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  • Negotiating the "Capricious Infinite"
  • Richard Flynn

In "Children Selecting Books in a Library," Randall Jarrell wrote that children's "tales are full of sorcerers and ogres / Because their lives are: the capricious infinite / That, like parents, no one has yet escaped / except by luck or magic" (106). The articles in this issue of the Children's Literature Association Quarterly offer provocative discussions of the relationships between young people and the capricious infinite as meditated through their reading. Taken together, they speak to and sometimes against each other, emphasizing that our notions of "children's literature" are unavoidably complex and contested.

In "Writing the Reader: The Literary Child in and Beyond the Book," Claudia Nelson argues that children's metafiction, particularly "intrusion fantasies," "juggle mimesis and fantasy to achieve a kind of double didacticism, one part furthering the same moral values that we associate with children's literature of a more traditional kind, the other part suggesting that questioning authority—including the authority of the didactic text—may be reading's most important lesson." While not as overtly political as the other articles in this issue, Nelson's discussion of the relationship between author, text, and implied (and actual) readers in metafictional children's texts is presented in the context of our present "manifold insecurities where children are concerned." While novels such as those by Edward Eager or Cornelia Funke are unquestionably didactic in their attempts to "'write' the child reader as a certain kind of being: imaginative, alive to jokes, intellectually active and engaged," that didacticism seems preferable to contemporary attempts to define children according to intellectually bankrupt, standardized curricula or fetishizing them as all "sweetness and innocence." I must acknowledge my own nostalgia here, as I was one of those children who loved many of the books Nelson discusses, especially Estes's The Witch Family. (I was also one of those children who "embarked upon a course of Andrew Lang," so Estes's intertexts were to me sacred texts.) Indeed, the idea that one could both please adults and at the same time subvert their authority by becoming a reader remains utterly attractive. [End Page 219]

Perhaps I was drawn to such fictional worlds because the Cold War world I lived in was so frightening to me. Today, as I write at a moment of escalating violence on several fronts in the Middle East and Iraq, I can barely imagine what it would be like to be growing up in 2006. Christine Wilkie-Stibbs makes clear in her article, "The 'Other' Country: Memory, Voices, and Experiences of Colonized Childhoods," that "new millennium" novels for young adults both reflect and contest anxieties about "unprecedented capitalist hegemony" in a contemporary world marked by "the escalation of sectarian warfare and insurgencies, fundamentalisms, nationalisms, preemptive attacks on sovereign states, and 'the global war on terror.'" Arguing that the novels discussed "enunciate powerful modes of resistance" to the hegemony of "new global politics on the lives of many young people," she nevertheless points out that the novels "give little hint or hope of creating something better." If, as Wilkie-Stibbs contends, the new millennial young adult novels "interrogate and expose the mechanisms of power, how it functions and sustains itself and is the agent of structural violence," I wonder what can be done to create active, engaged young readers today.

Tison Pugh and David Wallace's "Heteronormative Heroism and Queering the School Story in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Series" explores the ways in which the series challenges "the traditional form of the school story by undermining structures of normativity" on the surface but ultimately reinscribes a form of heteronormative heroism. They do not argue that the Potter books are "particularly egregious" examples of "upholding gendered and sexual normativity," but their close attention to the texts demonstrates convincingly the ways the Harry Potter stories merely flirt with challenging the ideological status quo. Noting how often the books have been read in light of Joseph Campbell's "Myth and Birth of the [heterosexual male] Hero," the novels' queer possibilities are increasingly subsumed under that myth as Harry matures.

Dawn Thompson's deft and subtle comparative reading of M. E. Kerr's Deliver Us From...


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pp. 219-220
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