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  • Elusive Childhood: Impossible Representations in Modern Fiction
  • Suzanna E. Henshon (bio)
Susan Honeyman . Elusive Childhood: Impossible Representations in Modern Fiction. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State UP, 2005.

From Huck Finn to Peter Pan, Jacqueline Rose to comic books, Piaget to William Goldman, Susan Honeyman provides a fascinating cultural snapshot of how children are defined within fiction, critical literature, comic books, and science. In this slim, scholarly volume, Honeyman presents a logical, detailed case: childhood continues to be defined in narrow, rigid terms, and it is critical to rethink this composite stereotype.

Honeyman is keenly aware of how childhood is interpreted in constricted, arbitrary ways in domains ranging from science to children's literature. She writes, "adults construct childhood based on biases that are personal, constantly changing, and often contradictory" (3). Honeyman believes that adults have a limited ability to represent those outside their experience base, including children. In defining childhood as a cultural construct, Honeyman challenges the reader to reject the composite stereotype that is created and imposed upon young people, and to see children as individuals with potential and basic human rights.

After establishing childhood as a construct, Honeyman delineates several critical points: the difficulty of defining a juvenile audience and the impossible task of creating children's literature. She challenges scholars to perceive children's literature through a myriad of perspectives—social psychology, biology, and the larger literary canon. Appropriately, Honeyman references Jacqueline Rose's The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children's Literature (1984) before continuing the dialogue that Rose established about the impossibility of writing for an audience that cannot be defined. Honeyman places her work within the context of children's literary studies that includes the voices of Rose, Richard Flynn, and Karen Coates. In effect, Honeyman challenges readers to take part in the ongoing debate about how childhood is created within adult discourse.

After establishing her argument, Honeyman studies the inaccessible child from the historical context. Honeyman draws special attention to Henry James's What Maisie Knew (1897) and concludes that James was "[a]ware [End Page 283] of the relativity inherent in the act of representation" and "his attempts to delineate children realistically helped him to recognize the impossibility of the task and to explore it" (32). With painstaking detail, Honeyman argues, "We see what Maisie sees, but we cannot know what Maisie knew" (34). In effect, James confronts the critical issue for all writers of "our inability to access another's consciousness" (37). By showing, rather than telling Maisie's story, James allows the reader to participate in constructing the young girl within the mind. Honeyman also investigates the meaning of The Turn of the Screw (1898) and analyzes the book outside the traditional critical interpretations. Honeyman ultimately proves that James "denies us any illusion of certainty about the children's cognition" and that "we cannot access children's minds but only the construct we have created around the young persons who seem to fit those ever-changing definitions" (45). Honeyman thus brings the reader toward new interpretations of this classic text.

Honeyman's depiction of the secret worlds inhabited by children in fictional worlds provides other unusual insights. The inner child is inaccessible, so writers compensate by defining childhood in spatial terms. Yet worlds like Peter Pan's Neverland and Mary Lennox's secret garden are clearly bounded and inaccessible to adults, to the very writers who created them. Honeyman defines the tension between the need for confining these worlds and authenticating them simultaneously. Childhood is conceptualized in the pastoral context, while adults inhabit industrialized and developed territory. However, Sendak, Carroll, and Baum make efforts to validate these fantasies, rather than allowing them to be defined exclusively as dream sequences. David Macauley's Black & White (1995) dispels any attempts to depict a single fictive reality, forcing readers to accept the indeterminacy of any narrative (78), and emphasizes the possibility of multiple stories coexisting in the same setting. With a postmodern argument, Honeyman suggests the impossibility of defining childhood, finally rendering truth itself as impossible to define.

After considering whether childhood can be defined in rational, absolute terms, Honeyman contemplates whether development is a strictly linear process. Honeyman...