Ambivalent, Double, Divided: Reading and Rereading Perry Nodelman

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2011

Publication Title

Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures




At the outset, I have to admit what might appear shameful to readers of this journal: unlike Perry Nodelman, I do not love reading children’s books. Or rather, I love some children’s books, but when I look at the stack of pleasure reading that awaits me once I have finished writing this essay and have finished the term in mid-May, there is not a single children’s book in the stack. I see several volumes of poetry, a couple of books about music, and several novels: the one I most want to read, because I think Oryx and Crake is a masterpiece, is Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. I doubt I would have read Perry Nodelman’s children’s fiction had I not been asked to write about it here. Having read it, I can report that Nodelman’s fiction clearly satisfies many of the various criteria for children’s fiction delineated in his recent book-length study The Hidden Adult, but I cannot read it without thinking constantly of the shadow text of Perry Nodelman the critic and what I know of Perry Nodelman the person.

In The Hidden Adult, Perry Nodelman is scrupulous about describing his subject position: “male, short of stature and slight of build, more or less masculine, and more or less heterosexual,” of “Central European” origin, “Jewish but not religious,” “Canadian,” born in the 1940s into a culture of white male privilege (82). He does not identify himself as a writer for children except in his bio note on the back cover, or rather he does not draw explicitly on his experience as a writer for children (primarily those between the ages of eight and twelve or ten and fourteen, according to his publishers). The Hidden Adult is not children’s fiction, of course, but a work of “Literary Theory and History” (according to the book jacket) in which Nodelman unfolds an extended argument that children’s literature may be defined by its generic characteristics—that, indeed, it constitutes its own genre. It is a provocative, learned, monumental work by one of the most important and thoughtful critics in the field. It is a work I find endlessly fascinating and consistently useful for my own writing and thinking about childhood and children’s literature. It is, as Beverly Lyon Clark’s jacket blurb announces, “arguably [Nodelman’s] magnum opus.” I confess that I felt somewhat intimidated when I was asked to write this review essay, as I have read The Hidden Adult many times and find it of inexhaustible value in ways that I cannot always fully articulate: one of the book’s main virtues is that its arguments cannot be easily summarized.

The Hidden Adult is such a rich text because it draws on Nodelman’s career-long devotion to the field of children’s literature; indeed, as a field of academic study, children’s literature owes a great deal to his work as a critic. Nodelman is that rare critic who is comfortable as both a theoretical critic and a practical critic: he was also for many years an exemplary editor of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly and more recently of CCL/LCJ, the precursor to this journal. I have been an avid, admiring, and sometimes contentious reader of Perry Nodelman the critic since the mid-1980s when I was still in graduate school, even before I found myself somewhat accidentally but willingly transformed into a children’s literature scholar. Because I have long admired Nodelman’s devoted critical attention to the work of other writers and critics, I welcomed the opportunity to honour his work by paying close attention to it. I was not familiar with his work as a writer of children’s fiction, however. Now that I have become familiar with it, I remain somewhat uncertain of the wisdom of discussing the creative work alongside the critical work. I am reminded of Randall Jarrell’s anecdote about critics at a Wordsworth conference being patronizing to “poor Wordsworth.” “The critics could not help being conscious of the difference between themselves and Wordsworth,” writes Jarrell; “they knew how poems and novels were put together, and Wordsworth...