Reviews 2008

New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature: Utopian Transformations

New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature: Utopian Transformations. Clare Bradford, Kerry Mallan, John Stephens and Robyn McCallum. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. 207 pages. £45/€60 (hardback).

The notion that children’s literature reflects adult concerns has become so passé that it takes a work of the calibre of New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature: Utopian Transformations to stimulate us and enable us to view the implications afresh. The four Australian scholars who have collaborated on this project examine how children’s literature and film have responded, through the tropes of utopian and dystopian worlds, to the politics of globalisation, neo-colonialism, environmental concerns, the idea of the “post-human” and changes in family and community structures. They examine how the implications of specific political turns are mapped onto narratological practice. In doing so, they conclude that children’s literature does not merely respond passively to current political events – instead it actively contributes to the debate by formulating possible utopia and warning against potential dystopic outcomes.

Given the vast experience of the authorial team, I anticipated a volume of very high quality. My expectations were most certainly met, and then surpassed by the excellence of the writing. Anyone familiar with the earlier works of Bradford et al. will instantly recognise themes and text types which typify the contributors’ areas of specialisation. One can certainly recognise the individual writing styles and voices of the four scholars, yet New World Orders is not a collection of articles. It is a well modulated, coherent monograph which reveals the strengths of all the contributors. The care that has been taken in the editing phase to create the sense of a unified vantage point is worthy of praise in its own right. By bringing their varied viewpoints together in such a truly cooperative manner, Bradford, Mallan, Stephens and McCallum not only alert readers to how common the utopian trope is, they also cover this broad topic with admirable clarity.

More than a hundred texts are examined in this slim volume. Whilst the vast majority falls within the genres one would instantly associate with utopian literature – historical fiction, speculative fiction, picture books – they have also extended the idea into works of contemporary realism, such as Anthony Browne’s Zoo, in order to show how widespread these concerns about the future are, and how common it is for children’s literature to enter into dialogues on contemporary political and social topics of concern. Although most of the works discussed tend to be dystopic more than utopic, Bradford et al conclude that “there is hope for the future and survival of the planet,” in part because “children’s texts generally refuse to give in to despair and nihilism” (185). These books, they argue, directly contribute to creating the New World Order for the third millennium since they offer child readers visions of what might be possible, and in so doing provide “the potential to shape the future” (185).

The texts have been chosen to represent the era 1988-2006, which the authors define in terms of “the contrast between the ‘openness’ of Glasnost and the more closed system of surveillance, power, and control which invokes utopian visions in the rhetorics of ‘the new world order’ and ‘the war on terror’” (7). In other words, the political events that mark the boundaries of the study spring from the two super powers of the Cold War era. Yet the rhetoric of the Cold War has been replaced with an awareness of “glocal” issues, that is, the way in which “local communities engage with globalising pressures for institutional change and social adaptation at the same time that they seek ways of preserving local identity and customs” (40). Indeed, a heartfelt concern for local difference seems to lie at the heart of many of the works discussed as a response to the fear of the ways in which globalisation may result in another loss of identity. The authors connect this concern about globalisation and neo-colonialism with fears about changing family and social structures. They observe that “in social analysis produced by the new right, families are frequently regarded as the building blocks of nationhood […]. In contrast, utopian traditions, whether liberal-humanist or Marxist, have consistently looked beyond families to locate the ‘good place’ within communities and societies” (106). This shows that children’s literature is not wary of situating itself along party political lines.

Somewhat oddly, the precise nature of utopia is not discussed until close to the end of the volume, where the authors draw on Jennifer Burwell to suggest that “utopia is not a space, ‘but rather the narration of a space’” (152). In other words, it is the act of creating the utopian space through language that opens up transformational possibilities. Thus utopia is always created through dialogue, and its transformational possibilities are a result of educating the desire of the young towards a vision of a better world. Dystopia, they note, developed hand in hand with YA literature. They briefly step outside the 1988-2006 time frame to discuss Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War noting that “[n]ow, almost 40 years later, it seems easy to see what readers back then didn’t fully grasp – that is that almost coincident with the emergence of YA fiction, dystopian fiction had become a mode within children’s literature, presenting for the first time bleak analyses of human society without the promise of the euphoric ending which is usually expected in that literature” (29). Although not overtly stated as such, their argument seems to be that truly dystopian worlds are only present in YA literature. Dystopia for younger readers is moderated by calls for action, signs of hope: a happy ending.

The authors make no claims that they have produced “an encyclopaedic account of utopian tropes in children’s texts” (8). They cover a wide range of Anglophone literatures and make brief excursions into films from Japan and Iran. As a result, the volume is necessarily governed by views generated within English-language environments. Within these limits, they provide a diverse range of writing. The review of postcolonial literatures initially claims to focus on the former settler colonies, but fortunately moves beyond such limitations to include discussion of works from Zimbabwe. A comparison of immediate post-Apartheid South-African utopian books, such as Elana Bregin’s A School for Amos, with more cautious responses, such as Beverley Naidoo’s No Turning Back, would have generated an even richer discussion.I It would be churlish to criticise the volume for what it does not cover, but it undoubtedly invites those of us working in non-Anglophone environments to fill in the gaps foregrounded by Bradford et al and determine how local political issues are implicated in our national literatures.

For instance, in the light of Bradford et al’s discussion, I now find myself considering the relationship between the Finnish author/illustrator Mauri Kunnas’s celebration of the Golden era of Finnish National Romanticism in his reworking of the epic texts of the Kalevala in Koirien Kalevala (1992, The Canine Kalevala) and Aleksi Kivi’s The Seven Brothers in Seitsemän Koiraveljestä (2002, The Seven Dog Brothers) are not utopic responses to Finland’s entry into the European union in 1995, and the subsequent mixed feelings which arose from this political alliance. In these (and other works), Kunnas creates a celebratory vision of both nation and landscape, as well as introducing young children to some of the most important works in the Finnish language.

One can always find fault with a published work, but my only serious criticism of this volume is that it is rather short. The authors have condensed a wealth of knowledge and expertise into a mere 185 pages. As a result, my initial reaction when reading the second chapter, which establishes many of the basic premises for considering utopian/dystopian texts as having “transformative possibilities” (11), was that the quantity of books mentioned reduced the readability of the argument. The text mentions the titles of numerous works to illustrate the various points made, yet this only works if readers are already very familiar with the literature. However, I found that even where I knew the primary sources well, I could not always follow the logical flow of the argument as easily as I would have wished. In later chapters, this problem disappeared and the discussions of individual works were so detailed that I could follow the argument even when I had not read the primary text under discussion. An additional twenty to thirty pages would have provided the authors with the necessary space for illustrating their arguments more fully.

In her review of the book, which is quoted in the blurb, the former IRSCL president Kim Reynolds suggests that New World Orders will change the discipline of research into children’s literature. I admire this volume but would not take my praise so far. New World Orders demonstrates research into children’s literature at its very best. This collaboration of outstanding scholars has clarified how we should investigate the relationship between widespread adult concerns and children’s literature. It has not changed the discipline; it models the best working practices of the discipline as it now stands.

Lydia Kokkola
Turku University, Finland