Reviews 2017

Canon Constitution and Canon Change in Children’s Literature

Canon Constitution and Canon Change in Children’s Literature. Ed. Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer and Anja Müller. New York: Routledge, 2017. 254 pages. £110.00 (hardback).

Canonicity is a somewhat paradoxical issue in relation to children’s literature. On the one hand, books produced for children have continually been excluded from the adult literary canon on the grounds that they are of inferior quality. However, within the area of children’s literature itself, a canon is very much in existence – and it is one which has tended to offer a normative view of childhood framed by white, middle-class and patriarchal values. One of the latest volumes to be published within Routledge’s respected Children’s Literature and Culture series, Canon Constitution and Canon Change in Children’s Literature, edited by Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer and Anja Müller, is a collection of essays that explores the processes of canon formation as they apply to children’s literature. Kümmerling-Meibauer and Müller’s introduction is an intelligent and thoughtful overview of the key issues that underlie this volume of criticism. They distinguish between aesthetics-oriented approaches to canon-formation and socio-cultural approaches (which draw attention to the role of cultural hegemonies in constructing canons). They also point out that the formation of literary canons can play an important role in nation-building projects. Perhaps most significantly, Kümmerling-Meibauer and Müller write that, "the alleged stability of a canon in children’s literature arguably tends to derive from an equally alleged universal notion of the character of childhood" (5). This open acknowledgement of the contested political status of childhood informs the body of criticism that constitutes this volume and is evident in each chapter’s exploration of the complex ways in which concepts of the canon affect the reception of children’s literature.

The volume begins in a rather delightful manner: with Peter Hunt’s playful and satirical "retelling" of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, "The Emperor’s New Clothes." Hunt’s story (which is referred to as a "Prelude"), is about "a King who loved books – all books. He read what he liked and he liked what he read" (15). It is essentially a fiction which takes aim at the manner in which canon-formation is "about one cultural group imposing its views on another" (15). Hunt’s writing is provocative because it suggests that the canon is a type of literary "swindle" in its attempts to assert that some books have more value than others. Such a position is somewhat at odds with the complex investigation of the varied cultural processes that constitute canonicity in the essays that make up this book. However, it serves as an apt (and rather charming) introduction for a volume that seeks to interrogate the very notion of "literary value."

Kümmerling-Meibauer and Müller are also to be congratulated for gathering together such a wide-ranging selection of relevant and insightful essays within the volume, especially since so many address the issue of canon-building (or resistance) from a non-Anglophone perspective. Canon Constitution and Canon Change in Children’s Literature contains chapters about the processes of canonisation within the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark. This cross-cultural approach is an effective one, not only because a wealth of different critical viewpoints are included, but also because it amply demonstrates that canonisation is a cultural process that is influenced by hegemonic notions of aesthetics and ideology.

As is always the case with edited collections, the essays are somewhat uneven in terms of quality. Chapters worthy of special mention are Kimberley Reynolds’s tribute to the progressive English children’s author, Geoffrey Trease and Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer’s fascinating exploration of canonicity in relation to a selection of German avant-garde picture books from the 1920s and 30s (which offers a compelling meditation on the reasons why some of these books have become part of the modern canon, while others remain culturally marginalised). Anne Morey also provides a compelling critical analysis of the cultural and political conditions which propelled the American children’s novel, Waterless Mountain (1931), onto the Depression-era canon.

One problem with the volume lies in the fact that some of its contributions from non-native English speaking contributors have not been properly proofread and copyedited. The publisher, Routledge, is responsible for this and it is a shame that otherwise interesting contributions to the volume are marred by awkward and non-idiomatic English expression, which detracts from their quality.

Nevertheless, Canon Constitution and Canon Change in Children’s Literature makes an important contribution to children’s literary criticism by interrogating the process of canon-formation from a wide variety of critical, cultural and historical perspectives. As Helene Høyrup observes (in her chapter on Hans Christian Andersen), "canons are made, not born, through aesthetic developments and cultural processes of taste, which can [then] become institutionalised..." (105). Høyrup’s comment brings the constructedness of the children’s literary canon into sharp focus, and her reminder that such canons are culturally relative rather than stable is an idea that this critical collection unreservedly endorses.

Victoria Flanagan
Macquarie University, Australia