Reviews 2013

New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature: Utopian Transformations

New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature: Utopian Transformations. Clare Bradford, Kerry Mallan, John Stephens, and Robyn McCallum. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008 hardcover, 2011 paperback. 207 pages. $29.00 USD (paperback).

This fine critical study of dystopian fiction becomes more accessible to readers now that it has been released in paperback. The authors, four highly regarded scholars, turn their considerable talents to a timely question: how does contemporary children’s literature contribute both to the critique of society and to creating a vision for/ envisaging better world? They enlist postmodern and critical theories from various disciplines to produce cogent, engaging analyses of dystopian and utopian literature. They seek to identify what they call a ‘transformative utopianism’ from the global perspectives of colonialism and neocolonialism, environmentalism, and the family. Noting that children’s literature can ‘lead in new directions while the existing critical paradigms lag considerably’ (7), they work to position texts within the ‘domains of democracy, social justice, politics, and struggle’ (7).

Key to the book’s scope—and success—is its definition of terms. The authors interpret the terms ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’ broadly to include critiques of present realities as well as imaginings of future possibilities. The result is critical flexibility and a wide range of fiction and film under review, from films The Incredibles and Toy Story to Julia Bertagna’s novel Exodus and Gloria Whelan’s fictionalized account of Louisa May Alcott’s Fruitlands. Also key to this discussion is a clear sense of history. Noting that children’s literature published from 1988 to 2006 ‘is marked by a pervasive commitment to social practice’ (2), the authors cite the influence of global events on children’s literature, specifically the end of the Cold War, the dismantling of the Soviet Union, South African apartheid, and the wars in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf. These events, they argue, have created shifts away from nuclear disaster to more ecological, global, and apocalyptic concerns.

Far from being a specialized or marginalized field, children’s literature fully enters the mainstream of cultural and literary discourse in this study. Critical touchstones include David Harvey’s Marxist framework, which emphasizes the importance of spatiality in configuring competing visions of social and political orders; Richard Rorty’s pragmatic liberalism, which recognizes the contingency of social formations, language, and identity; and Henry Giroux’s ‘language of critique and possibility’, which links concept and practice. What emerges is a theoretically sophisticated and dynamic rather than static understanding of utopian and dystopian forms and themes.

Readers will find the book’s organization both welcoming and challenging. A clearly written introduction explains terms and theories in mostly jargon-free discourse despite the complexity of ideas under consideration. The second chapter provides an overview of the ‘genres, forms, and narrative strategies by which children’s texts engage with contemporary political and social discourses’ (8). Six subsequent chapters consider the impact of globalization, colonialism, environmentalism, communitarianism, home and family, and the posthuman as they relate to imaginings of new world orders. Some readers may find the textual analyses disorienting if they are not familiar with the fiction and films under review, yet most will appreciate the accumulated understanding that results from the authors’ examination of particular texts from various perspectives, often in more than one chapter. The primary literature is only indexed by author or director; the addition of indexing by title would make it easier to locate critical discussions; an entry for Gloria Whelan’s Fruitlands seems to be missing.

A distinct strength of the book is its attention to child agency. To the question, “Who can change the world?” the authors answer, at least in part, children can. The inclusion of film as well as text allows consideration of the child’s point of view, as film often privileges the perspective of the child. The authors also define agency broadly, exploring various forms of subjectivities and the extent to which human needs and agency are restrained by existing institutions and practices. They assess the individual capacity for self-improvement and social reform, the aspiration toward agency, and the likelihood of its attainability.

They also consider the relation of utopian and dystopian literature to the bildungsroman, a staple of children’s and young adolescent literature. They show how postmodern notions of subjectivity, in which identity is fluid, performative, and transitional, interrelate with traditional narratives of individual development. They show in provocative ways how dystopian and utopian visions bend notions of individual identity to imagine new world orders. They address conformity and repression as well as surveillance, timely topics in the context of social media and the so-called war against terrorism. And they position dystopian and utopian children’s literature in the context of young adult fiction, which is often marked by pessimism.

The authors conclude by noting a high rate of change in children’s literature without presuming positive outcomes of these changes. Despite the power of contemporary children’s literature to reimagine and reconfigure existing structures, they acknowledge ‘the preponderance of dystopian over utopian narratives’ (129). They also note the extent to which representations of dystopias and utopias reinscribe features of social life they ostensibly challenge. For example, Lois Lowry’s trilogy, The Giver, Gathering Blue, and The Messenger is ‘more conservative than transformative’, with its Christian imagery, valorization of the traditional nuclear family, and emphasis on gifted individualism rather than collective action (110). Lowry’s texts, they argue, ‘play out an uneasy dialogue between humanist conceptions of the individual, and utopian ideals which promote communitarian action’ (111). Similarly, Nina Bawden’s Off the Road falls short of utopian ideals by taking an ‘anti-critical perspective of a totalitarian social order’ (115). Jean Ure’s Come Lucky April reimagines gender relations through matriarchy yet reinstates binary oppositions between hetero- and homosexual identities and only partially affirms the exercise of choice that is essential to democratic ideals. Critical dystopias such as the anime, Spirited Away, and Louise Murphy’s The True Story of Hansel and Gretel retain utopian traces with their themes of redemption, but Murphy’s narrative is ambivalent about the nature and source of evil, ‘abrogat[ing] human agency and responsibility for action’ (141). Many environmentally aware texts, the authors conclude, remain anthropocentric ‘rather than engaging with biocentrism or “deep ecology”’ (9).

Whether these literary developments represent a ‘constant state of crisis’, as the authors suggest, will be a topic of continuing discussion (40 page ref). Readers will find much of value in New World Orders, including those engaged in American studies, who are invited to consider whether and how writers of dystopian fictions challenge the idea of the United States as a ‘city upon a hill’ and thus signal the end of American exceptionalism. This theoretically informed book lives up to the aim stated in the preface of the series of which is a part: ‘to identify and publish the best contemporary scholarship and criticism on children’s and young adolescent literature, film, and media texts’ (vi).

Carol J. Singley
Rutgers University-Camden, USA