Reviews 2011

Telling Children’s Stories: Narrative Theory and Children’s Literature

Telling Children’s Stories: Narrative Theory and Children’s Literature. Mike Cadden (ed.). Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2010. 292 pages. $35.00 (paperback).

As scholars of children’s literature continue to investigate the impact of ‘how the story is told’ to an implied –often inscrutable- reader, Michael Cadden, of Missouri State University makes a direct contribution to this conversation with a collection that brings together fourteen international scholars to examine storytelling strategies in children’s literature as part of the Frontiers of Narrative series published by the University of Nebraska Press.

The editor claims/states/asserts -quite correctly- that this book is ideal for the beginner scholar who may not be theoretically entrenched in either the field of narrative theory or children’s literary studies. Indeed, the compilation is very useful and unusually affordable and while it does not really break any new ground in either field,the ‘Further Reading’ bibliography at the end of the collection confirms its use as a reference book to mark the developments in both fields by 2010.

Cadden’s introduction starts with the discussion of the introduction as a narrative peritext and delineates the history of children’s literature theory from the context of literacy to more sophisticated narratological approaches that look at various aspects of the text such as voice, the implied reader, the intertext, ethics of narration and character study.

The collection strikes a balance between providing a strong theoretical backbone and a creative exploration of the possibility inherent in the act of storytelling to shift much-needed paradigms and perceptions of the child reader in a changing world. Therefore the highlights of this collection are most certainly the contributions by Andrea Schwenke Wyile, Maria Nikolajeva, and Dana Keren-Yaar; as the first two are theoretically strong and the last one is a much-needed sweeping historical overview of Hebrew children’s literature to which I shall return later.

Wyile uses Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree to inform the reader of the potential of picture books to act as ‘counterstories to the master narratives of our culture which have placed great emphasis on “normality” and aggressive conventionality’ (123). She skillfully weaves concepts of ‘the oppressive identity’ (121) and the possibility of ‘sensible anarchy’ where writers, publisher and reader collaborate to create books that broaden perceptions through strategies such as ‘narrative repair’ (129). Nikolajeva goes through a number of classic texts to show that the subjectivity they provide resists identification with a protagonist while guiding the reader’s interpretive experience. She considers various narrative perspectives and focalizations and counters various identification arguments as she theorizes that the ‘identification fallacy’ limits the possibility of a ‘mature reading’ (188) and traps the child reader in a solipsistic blindness.

In the first part of the collection that deals with genre, Elisabeth Rose Gruner examines place, voice and closure in three contemporary young adult novels for girls to see whether they fulfill the function set out for them in Karen Rowe’s seminal essay ‘Feminism and Fairy Tales’ to subvert the fairytale trope to empower young women. Gruner finds that the heroines rise above their tribulations without the deus ex machina of fairytales through the specificity of their location, the first person narrative that refuses the non-place, dispassionate omniscient narration of folklore and the rejection of neat closure. Next, Danielle Russell fills the void in scholarship around the disparagingly dismissed ‘series’ genre by defending the Lemony Snicket series for its experimentation within the formulaic genre that allows for the same kind of reader empowerment that Gruner uncovers. The Baudelaire child-protagonists of the series contend with their psychologically deviant nemeses through self-reliance in a gothic landscape where traditional morality is suspended and the terror of the adult horror genre is cushioned by reassuring breaks of the fourth wall and other familiarizing narrative techniques. Chris McGee continues this analysis by showing how the narration of the Snicket and Harry Potter volumes vary in their modes of hindering the reader’s knowledge of the secrets of death that is key to detective fiction.

The second part of the collection deals with the narrative idiosyncrasies of the picture book genre. Angela Yannicopoulou opens with an extended theoretical presentation of focalization and a brief analysis of the ideological implications of each type, while the rest of the chapters in the section look at specific picture books. Magdalena Sikorska uncovers the dark realism of childhood dislocated from parents in John Burningham’s Time to Get Out of the Bath, Shirley through an analysis of visual-graphic dissonance and polyphony. And Alexandra Lewis looks at the metatext as an opportunity to educate the child reader on the constructedness of texts and the role of language and writing in mediating life experiences (101) while Nathalie Op De Beek’s piece compares silent cinema to pictorial literature and offers a new vocabulary with which to discuss the stylistic visual complexities of picture books.

In the third part dedicated to narrators and implied readers, Holly Blackford considers why Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is such an accessible text that empowers its young adult reader and concludes through close literary reading that the melodramatic form and the modern narration are the keys to the work’s appeal.

The last section promises to offer a narratological reading on time but is more of a close reading of works where time is thematically dominant. Susan Stewart considers two metafictive, historical, young adult novels where the motifs of time-travel, split subjects, displacement and identity destabilization and ultimately identity formation are discussed asfunctions of a radical genre that draws attention to itself as both fictional and real. Martha Hixon reads Diana Wynne-Jones’s Hexwood (1992) as a temporally non-linear metatext that does away with narrative conventions and has the potential to inform young readers on the role of revisions in story making. And Angelika Zirker revisits post World War II classic, Tom’s Midnight Garden and the development of an unlikely friendship across time, dreams, memories and reality as the author revisits -through time travel- a romanticized Victorian paradise lost (286).

It is surprising, given the diversity of the nationalities of the contributors, all but Dana Keren-Yar’s article refer to English works using English language source material, and rather mainstream ones at that. Keren-Yaar’s piece succinctly traces the development of narrative modes in Hebrew children’s literature from the end of the eighteenth century when it was written in a ‘father’s tongue’ (212) to support the birth of the Hebrew nationality in Europe, until the beginning of Jewish life in Palestine when the language became a ‘mother tongue’ that children would grow up speaking (210-11). She contributes significantly to the body of knowledge on this ideologically driven national literature by writing in English using Hebrew sources that date back to 1925 as she traces the themes, goals and changes it underwent until its development in the current Israel.

Child literature scholars as well as students interested in narrative theory will no doubt repeatedly consult the in-depth analyses as well as the strong theoretical chapters in this valuable volume.

Yasmine Motawy
The American University in Cairo, Egypt