• ‘I Became Much Wiser over Time’: Readers’ Use of Innocence and Wisdom as Age Norms in Responses to Children’s Literature

    Leander Duthoy (see profile)
    Children's literature, Reader-response criticism, Aging, Qualitative research
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    Age norms are the social norms that, within a specific socio-cultural environment, operate as the expectations about the appearance and behaviour of members of various age groups (Radl 758). In addition, age is ‘relational’ (Pickard 203), meaning that age groups are defined in relation to other age groups. In that context, children are often described as ‘innocent and inexperienced’ (Nodelman 157) and adults as wise (Woodward 187). However, scholars have also criticised childhood innocence and adult wisdom as problematic generalisations (Kitzinger 79; Woodward 206). In this article I discuss how child and adult readers of children’s literature use innocence and wisdom as age norms to reflect both on their own age and the age of characters. Data was gathered through fifty-seven one-on-one interviews and four focus-group conversations with readers aged nine to seventy-five, based on two Dutch language children’s books: Iep! (1996), written by Joke van Leeuwen, and Voor altijd samen, amen (1999), written by Guus Kuijer. Young readers demonstrated an awareness of adult discourse surrounding child innocence, which some adopted without criticism, while others admitted to ‘performing’ innocence to escape adult ire. Furthermore, these same young readers also used innocence to ‘age’ young characters. For late adolescent and early adult readers, both young and old characters were sometimes deemed innocent. In contrast, older readers emphasised their own wisdom and reflected on the age of characters through that lens. Wisdom therefore emerged as a key age norm older readers used not only to praise older characters, but also to give positive meaning to their own experience of older adulthood. Notably, some characters that were perceived as especially wise by older readers were thought of as naïve and innocent by younger readers. Thus, the complexity of the readers’ responses challenged straightforward age-bound generalisations of wisdom and innocence.
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    10 months ago
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