes, to an extent. The essays do focus on childhood as it is lived primarily in the United States. The essays in "Childhood Innocence" deal with topics such as the role of the child in children's literature, the development of material culture exclusively for children, the role of children in consumer capitalism, and the role of television in educating children about race. Read together, they complicate the notion of the innocent child or the child that must be protected from the adult culture. Similarly, the essays in "Childhood Sexuality" trace the shifting attitudes about childhood sexuality by addressing how adults displace their own erotic fantasies and fears onto children. And in "Child's Play" the essays examine toys, junk food, and children's relationships with stories in order to show the ways in which children come to terms with and attempt to control the world around them.

However, despite the title of the collection and the child-related topics, these essays often say more about adult culture than they can or do say about the culture that children experience. In the essays, children consistently disappear; they are used as evidence for arguments about capitalism, television, public policy, or current attitudes toward sexuality, among other topics. Two representative examples can illustrate the problem, though it pervades almost all of the essays. In his essay, "The Making of Children's Culture," Stephen Kline traces the ways in which ideas about childhood transformed and, in turn, were transformed by the marketplace. Similarly, Henry Giroux's essay, "Stealing Innocence: The Politics of Child Beauty Pageants," contextualizes the function of child beauty pageants in American culture, thereby illustrating how childhood innocence is transformed into a commodity. In both cases, the writers were performing an analysis of the culture, though it wasn't necessarily an analysis of children's culture. As a means of discussing children and children's culture, both could have borrowed the case-study strategy used by Shelby Anne Wolf and Shirley Brice Heath ("Living in a World of Words") and Carolyn Steedman ("The Tidy House"), whose essays are included in the section "Child's Play." In both cases children's voices contribute to, even balance, the adult perspectives. Such studies are not easy given the issues involved with accessibility to children and the degree of articulateness the children have attained; however, to discuss children's culture without children's voices is to perpetuate conceptions of childhood that are only different from rather than better than the conceptions the book is challenging.

A second, more predictable problem with any collection is the practice of excerpting longer works. Twelve of the twenty-four essays in The Children's Culture Reader come from book-length studies, and readers often miss an important and convincing element of the original argument by only reading the excerpt. For, if the excerpt is from the introduction or conclusion of the longer work, frequently readers get generalizations without the specific arguments and examples that would make those generalizations convincing. On the other hand, if the excerpt is from an internal part of the argument, readers have nothing by which to judge the methodology or perspective of the author. Scholars will prefer to skip the collection and go to the original texts which are still readily available. In a classroom, the text could be used when carefully supplemented by the instructor.

In spite of these flaws, The Children's Culture Reader has merits. By choosing a range of essays which address common topics, Jenkins has ensured that readers have the opportunity to examine the topic from a variety of viewpoints as well as to examine the representative critical discourse already established on the topic. He also thereby avoids the smorgasbord of interesting but unrelated tidbits that can occur in a collection. The Children's Culture Reader does offer the novice a useful introduction to the complexity of childhood as a cultural idea in the United States (and to a lesser extent Britain). But that novice, if interested, will quickly outgrow the collection.

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Citation: Ellen Butler Donovan. Review of Jenkins, Henry, ed., The Children's Culture Reader. H-Childhood, H-Net Reviews. March, 1999.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=2954

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