Newswise — When you think back to your childhood, you might remember books filled with lively, colorful illustrations; large, bold type; funny and relatable characters, and storylines you may still recall today.
Beyond the joy of reading or being read these stories, this type of literature reveals much more than meets the eye, says Joseph Thomas, Ph.D., director of San Diego State University's National Center for the Study of Children's Literature (NCSCL).
"The adults who write for and publish literature for children are in the empowered position… and the child audience is usually imagined as less powerful," explains Dr. Thomas. "This relationship leads to a kind of literature that exposes some of our culture's most deeply held ideological values.
If you want to know what a culture holds dear, what they think is important, is normal, right and just, then read the literature that the culture produces for its young."
Nearly 1,200 undergraduate and graduate students are doing just that — studying the wide range of books and other materials created for the very young through to young adult (YA) literature, as part of the nearly 40-year-old NCSCL, one of the oldest and largest institutions of its kind in the U.S.
"Children's literature is unique insofar as it's the only kind of literature written by one group — adults — expressly for another, children," notes Thomas, a professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State and a former assistant professor at California State University, Northridge.
Stories of Diversity
The complexity of children's literature means that NCSCL is overseen by four SDSU faculty members: Thomas, Angel Daniel Matos, Ph.D., Phillip Serrato, Ph.D., and Mary Galbraith, Ph.D. All are active, publishing authors and scholars of children's and YA literature themselves.
It's also a highly creative genre, notes Thomas. "In children's literature you find books with narrators who break the fourth wall; books that play with image as text and text as image; books that highlight the book itself as an object; books that invite the reader to become an active co-producer of meaning."
"Although many children's books are thematically conservative," he continues, "the authors still play with generic conventions — and even the conventions of book-making itself — in ways that rival the most innovative works for adults."
One of the most important trends in today's children's literature is diversity. Scholars, researchers and authors look for more inclusivity in all aspects of storytelling, including storylines and characters as well as more diverse authors creating stories for kids and teens from a broader range of backgrounds and experience.
NCSCL faculty want to be a leader in this, says Thomas, so San Diego State professors strive to use diverse books in all courses, as well as regularly invite a wide range of children's literature scholars to the campus to speak on topics like YA literature for Latino and LGBTQ youth, Judaism, and picture books featuring civil rights photos for children.
As part of its mission to prepare students for careers in children's literature, the center regularly invites internationally recognized powerhouses from the genre to share research and lead workshops on the SDSU campus.
Student involvement is critical to the center's success, Thomas stresses, adding that projects like the SDSU Children's Literature blog are managed by graduate research assistants.
Learn more about the SDSU National Center for the Study of Children's Literature and find reviews of children's literature by SDSU faculty and students.