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  • The Rhetoric of Character in Children's Literature
  • Mike Cadden (bio)
The Rhetoric of Character in Children's Literature. By Maria Nikolajeva. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002

Maria Nikolajeva's most recent volume is as ambitious in scale as her recent From Mythic to Linear (2001), also from Scarecrow Press. In the last book she examined the nature and representation of time in children's fiction; in this latest book she offers a theory of character.

The Rhetoric of Character is divided into two sections. The first part, chapters 1 through 7, examines "ontology and typology of character"; the second part, chapters 8 through 13, offers an "epistemology of character." In other words, she is concerned first with distinctions among characters by kind and then with how those different characters are revealed to us by degree. It is important to her that we understand that characters serve different roles and purposes before she explains the obvious and subtler techniques for making characters known to the reader. Each of the two parts is arranged strategically: the first half moves from a discussion of the role of individual characters (Hero, protagonist) to types of character groupings (collective character, intersubjectivity, character constellations, secondary characters). Nikolajeva tells us that the second part is arranged in such a way that "each chapter [is] dedicated to a particular type of characterization, moving from direct (or authorial) to indirect (or figural) representation" and ending with "implicit characterization" (157). The second part examines how characters come to be known through plot, description, narration, actions and events, speech acts, internal representation, and implicit characterization. Thus, in two different areas she takes us from the plain to the subtle. The author claims two purposes for this book: to "[i]nvestigate the ontological and epistemological aspects of characters in children's fiction, and to pinpoint the principal differences between characterization in children's fiction and in general fiction" (xi). She accomplishes these goals.

The volume begins with the sensible question, "Why a Theory of Character?" The author, asserting that "the theory of character is only marginally more developed in general literary studies" (viii) than it is in children's literature, explains that "the dilemma for a children's literature scholar is that it is almost impossible to extrapolate the results of general narratological studies to children's fiction" (ix). She overstates the impossibility of that extrapolation as she consistently applies the work of narrative theorists to children's literature. She is, however, careful to explain how more general narratological studies do fail to take into account the body of children's literature. She also examines the implications for those failures.

Nikolajeva warns us early, in anticipation of some concern about generality, that "some [chapters] are more theory focused, with brief examples, while others go more deeply into individual texts.... It reflects my aim to cover the vast area I am exploring and at the same time pay particular attention to those parts I find the most essential and exciting, and least examined by previous research" (xi). There is some small tension between the presentation of both the forest and a few of its trees, however. Nikolajeva attempts to give expression to two things in this book: first, that which is not surprising but which she believes needs articulation (the phenomenon of sympathizing with protagonists); second, that which is particular, insightful, and which also needs articulation (the strategies for and effects of collective characterization). This causes some problems in identifying an implied audience for this book. But Nikolajeva's book is useful to both the beginning student of children's fiction and to seasoned critics because it moves from the basic to the complex in two areas. If the advanced reader approaches this volume aware that there is a pretty steep learning curve from the beginning of each section to its end, she will ultimately be rewarded. The book seems built for both skimming (clear chapter titles and plentiful subtitles throughout) and long contemplation.

There are a few things left unclear, however. Terms aren't always clearly distinguished from or compared to others, and since this is a book of theory, there are a lot of terms to consider. While the...


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pp. 173-174
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