Reviews 2009

The Story and the Self. Children’s Literature: Some Psychoanalytic Perspectives

The Story and the Self. Children’s Literature: Some Psychoanalytic Perspectives. Edited by Jenny Plastow. Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2008. 264 pages. £10 (paperback).

Emphasizing the relevance of psychoanalytic readings of children’s literature, Peter Hunt observes in Understanding Children’s Literature: “Much of what is written about children’s literature is implicitly or explicitly concerned with the psychology of the readers, the authors, and the characters in the books” (103). Other critics of children’s literature, including Hamida Bosmajian and Kenneth Kidd, have highlighted the close kinship between children’s literature and psychoanalysis. Despite this critical emphasis on their complementary relationship, we cannot deny that there exists a dearth of eclectic research linking children and literature in the maturation process. An effort to fill this gap in criticism, perhaps, prompted specialists from multiple professions – educators, psychotherapists, scholars, parents, and others – to assemble for the University of Hertforshire Children’s Literature Conference 2007. The Story and the Self is a collection of papers presented during this conference. At the outset, Jenny Plastow, the editor, asserts: “anyone dipping into the book will experience a deepening of their understanding and compassion in the analysis of issues which beset us all” (7). Reading this book I feel her claim is genuine, that it does provide “an extraordinary reading experience.”

In “Stories We Tell Ourselves,” the elegant opening essay of this collection, Rosemary Stones draws a link between children’s literature and psychoanalysis, and a parallel “between the relationship of the writer to their book and the relationship of the patient to the therapist” (11). One important manifestation of this kinship between children’s literature and psychoanalysis is their focus on childhood. Children’s books, like psychotherapy, introduce their readers to the crucial experience of empathizing with others. A second analogy lies in the use of metaphoric language, notes Stones. While writers use metaphors to communicate their fictional world to the reader, patients often use metaphors to express their psychic problems. Finally, “[t]he patient projects onto the therapist as the writer projects into his/her characters” (13). Examples from Oliver Jeffer’s picture book Lost and Found and an anecdote from Stones’ clinical practice show that in children’s literature “the book can offer its writer a dynamic exploration of blocks, of being stuck” (18). The opening essay sharpens the reader’s critical acumen, as the book then continues with papers concentrating on different aspects of children’s literature and psychoanalysis.

Although not categorized into sections, there is an imaginary line that divides the chapters of this book into two halves. Taking the photographs from the conference in the middle as a divider of the book into two sections, the first part consists of ten papers presented besides Stones’ keynote speech. The part that follows the photographs of the conference consists of another keynote speech, which traces the psychoanalytic significance of the popular television series Dr.Who, and nine additional papers. All these essays highlight the role children’s books play in our psychological life both as children and as adults. Alison Waller emphasizes that children’s literature makes an indelible mark on our “readerly psyche” as we develop a personal canon of children’s literature.

A wide range of topics is explored in the other papers. Some examine the relationships of children’s books and psychoanalytic theories; others focus on understanding self and identity through the theories of Freud, Lacan and Winnicott. Various papers indulge in the nuances of psychoanalytic studies as they survey themes like war and its psychological impacts, memory and emotion, self and gender identity, magic, mystery and their psychological implications, fear in children’s literature, eco-psychological children’s literature, story and the transformation of the self, and so on. Analyzing the triadic structure in Harry Potter, Rebecca R. Butler argues in “The Scholar, the Hero and Their Faithful Friend” that the young male hero’s quest for self-identity is closely linked with images of his lost father. Pat Pinsent’s article concerns identity loss and facial disfigurement in children’s fiction. In “Making the Man,” Jenny Plastow looks at the interaction between the book and the mind of a child. The essays address children’s literature from varied subgenres, predominantly contemporary fiction and picture books.

While appreciating the efforts of the editor in compiling these conference papers I affirm that it is a rich array of papers that significantly contribute to critical materials on psychoanalytical children’s literature. Unlike the common fascination found in conferences to engage with papers that analyze and reanalyze canonical texts in children’s literature, this collection presents studies mainly on recent and contemporary literature, the ideologies they promote and their effect on the human mind and emotions. It is, however, a challenge to read this book, as it presupposes familiarity with an eclectic range of scholarship and several contemporary children’s books. Instead of presenting papers one after the other, an arrangement into thematic chapters may have helped the readers. More than encouraging additional avenues of research about children’s literature and revising the canon, the papers in this study seem to establish a new canon in children’s literature and its studies. Children’s literature used to be predominantly the concern of education departments in the universities and of librarians. In the recent past departments of English took interest in the subject to consider literary excellence in children’s literature. Now, children’s literature studies have more diverse interdisciplinary applications as scholars from different specializations come together to discuss children’s books. In the present collection we have critical studies of psychotherapists, literary scholars, educators, editors, authors and so on. As an attempt toward a new critical practice through which scholars might approach texts, this captivating book has made a profoundly successful addition to the field.

What links story and self? Is story fundamental to our physical, psychological and spiritual lives? Julius Lester, a renowned American storyteller and writer for children, considers story a quintessential element of our self. According to him literature is nothing but “stories seeking to help us understand who we are, where we have been, and where we might go” (44). The Story and the Self just facilitates self-realization as it helps us investigate the intricacies of the self through current stories from popular children’s literature and culture.

Works Cited

Hunt, Peter, ed. Understanding Children’s Literature. 2nd ed. London & New York: Routledge, 2006.

Lester, Julius. On Writing for Children & Other People. New York: Dial Books, 2004.

Anto Thomas
St.Thomas College, Trichur, India