Reviews 2009

Divided Worlds: Studies in Children’s Literature

Divided Worlds: Studies in Children’s Literature. Edited by Mary Shine Thompson and Valerie Coghlan. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007. 223 pages. €49.50 (hardback).

Divided Worlds is a collection of seventeen essays which “construct, reflect on and reflect a wide range of divisions” (10). A glance at the index shows not only the range of subjects covered, but also the depth and detail with which these are treated. This collection allows the minutiae of Irish history to sit comfortably alongside such diverse topics as autism, the Roman Empire, gender issues and details from the history of Japanese Canadians. Despite the huge variety of subjects, certain themes run through the collection; ironically, the notion of division (and the various connotations of that word) serves to unite the essays into a sound whole.

Divided Worlds has a predominantly “historico-political thrust” (11) and a strong affiliation with new historicism. Great emphasis is placed on the social and political context of the subjects in question and many of the authors detail the historical events which surrounded (and in many instances inspired) the texts which are examined here. The collection acts as a survey of both history and children’s literature, while also charting a clear, almost symbiotic, relationship between the two.

Following on from the socio-political concerns of the editors, most of the essays in the collection deal with some kind of political division. Some of the contributors, notably Michael Flanagan and Dáire Keogh, discuss the ways in which Irish children’s literature was appropriated to fit political or social agendas, but also note the fact that children’s literature can be, and has been, used to resist these same agendas. Lindsay Myers’ essay “‘The ants go marching in’ - ant-fascism from Ciondolino to Antz” and Francesca Califon’s “Political, social and cultural divisions in the work of Gianni Rodari” make an exceptional pairing, offering two very different analyses of the portrayal, promotion and resistance to socio-political pressures, especially fascism, in children’s literature.

Other essays are more concerned with class divisions and class struggles. Ciara Ní Bhroin, Eimear Hegarty and Patricia Kennon all write about divisions between people – the tense relationships between the empowered and the disempowered, between the adult and the child and, more specifically, between the colonizer and the colonized. Ultimately, the concern here is with class-struggle as a by-product of larger racial conflict – conflict which must be tied back to the landscape. While the problematisation of division and the subsequent disintegration of meaningful categories seems central to the arguments behind this collection, the problematisation of our relationship to spaces is of even greater importance.

For these three contributors, and for many of the others included here, territory is a major concern. Robert Dunbar notes that “all fiction, children’s fiction included, is indicative to one extent or another of its geographical origins” (62) – a maxim which is manifested throughout Divided Worlds. Jane O’Hanlon’s essay deals with the idea of virtual realities and virtual geographies and brings to light the effects of atopia on modern children’s fantasy. O’Hanlon notes the way in which authors, characters and even readers can manipulate the divisions between truth and fiction, here and there, self and other. This essay describes how imagined spaces overlap and blend with real spaces just as many of the other papers describe the blending of the fictive worlds of children’s texts with the historical world of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Although Divided Worlds is largely historical, both in its critical aims and its subject matter, the collection is also a product of the twenty-first-century and in its critical awareness and in its frame of reference, the collection is extremely up-to-date. For example, Pádraic White’s excellent essay on the representation of personal and national trauma in “Melody for Nora” parallels the findings in Naomi Klein’s most recent work The Shock Doctrine (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 2007). White’s essay explores a historical and political past while maintaining an astute awareness of and a relationship with the present day. In a similar fashion, Celia Keenan’s analysis of Irish publishing surveys the past but also brings the reader up-to-speed with current publishing practice in Ireland. This essay closes the collection on a note of current relevance - something which is difficult to achieve in any work that is so obviously immersed in history.

The only flaw in the whole text lies with the balance of the collection. As an Irish publication, one should expect a particular emphasis on Ireland and Irish concerns, but in Divided Worlds, this emphasis threatens to swamp all other points of interest. Of the seventeen essays in the collection, twelve are directly concerned with Irish children’s literature, Irish history or Irish publishing. These essays catalogue the inception and development of Irish children’s literature and follow a clear, chronological trajectory from the union, through internal and international struggles, to independence, partition, and the recent move towards reconciliation. As a result, the other five essays, the ones not directly concerned with Ireland or Irish interests seem a little out of place. Although they act as an interesting and, perhaps, necessary counterpoint to the Irish-themed essays, their seemingly haphazard placement disrupts the otherwise perfect chronological order of the collection. This is unfortunate because they are engaging and exceptionally well-written.

Divided Worlds is aimed squarely at an academic audience – an aim reflected in the language, detail and scope of each of these essays – but it will, no doubt, appeal to a much wider audience. The text is practically and purposefully laid out, free from unnecessary ornamentation or fussiness. The contributors do not presuppose any historical awareness or expertise on the readers’ part, yet neither do they assume that the reader knows nothing. The result is a set of enjoyable, informative, authoritative and elucidating essays.

Jane Suzanne Carroll
Trinity College, Ireland