Reviews 2008

Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children’s Literature

Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children’s Literature. Clare Bradford. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007. 279 pages. $32.95 (paperback ).

Clare Bradford’s Unsettling Narratives fully lives up to the claim on the back cover that the volume will "open up an area of scholarship and discussion [...] relatively new to the field of children’s literature." The volume is thorough, provocative, and persuasive. The in-depth analysis of a wide range of key works provides the framework for a conceptualisation of the relationship between postcolonial theory and the study of children’s literature. Bradford focuses not only on the application of theory to text but, importantly, examines in particular the special viewpoints and perspectives that postcolonial readings can offer to children’s literature specifically. Her discussion problematizes the popular analogy of children as a repressed and marginalised sub-group within humanity, just as it re-explores the shifting and ambiguous identity of other marginalised groups.

The work is divided into two thematic parts: the first examines the various ways in which language plays a key role in the formation and interpretation of postcolonial children’s texts, while the second concentrates on the role played by place and space. Within these two parts, a broad range of material is covered. Particularly interesting is Chapter One ("Language, Resistance, Subjectivity"), in which Bradford explores some of the ways in which language makes both resistance and subjectivity within a particular text difficult to pin down for writer, reader, and critic. Chapter Two ("Indigenous Texts and Publishers") focuses on the importance of publishers to the formation and dissemination of indigenous texts, drawing into the discussion social and political factors which have an impact upon language and text. Chapter Three, "White Imaginings," and Chapter Four, "Telling the Past," both examine from different perspectives the ways in which language and text are used to construct identities. The second part of the book mirrors the first one nicely, as Chapter Five, "Space, Time, Nation," examines both the ways in which colonial concepts of space and nation have shaped postcolonial children’s texts, but also the strategies in those texts to undermine and subvert dominant colonial spatial signifiers. While Chapter Two dealt with the movement of texts and the effect of their movement on identity, Chapter Six ("Borders, Journeys and Liminality") in converse focuses on the movement of people and identities and ways in which their movement affects texts. Finally, Chapters Seven ("Politics and Place") and Eight ("Allegories of Place and Race") again deal with identity and the impact of place and space on its formation and perception.

One of the biggest strengths of this text is the breadth of material which is analysed in close detail: Bradford examines as many as fifteen texts in detail to a chapter, including novels, picture books, and films, and this wealth of material not only gives her argument a persuasive strength but also showcases the rich material of postcolonial children’s texts which have until now been relatively neglected. The fullness of the discussion left me wanting to read more of these texts for myself, while the layout of the book was coherent enough, so that the massive scope of the material did not become confusing or overwhelming.

Furthermore, much like Sydney Dobrin and Kenneth Kidd’s Wild Things: Children’s Culture and Ecocriticism, Bradford’s Unsettling Narratives serves an important dual purpose. In the first place it shows just how exciting it can be to apply an established theory to the less well-explored realm of children’s literature, opening up new perspectives and avenues of interest, and in the second place it demonstrates just how much the field of children’s literature has to offer to more established areas of literary criticism in terms of new material and unexplored territory.

If there is one weakness (if it can be called that) to the book, it is that this study cannot really be used as an introduction to postcolonial children’s fiction. The depth of the analysis means that a certain amount of familiarity with postcolonial theory, and with at least a few of the not-quite mainstream children’s texts, is necessary to fully appreciate the subtlety and complexities of the arguments put forth. If, as Bradford states in her introduction, "[i]nterrogations of postcolonial theory itself as it applies to readings of children’s literature are almost absent from critical discourses" (7), there is perhaps a gap in the market for a work which lays out the "key ideas and analytical strategies" (7) of applying postcolonial theory to children’s literature before the analysis and interrogation that make Bradford’s work so fascinating. Overall, this volume is coherent, thoughtprovoking, and well-written, moving beyond the conventional and obvious analyses of race, identity, place, and language which so often occur in the study of children’s literature, to provide a fresh insight and a provocative new perspective.

Jennifer Sattaur
Aberystwyth University, Wales