- Choose Your Own Agenda:Margaret Mahy's Memory
The freedom to choose is a central tenet of liberal humanist philosophy and associated ideological practices. Although we are all inevitably subject to the ideologies inherent in our ruling cultural discourses, we are freer to choose subject positions when knowledge and understanding empower us. Within the context of literature for children and adolescents, choose-your-own-adventure books, a publishing phenomenon of the 1980s, provide an example of the simplest, and most simplistic, ways of choosing and of offering choices. These texts rely on interruptions to the conventional narrative at selected points where the reader chooses from a variety of possibilities and then moves to another place in the text with a further chain of consequences. As Peter Hunt points out, such texts are subversive because they question linear beginning-middle-end narrative with its tight closure and implicate the reader self-consciously in a variety of subject positions (9). In drawing attention to their own fictiveness and to the nature of textuality, choose-your-own-adventure books are metafictional in a rudimentary fashion. Nevertheless, as Hunt stresses, they are formulaic and deterministic, operating within a narrow set of moral and generic assumptions. The small range of choices offered obscures the question of who has chosen the choices. The dualism endemic to Western metaphysics has trickled down even to this narrative structure, with choice represented as a matter of either-or, one of two mutually exclusive positions.
Similarly, one of the child's most important agendas is to explore the qualities that define gender. And yet many critical readings of children's literature persist in dualist accounts of gender representation, making of gender another kind of choose-your-own-adventure, a matter of mutually exclusive alternatives. Choosing your own identity should not be the same as choosing your own adventure, involving as it does an awareness of the constructedness of available choices and subject positions and a willingness to resist essentialist thinking and discourse, whether it has to do with gender, age, class, or race.
But critics are not the only essentialists; writers too may fail to question gender formulas. In the field of contemporary children's literature, the New Zealand writer Margaret Mahy is one of very few children's writers to move toward a postmodern representation of subjectivity and portray the adventure of choosing a shifting series of selves according to context. Mahy has won high acclaim for her fiction, which ranges from picture books such as A Lion in the Meadow (1969) for young children, to The Haunting (1982) and The Changeover (1984) for middle readers, to The Tricksters (1986), The Catalogue of the Universe (1985), and Memory (1987) for adolescents. Characteristically, she uses a blend of the realistic and fantastic genres to tell her stories, sometimes including the supernatural, at other times deploying it through a rich use of metaphor and metonymy that challenges the putative transparency of realism. She has won not only the New Zealand Library Association's Esther Glen Medal for A Lion in the Meadow, The First Margaret Mahy Storybook (1972), The Haunting, and The Changeover, but also the prestigious British Carnegie Medal for The Haunting and The Changeover, and she is one of the very few writers to have done so twice. Her later novels, however, have not been so loudly acclaimed. While her earlier novels, with their focus on the individual, redemptive transcendentalism, and wry social irony, fall within comfortable parameters in the field of children's literature, her later novels have moved too far from the mainstream, particularly in relation to gender, to attract sustained critical attention.
Moreover, Mahy's writing has been uncertainly received by children's literature critics. The search for a mythic site of origins (one that the very notion of Romantic childhood implies) has centered much of the study of children's literature on what are seen as the originating narratives of its tradition—myths, legends, folk and fairy tales. Jungian psychoanalytic interpretations are popular, their reductive tendencies suiting a discourse still given to an appeal to universal truths invoked by that universalizing referent, the figure of the child. The archetype of the male...