Reviews 2015

Representing Children in Chinese and U.S. Children’s Literature

Representing Children in Chinese and U.S. Children’s Literature. Claudia Nelson and Rebecca Morris (eds.). Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. 232 pages. $104.95 (hardback).

As children’s literature emerges as an increasingly international field, its global contexts are similarly in need of study. Representing Children in Chinese and U.S. Children’s Literature, edited by Claudia Nelson and Rebecca Morris, seeks to do just that, examining children’s literature and its scholarship in the United States and China, and exploring the artistic and critical differences that emerge between the two traditions.

In their introduction, Nelson and Morris discuss the prevalence of US exports of children’s books to China, an exchange which is not reciprocated and which corresponds to a lack of attention to Chinese children’s literature and criticism in the US. Against this backdrop, the collection is "an attempt to encourage communication between Chinese and American children’s literature scholars," stemming from a 2012 symposium with the same aim. In doing so, it seeks to compare critical styles, and to "showcase aspects of the field of children’s literature and its scholarship" (2).

This premise of the anthology points towards the collection’s greatest strengths and most pronounced issues. To set out to examine the main themes and critical styles of two national traditions is a highly ambitious project, and one which, at times, the collection falters in presenting, with issues of cohesion emerging between the essays. At the same time, however, the editors recognize this issue as inherent to this kind of comparative project. The "very different rhetorical traditions" which each country’s scholarship draws upon are acknowledged and outlined, with Chinese critics tending to examine larger trends in the field, in contrast with American critics, who veer towards a focus on one specific text or one author’s work (2). Indeed, the editors note that "an important part of this volume’s methodology" has been to "display the different approaches toward children’s literature criticism rather than homogenize" them (4). The resulting collection is divided into five sections, which reflect an equally ambitious scope: "Theorizing Children’s Literature: Journey as Metaphor and Motif," "Chinese Children’s Literature and the May Fourth Movement," "Studies of American Authorship," "A History of Didactic Children’s Literature," "Themes in Children’s Literature," and "On Writing Children’s Literature."

The first section explores the idea of "journey," examining how the theme has been utilized, and what it suggests for future directions in children’s literature. Roberta Seelinger Trites’s chapter examines "embodied metaphors" in Huckleberry Finn and explores the ways in which cognitive sciences can be used to further understand the American field, focusing on how "the language of embodiment shapes conceptualizations of growth in children’s novels" (18). Trites’s chapter is paired with Ban Ma’s on "Identifying the ‘Motif’ in a Country’s Image of Children," which offers a more historically-focused overview of the concept of the child within Chinese literature, beginning with representations in the Ming Dynasty. This chapter points to the power of a "relational approach," examining how outside influences have shaped visions of children in Chinese literature (30). These discussions form a strong dialogue, thought-provoking in their shared interests, even as their discussions are coupled with vastly different areas of focus.

Section Two examines the 1919 Cultural movement and its role in shaping Chinese children’s literary criticism. The editors contextualize this section in a strong note, detailing the movement’s shift away from strict Confucian thought, as children emerged as "symbols of the nation’s future" and were therefore "cherished," reflecting the influence of thinkers such as Montessori, Froebel, and Dewey (33). Wang Quangen’s "On the Image of Children and the Three Stages of Transformation in 100 years of Chinese Children’s Literature" provides a rich overview of the movement, examining the history of the shift and elegantly outlining the evolution of Chinese reactions to Western ideas of childhood in educational theory and stories. This is followed by two chapters on prominent figures within the movement, whose respective works marked a significant shift in discourse surrounding childhood in China.

In Section Three, the difference between Chinese and American critical approaches emerges quite forcefully. In this section, specific authors are examined, and the editors begin with a thought-provoking discussion about why author-focused criticism has emerged as the norm in American children’s literature. The editors suggest that this focus "reflects the history of children’s literature criticism as a comparatively low-status area of study in U.S. academia" (75). This section houses a collection of strong essays, particularly Kenneth Kidd’s "Interpreting Elizabeth Foreman Lewis’s Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze." Young Fu seems a fascinating link in the collection as a whole, exploring American representations of China, and more could have been made of it as a potential lens for exploring the perceptions that underlie the relationship between the two traditions.

In Section Four, the dialogue and disparity between the two national traditions opens up fascinating points of comparison. Tang Sulan’s "The Multiple Facets and Contemporary Mission of the Images of Children in Chinese Children’s Literature" is particularly strong, and the traditions and ideas explored in Tang’s chapter form a rich dialogue with Michelle Martin’s "Contrasts and the Black Aesthetic in Picture Books of Langston Hughes" and Katharine Capshaw’s "Remembering the Civil Rights Movement in Photographic Texts for Children." In these discussions, the implications of various forms of representation in each national tradition are strikingly and subtly illustrated by the interplay between the chapters.

The collection’s final section focuses on larger themes, with chapters ranging from Claudia Mills’s focus on Beverly Cleary and the treatment of gender in postwar American children’s literature, to Fang Weiping’s discussion of commercialism in contemporary Chinese children’s texts. The collection closes with a coda, "On Writing Children’s Literature" from author Mei Zihan, which serves as a nice corollary to the preceding questions of didacticism. Reflecting on his own books for children, the author explores how didacticism can be imagined as a positive force, exploring the ways in which he has wrestled with didacticism in the process of his own writing.

In their introduction to the anthology, the editors acknowledge the vastly different traditions that this collection draws upon, pointing to the importance of comparing and interrogating the reasoning behind respective critical methodologies. At times, this pairing can be jarring. At the same time, however, as the editors themselves stress, this anthology is the first of its kind. While there are tensions between some of the chapters, these moments point to the fact that this type of comparative examination is just beginning. Where questions emerge, they are precisely that – questions which point to a need for further dialogue and discussion. Indeed, it is perhaps here where the anthology succeeds most forcefully in opening up a crucial and promising line of inquiry and study. It is a wide-ranging, and multi-dimensional volume, and a valuable resource for students and critics seeking an introduction into the overarching ideas and interactions of these two national traditions.

Susan Tan
University of Massachusetts, USA