Marian Thèrése Keyes and Áine McGillicuddy, eds. Politics and Ideology in Children’s Literature. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014. 191 p. ISBN 9781846825262. €49.50 (hardback).
Children’s literature became an established area of scholarly and critical attention in the 1980s, a time when academic enquiry and analysis were particularly focused on the way texts of all kinds are bound up in ideology. The role of writing and illustration for children and young people in transmitting, challenging, or subverting the dominant ideology and normative assumptions was regularly scrutinised. The insights from those years continue to inform critical work in the field, but there have been few studies specifically dedicated to the political and ideological work of writing for children over the last ten years or more. The introduction to this volume does some welcome reprising of earlier scholarship before its contributors embark on fresh analyses.
The contributions all began as papers at a conference on the subject organised by the Irish Society for the Study of Children’s Literature (ISSCL). It is the sixth set of ISSCL conference proceedings to be published by Four Courts, who have done an attractive job of presenting the book. The editors had a challenging job since the thirteen essays cover a wide range of work from several periods, about different genres, using a variety of approaches. The texts discussed range from Edward Lear’s limericks to nineteenth-century juvenile periodicals, First World War stories, the young adult novels of Eilís Dillon, and a French cinematic retelling of the Bluebeard story to The Hunger Games. To impose an internal order, the essays are divided into four groups: “Ideology and Subversion,” “Utopias and Dystopias,” “Experiences of War and Exile,” and “Gender Politics.”
The contributors represent a number of nationalities, language groups and disciplines, giving a sense of how the subject has evolved since the 1980s. Perhaps because several of the original conference papers were fragments of or spin-offs from doctoral research and so were more fully developed elsewhere, the quality of the contributions to this volume is uneven. A few have not entirely succeeded in turning a talk into a published essay. There are, however, several strong and original essays. Brief summaries of these, in the order in which they appear, give a sense of their arguments and coverage.
Victoria de Rijke’s biopolitical analysis of children’s fables provides both a historical overview of the genre and some careful close reading based on Michel Foucault’s discussion of biopolitics, meaning the way in which the living body is subject to vectors of knowledge-power. Ciara Ni Bhroin’s discussion of homecoming is particularly redolent at a time when the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has stimulated Irish migration, though her topic is the way in which fantasy novels by earlier generations of migrants have tended to create imaginary, mythic homelands and communities. Using as a case study the work of Irish-born Canadian O.R. Melling, Ni Bhroin shows that the dynamics in such fantasies are often more complex than they initially appear. Jessica D’Eath provides a detailed and insightful discussion of the way in which members of the Fascist regime used children’s literature to inculcate their values and rehabilitate the grotesque behaviour of the squads who took it upon themselves to punish those they believed had offended the regime. Marian Keyes makes a contribution to publishing history with her discussion of the paratexts and self-portraits associated with the nineteenth-century writer and editor Anna Maria Fielding Hall. The volume closes with perhaps the most overtly political contribution: Marion Rana’s discussion of the way in which a spectrum of young adult novels treat sexual violence against females as a rite of passage which reinforces traditional sex-role stereotyping and gender roles.
Taken together, these essays give a sense of how children’s literature criticism has begun to re-engage with the ways in which writing for children is bound up with ideology, and some ideas about the widening nature of the discipline. Beyond children’s literature specialists, book historians and those with interests in the environment and gender will also find some relevant material in the contributions.