Archive for January, 2009

Lerer, Seth.  Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

This book, it seems, has just been named as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle 2008 awards for criticism.  According to its website, the National Book Critics Circle consists of “more than 900 active book reviewers who are interested in honoring quality writing.”  If so, they’ve made a surprising choice with this one.  Lerer’s book is, I think, quite dreadful–very bad scholarship indeed.  As someone who’s devoted some decades to taking children’s literature criticism seriously, reading it made me very, very angry.  To me, honouring it in this way can only suggest a depressing lack of knowledge of the nature and history of children’s literature on the part of these supposedly quality-minded critics.  Let me try to say why without too much ire.

Lerer describes the book as “a reader’s history of children’s literature: a study of the figurations of the reading child from antiquity to the present; but a report as well, on my own life of reading and the critical interpretations that my literary scholarship brings to the texts of childhood”  (1-2).  In other words, the reader whose history is being explored is an amalgam of a generalized “reading child” and one very specific reading scholar.  On the face of it, these readers seem unlikely to have all that much in common.  It’s not surprising that the book sometimes fluctuates erratically between them and sometimes uneasily combines them, so that it’s hard to tell where the child’s reading leaves off and Lerer’s ingenious but highly subjective theorizing begins.

Part of the problem is Lerer’s lack of clarity about just who the child reader he;s concerned with is–what he means by “the figurations of the reading child.”  He claims his book is “a history of reception” (2).  But except for Lerer himself and his own son (once or twice), this so-called history of “the reading child” offers almost no reports of how any actual child readers received or responded to the texts he discusses   Instead, Lerer focuses on describing his readings of texts themselves in terms of what they suggest to him about who their readers were or ought to have been.

Lerer claims that “the study of children’s literature is cultural studies” (9) because it draws on “literary, socio-historical, and economic methods of analysis” (9).  I think that’s true–and certainly much children’s literature criticism of the last few decades has made us all increasingly aware of just how very true it is.  But Lerer’s book offers nothing obviously economic in its methodology and little that a cultural studies scholar would recognize as socio-historical: no ideological analysis of class or race, no ethnographic information. Perhaps most significantly, Lerer never engages in the critique that features centrally in cultural studies–the effort to be aware of what texts might be, for good or more often for ill, inviting readers to take for granted.  Lerer describes how various texts confirm what I take to be gender stereotypes without any apparent awareness of them being stereotypes–as if they were true, as if all girls or all boys shared gender-specfic characteristics.  He also speaks of early Greek readers as generalized “children” without seeming to notice they are all male–indeed, never comments on the fact that the intended child readers of all the texts he discusses across thousands of years of history were exclusively male; and when books for girls do start to exist, he isolates them in the ghetto of a separate chapter, safely away from the history of books for “children.”  Furthermore, he describes ancient Greek children as in the care of slaves in a way that blots out the possibility that some children back then might actually have been slaves, or had slaves for parents.

This is not to say that Lerer avoids comment on how texts relate to their time and culture.  “Modern children’s literature remains an Edwardian phenomenon” (253), he asserts in a typical comment, and he claims that twentieth century American children’s literature is “nothing less than a literature of winners” (274).  But he offers very little in the way of historical or ethnographic evidence to support these astonishing conclusions.  He just puts them out there as and then acts from that point on as if they were true.

The book is filled with similarly vast, similarly unsupported generalizations.  “Slavery is central to the history of children’s literature,” (19) Lerer claims without evidence–and then doesn’t refer to the idea again.  Or again, “All children’s literature recalls an unrecoverable past, a lost age before adulthood.” (83-4).  All?   Every single bit of it?  And if it always does that, does it do it for child readers, too, and if so, what age earlier than childhood are they recalling?  Or again, “The job of children’s literature is to make sense of things” (107).  So much for nonsense verse.

Childhood, meanwhile, is as generalizable as its literature iis for Lerer.  It “is a time of exploration, an arena of adventure.  Every shipping box becomes a canoe or a spaceship” (150).  So third-world youngsters who actually live in shipping boxes and have never encountered a canoe in life or in books don’t count as real children?  Or again, “Nothing delights a child so much as tools.  But nothing delights a boy so much as new words for those tools” (154).  So much for boys like I once was who can take tools or, preferably, leave them, along with their high-falutin’ names.  Meanwhile, Montgomery’s character Anne of Green Gables is “a lesson in the ways a pictorial and dramatic imagination shapes the lives of female children” (236)–all female children always, apparently.  Lerer is surprisingly assured that children are unaffected by history and culture, alike in all times and places, and that boys and girls are inherently quite different from each other in ways that never change across time.

These surely incorrect assumptions seem to underlie Lerer’s decisions about what texts to discuss.  To begin with, he has a very generous sense of what counts as children’s literature.  In early chapters about Greece, Rome, and the middle ages, periods in which, as far as we now know, no literature specifically identified as being intended for children actually existed, he assumes that texts with qualities like those found after children’s literature did come into existence must be children’s literature also–an assumption necessarily based on the ongoing similarity of children and adult ideas about childhood across history.  For instance, he claims just about any didactic text as a text for children, presumably because people in need of learning things must have been young, an assumption the history I’m aware of (and indeed, the people I now know) don’t support.  He also asserts that the medieval play Mankind must have been intended for a young audience because its imagery “fills the play with what could only be an adolescent’s imagination” (67)–as if older people didn’t sometimes like testicle jokes also.

On the other hand, Lerer’s focus narrows sharply as he describes the eras when writing specifically intended for children does come onto existence.   While he claims that one of his goals “is to realign what has become a largely Anglophone focus for children’s literary study” (9), he discusses few texts in languages other than English and never discusses texts written anywhere outside of Europe or America, nor even many European texts beyond British ones. Furthermore, his children’s literature includes none of the didactic texts by writers like Edgeworth and Barbauld that figured prominently in the early nineteenth century; none of huge outpouring of religion-oriented texts in the Victorian period and after; no Nancy Drew or Hardy boys, no Babysitters Club or Goosebumps, indeed, none of the many series books that have characterized popular writing for children in our own century; no science fiction or teen romance; no comic books or Golden Books or Disney books and only a few very picture books; no books for babies or informational books for children of any age; none of the late twentieth century outpouring of books by and about African or Hispanic Americans, no books “for young adults” in general.  There is also no mention of a long list of important children’s writers, from Edgeworth through Charlotte Yonge, Mrs. Molesworth and George MacDonald to Beverley Cleary, Wanda Gag, Philippa Pearce, E.L. Konigsburg, William Mayne, Robert Cormier, Alan Garner, Virginia Hamilton, and R.L. Stine.

What Lerer actually does focus his attention on are well-known texts that might be found in the homes of literary-minded parents without much scholarly expertise in children’s literature.  While these books are certainly varied, they tend to be more like each other than like the kinds of undiscussed books I’ve listed above–and perhaps they are so because they accord in various ways with the tastes of contemporary literary-minded parents, something that might not be true of a text by Maria Edgeworth or R.L. Stine.  The focus on them seems to allow Lerer his many generalizations in a way that a wider and more accurate history wouldn’t.

That Lerer’s history of children’s literature is mostly a history of the books he and many other non-specialists already know and like would be acceptable if Lerer weren’t so intent on making such vast generalizations based on such a narrow range of texts, or so focussed on making the generalizations evidence of his own ingenuity.  At one point, he frets that it’s hard to come up with “something new” (192) to say about Carroll’s Alice books–as if engendering clever new ideas, true or not, were the point of doing literary research.  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that while he points readers to a range of scholarly studies of children’s literature in his endnotes, he often describes them inaccurately there, and rarely if ever actually refers to them in his discussions of the relevant topics.  If he actually did read all these books, he certainly didn’t let them affect his thinking very much.  He’s alweays seems to be far more interested in his own clever insights than he is in the context of existing scholarship and research.

Towards the end of the book, Lerer refers to Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit in order to announce the typically overconfident generalization that “the boys of much contemporary literature are artists of the game” (315).  Lerer goes on to enthuse about the “a vertiginous quality of bullshit, a thrill that the bullshitter gets of making up the details, forming a persona, raising expectations,” and he includes himself among the boys who indulge in it: “we can feel almost an ecstasy in our own imagination” (316).  In the light of this book’s wild theorizing woven out of a surprisingly limited number of texts and verifiable facts, I have to conclude that Lerer found putting it together to be a thrilling experience.  Readers in search of usefully accurate knowledge of children’s literature aren’t likely to share his ecstasy.

The most depressing thing for me is that the singling out of a book like this for special recognition by a reputable national American organization seems somehow unsurprising.  Contemporary readers–the ones who accept the truth of made-up memoirs because they tell them things the like to hear–might well prefer easy generalizations to a more carefully researched conclusion based in a more exact and less incomplete knowledge of the material.

I seem to be turning into a typical grumpy old codger scandalized by what the world’s coming to nowdays, with all these dumb young punks in charge.  I’d better stop right now.

Carvell, Marlene.  Sweetgrass Basket.  New York: Dutton, 2005

In this novel of what claims to be free verse, two young Mohawk sisters leave the reserve to attend a boarding school, and tell of their experiences there in alternating “poems.”  As is typical of texts of this sort, the sections are in the first-person present tense, as the two alternating characters report (to themselves apparently, for these are not thoughts shared with other people) events and their responses to them as they happen.   The effect is of alternating solitudes or isolations–only readers can know what goes on in both girl’s minds, and they are deprived of knowledge of each other.  But here that hardly matters–there is very little to distinguish the two girls, whose thoughts are “poetic” in exactly the same way as each other.  Indeed, I can’t see any reason why there are actually two characters here–or at least I didn’t for a long time, until one of them died, and so it became clear that they’d have two separate fates and one would have to deal with the death of her sister.  But before then, it just seemed like an unnecessary duplication–a way of loading even more misery into the book as we read how two characters suffer rather than just one.

In that way, Sweetgrass Basket follows the pattern I’ve noticed in books written by Aboriginals or people who claim contact with aboriginality.  Unlike books by people of European descent, which tend to involve a central white character and a central native one, these books tend to have two aboriginal characters as alternating focalizers, as here, and have less to do with conflicts between different people (standard in the books by white people) than they do with two people playing different parts in the same experience, but not often or intensely in conflict with each other.  so these two sisters have their occasional differences, but really are more alike than not, and combine to convey more of the experience they share than fight with each other.  They are then both on the same side, with their white enemies–cruel teachers who mistreat them–not provided with focalizaitons so that we can get their version of events.   The result is certainly one-sided, in that there is no positive or justifying view of why the white people think the school is a good idea or how they see it as beneficial–they’re just mean old cranks and sadists, and that’s that.

A stronger book might have allowed them to have at least their own view of how they were doing the right thing for good ends–even if it turned out they were wrong about it.  Here I just find myself being crankily dismissive because the authorities are all just plain evil through and through, and even seem to be aware of their own evil and revel in it.   I’d be more likely to be persuaded if the bad guys thought they were the good guys. In other words, this book just reverse the old Hollywood good cowby/bad Indian stereotypes, and so seems equally shallow and melodramatic.

Carvell, by the way, claims only to have been inspired by her husband’s Great Aunt’s experience at a residential school–a pretty distant way of claiming some aboriginal authenticity, although she does make a fairly typical sort of property claim when in her acknowledgments she thanks her husband “for letting his family be mine.”   She does, though, avoid the usual white claiming of aboriginality by not having any terribly predominant white characters to make such claims within the text–but it does seem a book mainly designed to make white readers feel bad about what our ancestors did  (I do sense a primarily non-aboriginal readership as the main intended audience–I’m not exactly sure why.  Maybe because it’s just about how awful white people in power are, with very little sense of what an aboriginal reader might do about it or learn from it.).   The few helpful older people seem to be immigrants or minorities or of African American descent.   In other words, every aspect of the book insists on white mainstream guilt, unrelievedly.  and so it mostly avoids the possible implications of difference in alternating narrators, and the possible subtleties in presenting differing points of view.  It is simply and determinedly one-sided and monological.

Lanagan, Margot.  Tender Morsels.  New York: Knopf, 2008.

I decided to read Tender Morsels as a break from my consideration of alternating narratives; all I knew about it was that a lot of people were talking about it, and it sounded interesting.  And I started to read it and, surprise, it contains alternating narratives!   I take that as evidence of how very common the use of these sorts of structures has become in children’s and young adult literature–no longer an innovation, albeit still a sign of some degree of literary pretension and sophistication.

Most of Tender Morsels is a third-person narrative about a woman and her two daughters who live in a world of forests and villages that sounds much like the typical setting of European fairy tales (see my paper “Once: The Land and Its People“)–appropriately so, for the plot centrally involves the women’s dealing with men who transform into bears, as happens in at least one of the Grimm tales.   Also appropriately, the plot centrally involves a wish-fulfilment:  Liga, who has been sexually used by her father and become pregnant by him three times, finally producing a daughter as a result, and then gang-raped by a group of village boys and producing a second daughter as a result of that, is given a better world to live in–the world as she would imagine it if it were to her taste, as she wished it.  It’s unclear why this happens–or who or what gives her the gift–it’s simply what ought to happen to her, and so it does.  So she lives near the same village, but in a version of it free of anyone who frightens her or might harm her–there are simply empty spaces where their houses used to be.  and everyone is pleasant to her, and she learns skills form people who would simply have ignored or looked down on her before.  Liga lives in that place, actually cut off from the real world that has forgotten her and knows nothing of her daughters, until the daughters have grown up.

Nevertheless, others accidentally (and dangerously, we are told), break into Liga’s world.  all of them are men, and when they defile her place separate from the dangerous sexuality of men, they each tell what happens to them in the first person.  One is a greedy man who persuades a witch to get him there so that he can bring back valuables and get rich.  the others are young men taking part in the village’s annual ritual, in which young men dress up as bears and chase and try to kiss all the women in town–a spring festival to make the crops grow, and a playacted freeing of male sexuality, which presumably works to purge it and keep it safe within.  In Liga’s world, when these men accidentally enter it, they appear as bears, one a safely restrained bear, the other a more potentially lustful and dangerous one.  They spend long times in Liga’s world, interacting as bears iwth her and her daughters, but then return home on the same day they left.  Their intrusion also leads to Liga’s daughter and Liga herself getting out of her dream world–a place which isolates and imprisons them even though it is only pleasant, for it’s not their dream.  So the novel gives its characters the wished-for safe place then reveals the necessity of giving it up–the need to be more than just safe, the need to accept the danger of contact with others (especially, it seems, men) in return for the pleasure and humanity of it.   But even then, the contacts made through the dream place play out in positive relationships for Liga and her daughters.  It has allowed the right people to find each other and to interact in the right way, beyond danger.  It’s still a wish-fulfilment fantasy outside of the wish-fulfilment place (which is proably what makes it a novel for young people?).

The alternating narrative here have mainly the effect of being what they are in terms of plot–intrusive: they insist not just on another view of the story, but as first-person interruptions of a third-person story, as alien presences in the dream world that represent various oppositions to its central values of peace and safety and comfort.  they are both dangerously unsettling and necessary if these women are to return to a realer and less safe but more alive world.  thematically, they represent the versions of maleness that create both difficulty and desire for women–greed, lust, nurturing and comfort.  So the book comes to be about how maleness intrudes into the lives of women–a theme mirrored by the use of alternating narratives.

This is a complex novel, although an entertaining one and in the light of the complexity, surursingly easy to read and be gripped by.  I very much enjoyed reading it and bering absorbed by it, even though  I have a feeling I’ve barely begun to understand it.  It would certainly repay a rereading, and not just because of the interest in its alternating narrative construction.

After the various positive comments for The Proof That Ghosts Exist, the novel by Carol Matas and me, that I recorded earlier (see Responses to the Proof That Ghosts Exist) comes this late bloomer, from School Library Journal:

MATAS, Carol & Perry Nodelman. The Proof That Ghosts Exist. Bk. 1. 216p. (The Ghosthunters Series). Key Porter, dist. by PGW. 2008. pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-1-55470-014-1. LC C2007-906679-8.

Gr 4–7—Molly and Adam have been given the task of watching their father closely during their lakeside vacation. Several of the men in his family have died the day before their 35th birthday, and the Barnetts are determined to protect Tim’s life. Meanwhile, the siblings connect with the ghost of Tim’s father, who helps them piece together the mysterious deaths. The book ends on a cliff-hanger. A cut above generic series fiction, Ghosthunters nonetheless is a serviceable, not stellar mystery. It contains the requisite spiders, screams, and knives, but the story itself is workmanlike. Molly and Adam are obvious foils for one another, and the dialogue tries too hard to point out character development. The authors explain clues rather than allowing the plot to reveal information, and the story is linear rather than three-dimensional. Ghost stories by Marion Dane Bauer, Mary Downing Hahn, or Betty Ren Wright will serve as well or better.—Caitlin Augusta, The Darien Library, CT

Oh dear.  So much for “endearing and intrepid protagonists, and a mystery complex enough to sustain interest across volumes”  (Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books). So much for “Simply put, The Proof that Ghosts Exist is a fun book to read from start to finish” (CM Magazine).   We are, in fact, merely linear and serviceable–and, it seems, above all, nothing to laugh at.

Those who don’t mind a little comedy mixed in with their ghosts or characters with a little self-awareness or a plot that doesn’t require special glasses to make sense of it might he pleased to hear that Book Two of The Ghosthunters, The Curse of the Evening Eye, will be forthcoming soon in Canada and will be available a few months later in the U.S.