“I am always deeply surprised by the seriousness of infant spectators. Babies do not understand, they absorb the sound of voices, the music of words, anxiety, fear, grief, violence, love—they absorb them all.” – Francoise Gerbaulet, French Theatre Maker
Baby Bink’s hilarious adventures in the popular movie “Baby’s Day Out” bears testimony to the fact that the kind of culture which infants are assimilated to in their early years—in this case the book that Norby reads to Baby Bink everyday—can significantly impact the way in which they negotiate with the adult world. While talking about children’s literature or rather literatures for children in different languages all around the world, a lot of the discourse is often around what children read or are read to by adults. Various kinds of illustrations in/for children’s books are also often dissected and discussed extensively while theorizing children’s literature. However, during all such discussions, it is presumed that the children being talked about are at least above the age of four and have the pre-requisite cognitive development to understand the aforementioned things.
In this light, we must turn our gaze to the unique confluence of two aspects of children’s literature which is often not discussed widely—forms of literature for children below the age of four and the performative facet of children’s literature. The language of drama can be incorporated to narrate different stories which fascinate and delight children at the same time. In the year 2015, The New Yorker’s “Cultural Desk” reported about a theatre show entitled “Babble” that was created by a North Ireland based company called “Replay”. It was taken over by another group called New Victory which specializes in work for young people. In the year 2014, this company had presented “This [Baby] Life,” an Australian dance piece that was intended for audiences aged four to eighteen months. “There are very few works that are specifically for babies,” Mary Rose Lloyd, the New Victory’s programming director had told The New Yorker. She further added that not only do these offerings tap an underserved demographic but “it’s also great to get parents in the habit of bringing their children to the theatre.”
What she was referring to is a specially designed and customized theatre experience for babies who usually sit on their caregiver’s lap or in a stroller and watch a play. This new and unique form of art is now widely recognized as “Theatre for Babies.” Various form of mainstream performance art like opera, musical theatre, puppetry, art installations, picture books and even fairy tales have provided inspiration for narrative productions for babies. This is an important emerging cultural practice because psychologists around the world unanimously agree on the fact that the pre-natal and natal stages of childhood, along with the early years of development till five years of age, are critical for the complete and healthy cognitive, emotional and physical growth of children.
Through significant empirical research done in the field of Developmental Psychology in the past decade, we now know for sure that exposure to art and culture in the “early years” leads to the development of key pathways in the brain which children carry into their adulthood. Thus, while looking at children’s narratives and literature it is important that we pay heed to the varied forms of cultural experiences which shape a child’s reality. This may include going beyond books to understand how aesthetic narratives impact and shape their world-view. It will also mean including narrative productions for babies within the wider ambit of literary works for children.
A common idea that was reiterated by critics and theorists of children’s literature around the world is that its content is always didactic and instructive. Whatever insight we have into the world of children is through the eyes of adults. One can never truly know the complexities (or lack thereof) of emotional responses which children, especially toddlers, manifest because they lack the vocabulary to articulate it for themselves. Hence, it is always coloured by an adult perspective which looms large over children’s books and narratives. By broadening the scope and horizon of understanding and analyzing different kinds of literature for children, we can at least hope for a better insight into a child’s world.