A History of Adventure in Children's Literature

Publikation: Bog/antologi/afhandling/rapportBogForskning

  • Elly McCausland
This project will examine representations of risk in children’s literature from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. It will explore how issues of risk and trust have been mediated through children’s narratives, and how the adventurous child has served, and continues to serve, as a conduit for adult investigations of the social and cultural capital of risk, and anxieties about the changing locus of trust and value at key historical moments. Karin Lesnik-Oberstein has observed that the child is ‘a construction, constructed and described in different, often clashing terms’ and ‘the production of systems of purpose, fuelled by need’. This project perceives the child as an adult discursive construct, used as a focal point for narrative imaginings of adventure that consider the role and function of risk in society. It will examine this constructed child, and the ways in which his or her engagement with the unknown spaces of adventure and fortune has served to map adult anxieties about the shifting loci of trust in capitalist, imperialist, post-war and digital ages.

I will investigate depictions of the adventurous child during three specific periods, all of which constitute turning points in relationships with, and imaginings of, trust and risk. I begin by examining the adventurous young heroes of nineteenth-century imperial romance, in texts by R. M. Ballantyne, H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Kingsley. I will consider not only how these protagonists articulate the anxieties of empire through risk-taking in unknown, exoticized and often feminized spaces, but also how such texts identify risk with new forms of bourgeois speculative energy. Franco Moretti has suggested that ‘the great mechanism of adventure was being eroded by bourgeois civilisation’ in the nineteenth century; however, in many ways these texts open up possibilities for new forms of engagement with risk based upon speculation, and courageous engagement with the unknown in mental and financial, rather than martial or physical, contexts. They appear at a pivotal moment in the history of risk, where fascination with popular medievalism and the figure of the bold chivalric knight intersected with bourgeois forms of venture capitalism; the resulting children’s adventure narratives attempt to negotiate and even combine these two very different forms of risk-taking.

Next, I will explore the rise of fantasy literature for children following the Second World War. There are numerous overviews of trends within children’s literature during this period, but little exists that links these trends with their immediate sociocultural context and with changing attitudes towards childhood during the aftermath of the war and the burgeoning child psychology movement of the 1950s. The adventurous child, I will suggest, channels adult responses to the need to redefine risk in a world still reeling from the horrors of war. It was during this period that the concept of the ‘Young Adult’ novel originated, and childhood adventure shifted inwards to negotiate the complicated landscape of adolescent mental and emotional self-discovery. The texts from this period map quests for self-realization and belonging onto physical exploits in fantastical alternative worlds in order to explore the risks posed to the integrity of the self in the fragmented post-war period. I will examine narratives by C. S. Lewis, Philippa Pearce, Lucy Boston and T. H. White, exploring the ways in which they interweave physical adventure with questions of what Antony Giddens terms ‘ontological security’. Many of these narratives depict the fragmentation of trust bonds between adults and children, and I will investigate how these fragmentations reflect wider anxieties regarding the dissolution or occlusion of trust during the Cold War period.

Finally, this study will consider the recent trend for dystopian narratives in children’s literature, including texts by Veronica Roth and Lois Lowry, and Suzanne Collins’s hugely successful Hunger Games trilogy. Building upon work on chance and probability by Ian Hackett and Gerda Reith, I will consider the ways in which Collins’s text experiments with new models of chance and risk. With its famous mantra, ‘may the odds be ever in your favour’, The Hunger Games depicts a world where children are deprived of the chance to demonstrate courageous agency through risk-taking, and are instead forced into involuntary experiences of artificial risk by the totalitarian Capitol. If, as Reith suggests, ‘the affirmation of chance is also an affirmation of the self’, the totalitarian government’s false and manipulative statement that the odds are ever in its citizens’ favour indicates a threat to self-actualization. Children must negotiate new forms of risk, with the emphasis not on personal agency or honour, as in nineteenth century narratives, but upon collectively challenging the political system that threatens to deprive its citizens of opportunities for voluntary risk. I will also consider the ways in which these texts respond to a digital age in which trust has become ever more protean and elusive. As Giddens points out, ‘trust is related to absence in time and in space’, and an ephemeral, intangible digital world necessitates creative reimagining of the ways in which risk can be used to seek mastery over an increasingly fragmentary existence characterized by nebulous perceptions of trust.

Jack Zipes suggests that children’s literature involves ‘the frank presentation and articulation of experience and knowledge through different narrative modalities in order to provide a listener with strategies for survival and pleasure and to heighten one’s awareness of the sensual pleasures and dangers of life’. This project will explore risk in children’s literature at a narrative level, by examining adult constructs of adventurous children throughout the last century and a half. Identifying moments of cultural crisis of interest to the Trust and Risk network as a whole, it will consider how engagement with ‘the sensual pleasures and dangers of life’, represented through the adventurous child and his or her risky escapades in unknown spaces, enables adults to consider ‘strategies for survival and pleasure’ at moments where our cultural and social relationship with risk is rapidly changing. Ultimately, it will consider the child as an epistemological category through which adults renegotiate and reimagine their relationship to changing conceptualizations of risk.
StatusUnder udarbejdelse - 2017

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