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At Arm’s Length - A Rhetoric of Character in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

At Arm’s Length

A Rhetoric of Character in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

By Mike Cadden
Series: Children's Literature Association Series

Hardcover : 9781496834584, 158 pages, 4 diagrams, June 2021
Paperback : 9781496834591, 158 pages, 4 diagrams, June 2021

A theory of how authors position readers in relation to literary character through empathy, awe, and indifference


Literary critics and authors have long argued about the importance or unimportance of an author’s relationship to readers. What can be said about the rhetorical relationship that exists between author and reader? How do authors manipulate character, specifically, to modulate the emotional appeal of character so a reader will feel empathy, awe, even delight?

In At Arm’s Length: A Rhetoric of Character in Children's and Young Adult Literature, Mike Cadden takes a rhetorical approach that complements structural, affective, and cognitive readings. The study offers a detailed examination of the ways authorial choice results in emotional invitation. Cadden sounds the modulation of characters along a continuum from those larger than life and awe inspiring to the life sized and empathetic, down to the pitiable and ridiculous, and all those spaces between. Cadden examines how authors alternate between holding the young reader at arm’s length from and drawing them into emotional intensity. This balance and modulation are key to a rhetorical understanding of character in literature, film, and television for the young.

Written in accessible language and of interest and use to undergraduates and seasoned critics, At Arm’s Length provides a broad analysis of stories for the young child and young adult, in book, film, and television. Throughout, Cadden touches on important topics in children’s literature studies, including the role of safety in children’s media, as well as character in multicultural and diverse literature. In addition to treating “traditional” works, he analyzes special cases—forms, including picture books, verse novels, and graphic novels, and modes like comedy, romance, and tragedy.


"In At Arm’s Length, Cadden has provided a strong, original work that will help scholars articulate with precision how authors manipulate distance in children’s texts. Cadden offers a useful tool for a close reading of characters as devices, a perspective sorely lacking in contemporary criticism in the field. "

- Karen Coats, coeditor of Mothers in Children’s and Young Adult Literature: From the Eighteenth Century to Postfeminism

"The book is insightful and easy to read. Revisiting stories of childhood through Cadden's lens is exciting."

- P.D. Hopkins, CHOICE

"At Arm’s Length presents its central device of the dial of character modulation so persuasively and enjoyably that readers will find their fingers twitching to spin it themselves into a host of fruitful discussions of how we understand character in children’s and young adult literature."

- Claudia Mills, Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Volume 46, Number 4, Winter 2021

"Cadden's work provides a valuable structure for exploring issues central to the study of children’s and young adult literature: authorial power and ethical implications of representation. . . . Most rewardingly, Cadden succeeds in defining how character operates in children’s and young adult fiction in a way that sets it apart from other forms of literature."

- Jennifer Mooney, International Journal of Young Adult Literature