- Secrets, Lies and Children’s Fiction by Kerry Mallan
Lying is wrong, all children learn. However, children also are taught to lie and to keep secrets. Children, as we know all too well, often rejoice in secrets. When is lying desirable? Might deception be necessary in certain conditions? Might an untruth help a person to survive in hostile circumstances, and if so, what is the ethical weight of that lie? In Secrets, Lies and Children’s Fiction, Kerry Mallan explores the ironies inherent in lying. Truth and dishonesty are ambiguous and morally complex, and children can learn this from the literature they read. Mallan argues that lying often is the better option, and she deftly uses postmodern theory to destabilize the so-called objectivity of truth in children’s texts.
Mallan’s provocative argument works best when applied to narratives about political power. Many of the works under discussion in Secrets, Lies and Children’s Fiction show the child or young adult in conflict with ideological systems. This emphasis on politics is welcome, as children and young adults live in the world, not in protective bubbles, and they are subject to the pressures and vicissitudes that politics bring to everyday life. Mallan fruitfully explores the connection between lying and a wide variety of totalizing societies, such as cults, crime families, Khomeini’s Iran, and—in fictive terms—the districts of Panem in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.
The sections “Secrets of State” and “Secret Societies” are particularly strong. In “Secrets of State,” Mallan analyzes Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008), Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008), and Kristen Simmons’ Article 5 (2012), all of which depict governments lying to citizens and controlling the dissemination of information. This is an important aspect of twenty-first-century lives, as Little Brother, with its emphasis on torture and surveillance technology, makes abundantly clear. Mallan wishes “to problematise the bifurcation of good and bad,” she says, and to question the categories good and evil when it comes to secrecy and deceit. She argues, following Foucault, that readers of the novels observe the protagonists learning to be active subjects and concealing their knowledge in order to sustain themselves as “moral subject[s]” (101). In Collins’ The Hunger Games, for example, heroine Katniss Everdeen goes from sneaking outside her fenced city to concealing information from Panem’s corrupt President to falsely threatening suicide in order to save two lives. Mallan’s observations about secrecy in The Hunger Games are engaging, and she might have pursued this argument through the trilogy—which concludes spectacularly, with Katniss more ambiguous than ever—rather than critiquing only the first book. Further attention to dystopian criticism, too, including that of young adult dystopias like the Hunger Games (e.g., Veronica Roth’s Divergent) would have made her valid arguments even stronger. [End Page 229]
Mallan’s thought-provoking chapters repeatedly examine characters who attempt to live in truth while forming their identities in politically hostile environments. In the section, “Unveiling the Truth,” Mallan discusses the metaphorical and political meanings of the hijab with regard to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003) and Persepolis 2 (2004), and Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big in This? (2005); Mallan details the ways the head covering reveals and conceals the truth in Satrapi’s graphic memoir and Abdel-Fattah’s novel. In the section, “Lies of Necessity,” Mallan challenges ethical concerns about lying by investigating the reasons for hiding and concealment of Jews in Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars (1989); of national identity in Beverley Naidoo’s novel of Nigerian refugees, The Other Side of Truth (2000); and of an Afghan girls’ school in Jeanette Winter’s Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan (2009). These examples of political situations reinforce Mallan’s argument that lying can be essential rather than opportunistic.
In the final chapter, “Artful Deception,” Mallan explores a more playful side of deception. She moves from examining vexed characters to considering how authors experiment with metafiction and narrative authority. In works like The Name of This Book Is Secret...