Kid Lit: An Introduction to Literary Criticism
Empire Studies Press
There are many who don’t think that literary criticism is necessary, beyond saying whether a work is good or bad. They especially are wary of criticizing Children’s Literature, thinking that this form of literature is for kids and should just simply be recognized on that superficial level.
But what many don’t realize is that whether they are aware of it or not, they criticize and analyze children’s Literature. When they make comparisons between the Hunger Games’ characters’ rebellions against the Capitol and Marvel’s hero’s fights against HYDRA and Thanos, they are making an analysis. They are also criticizing literature when they introduce their own favorite childhood works to a younger generation and wondering if the writing still holds up or whether a work is appropriate for their children. Even a simple subjective analysis of whether a work is good or not is a form of literary criticism, because one has to analyze what specifically they liked or didn’t like about it.
Tom Durwood’s fascinating book Kid Lit: Introduction to Literary Criticism is an analytical look into children’s literature and other cultural touchstones like popular movies and comics to understand that there are more to works that are aimed for children than many think.
The book is divided in two halves. The first half covers the history of children’s literature as well as various analytical themes that are present in such works. The second half offers a sample of literary analysis discussing works as diverse as The Lion King, Harry Potter, Tintin, Tarzan, Pixar films, and Afrofuturist literature.
Diane Donovan, Senior Reviewer
Midwest Book Review
Kid Lit: An Introduction to Literary Criticism comes from a long-time English teacher whose focus is on capturing the narratives of daily life, and is recommended not just for fellow teachers, but for anyone who appreciates the written word and the creative effort involved in bringing it to life.
Kid Lit surveys the major devices of storytelling—story structure, class, gender, symbolism, trauma and Orientalism—using children’s narratives as a more accessible, familiar structure for understanding how they operate.
Tom Durwood advocates developing a critical literary eye and provides his readers with the toolkit to do so. From underlying messages on class, politics, gender, and race inherent in various children’s literary works from Tarzan to John Christopher’s classic alien invasion Tripod series to creating strong characters and back story, Durwood covers the basic elements of good writing and effective communication.
Ideally, Kid Lit will be read by would-be creative writers because many of its basic critical components are essential reading and reminders to aspiring authors who may have forgotten some of the basics of creating not just acceptable, but compelling writing:
The achievement of great fiction is to create a character which the reader believes in and wants to know about. What makes for a memorable character in fiction? Why do you remember and want to keep reading about Katniss Everdeen, or Sherlock Holmes, or (in your case, Dawsey) Pikachu? What does a writer do to lend depth and likeability to a character?
The foundations of producing memorable, exceptional works—and identifying these qualities in literary and leisure writing alike—forms a series of lessons that help all ages understand the basics of superior language choices.
As Durwood advances through various children’s literary examples, contrasting approaches and passages from both traditional and modern works, readers gain an education in not just writing, but reading with a more critical eye to understanding why a story either works or does not.
Blank pages and questions are provided in this workbook for reader self-analysis, illustrations abound, and references and examples are included in an extensive, impressive index that makes cross-referencing a snap.
Critical thinking is a skill best honed at an early age. Durwood provides all the tools necessary for developing this skill, promoting solid children’s literature in the process. He has created an appealing, accessible, educational survey in a format all ages can readily enjoy with the lively, thought-provoking Kid Lit.
An appealing, accessible, educational survey in a format all ages can readily enjoy …
Recommended not just for fellow teachers, but for anyone who appreciates the written word …
Lively, thought-provoking … impressive.
A nice introduction into going deeper into a piece of literature than just the text using children’s literature as the main examples. Short, which both makes it a breezy overview but also makes it somewhat superficial at points.
Focuses a lot on the Campbellian hero’s journey, which makes sense given the coming of age narratives of a lot of children’s literature. It also has a major focus on Orientalism and the literature of empire, which is very interesting.
I liked how the book was split into traditional textbook-like passages, interviews with scholars studying children’s lit, and lesson plan/assignment guides.
Justin Nevin, PhD
Kid Lit: An Introduction to Literary Criticism
Kid Lit raises fruitful questions about children’s roles in literature, film, and contemporary media and the nature of children’s literature writ large. Durwood states his dual purpose early and directly: to equip critical readers by using the coming-of-age trope as a doorway to self-reflection (9–10). Divided into two parts, the handbook’s first part introduces critical terms and concepts and illustrates their functions in select texts. In the second part, Durwood interviews scholars about their work in children’s literature and underlying dynamics, such as forms of government and identity categories.
A brief taxonomy, which precedes Part One, demonstrates the author’s broad facility with relevant artifacts and criticism. He offers “my crude overview of four historic phases of children’s literature” (12). The chronology encompasses the earliest folk tales to see print and video games as literary category. Superficially, the logic behind that taxonomy might seem odd. What links those artifacts, separated by centuries, are generative technologies that have complicated critics’ understanding of childhood while shaping children’s experiences. From the get-go, the overview will help both instructor and student consider shifting categories of childhood and children’s literature broadly. Traditional artifacts, such as Grimm’s fairy tales and Peter Pan, prepare readers to contemplate contemporary texts like Marvel movies and perhaps lesser-known works, such as Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. In his four eras, Durwood provocatively sketches the genres’ changing functions for readers and how respective texts reflect social dynamics of their times.
Part One, plainly subtitled Lit Crit Toolbox, defines fundamental critical terms. The definitions accompany a fine effort to provide relevant examples and explanations across disparate texts. Nine carefully focused chapters help readers discover functions of common literary threads and taxonomies of the coming-of-age story. To do so, Durwood strategically scaffolds his instruction. For example, in Chapter One he begins by introducing foundational terms of the coming-of-age story, among them conflict, innocence, villains, and sidekicks. He complicates and briefly contextualizes these basic elements while introducing the complexities of race, gender, class, politics, and literary structure. Durwood, an experienced college instructor, capably navigates a broad body of work to intriguing effect. I found impressive his familiarity with works of the past four centuries and his ability to put them in intriguing dialog. He is just as comfortable with the Brothers Grimm as he is with The Hunger Games, and he thoughtfully lists books and films for instructors to teach and explore.
However, Part One can feel a bit disjointed at times. Durwood’s juxtapositions are intriguing, but they require the reader either to have equally broad knowledge or to conduct parallel research in order to keep pace. For Durwood, it is certainly an invitation to do the latter, but a bit more guidance could be helpful. In his clear and present enthusiasm to share his passions, he’d do well to take more time to hash out some of these links. At several points, the author openly invites readers to disagree, but it can feel like his self-deprecation borders on self-doubt. Those interjections risk inhibiting readers from fully accepting his welcome. I don’t see need for his reservations. Another minor critique concerns the author’s inclusion of certain texts. There is an endemic lack of agreement about whether even the prototypical bildungsroman, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, fulfills scholars’ traditional definition of that genre. In other words, there’s perpetual uncertainty about what it means to come of age—which Durwood knows—and about what constitutes children’s literature. No prude, I nonetheless question whether Robocop and Lethal Weapon belong here. Nonetheless, Durwood’s opening gesture is a knowledgeable invitation to make meaning on our own terms.
Part Two, by design, is richer—and rich. Meaty analyses by Durwood preface highly insightful interviews with literary experts on race, gender, childhood studies, and politics. These discussions put familiar texts in new light and, by extension, prompt readers toward reflection on their own political and social contexts.
Therefore, Part Two logically builds from the foundation set in Part One. All the interviews are worthwhile. Just a couple of the eight include Alexander Maxwell’s political analyses of Star Wars and Anna Kozak’s analyses of “Imperialism in the ‘Tarzan’ Franchise.” In their interview, scholar Amanda Lagji speaks to Durwood’s aim most explicitly: to “challenge readers to think about the role of higher education and disciplines in privileging or discrediting ways of knowing; how do various disciplines define or value knowledge?” (117) Lagji’s challenge condenses Durwood’s concerns with empire in his broader work. Lagji’s epistemological politics will sound familiar to many academic humanists. But I find that, for beginning students of critical theory—theory about popular artifacts—there is a refreshing plainness and accessibility that today’s best teaching and academic prose are made of.
Ever the student, Durwood clearly relishes the chance to talk shop with other experts and to share those lessons with us.
The Literary Aphotecary
No matter where we turn, narratives are at every corner.
The author brilliantly places the various components of classic stories in a realm accessible by youth.
From the typical coming-of-age stories to the magical tales that captivate young minds, Kid Lit provides the foundation necessary to read between the lines of any fictional narrative and extract the message.
This was my favorite nonfiction book of the year by far. Kid Lit forced me to step back and look at literature as more than just an art form used to escape daily life. I would recommend Kid Lit to anyone, especially ELA teachers and parents.
Book Review: Tom Durwood’s Kid Lit: An Introduction to Literary Criticism Empire Studies Press, 2020. Ebooks.
Tom Durwood’s “Kid Lit: An Introduction to Literary Criticism” represents the latest in a growing body of work reflecting the author’s ongoing interest in history and literature as well as his experience as an editor of an open-access journal and a professor of composition and literature.
Durwood most recently taught composition and literature at Valley Forge Military College, where he won the Teacher of the Year award five times. One colleague, Pat Murray, Ph.D., has described him as a professor who creates “new ways to appeal to students and to make writing concrete to their experiences as well as their individual needs.” Another colleague has said that he “has a gift for making complex ideas understandable” and creating a class “forum for collaborative learning and global thinking.” He is an editor of an online scholarly journal, Empire Studies Magazine, which provides a collection of open-access essays, interviews, and curriculum materials for English, history, and global studies courses. For seven years, Durwood wrote a newspaper column called “Shelter,” and as an undergraduate at Harvard, he edited an arts journal. He has written ten ebooks, including historical fiction, illustrated historical fiction (including comics), nonfiction history, and textbooks. Of one of his ebooks, Teddy’s Tantrum: John D. Weaver and the Exoneration of the 25th Infantry (2017), Durwood has said that “narratives can correct the past, and help make us collectively whole.
” Kid Lit: An Introduction to Literary Criticism (2020) is an attempt at sharing the wonders of literature and the tools for unpacking the way literature works. The ebook is presented with artistic font and illustrations; it mimics the design of children’s literature and offers the reader an aesthetic journey through the book. In an “Author’s Welcome,” Durwood describes the collection as starting from a file of material from his course at Valley Forge Military College. He writes that readers “must begin taking control of their worlds, starting with becoming an active reader.” And he encourages them to “Look under the hood. Think critically, in all things.” Throughout the book, he encourages readers to join him in “looking under the hood” of literature, to interpret what he shares, respond, and “then produce your own theory to replace mine.
” Kid Lit is divided into three parts: “Your Lit Crit Toolbox,” which includes chapters on what he refers to as “conceptual instruments” that will help readers “unlock” literature, such as the coming-of-age matrix, the building blocks of literature, and more; “In-Depth Studies,” which includes case studies of scholars analyzing texts such as “‘The Lion King’ and Its Message of Social Darwinism,” “Star Wars and Government,” “Pixar Gender, Pixar Rules,” and “Philosophy in Comics” as well as interviews with the scholars; and “Lesson Plans,” which provides an explanation of Durwood’s class and resources for teaching these skills and concepts.
In the first section, Durwood writes that in the book, “we take a deliberately broad and inclusive approach to the field of Children’s Literature (Kid Lit).” He describes four phases of the history of children’s literature, ending with “the current golden age,” in which gaming provides participants with interactive storytelling and diverse cultural perspectives “bring ‘buried narratives’ to the surface.
” Durwood notes that we still have “a long way to go to represent all cultures fairly in children’s literature.” In a chapter on gender, he cites research when explaining that “girls and women have been drastically under-represented in Kid Lit, at all levels …” Durwood also cites Deborah Tannen, a linguist, in arguing that authors should represent characters in ways that acknowledge differences in experience. And he cautions the reader to critique his assumptions: “You don’t have to agree with any of this, but you need to begin assessing female and male characters in stories, and how they are portrayed.” Durwood codifies these concepts in an effort to give children and youth access to terms and frameworks for critical reading. But readers should be cautioned not to “essentialize” (describe people according to simplified or stereotypical traits). Especially with children and youth, it’s important to use inclusive language and acknowledge the consequences of misrepresenting others’ identities and experiences.
In the chapter called “Building Blocks of Literature,” Durwood describes terms that will be familiar to educators, such as dialogue, as well as “fancy” terms such as anagnorisis. (I was not familiar with this term.) Anagnorisis, according to Durwood, “refers to the moment of clarity in a story, a moment of recognition when the hero suddenly understands the real truth – things as they truly stand.
” The second section of the book, “In Depth,” provides case studies of scholars’ interpretations of children’s literature as well as interviews with those scholars. A chapter called “Pixar Gender, Pixar Rules: A Sampling of the Literature on Pixar” includes an analysis called “Gender in Pixar” by Durwood; “Family Roles in Pixar: An Excerpt from ‘Empowered Mothering’ by Suzan G. Brydon; and “Pixar Rules Part 1 (from a Pixar story artist)” by Emma Coats, which describes writing rules that Coats originally tweeted, such as “Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about until you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.” And finally, “Pixar Rules Part 2 (from a sharp-eyed observer)” by Kyle Munkittrick, which was originally published in Discover magazine (“The Hidden Message in Pixar Films,” May 2011). According to Durwood, Munkittrick describes three rules of Pixar, including this one: “The first Rule of Pixar is that there is no magic. No problems are caused or fixed by the wave of a wand.”
The third section starts with “Nine Things to Know About Prof. Durwood’s EN 210 Class,” which is addressed to students. This list includes the propositions that “(constant writing) works” and that “Your most important work is done outside class.” Here Durwood describes himself as his students’ “writing coach” and explains that his goal is to help his students succeed in and outside class. In a chapter called “What Is This Class All About?” he cites the research of Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman in arguing that “good teachers have a lasting positive effect on their students.” The rest of this section includes assignments. One asks students to explore what it means to be “heroes of two worlds,” like Superman and Ariel of the Little Mermaid. The assignment asks, “Do you? Does this belonging to two worlds make you stronger, or weaker? What special powers do you have because of this? What have you gained from each world that helps you in the other world? Please write a one-page essay answering these questions. Draw specific comparisons between a hero from two worlds and yourself.”
Kid Lit includes references to research and scholarship as well as links to articles. It also includes an index where readers can search authors’ names, literary elements, and literature titles.
Of Kid Lit, Durwood explains, “The driving idea or impetus . . . is to bring scholarship out of the amber of scholarly journals and dissertations and into the classroom, where these powerful ideas could have a wide impact.” This is a laudable goal, and Durwood welcomes useful critiques of his interpretations and language in his quest to make literature more accessible for readers, especially children and youth.
Teaching kids to have critical thinking and communication skills from a young age using literature = YES!
Love this book! I wish this had been around when I was in college; I think it would pair well with any theater, film or lit class (classic, adult, childrens, etc…).
It really explains well what makes a great story in easy terms. So concise. Doesn’t talk down to students, but leads them to actual critical thinking of what they are watching or reading.
Kudos Tom Durwood- well done!