Reviews 2010

Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults

Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults. Carrie Hintz and Elaine Ostry (eds.). London and New York: Routledge, 2003. (Transferred to digital printing 2009). 252 pages. £26.99 (paperback).

As Jack Zipes suggests in the foreword to this welcome addition to Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture series, utopian and dystopian fictions spring from an impulse towards social change. In this edited collection, Hintz and Ostry guide the reader through varying responses to this altruistic human impulse. Through an analysis of both historical and contemporary fiction, the contributing scholars map a diverse range of authors’ attempts to comment on the defects of their societies through the creation of fantastic literary heterotopias. What makes such a broad and unwieldy topic manageable is the editors’ decision to focus on texts that deal overtly with social organisation and modes of governance. This is a welcome move since the amorphous nature of the subject would otherwise overshadow the focused in-depth analyses of selected texts undertaken by the collection’s scholars.

Hintz and Ostry’s helpful introduction immediately foregrounds both the utopian tendency of children’s literature – as a more overtly didactic genre than its adult counterpart – and the Romantic conception of childhood itself as a utopian state. Noting that these inherent links strengthen the cause for research into such topics, Hintz and Ostry’s introduction touches on several of the roles a utopian text might play in a child’s reading experience, namely play, escape and political reflection. It is this latter role that the contributing scholars tend to favour, and the issues raised in relation to a child’s capacity as an individual to affect changes in the wider social systems are often provocative. One such issue raised in the introduction asks us to consider where exactly a text’s utopian status lies. Is it in its form, its content, the intention of its author, the beliefs wielded by its characters or the response it receives from its reader? This is a question that resonates throughout the articles to follow, and provides a thoughtful conceptual frame for the reader of the collection.

Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults is diverse in its modes of analysis. Whilst the main bulk of the work is separated into four sections – ‘Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Utopia in Transit’; ‘Community and Socialism’; ‘Child Power’; and ‘From the Wreckage: Post-World War II Dystopias and Utopias’ – the volume includes an additional four essays by well-known authors of utopian and dystopian fiction, an interview with Lois Lowry, and an annotated bibliography of children’s and young adult utopian and dystopian fiction. The authors featured – Alberto Manguel, James Gurney, Katherine Paterson and Monica Hughes – offer entertaining and often quirky accounts of their experiences of writing utopian or dystopian fiction, and the interview with Lois Lowry – author of The Giver and Gathering Blue – adds a sense of gravitas and social commitment not present in the lighter accounts that precede it. What gives the volume an edge on previous work on the subject is the comprehensive annotated bibliography at the back of the collection that is proclaimed to be the first of its kind.

As Rebecca Carol Noël Totaro notes in her article on ‘Suffering in Utopia,’ a false dichotomy exists between utopian and dystopian definitions, and it is the intricate links between these two imagined states that produce some of the scholars’ most innovative work. Totaro herself questions how much suffering is acceptable in a utopia whilst Karen Sands-O’Connor notes a worrying return to the paradigms of Empire in the secondary worlds of British fantasy. Maureen F. Moran’s excellent exploration into Tanith Lee’s problematisation of the utopian mode in her Unicorn trilogy – one of the more theoretically-based essays of the collection – flags up the tension between the utopian vision as attainable model or agent of change, and unattainable fantasy. A further contradiction of the utopian mode – in a collection full of such noted contradictions – is highlighted by Kay Sambell as the dilemma experienced by children’s authors when faced with the overwhelmingly nihilistic endings of adult dystopic fiction and the paradoxical necessity to provide child readers with a sense of hope rather than hopelessness. The often ambiguous or ambivalent endings of children’s dystopic fiction lead her to suggest that the genre forces authors to answer this dilemma by finding a “new, more fluid style of didacticism in dystopian writing for children” (173). This is just one of the thought-provoking issues raised in a volume full of thought-provoking issues.

As we might expect from any collection of essays, however, the range and standard is somewhat uneven, and it does not come as a surprise that the volume was first published in 2003 since its arguments, on occasions, appear a little dated. The introduction sets up the expectation that a broad spectrum of texts will be considered, from the ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature to the speculative offerings of contemporary posthumanism. Unfortunately this is not borne out by the articles themselves which are surprisingly limited in geographical and generic scope. Whilst the vast majority of the novels analysed are American or British (a geo-cultural dearth that is as surprising in today’s climate of cultural diversity as it is critically limiting), examples of post-disaster and posthumanist fiction – so tantalisingly promised and so topical in a world of ecological crisis, artificial intelligence, cloning and genetic modification – are also sadly lacking. A more serious flaw in the collection, however, comes in the comparative lack of theoretical groundwork that must surely underpin a collection of this kind. Utopian and dystopian criticism – as a well-established field of study in adult fiction and with major exponents in Sir Thomas More, Ernst Bloch and Michel Foucault to name but a few – is referenced intermittently and usually only in passing. The collection would have benefited from a preliminary section summarising and theorising such pivotal and influential works, fully legitimising subsequent study.

Despite its flaws, Hintz and Ostry’s collection brings together several first-class essays that undoubtedly advance thinking in this fascinating field. One premise upon which all of the contributing scholars appear to agree is the sense that utopian and dystopian fiction negotiates a space for self-conscious speculation and reflective thinking for children and young adults, who learn much from the premonitory visions such novels contain but – more importantly – take great pleasure in doing so.

Alice Curry
Macquarie University, Australia