New Reviews

Children’s Play in Literature: Investigating the Strengths and the Subversions of the Playing Child

Children’s Play in Literature: Investigating the Strengths and the Subversions of the Playing Child Ed. Joyce E. Kelley. New York, Oxon: Routledge, 2019. 260 pages. £105.00 (hardback).

Children’s Play in Literature: Investigating the Strengths and the Subversions of the Playing Child fits into an analytical vacuum regarding the relevance of play in the cultural and social context. Indeed, in the introduction, Joyce E. Kelley, the editor of the collection, highlights the many ways in which the child’s play manifests itself in real life (lonely/interactive, rule-based/rule-free, active/linguistic, with/without toys and playthings, using/not using toys properly). Despite this large number of possibilities, few scholars have actually studied it; thus, testifying to how the Western world sees play in opposition to the dignified work of adults. Yet play has an undoubted relevance in the socialisation of children: a fact recognized since Plato’s proto-pedagogical philosophy in ancient Greece. For this reason, children’s literature constantly depicts playtime activities in a recurrent and emblematic fashion, aimed at stimulating the adult readers’ sense of nostalgia for a ‘lost childhood’: an idealized stage of life characterised by carefreeness and innocence. Adults’ nostalgic approach obliterates the many motivations and benefits of the relationship between children and play. As suggested by Kelley, it has been observed, for example, that play can increase self-affirmation skills in children by becoming a subversive tool that enables them to fight against the predefined rules imposed by adults. Furthermore, play offers children the ability to create a mimicking, yet mocking, reinterpretation of the world, as well as the ability to vent frustration through destructive play.

In order to overcome the reductive stereotype with which play is still associated, the twelve essays in Children’s Play in Literature set out to disclose meanings of playtime activities, grasping their complex aspects especially when associated with children’s literature.

In the first chapter, Alison W. Powell focuses on Book I in The Prelude (1805) by William Wordsworth, a poem that has undoubtedly helped to shape today’s cultural conception of childhood. The play scenes created by Wordsworth have contributed to the emergence of this conception as they offer a description of the child as a naked savage whose playtime activities are at once innocent and destructive. However, Wordsworth’s interpretation of children’s play can be contrasted with Mark Twain’s perception of play as discussed by Alan Gribben and Sarah Fredericks. The young characters created by this American writer seem to offer a tangible example of the ‘naked savage’ depicted in Romantic poems by celebrating the freedom and power of unsupervised play in nature. Nonetheless, a more in-depth reading of Twain’s works suggests a different interpretation of children’s play: in light of the long hours of labour required of adult people in nineteenth-century America, play is not as innocent and void of consequences as it might seem. Given that in Twain’s novels play comes in rather violent, careless and controversial forms, ‘more often than not, [it] has severe consequences or is stringently punished rather than rewarded’ (59).

Joyce E. Kelley dedicates her chapter to Louise Clarke Pyrnelle’s literary production, paying particular attention to the characterisation of children’s playtime adventures in the American South. In the author’s most famous work, Diddie, Dumps, and Tot; or Plantation Child-Life (1882), the young Caucasian characters interact with some slaves in the plantations. Although this interaction is stained by a romanticised and paternalistic perspective, it nevertheless questions the preconceptions behind the social hierarchy on plantations. This is absolutely innovative, for the potential suggested by this inter-racial activity, as well as this ‘new’ kind of children’s play, advocates for a new social order that discloses different possibilities. As Kelley argues, ‘[i]n reflecting our world, children can tell us much about the society in which we live, and their perspectives may give us a more open-minded glimpse of our own possible future’ (82).

One of these possible futures is suggested by Tim Bryant in his in-depth analysis of the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card. Bryant explores the contrast between the success of the novel and the controversial reputation of its author, who is openly anti-homosexual. Play is directly involved in this comparison, as Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, the main character, has a talent for war videogames, which proves pivotal in the real war between humanity and an alien army. In the dynamics between play and war, the sexuality of the young characters becomes a focal point: its representation reflects the opinions endorsed by the writer and is marked by heteronormativity and violent repression/suppression. Therefore, playtime activities are stained with sexual hints and violence, including the cases of punishment of male bodies, especially genital mutilation as a grotesque metaphorical punishment for homosexual desires.

Finally, Ian Wojcik-Andrews examines the relationship between play and mental illness in works addressed to a young audience. Despite not being greatly investigated, the theme is recurrent in literature and films. Wojcik-Andrews suggests that ‘madness’ has often been described through reductive stereotypes: aberrantly silly as the Hatter in Alice Adventures in Wonderland, criminal and violent as the hyenas in The Lion King, or as a well-recognisable sign in the physical description of the character. In contrast with these bleak generalisations, Wojcik-Andrews analyses the animated film Inside Out (2015), in which the young Riley faces some emotional difficulties after moving from Minnesota to California. The psychological dynamics of this character are translated into the anthropomorphic description of five main emotions: joy, sadness, disgust, anger, and fear. As Wojcik-Andrews argues, ‘[w]hether inside or outside, Riley is portrayed as a physically able, mentally healthy child whose growth through the early stages of life is accompanied by traditional forms of socializing play contained by the family unit” (234). The focus of his analysis is play as an important element for the social growth of the child; and Riley’s emotional crisis is emblematically indicated by the loss of her play-related memories.

The other essays included in Children’s Play in Literature – by Jericho Williams, Caroline E. Jones, Janka Kascakova, Michael Opest, Anna Lockhart, Andy Clinton, and Dorothy Wolfe Giannakouros – are also of undoubted critical quality. The variety of the collection is, indeed, one of its main merits since it enables readers to reflect on play through a number of perspectives without necessarily being an expert on the issue. However, the editorial conclusion could have contributed more to drawing together the discussion – and could have clarified future research directions in this area. The debate remains somewhat unresolved, and readers can only hope that it will continue in the future.

Beatrice Moja, Independent Researcher