Reviews 2015

Discourses of Postcolonialism in Contemporary British Children’s Literature

Discourses of Postcolonialism in Contemporary British Children’s Literature. Blanka Grzegorczyk. Children’s Literature and Culture Series. New York and London: Routledge, 2014. 135 pages. $140.00 (hardback).

In Discourses of Postcolonialism in Contemporary British Children’s Literature, Blanka Grzegorczyk asserts that the voices expressing a need for educators to teach "Britishness" following the 2005 London bombings triggered a parallel need to discuss contemporary British writing for children, acknowledging its "postcolonial heritage" within a context of "collective moral responsibility" (126). Grzegorczyk’s contribution to the Children’s Literature and Culture Series is a result of her doctoral research and considers the spectrum of ways in which British children’s and YA fiction deals with the postcolonial subset of issues: identity, cultural hybridity, colonization, migration and ethnicity, the "commodification of marginality," "the challenges to multiculturalism," and everything in between (128).

This short monograph is divided into 5 chapters: an introduction on the politics of children’s literature, and four others titled as follows: The Empire Within: Migrant and Post-Migrant Coming of Age Novels, Rewriting Colonial Histories in Historical Fictions: From Below and Above, "Empires of the Mind": Intersections of Children’s Fantasy and Postcolonialism, and The (Post) Colonial Exotic: Representing the Other in Adventure Stories for the Young.

The first chapter is a critical survey of ideas that connects children’s literature with postcolonial discourse and "identifies children’s fiction as the site in which ideologically ambivalent or contradictory ideas about childhood are articulated and negotiated" (3 and 6). This is a valuable chapter from a research perspective and captures many of the important contributions to this ongoing conversation in the field. The chapter would have benefitted greatly from subdivision as it still has the feel of a dissertation introduction/literature review: it is a superbly detailed but loosely organized review of significant ideas in the field. A visual mapping of the scholarly views Grzegorczyk posits successfully in relation to one another would have sealed this work as a contemporary reference piece.

Each of the four analytical chapters focuses mainly on four to six works per chapter but expertly weaves in references to relevant fiction to drive the wider application of the scope of Grzegorczyk’s observations. Chapter two discusses YA migrant tales by Meera Syal, Gautam Malkani, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Beverley Naidoo. And even though the author recognizes that it is usually the "least threatening narratives of successful assimilation" that are valued in literature above others (38), she expertly analyzes examples of British YA literature that challenge this trend. The chapters examine the discourse produced by characters that are cultural insiders, protagonists whose personal transformations echo a larger historical one, or ethnic characters intent on dedifferentiation. Her astute observations of the underlying assumptions and power dynamics in the texts encourage a review of "the impact of migration, dislocation and cultural contact on both the British mainstream and diasporic culture as well as on their sense of being and difference" (3). Chapter three looks at the works of Bali Rai, Jamila Gavin, Jason Wallace and Irfan Master which rework history by decentering authority and teaching young readers to recognize such central elements of the narrative "systemic inequality" (61). These works satirize the customs of British colonizers by focalizing the minorities and their hybrid experiences.

Chapter four looks at the fantasy fiction of Malorie Blackman, Julie Bertagna, Jonathan Stroud, Terry Pratchett, China Miéville, and Gillian Cross and considers how children engage in political and social change in these alternative planes where oppression and dysfunction have come to rule. This chapter is an important commentary on empowerment in the YA best-selling genre of dystopia, but the characters’ responses to imperial hegemony of an imagined variety makes its inclusion in this study a departure from the thesis that may have been better contextualized and situated as a final chapter. Grzegorczyk’s insightful reading of these fantastical works is valuable as it connects memory, knowledge, and role reversals of the oppressor and the oppressed to investigate the "difficult[ies] of building a community in a hostile social environment [...]" and the dangers of restricting oneself to an ethnic identity (94). More importantly, her reading considers how British YA literature imagines communities within the political realities that frame them.

Chapter five examines adventure stories of Frances Hardinge, Geraldine McCaughrean, David Gilman, Sarah Mussi and Andy Briggs. In these novels, setting that is so crucial to the genre becomes an ideal platform from which to explore the reading public’s obsession with pristine virgin native spaces and cultures and the responses of British writers to it with adventure stories that engage in a tug of war with colonial ideologies. Grzegorczyk looks at such tropes within the genre as gender roles, the fragility of colonial rule of physical territories versus the robustness of building empires of the mind, the cyclic violence effected by native rebel factions, cultural authenticity, the "imperial play ethic" and "masculine self-fashioning" (105). In dealing with works produced within the last few years works, Grzegorczyk confidently integrates amateur and professional online reviews to provide a context for young adults’ reception of the novels and draw convincing conclusions regarding the continued milking of African imagery in British fiction.

This is an important contribution to the Children’s Literature and Culture Series that responds to questions regarding the ideological conservativeness and subversiveness of contemporary YA fiction, as well as discussions on "Britishness" in children’s literature. The repetition of many sentences from the chapters verbatim in the introduction gives this monograph a slightly "thesis" feel. This impression is reinforced by the exploration of various areas of discourse in conceptually separate chapters that do not coalesce into a major argument but rather constitute an invitation to observe a phenomenon more closely. However, the breadth of the areas where Grzegorczyk identifies postcolonial discourses and the depth of her analysis satisfy the reader with the conclusion that readings of British cultural representations are incomplete as long as they remain oblivious to questions of imperialism, exoticism, and multiculturalism.

Yasmine Motawy
The American University in Cairo, Egypt