What made so many adults so very keen on the Harry Potter books? How does Dr Seuss help children learn how to read? In what ways does Winnie-the-Pooh reflect British colonial attitudes? What messages do readers get about punishment from fairy tales? Why did some people consider Judy Blume's books shocking and inappropriate? And just how are you supposed to read a picture book, anyway?
These are just a few of the very many questions that are explored by the academic field devoted to the study of children's literature. They're interesting, timely, important issues, but often, when I tell someone that I teach and research children's literature, I usually get one of several reactions.
"Oh, so you sit around reading Dick and Jane stories all day, eh?" some people scoff. "I could do that too."
Er, no. Analysing and understanding any literary text means much more than "sitting around reading" a particular book, although obviously we have to do that in great depth too. You also have to read around the book, which can mean studying literary theory, history, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology, law, reception theory, criticism, translation theory, and much more. You have to understand the book's context. You don't just summarise the plot of a book; rather, you have to analyse what the book does and what it means and what possible effects it has on the audience, among many other things.
Other people say to me, "Children's literature? Is that, like, Peter Rabbit or something? I read that when I was kid. Oh, yeah, and I remember watching Sesame Street! Does that count?"
First of all, there are huge numbers of texts published for children. Yes, this includes Peter Rabbit, and the Gruffalo, and Roald Dahl's works, and the other books you might remember from your childhood or your children's childhoods. But the field is much larger and much more varied than that. And sure, you can include TV shows and films as texts, but analysing those sorts of media is actually somewhat different from analysing literature, even if they are aimed at similar age groups. You wouldn't lump all the body parts together and say that one doctor could perform all possible operations; children's literature, like most fields, can be quite specialised.
But probably the most common response I get when I tell people about the amazing job I have is laughter and astonishment. "Wait, what? So basically you get paid to re-read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland? How can that actually be a job?"
I've been repeatedly told that there's no way that my job could be as interesting or as important as being a lawyer or a dentist or an economist or... well, just about anything you can imagine.
I wonder, though, what actually could be more important than the next generation. Isn't it vital that we understand how children are taught and socialised via the medium of literature? Isn't it essential that we consider just what words and ideas we are throwing at young people and how that will end up shaping our society for decades to come? Don't we want to understand how the concepts of childhood and children have changed over time? Don't we want to know why certain texts get published and then treated as canonical while others get censored or banned? In short, shouldn't we care deeply about what literary sustenance we offer - or force-feed - children?
There some amazing literature published for children and young adults - literature that can and should be read by people of all ages - but besides it being entertaining, moving, disturbing, and educational to read, it is also fascinating to study and discuss.
With all this in mind, some of my dedicated, engaged undergraduate students and I are starting a book group devoted to the reading and analysis of children's literature. The group is called We Need to Talk About KidLit and it is being launched here in Norfolk on 13 February at 5.30 pm at the library at the Forum. It's free and open to everyone. Even if you're not in Norfolk, or not even in the UK, we hope you'll join us on Twitter @NorwichKidLit or on Facebook, because these are discussions that we can have online as well as in person.
These are topics that we truly need to talk about, and that we should want to talk about. So join us and open yourself to some remarkable literary nourishment.
Follow B.J. Epstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bjepstein