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Melancholia and Maturation

The Use of Trauma in American Children's Literature

Eric L. Tribunella

Publication Year: 2010

“Coming of age” in children’s fiction often means achieving maturity through the experience of trauma. In classics ranging from Old Yeller to The Outsiders, a narrative of psychological pain defies expectations of childhood as a time of innocence and play. In this provocative new book, Eric L. Tribunella explores why trauma, especially the loss of a loved object, occurs in some of the most popular and critically acclaimed twentieth-century American fiction for children.

Tribunella draws on queer theory and feminist revisions of Freud’s notion of melancholia, which is described as a fundamental response to loss, arguing that the low-grade symptoms of melancholia are in fact what characterize the mature, sober, and responsible American adult. Melancholia and Maturation looks at how this effect is achieved in a society that purports to protect youngsters from every possible source of danger, thus requiring melancholia to be induced artificially.

Each of the book’s five chapters focuses on a different kind of lost object sacrificed so as to propel the child toward a distinctively gendered, sexual, ethical, and national adulthood—from same-sex friends to the companionship of boy-and-his-dog stories, from the lost ideals of historical fiction about the American Revolution to the children killed or traumatized in Holocaust novels. The author examines a wide spectrum of works—including Jack London’s dog tales, the contemporary “realistic” novels of S. E. Hinton, and Newbery Medal winners like Johnny Tremain and Bridge to Terabithia.

Tribunella raises fundamental questions about the value of children’s literature as a whole and provides context for understanding why certain books become required reading for youth.

Eric L. Tribunella is assistant professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi. His articles have been published in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Children’s Literature in Education, The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature, and Children’s Literature.


Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

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pp. vii-x

I genuinely appreciate a number of people who have been so important in my personal and professional life over the past decade or so and who thereby supported my writing of this book. I am especially grateful to Kenneth Kidd at the University of Florida and Steve Kruger at the City University of New York Graduate Center, who have both put in untold time and effort reading and responding...

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pp. xi-xxxviii

This book examines a common narrative in twentieth-century American literature for youth: that of the child-protagonist’s love for some cherished object—a dear friend, a dog, a possibility, an ideal—the loss of that loved object, and his or her subsequent maturation through the experience of loving...

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Chapter 1: Losing and Using Queer Youth

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pp. 1-28

For traumatic loss to function as a catalyst for melancholic maturation, a range of objects must be marked out as available for sacrifice. One of the key objects used for this purpose is same-sex affection or queerness.1 When I refer to queer youth or objects, I mean to suggest that they are marked...

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Chapter 2: A Boy and His Dog

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pp. 29-50

The image of the canine companion in Western literature has a long history, dating back at least to Homer’s The Odyssey, in which Odysseus’s faithful dog, Argos, long awaits his master’s return to Ithaca and dies only upon seeing him. This tradition extends through Shakespeare...

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Chapter 3: Knowing, Unknowing, and the Achievement of Young Adulthood

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pp. 51-76

The work of S. E. Hinton, known for her groundbreaking young adult fiction, is marked by traumatic loss, usually of delinquent youth who have run afoul of the law. Through the loss of their delinquent friends, the surviving protagonists in Hinton’s first two novels...

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Chapter 4: Melancholic Development and Revolutionary War Fiction for Children

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pp. 77-100

In 2001, Newsweek writer Evan Thomas coined the phrase “Founders chic” to describe the surge of public interest at the beginning of the new millennium in the Founders and the events surrounding the American Revolution. Studies of the Founders have not only enjoyed massive sales and long-term...

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Chapter 5: Melancholic Sacrifice and the Holocaust in American Children's Culture

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pp. 101-126

The number of children’s books about the Holocaust is astonishing. Edward Sullivan lists 142 fictional accounts and 15 picture books in his bibliography, The Holocaust in Literature for Youth. Many of these books have been published in the United States and written by American authors...

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Coda: Physical Trauma, Childhood Embodiment, and Children’s Literature

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pp. 127-134

Some the most popular and critically acclaimed children’s books increasingly promote an ethic of renunciation that is represented as critical to melancholic maturity. In her introduction to the special forum on “Trauma and Children’s Literature,” Katherine Capshaw Smith refers...


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pp. 135-146

Works Cited

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pp. 147-154


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pp. 155-161

E-ISBN-13: 9781572336896
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572336810

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2010