Introduction

Children’s literature, it is commonly argued, is the only literature written, illustrated, edited, published, purchased, reviewed, taught, and studied by people outside its intended audience. This paradox inevitably challenges adult scholars of children’s literature. As Mary Galbraith (2001) points out in “Hear My Cry: A Manifesto for an Emancipatory Childhood Studies Approach to Children’s Literature,” “One clear difference between childhood studies and other cultural studies is . . . that all of us have been children, [but], in academia at least, none of us is a child now” (p. 189). In other words, adults who study children’s literature are necessarily outside the field they are studying, with, at best, indirect (and arguably suspect) access to that field of study. Galbraith is responding partly to Peter Hunt, who, in Criticism, Theory, & Children’s Literature, advocated “a distinctive kind of criticism [that he calls] ‘childist’” (Hunt, 1991, p. 189) in which, following Jonathan Culler, adult readers should always consider what it means to “read as a child” (Hunt, p. 191). Galbraith usefully qualifies Hunt’s “childist” praxis, arguing that “childhood and adulthood SELF positions with respect to each other must . . . be articulated and theorized . . .” (p. 198). Accepting Galbraith’s caveat that both “insider”/child and “outsider”/adult perspectives in dialogue with each other are necessary and desirable, how might adult scholars begin the necessary, if impossible, task of adequately incorporating children’s perspectives into their analyses of children’s literature? 

An obvious and valuable approach would be full-blown empirical studies of children’s actual receptions of texts. However, given the stringent parameters for research with human subjects, and particularly for research with child subjects, this approach may not always be practical. Might there be other, more immediate, ways to access children’s responses to texts? What I will explore tentatively here is: (1) how existing resources on the World Wide Web might help inform adult readings of children’s literature and film by providing access to children’s readings; (2) some weaknesses and limitations of existing Internet resources in enabling this important cultural work; and (3) how the Web might better support “childist” approaches to texts. To ground these explorations, I will use, as a case study, Roald Dahl’s bestselling 1988 children’s fantasy novel Matilda and Danny DeVito’s 1996 children’s film adaptation of that novel. For if anyone’s work has inspired radically differing responses from adults and children, Dahl’s is it. As one reviewer states, Matilda “makes grown-ups wince and children beg for more” (Kirkus, 1988, p. 41).  

1. An Adult Reading of Matilda

Both Dahl’s bestselling novel and DeVito’s acclaimed children’s film are about power: child and adult power, female and male power, reader/viewer and author/narrator power.[1] Indeed, Matilda’s success depends on its purported empowerment of child readers and viewers through the unlikely triumph of its female protagonist, a child prodigy named Matilda, over her boorish, neglectful parents, the Wormwoods, and her monstrous, abusive school Headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, through Matilda’s deployment of her remarkable “brain-power” including supernatural telekinetic powers. However, for me, this text, in the end, acts in bad faith, teasing readers with a potent but temporary fantasy of “brain-power,” girl power, and child power only to end up reinscribing an all-too realistic world of adult and patriarchal power as the text’s closing scenes take away Matilda’s powers and infantilize this powerful girl child in the arms of her loving, but ineffectual, teacher, Miss Honey. Thus, Dahl’s Matilda takes readers on a merry romp through a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which not only a child but a female child—following Lacan—discovers that she can “seize the phallus” (“The cigar was essential” [p. 210], states Dahl’s narrator, of Matilda’s practising her newfound telekinetic powers with her father’s cigar) only to take that power away from the protagonist (and, presumably, child readers) in the text’s closure. There, Matilda, “grown-up child”—as Miss Honey calls her (p. 195)—is re-infantilized as Matilda, child; Matilda, Amazon warrior against injustice (her name means “battle maiden” or “strength”), is transformed into Matilda, good student and loving daughter. Thus, a novel with a delightfully radical premise—what if a young girl in a world of philistine adults were to read the masterpieces of literature and develop the full potential of her “brain-power”?—becomes a conservative, even reactionary, text that limits rather than expands child, female, and reader power.  

2. Children’s Web-based Readings of Matilda

What children’s readings of this novel and film are available on the World Wide Web to complement, extend, or contradict my adult reading of Dahl’s and DeVito’s comedy about child abuse? Reviews of children’s literature and film by children appear in a variety of contexts on the Web. For example, “real people reviews” proliferate on online bookstore sites. Amazon.com alone sports 290 child and adult reviews of Matilda. Paradoxically, although these “reviews” are hosted on a commercial site, they may be the most democratic of Web reviews, with little editorial interference apparent—at least if spelling and grammar errors are any indication. Unfortunately, though, there is no consistency in how reviewers identify themselves by age, gender, and so on: sometimes, it is impossible to tell whether a review is by an adult or a child. Educational organizations and public libraries also host sites devoted to book reviews of children’s books by children. Some of the largest, such as Kids’ Review, require paid subscriptions, thus limiting their accessibility despite their being Web-based. Kids’ Review boasts more than 9000 children’s book reviews; significantly, it also boasts that “Teachers Control Content Their Pupils Submit,” thus putting adult “filters” (both by the teachers and by the adults running the site) between child readers and adult researchers wanting to hear children’s voices. Free sites include the Ann Arbor District Library AADL World of Reading site, which boasts “Book Reviews Written by and for Kids from around the World”; Building Rainbows, which claims to have 12,299 reviews by children; Spaghetti Book Club: Book Reviews by Kids for Kids, which includes children’s illustrations as well as text; and “Raving Reviews,” now on Stories from the Web. A useful Canadian site, hosted by retired school librarian Alan L. Brown, is Just for Kids Who Love Books. Brown updates his site daily and keeps it commercial-free. Although he seems genuinely open to children’s ideas (“Tell me what the book . . . is, why you like it and anything else you want to say about it”), as with the coordinators of other adult-run sites, he risks adult condescension to child reviewers: “Hey kid! Yes, you there, sitting in that chair reading these words on your computer screen. Are you between 8 and 14 years old? Do you like reading books?. . . . Great! You’ve come to the right place.”  

The most impressive site of children’s reviews of children’s books is Cool.reads, a United Kingdom phenomenon conceived, designed, and maintained by two young brothers, Tim and Chris Cross, who were just eleven and thirteen when they began the site in 2001. Cool-reads includes more than 2500 reviews by the brothers and other ten- to fifteen-year-old reviewers. The brothers actively manage their site, rejecting as many child reviews as they accept: “. . . not all these reviews are usable. Sometimes they are just silly, or rude or both. Sometimes they don’t make much sense either” (Cool-Reads). They are also willing to run negative reviews of books. Their sophisticated site generates thousands of hits and receives fifty to seventy new reviews for consideration some weeks. As the Times Educational Supplement observes, “cool-reads is an adult-free zone, showing the potential of the internet for allowing young readers to develop critical faculties and share word-of-mouth enthusiasm with their peers rather than making token appearances on review pages and award judging panels controlled by adults” (qtd. at Cool-Reads).  

Unfortunately, even the best of these sites limit the potential effectiveness of reviews by having their reviewers submit reviews in online “forms” in response to generic, literarily unsophisticated questions. For example, Stories from the Web states, “Tell us what you thought of the story / Favourite character and why? / Who will the book appeal to most and why? / Would you recommend the book and why? / Could any improvements be made and how?” (Raving). The adage of “Garbage In, Garbage Out” may apply here: many “reviews” generated by such a process consist of repetitious plot summaries and knee-jerk reactions by child readers; ironically, the “open form” reviews of Amazon.com often produce more useful and interesting responses than these educators’ forms. 

Children’s reviewing on the Web impresses me in quantity but disappoints me in quality: to play even a bit of “stereo” between my adult reading of and children’s online responses to Matilda, I have had to wade through a lot of superficial children’s responses to the text. No doubt this is symptomatic of a wider problem of adults assuming that children are incapable of or uninterested in literary analysis combined with educators’ desires to treat all students as “writers” and publish everything that children produce. As Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer (2003) point out in The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, “in American and Canadian classrooms, [children are] seldom asked . . . to consider a text as a text—to explore the ways in which it provides the pleasures of literature” (p. 30). More to the point, most of these Websites have been designed in such a way that they generate mostly repetition, plot summary, description, and a limited and predictable range of literary responses more than productive analysis by child reviewers.  

There is a need on the World Wide Web for carefully moderated spaces for child reviewers of children’s literature and film—not just a dumping ground for any and all children’s writing. Child-run spaces with a critical bent, such as cool.reads, offer great potential for giving voice to children’s readings with minimal adult interference. Whether adult- or child-run, such sites need to identify at least age, gender, and geographical origin of child reviewers; adopt a more literary focus; and promote substantial, thoughtful responses to texts (perhaps through panels, debates, reviews and rebuttals, and integrated reviews and comments and discussion boards).

3. Adult-Child Dialogism in Readings of Matilda

Perhaps I can best point to the potential of the Web for offering insight into children’s responses to texts for adult students of children’s literature and film by demonstrating how some children’s responses on the Web do productively unsettle my adult responses to Matilda. Like me, online child readers seem to recognize that one of the “pleasures” of this text is that it is about power: the power of the underdog, the child, the small, the young, the girl, the neglected and even abused. As such, the text has great potential power for child readers. “If you have ever felt like you are not cared for,” writes one young reader, “then read [Matilda]. . . . [Your] life just might change” (Amazon). Although “identification” between reader and protagonist has become suspect as a “naïve” concept in literary criticism, child readers seem to find it useful in describing their relationships with child protagonists: “I wish I was Matilda. . . . [I’d] love to have her brainy little brain,” writes a young reader from Malaysia (Amazon); Matilda is my favourite character “because she’s a very brainy smart girl and a fantastic reader like me,” writes a ten-year-old from Britain (Raving). Although as an adult I find it improbable that the genius Matilda could sprout from her dysfunctional, abusive family, at least one child reader both accepts and is intrigued by this: “It was interesting how she was such an intelligent child with not so intelligent parents. Even though she had parents that didn’t love her . . . she had an intelligent mind and a sweet heart. I think that’s what made me love this book most of all” (Amazon).  

Although I find Matilda’s revenge tricks on her abusive parents unrealistic, tedious, unpleasant, and inconsistent with Dahl’s description of the empathy Matilda purportedly derives from reading the classics of world literature, many child readers find these both humorous and empowering: “I like the way she got revenge on her mom and dad,” writes an 11-year-old (Raving); “I really liked the scene w[h]ere Matilda hid the parrot in the chimney and pretended it was a ghost and scared the wits out of her parents. (I wish I could do that!),” responds another child (Amazon). As an adult reader, I find the saccharine Miss Honey spineless to the point of being irresponsible, but no online child readers pay attention to Miss Honey’s lack of ability to play “adult” to Matilda’s “child,” let alone her inappropriate behaviour in dumping her tragic life story onto Matilda, let alone her outright favoritism towards Matilda, let alone her “lying through her teeth” (Dahl, 1988, p. 76)—the narrator’s words, not mine—to the other students about their ability to be as smart as Matilda. To the contrary, many online child readers align themselves fully with the implied reader of the text, wanting to bond with Miss Honey as much as Matilda does: “I liked this book because it reminded me of my second grade teacher, who is a lot like Miss Honey,” observes ten-year-old Anne (Rosemarin). More sophisticatedly, twelve-year-old Crescent delights in Dahl’s bifurcation of good and evil in his female characters: “My favorite character has to be Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull because one side is sweet and innocent and the other is vicious and mean” (Raving). Although for me, Dahl’s ogre, Miss Trunchbull, is a misogynistic, anti-lesbian, adult-hating caricature who demonstrates the unnaturalness of mature women having power, online child readers often cite her as their favourite, most comic character, some even identifying with her: “The things [Miss Trunchbull] does are so incredibly absurd, that it makes one burst into laughter,” writes a young male reader (Amazon); “Mrs. Trunchbull [is my favourite character] because she is . . . funny and mean like me and my friends,” writes eleven-year-old Tiffany (Raving).  

Although as an adult reader, I race through Dahl’s subplots and narrative diversions, many child readers dwell on the child power of secondary characters—of Bruce Bogtrotter triumphantly eating a whole chocolate cake (Dahl, 1988, pp. 118-33), of Lavender putting a newt into Miss Trunchbull’s glass of water (pp. 136-40). Although I fear that Matilda gives power to its cute, prepubescent protagonist only to end up withdrawing female power from her and child readers at the close of the novel, online child readers overwhelmingly seem to find the novel empowering, focusing less (like me) on the novel’s closure and more on the climactic chapter in which Matilda conquers Miss Trunchbull with her “eye power” (“The Third Miracle,” pp. 215-26). Thus, “I liked the book because it is about it a girl with strong powers,” comments a young American reader (Amazon);“My favorite part of the book was where Matilda makes the chalk move and then writes the frightening message on the chalkboard,” writes a ten-year-old (Rosemarin); “The headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, is a 100 percent kid hating monster! But, she is no match for Matilda! This book made me think, how could Matilda be so smart?,” writes a perceptive nine-year-old (Rosemarin); “I love the way Matilda takes revenge of her HORRIBLE parents and MEAN school principal. Matilda represents all the kids who suffer from evil grown-ups,” comments another child reader (Amazon); “What I love about his writings is how Dahl creates a story to show how no matter how big the bully is, they can always be overcome by a small child filled with determination and intelligence,” generalizes another (Amazon).  

My biggest disappointment in the novel Matilda as an adult reader is in its ending, in which Matilda loses her magic, telekinetic powers, Miss Honey rationalizes Matilda’s loss of those powers, Miss Trunchbull is replaced by a faceless man in a gray suit, and Matilda is infantilized in the loving but not very powerful arms of her teacher. For me, this is a restoration of adult, patriarchal power, undoing the novel’s previous play with girl, child, and child reader power. However, online child readers, rightly or wrongly, seem to respond positively to and feel empowered by Dahl’s ending: “Find out what happens at the end. What happens to Matilda? Does she get the happy life that she wishes for?,” teases an astute nine-year-old reviewer fully aware of the need to avoid “spoilers” (Rosemarin); “Like all of Dahl’s stories, this book . . . is a story of the triumph of justice,” claims a young American reader (Amazon). Tellingly, one of the least-answered questions on one of the online children’s review forms was “Could any improvements be made and how?”; most children answered with some variant of “No. It’s wonderful the way it is” (Raving). However, one response suggests, “I would like to bring out my favourite part in the book which was when Matilda goes to stay with Miss Honey her teacher” (Raving). And one of the few online child reviewers to pay attention to genre notes the “rightness” of the ending: “The plot is similar to a fairy tale,” writes a ten-year-old boy from England, “because it begins with a poor girl but ends up happily ever after” (Raving). Thus, what concerns me and some other adult readers about the child protagonist’s nonchalant leaving of her family to move in with her teacher seems for online child readers to be an unproblematic happy ending: would child or adult readers be so sanguine, I wonder, if Matilda went off into the woods for a tryst at Mr. Sugar’s instead of Miss Honey’s cottage? 

Conclusion

What may ultimately be most interesting about Matilda is precisely its bifurcated response between child and adult readers. That Dahl’s seductive narrative strategies continue to inspire readings in which children feel empowered is something I should at least acknowledge in my adult readings of and resistance to the text. While I shall not abandon my deeply felt adult concerns about Dahl’s novel and DeVito’s film, I should complement and complicate my adult reading by listening to the twelve-year-old child from Tasmania who reads the “same” text quite differently: “I think this book proves that there probably is a little girl or boy just like Matilda and they have suffered through hard times, but like a fairytale ending finds someone who cares about them and understands their emotions and feelings. . . . Matilda is a very touching story . . .” (Reading). 

Children’s Web-based responses to texts provide considerable and occasionally valuable, if often ambiguous, superficial, or unreliable, data for analysis of children’s textual reception. If we truly believe that texts exist only when and as realized in actual readings and if we take seriously the “children” in “children’s literature,” as adult critics, we need also to take into account how actual children, at the site of reception, negotiate meaning from texts; one way to begin this difficult but desirable task is to enable children to write thoughtfully about their responses to literature, including through the most immediate and widely distributed digital communications enabled by the World Wide Web. Despite the limitations of such data (the commercial or institutional hosting of many sites; the lack of reliable and detailed information about contributors; the adult-centric control of such sites), careful analysis of it can help begin a productive dialogue between adult and child readings, digitally remastering adult “mono” readings of children’s literature into the fuller sound of adult-and-child “stereo.” 

Notes

1. I develop my argument about the circulation of power in the novel and film Matilda in detail in “‘The Cigar Was Essential’: Contestations of Power in Roald Dahl’s Matilda” in the forthcoming collection of essays To See the Wizard: Politics and the Literature of Childhood, edited by Laurie Ousley. Here, my primary concern is to investigate the possibilities of informing—even unsettling and interrogating—my adult reading of the text with Web-based children’s readings.


References

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  • Kirkus Reviews. (1988). [Review of the novel Matilda by R. Dahl]. Kirkus Reviews 56 (16), 1237. Rpt. in Telgen, D. (1997). Children’s Literature Review, 41, 41-42.
  • Nodelman, P. and Reimer, M. (2003). The pleasures of children’s literature. 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
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