Applying Theories to Children’s Literature
Children’s literature offers a wonderful mixture of magic and reality. Roald
Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” gives an interesting interpretation of the
horrors of reality and magic associated with childhood. The story also can be
used to analyze child development.
Models based on the philosophic and scientific studies by Jean Piaget, Erik
Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg shed light on child development. There are
several ways to breakdown child development. Children’s literature reflects these
Each model can assist parents, family, and educators in choosing children’s
literature that will appeal to a child at each developmental stage. Writers of
children's literature can also benefit from understanding child development
models to create stories that appeal to a specific target audience.
Beyond the models of child development children’s literature can be analyzed
through different critical approaches, such as historical criticism. The story of
“James and the Giant Peach” serves as an example of how child development
theories are revealed in children’s literature.
“James and the Giant Peach”
Roald Dahl created the story “James and the Giant Peach” as a fantasy
tale about an unfortunate boy who goes on and amazing journey. The story opens
with James living and idyllic life on the beach with his loving mother and father.
Conflict erupts when James’ parents are eaten by an angry rhinoceros and
James is sent off to live with his cruel aunts. Seven-year-old James is mistreated
and living a life of loneliness and misery when magic enters his life. A
strange man gives James a paper bag holding magical green crystals that
will transform his life once he eats them. Unfortunately, James runs away so
excitedly that he spills the magic crystals. They disappear into the ground under
an old peach tree. From the enchanted tree a giant peach grows.
On a particularly sad evening James sneaks off to inspect the peach and
follows a strange tunnel right into the peach’s pit. Inside the pit he finds a room
holding enchanted insects. James and his new friends roll away from the horrible
aunts’ house in England and take a marvelous adventure across the ocean to
America, where he lives happily ever after.
Dahl’s magical tale provides insight into several of the theoretical models
of child development.
Philosophical and scientific studies have researched child development.
Leaders in this field present accepted models of the stages of child development.
Each of the models presented represent different aspects of child development,
such as intellectual and cognitive development, social development, and moral
Piaget’s Cognitive Theory of Development
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget developed the model of the cognitive theory
of development. It is divided into stages. The first stage is the sensorimotor period
which is from infancy to about 2 years old (Russell, 2009). Children in this stage
are egocentric and understand only what they are currently experiencing
through their senses. The idea of object permanence does not apply at this point.
Children’s literature at this stage offers a pleasant experience with books and
story time (Russell, 2009). Tactile books and books with rhythmic sounds can
be entertaining to children in this stage.
The next stage is the preoperational stage with is between two and seven
years old. This is a stage where children start to develop logic, although they are
incapable of understanding generalizations about the physical world such as
reversibility, assimilation, or accommodation (Russell, 2009). Children at this
stage do not understand abstract concepts well, but they do understand
rudimentary concepts, such as colors, shapes, and sizes (Russell, 2009). Stories
enjoyed at this age include books talking animals and animated machines.
The third stage is the period of concrete operations between the ages of
seven and eleven. At this stage children can understand rudimentary logic, begin
problem solving, understand time and spatial relationships, and become aware
of the people around them and their role in society (Russell, 2009). Children at
this stage can appreciate more complex stories about family and friend
relationships as well as some historical stories.
The final stage is the period of formal operations. This stage occurs during
the ages of 11 to 15. By this age children understand formal logic, exchange of
ideas, the viewpoints of others, and roles in society (Russell, 2009). Children at
this age can read books about complex problems, including works about difficult
problems in society and relationships.
Erikson’s Psychosocial Development
Erik Erikson divided childhood into five stages of psychosocial
development. The first stage, trust versus mistrust, is from birth to eighteen
months. At this stage children must develop trust of their caregivers. Books
recommended for this stage should provide security and reassurance (Russell,
2009). The second stage is autonomy versus doubt, and this stage occurs from
eighteen months to around three years. At this stage children start to explore
their independence and overcome doubts of what they are capable of doing
(Russell, 2009). Imaginative books that have capable characters are
recommended for this age group.
The third stage in Erikson’s model is initiative versus guilt. This stage
occurs between the ages of three and six. This is when a child determines their
own responsibilities and an understanding of conflict (Russell, 2009). Books for
this stage include stories that help children to understand their emotions and
roles. The next stage is industry versus inferiority at the ages of seven to eleven.
Children at this age understand the concepts of success and inferiority. Stories
that help to develop a better understanding and acceptance of themselves and
others are good for this age group. The final stage is identity versus role
confusion when a child reaches adolescence. Children at this age struggle with
their own identity, both culturally and socially (Russell, 2009). Books that help
children to learn about themselves and others are good for this stage. Adolescent
children want books that are open and honest while offering stories about
characters like themselves (Russell, 2009).
Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Judgment
Lawrence Kohlberg offers three levels in the development of moral
reasoning, and each of these three stages has two stages (Russell, 2009). The
first level, which occurs up until around seven years old, is the preconventional
level. At the youngest ages children react to the immediate consequences of their
actions. The first stage is the punishment/obedience orientation stage when a
child learns to avoid punishment (Russell, 2009). The second stage is the
instrumental/relativist orientation stage when a child learns that good behavior
is rewarded (Russell, 2009). Children’s literature that reinforces these ideas is
good for this level.
Second is the conventional level, which occurs between the ages of seven
and eleven. At this point children learn the value of family, friend, and
community. The first stage is the interpersonal concordance orientation. This is
when children conform for the approval of others and to avoid disapproval
(Russell, 2009). The second stage is the “Law and Order” orientation when a child
conforms to avoid disrupting the social order (Russell, 2009). Children’s
literature that addresses peer pressure and issues of fairness are appropriate for
The final level is the postconventional level. The first stage is the
contractual/legalistic orientation when a child recognizes the value of social
contracts and rules to promote the common good (Russell, 2009). The second
stage is the universal/ethical/principle orientation when a child understands
the concepts of choosing ethical principles and possibly defying laws if the laws
are considered to do more harm than good (Russell, 2009). Stories about social
values and difficult social realities, such as gang violence and corruption, can be
understood by children who have reached this level.
Models and “James and the Giant Peach”
The models of child development can be applied to Dahl’s “James and the
Giant Peach.” In the story the main character, James, is seven years old.
Children often prefer to read stories about a child who is their age or slightly
older. A seven year old child would classify in the preoperational stage of Piaget’s
model of cognitive development. The understanding of rudimentary concepts
with a blurring of abstract concepts allows children of this age to accept the idea
of talking animals. Roald Dahl creates some very imaginative characters in
“James and the Giant Peach.” James becomes friends with insects that have
eaten the magic crystals and become human-sized. A spider, grass hopper,
earthworm, centipede, silkworm, ladybug, and glow-worm are all talking insects
serving as support characters in this amazing journey with James.
Using Erikson’s model this story would appeal to children in fourth stage,
industry versus inferiority. James exhibits the characteristics of a boy in this
stage as he is determined to succeed in transporting him and his friends to safety
on the giant peach. With each new problem James uses logic to figure a way out,
and his insect friends cheer him on as their hero. This story would appeal to a
child in this stage as providing an inspiring tale of success.
Applying Kohlberg’s theory of the development of moral judgment this
story would fall into the readership of children in the conventional level. At this
point a child understands the value of family and community. James was
mistreated by his own family, his aunts, and wants to return to the happiness
he remembers with his parents. He joins the group of insects on this journey,
and they become his community. For acceptance by this community he works to
gain their acceptance. First he helps centipede off and on with his boots
repeatedly despite not wanting to because he does not want to upset him. He
also finds ways out of difficult situations to save his group of friends. This builds
his status in the group; and finally, when they are rescued from the Empire State
Building James stands up for his insect friends.
One approach to literary criticism is historical criticism. Historical criticism must
take into consideration the author’s background, political events, and social
factors shaping the story, as well as philosophy and special circumstances from
when the story was written (Russell, 2009). Roald Dahl lived in the English
countryside which is most likely why he created the setting of “James in the
Giant Peach” in a small English town (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2012). He
created the stories as entertainment and bedtime stories for his own children.
Although Dahl had been active in the military, he suffered an injury and later
retired. It was then that he began his writing career. His travels and adventures
combined with his imagination allowed Dahl to create magical adventures for
children. “James and the Giant Peach” was written in 1961. The climax of the
story offers James and his friends as newcomers to the United States. At first
the people fear that the peach is a bomb which reflects the political atmosphere
of the Cold War (The People History, 2012). When the people realize that it is not
a bomb they consider that the peach and the newcomers may be from space.
This space reference is consistent with the time since the United States was
active in the space race in 1961 launching Alan Shepard as the first man into
space aboard the Freedom 7 (The People History, 2012). An understanding of the
historical background assists in understanding Dahl’s motivation when writing
“James and the Giant Peach.”
Painting of Child Reading by Lilla Cabot Perry
The study of child development provides insight into the process of growing up.
Children’s literature can reflect that process. Well written stories offer characters
that fit into the categories for a child at a specific age. These characters are
realistic and child readers can relate to them. Authors can also use these models
to decipher what children are experiencing at a particular age and what concepts
and situations would appeal to them in a story. Those who write for children and
those who provide books for children to read will benefit from understanding the
process of child development and use that understanding to create and provide
wonderful stories for children to read.
(92) Kohlberg’s 6 Stages of Moral Development - YouTube
(92) 8 Stages of Development by Erik Erikson - YouTube
(92) Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development - YouTube