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theory for beginners

13 december 2022

Kenneth Kidd's Theory for Beginners is a fascinating book, though parts are hardly for beginners. A blurb by Philip Nel calls the book "accessible," but its accessibility comes and goes. Kidd's introduction, a condensed, highly allusive overview of the intersections among philosophy, theory, childhood studies, and children's literature, would test the mettle of senior scholars in any of those fields. One imagines it is intended to; Kidd observes at several points that scholarly writing can't always be easy. But later on, Kidd does open up discussion of specific phenomena located at those intersections in new ways. When he does close readings of those phenomena he does take even a beginner – or, as the popular series have it, a dummy or a complete idiot – along with him.

Only the last main chapter of three in Theory for Beginners is really trained on the book's subtitle topic: "children's literature as critical thought." The first gives an overview of the Philosophy for Children movement, abbreviated P4C. Kidd's warrant is that P4C is widely familiar. I'd never heard of it, though granted I live in Texas, where our educational doctrine seems to be the prevention of critical thinking. P4C turns out to be a loose assembly of texts, pedagogies, and attitudes that place faith in children's exploratory approach to cognition and reasoning. Sometimes its advocates have written purpose-built children's books as guides into the philosophical mindset, like Matthew Lipman's Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery (1970).

At other times, P4C promoters have found lots of philosophy in existing children's books like the Winnie the Pooh tales, or Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon. Such philosophizing can take place at any level, from pre-school through Young Adult, and isn't bound to texts. Picture books, even board books for the very young, can pose philosophical questions. I've noticed this when reading Dorothy Kunhardt's Pat the Bunny with a 20-month-old of my acquaintance. The insistent mise-en-abyme of Pat, where a child is invited to read the book that a child in the book is reading, etc., is heady stuff at any age – right up to the classic mirror-in-the-page page where the reader suddenly stares back at herself.

Kidd's second chapter is not much about critical thought per se, or children's literature at all; but it is an interesting, original look at those comics-style "higher thought for beginners" titles that show up in bookstores. What kind of cultural work do these "graphic guides" to the intellectual tradition really do? Who reads them? Are they just cribs, or do they constitute contributions to Theory in their own right? What kind of effects are produced by their juxtaposition of image and text?

Kidd found, by surveying academics he knows, that use of graphic guides is fairly widespread. Thrust into seminars where everybody seems always already to know everything, graduate students – less apologetically all the time – feel a need to rely on items like Thing Theory for Utter Birdbrains. "Any former or current graduate student who says they don't use them is lying," says Tali Noimann (86). I truly didn't use them. But I studied literature in graduate school forty years ago, when those guides didn't exist. And we didn't talk about theory anyway. We had MasterPlots.

The final chapter of Theory for Beginners is a miniature of the whole book's method, comprised of four relatively discrete smaller essays: on Walter Benjamin's engagement with children's culture, on Alice and theory, on the various ways in which children's books can be queer, and on Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?. Due to my own interests in children's literature, I was most intrigued by, and learned the most from, the third of those critical vignettes, which led me to new reading opportunities and new ways of thinking systematically about how books work. You can't ask for more from an essay on theory.

Kidd, Kenneth B. Theory for Beginners: Children's literature as critical thought. New York: Fordham University Press, 2020.