Reviews 2010

Children’s Fiction About 9/11: Ethnic, Heroic and National Identities

Children’s Fiction About 9/11: Ethnic, Heroic and National Identities. Jo Lampert. London and New York: Routledge, 2010. 220 pages. £85.00 (hardback).

Jo Lampert’s addition to Routledge’s ‘Children’s Literature and Culture’ series centres around the premise that 9/11 was a watershed moment in history – a moment that changed the world in deep-seated and enduring ways. Following the work of literary critics such as John Stephens and Peter Hunt in designating children’s literature a political milieu capable of reflecting, and indeed influencing, cultural and historical change, Lampert analyses the formation of cultural identities in literature for children and young adults published since this momentous event of 2001. Examining how shifts in the performance of such identities are contingent on notions of good citizenship, national pride and racial and religious tolerance in America and, to a lesser extent in Australia, Canada and Britain, Lampert skilfully interweaves politics, sociology and literary theory with often surprising results.

Lampert undertakes to analyse three main identity-sets in evidence in children’s books published since September 11: ethnicity, nationalism and heroism. As Lampert herself makes clear, these sets are non-exclusive, and often overlap or converge. This does not constitute a weakness of approach, but rather a useful method by which to foreground the complexity of post-9/11 identities in children’s fiction, in which a previously-lauded discourse of inclusive multiculturalism now competes with a xenophobic call for cultural union in the face of external terrorism. The complexity of post-9/11 identities, in fact, obliges Lampert to delve into both postmodern and post-colonial theory in order to foreground both the transitional and contextual nature of identity formation and the ways in which race, power and politics intersect in the discursive construction of such identities.

The structure of the book strongly foregrounds Lampert’s theoretical approach: the first two chapters provide an exhaustive overview of more general theories of identity formation in a post-9/11 context and the politics in and of children’s literature, whilst the third, fourth and fifth cover more specific examples of ethnic, national and heroic identities in fiction written as a direct response to 9/11. These latter chapters are accompanied by in-depth analyses of selected children’s works. The variety of genres under consideration is ambitious, from picture books through to young adult novels through to comic books, yet the number of texts analysed is relatively small. Again, this is not a weakness of methodology, but rather reflects both the exclusiveness of the theme and the commendable depth of analysis undertaken. These chosen few are also diverse in racial and religious implications, with books with all-American focalisers analysed alongside books narrated by Afghani or Arab-American teenagers, even though the authors of these books are, for the most part, Western in ethnicity and/or outlook.

The questions raised by such texts are marked by their ambivalence. Should American identity be exclusive or inclusive of others? Is 9/11 to be re-inscribed as opportunity or crisis? None of the texts appear to offer definitive answers to such questions. Lampert analyses several intriguing trends in post-9/11 fiction, such as the humanised, sometimes emasculated superhero that emerges as a response to the elevation of the ordinary working man to the status of public hero, so common in the Bush rhetoric of the time; the young adult coming-of-age narrative that functions as a parallel to an American national ‘coming-of-age’ in the face of terrorism; the competition between self-centred introspection and collective responsibility in young people trying to come to terms with this pivotal moment in history; and the curious sense that national identity is no longer bound to geographical terrain but instead to ideological allegiance.

Some of Lampert’s most fascinating work debates the contrasting feelings of alienation and belonging felt by those non-native narrators who must ‘perform’ Americanness (in a nod to Judith Butler) if they are to be accepted as citizens in a changed America polarised into ‘us’ and ‘them’. Lampert makes some particularly nice points about the differentiated uses of language and code-switching in relation to fictional portrayals of ethnic differences, and her work is often highly perceptive. Yet at times one feels as if she is straining a little over-ambitiously to make her point, particularly when one of the novels under question – Deborah Ellis’ Parvana – was written pre-9/11, forcing Lampert to mediate her premise to include a reader’s supposed response after the event (“readers...may hold the knowledge of the attacks in their heads” (74); “Ground Zero may now come to mind” (74)).

A few editorial mistakes detract from the quality of the book, yet not from the quality of the analyses. What is not so easy to overlook is the comparative lack of contemporary criticism in the theoretical section that begins Lampert’s study. Although her theoretical overview is comprehensive and thorough, it falls short on work published since the turn-of-the-century (post-9/11, in fact), focusing on criticism from the 80s, 90s to the early 2000s. And in a book that highlights the ambiguities in formulated cultural identities after the attacks on the Twin Towers, Lampert’s conclusion that such texts provide evidence “of a world where certainty and uncertainty co-exist” (178) is surely something of a given. Overall, however, this is a thought-provoking and timely critical work that succeeds in highlighting some of the ambiguities, contradictions and ironies in the children’s books produced since 9/11, in a way that opens doors to further analysis, rather than attempting to provide definitive answers.

Works Cited

Ellis, Deborah. Parvana. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2002.

Alice Curry
Macquarie University, Australia