In the archives this week I found a publication of Isaac Watt’s Divine Songs, illustrated with plates by many different illustrators. The book’s frontispiece is keen to make sure to emphasise that the printing process used was ‘graphotype’ – a type of printing using electrochemical process in which a metal plate was cast from an engraved stone. The metal plate could then be used to print the text and images at the same time. This process was in use from the mid-nineteenth century, over a hundred years since Watt’s rhymes were first published in 1715; for nearly two hundred years they were a part of popular culture and formative for generations (Chester and Whalley, 1988:17).
Watt’s simple and easily memorable text, accompanied by images of nature, Christian symbolism and relatable family life made these stories popular, yet they were explicitly instructive and didactic (1988:18). Divine Songs has a legacy which is today carried more subversively in contemporary children’s literature, for example, in the Harry Potter series by J.K.Rowling. As English Literature Professor Griesinger writes: “Despite potential problems associated with magic, witchcraft, and the occult, Harry Potter can be interpreted as a creative narrative fantasy grounded in Christian ethics and a Christian theology of hope” (Griesinger, 2002:477-478). It is argued by Bell (2010) that the narrative foundations of Christianity are common to all humanity – namely hope – which is why the stories of the bible and Harry Potter are so personally felt and reverberating. Hope and meaning is also what child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim believes fairy tale offers readers – a benefit to child development (Bettelheim, 1976). However, children’s literary critic Jack Zipes argues that the narrative of Christianity/hope underlying the story of Harry Potter (and others) is constructed to be culturally homogenising and patriarchal (Zipes, 2001). Books such as Isaac Watt’s Divine Songs founded the genre of children’s literature with nurturing intentions but also dominate children’s lives and their own voice. In an inexplicit way, contemporary children’s books can be found to continue this trend.
Bell, L. (2010). Baptizing Harry Potter : A Christian Reading of J.K. Rowling Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press
Bettelheim, Bruno (1976) The Uses of Enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales London : Thames and Hudson
Griesinger, Emily (2002) Harry Potter and the “deeper magic”: narrating hope in children’s literature Christianity and Literature, Spring, 2002, Vol.51(3), p.455(27) [Peer Reviewed Journal]
Pachler, Norbert (2001) Sticks and stones. The troublesome success of children’s literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter By Jack Zipes New York and London: Routledge, Hbhttp://www.gfl-journal.de/1-2002/rz_pachler.pdf
Zipes, Jack (2001) Sticks and Stones: the troublesome success of children’s literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter New York, N.Y. ; London : Routledge