Introduction

By McCANCE, Dawne | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2001 | Go to article overview

Introduction


McCANCE, Dawne, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


What is so special, for adults, about the books they read as children? This is the question Walter Benjamin asks in his essay on children's literature. Whatever people read in their childhood seems, in adult memory, "to have been the most beautiful and best thing possible" (250), Benjamin suggests. At least some of the contributors to this special issue, Children's Literature, would agree. And some might add another point to Benjamin's observation: not only are adults nostalgic about the books they read in childhood, children's books themselves are written by nostalgic adults. Think of Peter Pan's Neverland, Mary Lennox's secret garden, Dorothy Gale's Land of Oz: such magical places as these "are created by adult authors, not just for child characters and readers, but for their own nostalgic indulgence," Susan E. Honeyman writes in this issue. Her essay, "Childhood Bound: In Gardens, Maps, and Pictures," considers fantasy worlds (gardens, remote islands, barnyards) created by authors of children's literature , fictional childhood spaces that all have one feature in common: "they are clearly bound and inaccessible to adults." The bounding of the space establishes it as belonging to children alone, as "childhood bound." The bounding also sustains adult nostalgia. "Adults are childhood bound, in terms of constructing childhood as an ideal destination," Honeyman writes; "but childhood itself is bound by borders that sustain the fantasy." Her essay explores these bounded spaces as "imaginary escapes from 'real,' civilized, urban(e), disconnected experience."

The imaginary, written and read in diverse ways, is one of the threads that ties these essays together. For Johanna M. Smith in "Constructing the Nation: Eighteenth-Century Geographies for Children," imaginary spaces (in this case, imaginary geographies of nation) serve an ideological, "nation-building," function. Smith examines geographies for children written during the eighteenth century, when Britain was taking shape as a nation. She argues that, although children's geographies have received very little critical attention, they "can profitably be examined for the cultural work that they do" in imagining a national and predominantly commercial community, bounded off from its Others along gender and racial lines. In Virginia Brackett's "Romantic Archetypes in Peppermints in the Parlor," the imaginary again has an ideological role, though one viewed positively in terms of community- and character-building. Brackett draws from Northrop Frye's theory of the imagination (as well as from Carl G. Jung, Joseph Ca mpbell, Jean Piaget, and others) to analyze romantic quest archetypes in Barbara Brooks Wallace's Peppermints in the Parlor, a mystery written for children between the ages of eight and twelve. Archetypal plot and imagery "offer pleasure" to childhood readers, Brackett maintains. More than this, they offer "identity-strengthening models." The romance may support, in children and in readers of any age, "the development of self-respect and a respect for others."

The imaginary is very much in play in "Private Places on Public View: David Wiesner's Picture Books," where Perry Nodelman suggests why the illustrations (floating turnips; frogs, fish, or lima beans, flying in formation) in David Wiesner's books are so much like each other and so disruptive of normally expectable reality. Wiesner's pictures "might well represent the state of fantasy itself," Nodelman writes. "More exactly, they might represent that which makes fantasies fantastic." In the same gesture, they might tell us something about the fantastic "unnaturalness of human logic." Image and text come together again in Philip Nel's '"Said a Bird in the Midst of a Blitz...': How World War II Created Dr. Seuss." Focussing on Seuss's experience between 1941 and 1943 as a political cartoonist for the newspaper PM, this essay assesses "the degree to which World War II influenced not only [Seuss's] later work but also all of us who grew up reading that work. …

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