- Little Red Readings: Historical Materialist Perspectives on Children's Literature ed. by Angela E. Hubler
Class-based scholarly criticism of texts aimed at younger audiences has been appearing with greater frequency, and analyses that relate social position to gender, race, and nationality speak to the impulse behind Little Red Readings. Edited by Angela E. Hubler, this timely collection of Marxist approaches emphasizes intersectionality through the essays of its thirteen contributors. While featuring close readings of narrative, illustration, and film—particularly as texts challenge or reinforce hegemonic class structures—the volume is a significant contribution to research on the contexts and materiality of children's literature: production practices, marketing techniques, teaching and learning strategies, histories of reception and readership. The result is an informed, and at times fascinating, treatment of how characters, authors, readers, editors, publishers, and social institutions construct and respond to the white, middle-class norms of the industry.
The volume works to historicize and denaturalize both the capitalist narratives underwriting the production of texts for children and the critical approaches to such material taught in American universities and colleges. As Hubler states in her Introduction, the intent is “to broaden an understanding of historical materialist literary criticism and to remedy the marginal status of this approach, particularly in the United States” (xi). While evidence of the criticism's pedagogical marginalization could be more compelling, Hubler, like several of the contributors, provides definitions of key terms, critical and political contexts for the collection's approach, and arguments regarding the [End Page 118] potential of historical materialist methodologies “to confront the conservative class character of children's literature” (xiv).
Three main modes of critique emerge from the volume's attention to “the relationship between art and social and economic reality” (xii). The first participates in what I see as a strategy of estrangement, where a number of essays disrupt habitual understandings of texts through Marxist analysis. Rereading “classics” through the motif of class struggle, as in Mervyn Nicholson's slightly rambling treatment of Golden Age children's literature, or pointing to an author's focus on the transcendent rather than the material, as in Sharon Smulders's essay on P. L. Travers, can demystify the aura of canonical texts and foreground their political implications. Notable papers in this vein include Ian Wojcik-Andrews's analysis of stereotypical Asian- and Black-American screen identities in silent-era and contemporary films, which is accompanied by his call for representational strategies that would “change rather than merely interpret the way we see the world” (209). Hubler's critique of Lois Lowry's The Giver is established through a compare-and-contrast model, too. Differentiating Lowry's investment in the American myth of individualism from Suzanne Collins's emphasis on the “material factors” (236) prompting rebellion in The Hunger Games series, Hubler argues that the latter “offers the hope to readers that a better society can be created through the collective efforts of ordinary people” (241).
A revisionist mode is also evident in the collection, as essays address gaps in scholarship through readings of under-analyzed or overlooked texts. Cynthia Anne McLeod's study of contemporary children's books depicting the American labor movement is particularly well-researched, as she explores “how unionism past and present is constructed and explained” (96) through her critical engagement with more than fifty texts, including Strike! by Barbara Corcoran and Julie Baker's Up Molasses Mountain. McLeod observes recurring patterns in this body of literature, such as the frequent association of labor unrest and violence, and the repeated portrayal of collective action as a historical rather than contemporary necessity, which implies that “current labor protests are less worthy than those of the past” (101). Though more of a summative approach to an under-researched British children's periodical, Jane Rosen's survey of The Young Socialist: A Magazine of Justice and Love addresses how the contexts of its publication and editorial politics affected the journal's content and methods for addressing a younger audience. Jana Mikota's “Girls' Literature by German Writers in Exile...