Reviews 2008

Adventures into Otherness

Adventures into Otherness: Child Metamorphs in Late Twentieth-century Children’s Literature. Maria Lassén-Seger. S.L.: Åbo Akademi, 2006. 299 pages. € 27.00 (paperback).

Maria Lassén-Seger’s Adventures into Otherness is a worthwhile text as interesting as it is problematic. I will save the problems for the end of this review, for its successes ultimately outweigh its faults. Simply put, the book explores the trope of metamorphosis in late twentieth-century children’s and adolescent literature through the close-reading of a variety of texts from a primarily structuralist methodology. Lassén-Seger is interested in whether the physical transformations featured in her selected texts empower or disempower the transformed children and young adults. This project is indebted to Roberta Seelinger Trites’s Disturbing the Universe, particularly Trites’s formulation of “empowerment.” Lassén-Seger’s key questions, then, are

[1] [D]oes the physical change entrap, silence or repress child characters in a manner that undercuts their individual agency and forces them into submission or regression? Or [2] does the experience of otherness increase their agency and self-awareness in a manner that enhances the equality of children and adults, or subverts adult authority? (3)

She addresses these dual concerns by grouping the texts in three major categories: wild and uncivilized child metamorphs; innocent, playful, and rebellious child metamorphs; victimised and lost child metamorphs. Threading through these discussions is her engagement with current debates on “how the child in fiction for children is constructed as ‘the Other’—potentially an Other that is colonized by adults” (10). Most of us will be familiar with these debates: Perry Nodelman’s “The Precarious Life of Children’s Literature Criticism” (2007) describes these and related fault-lines with great skill. Throughout her book, Lassén-Seger navigates these troubled waters expertly, carefully articulating the diverse opinions of Joe Zoronado, Nodelman, Karin Lesik-Oberstein, David Rudd, Roderick McGillis, Trites, and others, all the while charting the sensible, productive course from which her work emerges. Nevertheless, her reiteration of these debates does suggest the dreaded “literature review” necessary in all doctoral dissertations. It proves the neophytes’ ethos, shows that they have done the research and deserve a place on the playing field. It does not necessarily make for gripping reading, especially if you are familiar with the literature yourself.

One of the real delights afforded by Adventures into Otherness is its wide-ranging selection of texts. Grouping the texts thematically provides the reader with a sense of coherence, even as we romp through time and space, encountering the very familiar, like C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), alongside the relatively unfamiliar, like Janet Anderson’s Going Through the Gate (1997). As a fan of Anthony Browne, I was pleased to read Lassén-Seger’s analysis of his The Tunnel (1989), which is still not readily available in the U.S. For the U.S. scholar, the book serves as a window into another world of children’s texts that simply aren’t talked about in the Americas (well, maybe in Canada). Helen Recorvits and Gabi Swiatkowska, Henrik Drescher, Blair Drawson, Melvin Burgess and Ruth Brown, and Gary Crew and Steven Woolman are just some of the under-discussed writers and artists whose work Lassén-Seger explores. Placing these artists beside better known figures like T.H. White, Maurice Sendak, William Steig, Diana Wynne Jones, and Quentin Blake broadens and complicates the textual landscape considerably, which is no mean accomplishment.

Despite the thematic arrangement of her chapters, Lassén-Seger largely avoids totalizing, reductive readings of her selected texts. She notes, for instance, that she initially thought that the texts about “wild and uncivilized child metamorphs” would be “permeated by an adult desire to guide—even force—the child into quashing his/her inappropriate desires and conform to prescribed expectations of gender and social conduct.” However, her analyses show that “many stories were not in fact so easily reducible to lessons in growing up” (96). Furthermore, she acknowledges that children may use even the overtly “disempowering metamorphoses” found in texts like The Tunnel in surprising and subversive ways. That is, we should not assume that simply “reading about disempowering metamorphoses of fictive children is straightforwardly equally disempowering and harmful to the child reader,” as children approach texts in a variety of ways (97).

In a useful appendix, Lassén-Seger places all the primary texts in chronological order. However, one would like a bit more history in this book. Perhaps because of her narratological commitments, Lassén-Seger attends to the books’ structural elements, but only rarely their social and historical aspects. Aside from contemporary book reviews, readers will find little historical context informing her analysis.

The acknowledgements make clear that Adventures into Otherness began as a dissertation. And it is a fine one. Any dissertation advisor would be proud to sign off on this impressive study: its subject is novel and its approach is rigorous. However, it is not yet a book. It looks like a book—almost. The cover is printed badly, the ink grew tacky as I read it, and the pages are poorly bound. These pages were so crammed with text that there was no room for annotation.

Adventures into Otherness also reads like a dissertation, containing that tentative, excruciating rigor dissertation committees insist upon, but which publishers generally edit out. The introduction is largely spent explaining what the book will not cover and why, just as each chapter ends with a summary, reasserting its main claims. The language is also marked with what is sometimes called “dissertationese,” a highly wrought prose-style that often gets in the way of clearly expressing complex ideas. None of this, I stress, is the author’s fault. The fault lies with Åbo Akademi Press, who should have guided this text more carefully in its metamorphosis from dissertation to book. Indeed, I understand that in Scandinavian countries, dissertations are usually published immediately after completion, and that they are not considered complete until they are published. This procedure is problematic, as it means that the books then miss the chance to be refashioned into something more than a dissertation, as they are not re-edited and re-published afterwards. Streamlined and well-published, Adventures into Otherness would have been a notable addition to the discourse on children’s literature. I regret that Lassén-Seger’s worthwhile project had to end in the form it did. It deserves better.

Joseph T. Thomas, Jr.
San Diego State University, USA