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  • Mystery in Children's Literature: From the Rational to the Supernatural
  • Jill P. May (bio)
Mystery in Children's Literature: From the Rational to the Supernatural. Edited by Adrienne E. Gavin and Christopher Routledge. Houndmills, England: Palgrave, 2001

The phrase "you can't tell the book by its cover" will not ring true in the case of Mystery in Children's Literature. A front jacket illustration contains a variety of personalities, mostly from the realms of fairyland and the supernatural, on an old stone and brick bridge. Hedgerows enclose other fantastic characters. Directly below the bridge, two youngsters are shown in sleeping bags, but from their posture it is easy to ascertain that they are watching the other characters, not actively creating mysteries of their own. Thus the book's jacket alerts its scholarly reader to the composition of the essays inside: Mystery in children's literature is less about detectives, spies, and daring adventures than it is about children's literature as a body of fantastic literature. Editors Gavin and Routledge suggest in their introduction that this book takes a British view of the word mystery, implying that it deals more with the uncanny than it does with "a natural explanation" (5) of events and the circumstances surrounding them. They continue:

[...] most of the essays here reveal a persistent interest in the self-identity which child characters are seeking to establish and which is revealed through mystery. In the "supernatural" mysteries this also connects closely with issues of subjectivity and agency. Issues of identity are, of course, inherent in children's literature, which generally has as a subtext some emphasis on "growing up", but, as the essays here show, mystery literature provides opportunities for dealing with these issues that are not otherwise available.


Most of the authors in this collected book are British and Australian scholars, and many of the children's writers discussed are British authors of classical texts. J. M. Barrie, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Enid Blyton, Susan Cooper, Kenneth Grahame, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Philippa Pearce and J. R. R. Tolkien are well known to scholars in children's literature, and they are examined as writers who use their personal histories in their children's literature. Often, these British writers are discussed as authors who created archetypal patterns found in children's literature. For example, discussions of the works by Frances Hodgson Burnett appear in three essays. Gavin and Routledge's introductory chapter ties The Little Princess and The Secret Garden to early religious mysteries while suggesting that Burnett's stories were "forerunners to the Nancy Drew series" (7) with heroines struggling to be heard. Pat Pinsent also turns to the ideals of early religious mysteries in "'So great and beautiful that I cannot write them': Religious Mystery and Children's Literature," arguing that The Secret Garden "provides a clear instance within a generally realist framework of some kind of supernatural power preserving the lives and destinies of the child characters, Mary and Colin" (21). Mary Jeanette Moran explains in "Nancy's Ancestors: the Mystery of Imaginative Female Power in The Secret Garden and A Little Princess" that these books provide mysteries that are important because the two heroines are discovering "self-determination as they investigate different means by which to make their voices heard" (33).

Some American and Australian titles are also discussed in these articles, as is the German mystery Emil and the Detectives, written by Erich Kastner. Again, the books pinpointed in these scholarly articles are classical titles in children's literature: there is lengthy analysis of Avi's The Man Who Was Poe; the Nancy Drew books; Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy; Margaret Mahy's The Changeover and The Tricteters; Eleanor Raskin's The Westing Game; Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, Detective: As Told by Huck Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; and Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. When the pieces are written by British scholars, the American titles are considered a reflection of the American economy and childhood innocence, thus as socio-political texts, or for the "way their variations on mysteries sustain puzzles. . . and reveal the innovative...


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pp. 232-233
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