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).

This volume of conference proceedings addresses psychoanalytical perspectives on children’s culture, and contains papers by contributors from a wide range of disciplines and interests, both well-known names in children’s literature criticism, and less recognisable names from the fields of education, publishing, and psychology. Discussing both literature and other forms of popular culture such as film, television, and theatre, the volume covers an impressive array of different genres, subjects, ages, and theoretical approaches.

Perhaps because it is a conference proceedings, the organisation of the book seems very basic; as Jenny Plastow states in the introduction to the volume, she has not grouped the papers because of their “prismatic cross-referencing”: “As a reader you can easily sample” (8). This is a shame, as it makes the text difficult to use for any more comprehensive purpose than merely random sampling. It is also clear that the papers were originally intended for an oral presentation rather than published criticism. They are short and, for the most part, kept simple, and they have the rough-and-ready feel of texts that have not been extensively rewritten for publication. Several intriguing and thought-provoking papers would have benefited from more careful editing.

A number of individual papers are worth commenting briefly on, to give a feel for what I mean by this. The volume begins with the keynote paper by Rosemary Stones, “Stories we Tell Ourselves.” This is the most disappointing paper in the book: the theory is simplistic and echoes psychoanalytical ideas that have been around for at least two or three decades, as anyone familiar with Nicholas Tucker’s The Child and the Book will recognise. In addition the discussion seemed disjointed in the way it presented first theory, then a case study, and only very briefly touched on literature. In contrast, Pat Pinsent’s “The Theme of Facial Disfigurement in Some Recent Books for Young Readers” is a highly thought-provoking piece. It raises the interesting question whether a rise in stories dealing with facial disfigurement might be linked specifically to issues contemporary to the last twenty-five years. I would have liked to read further speculation on this matter to accompany the insightful close-text readings.

Michael and Margaret Rustin’s keynote paper “The Regeneration of Dr Who” applies the down-to-earth practical theory from Narratives of Love and Loss to the immensely popular Dr. Who television series, exploring the effects of popular culture on children’s literature theory; again, I would have liked to read more. Nick Midgely’s “The Courage to Be Afraid: Fearful Encounters in the Work of Neil Gaimon and Dave McKean” offers an intriguing look at one of the most innovative of children’s writers today, and discusses the difficulties inherent in attempting to match children’s books to the needs of the intended audience. He proposes that in psychoanalytical terms, fear in the right circumstances may be beneficial for child readers: a theme which is of great interest to anyone looking at children’s literature and psychoanalysis. In “The Scholar, The Hero, and their Faithful Friends” Rebecca R. Butler examines the relationship between the three main characters of the Harry Potter books, and postulates that the narrative structure of the books is focused around the processes of integration and disintegration of personality. The theory is very interesting, but the paper sadly does not develop it enough, instead devoting too much time to plot summaries which are largely irrelevant to the argument. This is another paper that would have benefited from being re-written as a longer, more comprehensively argued piece. Finally, Alison Waller’s “Re-Reading Children’s Literature” is a well-read and well-considered contribution that discusses to what extent sentimental attachment and nostalgia can intersect with objective criticism for the adult approaching a children’s text.

Like the contributors themselves, the papers in The Story and the Self are something of an eclectic mix: there are a number of innovative and interesting papers, but as a whole I did not feel that the collection presented any innovative theoretical approaches; rather it seems to offer a basic introduction to children’s literature and psychoanalysis, covering a lot of ground which has largely been covered many times before. I found this disappointing, especially when it came to well-established names such as Margaret and Michael Rustin, David Rudd, Jenny Plastow, and Pat Pinsent. The papers themselves are intriguing, but the collection as a whole needs more of a focus and a unifying purpose.

Jennifer Sattaur
University of Wales, Wales