Reviews 2015

Modern Children’s Literature: An Introduction

Modern Children’s Literature: An Introduction. 2nd edition. Ed. Catherine Butler and Kimberley Reynolds. London: Palgrave, 2014. 287 pages. $96.00 (hardback).

The first edition of Modern Children’s Literature: An Introduction> was edited by Kimberley Reynolds and published in 2005. Based on an MA course run by the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at the University of Roehampton, UK, it contained a series of essays by those who taught on the course and provided a valuable guide for anyone wanting to expand their knowledge of Anglophone children’s literature.

Ten years later a second edition has been published, coedited by Catherine Butler. This time the essays are divided into sections, moving from "Mapping the Territory" through "Texts and Genres" to "Approaches and Issues." The useful system of information "Boxes" explaining key terms and concepts has been retained and expanded and a list for further reading is appended.

Butler’s introduction emphasises the flexibility of the term "modern," stating that it may "encompass much of the last century" (3), and indeed some of the essays extend their reach further back than 1900. Peter Hunt’s opening chapter provides a context for more recent developments by addressing the thorny problem of how texts come to be regard as classic or canonical. Texts now regarded as classic may have achieved this standing because they have been read by children over many generations, or because influential critics of the past awarded them canonical status. However, as Hunt points out, this is much more complex than it might seem, especially in an age when "classic" is lightly applied to all sorts of products, and narratives now popularly regarded as canonical are available to readers in a wide variety of adaptations and formats. This is illustrated by a short case study of The Secret Garden (21).

Hunt’s essay prompts speculation about the future of the texts featuring in the rest of the volume. Will they retain their popularity and still have relevance for children of the future? In this context it is interesting to look at the 2005 edition to see how many of the texts discussed are still considered appropriate for the 2015 edition - quite a few as it happens.

The "Mapping the Territory" section also contains a further three introductory essays which are new, and one on picturebooks by Judith Graham that is largely unchanged. A clear-sighted analysis by Farah Mendlesohn of the characteristics of what she designates as four categories of fantasy literature provides a useful guide to a genre which is increasing in popularity and complexity. Michael Rosen’s essay lays emphasis on the history of writing and anthologising poetry for children, linking the past to present practices, and reminding readers of the breadth of what can be classified as poetry although it does not receive formal recognition, such as chants and oral rhymes.

Psychoanalysis is chosen for scrutiny as an approach to children’s books; David Rudd begins with Freud and then moves to other approaches, concluding with Lacan, while usefully providing examples of the varying ways in which psychoanalytic readings may be applied to actual texts. Other critical approaches are employed in discussion of texts throughout the volume. Pat Pinsent, for example, prefaces her essay on historical fiction by explaining why she is viewing the eight novels she discusses through the lens of postmodernism, New Historicism and postcolonialism (all terms explained in information boxes). The past also features in Gillian Lathey’s comparative and autobiographical focus on the literature of World War Two and in Peter Branwell’s discussion of feminist historical fiction written in the late twentieth century, and Lisa Sainsbury considers readers’ relationships with time and history and the ultimate instability of memory.

Sainsbury also contributes a chapter on the uncanny which suggests that disruptions in family life caused by the intrusion of the uncanny may, or may not, lead to a growth in agency on the part of a novel’s protagonists. Family stories in Anglo-American Children’s Literature between 1930 and 2000 are at the centre of Lucy Pearson’s essay, in which she focuses on issues around identity and nationhood in children’s books. A strong point of Modern Children’s Literature is the manner in which many of the essays interact with each other, and her chapter might also be read through the lens of Branwell’s contention that historical accuracy and authenticity in fiction are subject to the cultural contexts in which they were created. The volume addresses more recent trends and topics too, such as technology and the posthuman in an essay by Richard Shakeshaft, and dilemmas around narrative perspective in Maria Nikolajeva’s concluding chapter, in which she discusses nine twenty-first century young adult texts.

In total nine of the sixteen essays featured in the second edition of Modern Children’s Literature appeared in one form or another in the first edition. In her introduction Butler states that all the chapters retained from the first edition "have been revised and thoroughly updated to take account of developments within the field and the appearance of important new texts for children during the intervening years" (3). Doubtless this was the intention, but the degree of revision varies considerably; a number of contributors have updated their essays in the light of more recent critical approaches to children’s literature, while other contributions are broadly similar. As it is one of the introductory essays, it is particularly disappointing that the chapter on picturebooks is unchanged apart from a short additional piece about one of Emily Gravett’s books, since so much has happened in picturebook research during the past ten years. Most of the texts discussed by the contributors have also remained the same, perhaps because they are pertinent examples of the arguments presented, but it would have been good to see a bit more updating in this regard. The Introduction warns that this volume is not intended as a survey of the field, but some consideration of the work of David Almond, Mal Peet, Eoin Colfer, Siobhan Dowd, Shaun Tan and others who have made significant contributions in the past fifteen years would seem appropriate, as would rather more discussion of recent developments and approaches such as ecocriticism.

Perhaps it would have been better to have put together a distinctive volume two with all new essays to succeed the 2005 edition of Modern Children’s Literature: An Introduction: the material for this certainly exists. Yet, despite my caveats, this is a useful addition to the study of children’s literature in English.

Valerie Coghlan
Dublin, Ireland