- Children's Literature and the Classics
Innovative and instructive, this excellent collection includes contributions from an author of more than thirty books for young readers and others (Michael Cadnum), several distinguished classicists (Edith Hall, Owen Hodkinson, Helen Lovatt, Sheila Murnaghan, Deborah H. Roberts, Niall Slater) and a nine-year-old saxophonist (Caroline Lovatt). Ancient authors range chronologically from Aesop to Apuleius, modern ones from William Godwin to J. K. Rowling and beyond. The collection is almost entirely restricted, however, to anglophone receptions of antiquity.1
The volume is arranged in five sections. The first opens with a helpful introduction by the editors, justifying the focus on transformation: change is a constant for children; literature for young readers adapts style and content to suit its audience; ideas of what is age appropriate alter as well (1-37). After offering broad definitions of children's literature—with its distinctive genres, such as alphabet books; its characteristic brevity; its moral or didactic intent—and reception studies, the editors pick out some motifs that recur in the contributors' chapters: gender and class, identification and othering, image and text. Helen Lovatt then presents a case study of classical allusions in the Harry Potter books. Exotic but familiar to English readers, Latin figures as a means to power and privilege, the language of magic. This is followed by full summaries of individual chapters.
The introductory section closes with an imaginative triptych: Michael Cadnum's account of his short novel Nightsong (in chapter 1: "Beyond the World: Gossip, Murder and the Legend of Orpheus," 38-49), Owen Hodkinson's interview with him (chapter 2, 50-63), and Hodkinson's critical study of two of Cadnum's versions [End Page 161] of Ovid, Nightsong and Starfall ("Michael Cadnum's Metamorphoses of Ovid," 64-86). Cadnum discusses his preference for the voice and point of view of young characters and reveals the impact of his mother's illness on his reimagining of the story of Orpheus, in which Eurydice's spirit inspires the singer to take up his lyre once again in order to heal an injured boy. Cadnum insists that he writes with no specific audience in mind; he asserts that if he is thought of as a writer of children's literature, this is the result of decisions made by publishers, booksellers, and reviewers. The interview returns to this issue, exploring Cadnum's interest in myths: in his opinion, such tropes as the Turmoil of Adolescence are myths we live through. Cadnum avoids slavery in his fiction because the subject is so important that it must take the centre of any story; sexuality also plays no part because the "mythical world is pre-sexual, speaking to a part of our imagination before we had sexual partners" (61). Another feature of his fiction that seems to suit young readers, its brevity, is ascribed to his respect for silence. Hodkinson's own presentation expresses some skepticism about all this—reception theory insists that a text's meaning is not solely or even mainly under the control of its author—and comments perceptively on Ovidian features in Cadnum's work. Hodkinson concludes that the study of Cadnum's youthful voices opens up new perspectives on Ovid's naive and childlike characters (for example, Scylla).
Part I, "Changing Times," contains two broad brush strokes: Edith Hall's "Aesop the Morphing Fabulist" (89-107) explores the reach of Aesop's fables, imported into Greece from the ancient Near East 2500 years ago and now rivalled only by the Bible in ubiquity. Translated into Tamil in 1969, into Bosnian in 1994, into Kurdish in 2002, Aesop in the native tongue has become a marker of nationhood. The work's universality is in part the consequence of its similarity to Jesus's parables and its compatibility with the moral teachings of Christianity—missionaries took it everywhere—and in part a testament to its openness to different political readings. But however much the fables' brevity and didacticism strike us as appropriate for children, we...