Agency in Children's Literature

During the second half of the twentieth century, social studies turned their attention towards the idea that children “can be seen as independent social actors” (James and James, 2008, p. 9). There are two reasons why this shift in the theoretical paradigm is important. On the one hand, it shows a significant connection between childhood studies and the rest of the social sciences that can serve as a ground for interdisciplinary studies. On the other hand, it attracts attention to new ways of thinking about children and adolescents underscoring their “capacities to make choices about the things they do and to express their own ideas” (James and James 2008, p. 9). 

Attempts to counter a tendency to generalize about childhood agency have been ongoing at least since Jacqueline Rose famously declared that “there is no child behind the category ‘children’s fiction,’ other than the one which the category itself sets in place” (1984, p. 10) which led to opening up discussions about the existence of a “universal child” who exist beyond any cultural or national borders.  

As a counterpoint, Marah Gubar’s “kinship model” focuses on the likeness and relatedness of children and adults as well as the heterogeneity within both categories. According to Gubar, growth is “a messy continuum” and not a fixed, general, and inevitable process (2016, p. 294). Gubar subscribes to the idea that even though children are born into societies where a certain discourse and specific social conditions determine aspects of their lives and identity formation, “that discourse is also shaped by the comportment, doings, and utterances of young people” (Gubar 2016, p. 295).

There are three key areas that highlight children’s agency in relation to fiction such as “the degree of agency granted to fictional child characters, the attribution of agency to the implied child reader, and how the conditions of a book’s production and distribution grant or deny children agency” (Christensen, 2021, p. 9).

Emphasizing agency offers a different perspective from seeing the child as frail and reliant on adult authority and care. On one side, it evokes the image of the idealized child: liberated, self-sufficient, and almost divine. On the opposite side, the child character may feel constrained, limited, and negated by their structural circumstances. Amidst these extremes, a multitude of variations coexist. Literature targeting young audiences, along with the associated discussions, grapple with these ambivalent portrayals.

For the broader frame of agency, see this Wiki entry.


Christensen, N. (2021). Agency. In Keywords for Children’s Literature, Second Edition (pp. 9–12). New York University Press.

Gubar, M. (2016). The hermeneutics of recuperation: what a kinship-model approach to children's agency could do for children's literature and childhood studies. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, 8(1), 291+.

James, A., & James, A. (2012). Key Concepts in Childhood Studies. SAGE Publications, Inc. 

Rose, J. (1984). The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. Springer.