Reviews 2010

To See the Wizard: Politics and the Literature of Childhood

To See the Wizard: Politics and the Literature of Childhood. Laurie Ousley (ed.). Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. 440 pages. £44.99 (hardback).

To See the Wizard is a large volume comprising seventeen chapters which “analyze nineteenth and twentieth century literature from America, Britain, Australia, the Caribbean, and Sri Lanka that is for and about children and adolescents” and addresses “issues of racial and national identity and representation, poverty and class mobility, gender, sexuality and power, and the uses of literature in the healing of trauma and the construction of an authentic self” (back jacket). The breadth of scope is both the strength and weakness of this volume, for while it provides many lively, well-written and far-reaching essays on a wide variety of children’s literature, it also (necessarily) lacks a sense of coherence. Laurie Ousley, the editor and contributor of a chapter, notes that this volume arose from a children’s literature conference, and it indeed carries the mark of a project cobbled together after the included papers were completed as opposed to one where contributors submit pieces of a planned argument.

With the title, Ousley does create an interesting metaphor for the powerful presence of adults in the creation and dissemination of children’s literature. She parallels the believed-in (but actually ineffective) of the Wizard of Oz with the control adults supposedly have over children’s reading. This tension between adult writers/editors and child readers is explored in a number of the essays in To See the Wizard. Ousley argues: “Wizards […] must always be interrogated, and it is the purpose of this volume to begin this task” (xx). The subtitle, Politics and the Literature of Childhood, showcases the volume’s breath of scope by remarking that the texts explored are not only chosen for being children’s literature, but for their influence in creating ideas of childhood itself.

It seems that scholars, after asserting their own definition of children’s literature, must also argue why it is an important field of study – a leftover anxiety, perhaps, from the era when children’s literature studies were seen as literature “lite” and unworthy of notice. In her introduction, Ousley argues that “children’s literature is assumed to perform the function of socialization, which is why it is so contested – and why it should be analyzed” (xv). Although the essays are quite disparate, all speak to this view on the “importance” of children’s literature in one way or another. The authors in this book look at children’s literature as a way to investigate and question modes of becoming a socialized subject within a specific sociopolitical society.

The book consists of three parts, with Section One analyzing paradigms of representing children, Section Two addressing overtly political questions and how the conceit of “nation” works within children’s literature, and Section Three investigating the power of literature in providing a child reader with agency. There are some very interesting essays within this volume, and I would like to discuss a few of them to allow readers of this review to see the breadth within. Peter E. Cumming’s reading of Matilda is an essay which most obviously seems in keeping with the book’s premise, investigating ways in which child agency is granted and then rescinded by an adult author. Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario’s essay on The Bartimaeus Trilogy and The Welkin Weasels argues that children’s literature “realign[s] the child as a central figure in order to reverse the power relationship traditional between adult and child, while reflecting upon the relationship of colonizer and colonized” (131). Jon-Paul C. Dyson investigates the creation of children’s book awards, with specific reference to the American attempts to socialize children during World War II. Several interesting essays discuss multicultural texts and their socio-political viewpoints: Mijeong Lopez Park’s investigation of subtle propaganda in Korean American children’s books; Wendy Knepper’s examination of Patrick Chamoiseau’s fighting of French Imperialism through storytelling; and Sharanya Jayawickrama’s assessment of fairy tales “ostensibly written by the children of the Butterfly Peace Garden of Sri Lanka”(xix). Different genres and formats are also remarked upon, with Roni Natov discussing autobiographical picture books, and Laurie N. Taylor arguing that comics and graphic novels “present […] contextualized arguments about social justice” in a way child readers can understand (256).

Ultimately this book provides a number of lively and interesting chapters investigating how adults assert their power in the world of children’s literature. Ousley says: “It seems far too dangerous to forgive the con man and his crimes simply because he claims to be a good man – and none of the “wizards” of the literature of childhood should be so easily granted power over child readers” (xx). I would have been interested to see the contributors attempt to stay more closely to this interesting premise, and feel the book lacks a cohesive argument as a result. If sales figures are strong, perhaps a second edition would be valuable, as many of the points made within this book are relevant and important to the wider world of children’s literature criticism.

Julie Anastasia Barton
University of East Anglia, England