Reviews 2015

Ethics and Children’s Literature

Ethics and Children’s Literature. Ed. Claudia Mills. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 248 pages. $109.95 (hardback).

Ethics and Children’s Literature is part of the Ashgate series (Ashgate Studies in Childhood, 1700 to the Present, edited by Claudia Nelson) devoted to the interdisciplinary and comparative approach to current children and young adult literature. In accordance with thus defined mission, the volume of essays compiled by Claudia Mills attempts to elucidate chosen ethical problems in texts addressed to young readers.

The book is divided into four parts. The first one, The Dilemma of Didacticism: Attempts to Shape Children as Moral Beings, comprises three essays. The opening essay by Claudia Nelson deals with Golden Deeds books, showing their relevance to modern American attitudes towards sacrifice. Emma Adelaida Otheguy provides a comparative analysis of ethnicity-determined approaches to didacticism on the basis of the 19th-century New York English- and Spanish-language children’s magazines. The dilemmas of American librarians connected with de-segregating literature for children (1930-45) are the subject of an engaging article by Moira Hinderer. The fact that the readings are rooted in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century initiates the discussion of ethics in children’s literature in times when children were seen as passive recipients of ideas.

The second part of the book, Ethical Themes in Classics and Contemporary Texts, is by far the longest and the most varied one. The first three essays address some not much discussed ethical problems appearing in classical children’s text. Emmanuelle Burton’s praiseworthy effort to validate the underappreciated Prince Caspian contains a nuanced presentation of moral discernment. The concreteness of the circumstances in which one has to make moral decisions is foregrounded not only in Burton’s essay but also in Mary Jeanette Moran’s discussion of embracing the evil Other in Madeleine L’Engle’s fiction. Finally, Bakhtinian “ethics of the ordinary” (89) is discussed by Niall Nance-Carroll in reference to the Winnie-the-Pooh books. The following two essays, by Jani L. Barker and Andrea Mei-Ying Wu, are focused on the presentation of children as “virtuous transgressors” (Barker 106). Whereas Barker constructs her argument around well-known modern Anglophone classics (e.g. Holes [1997], Harry Potter [1997-2007]), Andrea Mei-Ying Wu provides a detailed account of a similar trend in Taiwanese juvenile fiction of the 1960s (e.g. Bing-Ying Xie’s Lin Lin [1966]). In contrast to the previous part, all of the articles present the main heroes as active moral agents, which indicates that child-readers themselves can be perceived in the same manner.

The third part, Ethical Criticism in Children’s Literature, comprises three articles discussing how children’s moral attitudes are shaped by stories that offer them very concrete, though veiled, perspectives on such issues as motherhood, race, war, or social prejudices for example towards certain professions. Lisa Rowe Fraustino looks into the implications of anthropomorphization in picture books like The Giving Tree (1964) by Shel Silverstein and The Rainbow Fish (1992) by Marcus Pfister, deconstructing veiled anti-feminist and racist messages with the use of the conceptual metaphor. Suzanne Rahn attempts to show the superiority of J.R.R. Tolkien over C.S. Lewis in the complexity of the portrayal of wars (based on their fantasy works as well as their non-fiction), pointing out that the attitudes learnt from their fantasy classics may be carried on to the reality of adult warfare, leading to the one-sided validation of violence. Claudia Mills’s chapter shows how books written with an explicit didactic purpose, such as The Janitor’s Boy (2000) by Andrew Clements or Just Call Me Stupid (1993) by Tom Birdseye, run the risk of inculcating the very prejudice they are striving to uproot or undermine the value they supposedly teach.

The fourth part, Ethical Responses to Children’s Literature: Identification, Recognition, Adaptation, Conversation, contains four articles. Leona W. Fisher examines the importance of the reader’s identification with the narrator for the dissemination of the author’s worldview, underlining the crucial role of first-person narratives for young adult fiction. The essay is followed by Ramona Caponegro’s interesting discussion of the niche Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, which singles out juvenile texts for their treatment of ethical issues. Martha Reinbolt focuses on Hunger Games (2008-2010) as a series with an overt agenda and convincingly shows the shifts in moral development of Katniss in the books as compared to the movies. Lastly, Sara Goering devotes her article to the presentation of her experience with teaching philosophy to children, particularly the question of death, which is usually considered a taboo topic.

The volume successfully brings together a variety of approaches to studying ethics in children’s literature. It conveys an important message that the quite overt manipulation to which children were subject in the past, e.g. in the segregation era, has been replaced by more subtle snares to be disentangled by critical reading. The “conversation” – and the name of Bakhtin brought up more than once – suggests the authors’ belief in the child reader’s polyphonic relation with textual, authorial and parental voices. Paradoxically, although there is a marked insistence on the child as an active agent, in the development of the conscious reading the child is still subdued to the powerful (adult) voices of authority.

If the collection leaves something to be desired, it is the significant lack of contemporary issues connected with the burgeoning bioethical and technoethical problems which are being currently undertaken by children and young adult literature. Instead of striving to show the relevance of 19th-century texts to the modern system of values, the essays could focus more on books that in fact reflect contemporary ethics. The examples on which the moral aspect of warfare is discussed (the Narnia Chronicles [1950-1956], The Hunger Games [2008-2010]), although interesting in themselves, could perhaps be replaced by books actually foregrounding the topic (e.g. Ness’s Chaos Walking [2008-2010]). Instead, the essays are limited to the problems of pedagogy, didacticism and children’s moral agency.

Of course, the concerns presented above stem largely from the vastness of possible approaches to such a broad field of study. The collection delineates many inspiring paths to take while talking about ethics in children and young adult texts. The gaps show only how fraught this type of literature is with ethical problems and leave space for future research in the field.

Anna Bugajska
Tischner European University, Poland