18 October 2006

Reconstructing the Imagery of Social Heroism

At the International Conference on the Book to be held here in Boston this upcoming weekend, Prof. Jill P. May of Purdue will present a paper on "American Fantasy for Youthful Audiences." The conference website offers this preview:

Using four books published with a youthful audience in mind, this presentation will discuss the ways that four American authors reconstructed the imagery of social heroism for their contemporary readers. These authors span a hundred-year period in American publishing, and they demonstrate ways that religious, social and political ideals have been embedded in American children’s and adolescent literature.

The public acceptance of their fantasies details how American publishing has re-shaped certain images concerning the ideal of heroism and the social implications of culturally established gender roles within books designed for a contemporary youthful audience. All four authors were inspired by earlier socially established literary patterns that depicted social and economic justice and cultural memory as found in published editions of European folklore and literary fantasy books. Two, Howard Pyle and Lloyd Alexander, reshaped the hero’s journey, turning to the economic and ethical issues embedded in social change in their careful depictions of characters forced to understand and accept (or reject) mythical ideology and economic power. Two, Natalie Babbitt and Edith Patou, have revisited gender imagery in traditional European folklore and have detailed the significance of young girls within a traditional society in their rewritings of published nineteenth century folklore for youthful readers.

This paper will consider whether these U. S. authors consciously reshaped earlier depictions of war, gender, social and economic justice, and memory in their writing and how their writing was received upon its publication, suggesting how authors write literature that reverses contemporary attitudes about culture and power and demonstrating that audiences often accept these literary re-writings best when they fail to overtly consider the underlying ideals found in contemporary publishing for youthful readers.
Kinda takes the magic out of fantasy, doesn't it?

Now May knows what she's writing about. She's on Purdue's list of great teachers, she literally wrote the book on Alexander, and even her textbook with the daunting title Children's Literature and Critical Theory starts out with an evocative, personal passage on how reading can transport:
When I was a child, I was a continual reader and dreamer. I read about Pochahontas and then role played her life, using the tall corn rows in our garden as her forest; I read about Robin Hood and his merry men and I became a part of his merry band, wandering the forest land behind my farm home; I heard of Dorothy's trip in a cyclone to a magical land and imagined I was Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, spreading newspaper across the living-room and dining-room floors to make my yellow brick road.
I'm intrigued by how fantasy writing for children can challenge prevailing economic ideas, as long as the challenges don't become overt. At least, that's what I think I draw out of May's summary above. But the academic prose alternately puts me on edge and puts me to sleep. And if you're writing about childhood play, why use "role played" as a verb (and a non-hyphenated one at that) when "pretended" is available? Or would simple language be too overt?

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