- Adventures into Otherness: Child Metamorphs in Late Twentieth-Century Children's Literature
A recurrent inquiry in recent scholarship on children's literature is how the child protagonist is constructed as "the Other" and thus as inferior in the child/adult power structure. With her study Adventures into Otherness, Maria Lassén-Seger enters the debate and provides a new approach to the analysis of power relations in fiction for children by focusing on texts in which the child protagonist undergoes the process of metamorphosis. Building on the premise that children's literature does not necessarily "colonise" children but has the "ability to interrogate and subvert child/adult power structures" (4), her research centers on two questions: "How do children's authors employ the motif [End Page 420] of child-other metamorphosis? And is the motif used to empower or disempower child metamorphs, or both?" (9).
In other words, Adventures into Otherness explores how the experience of the Other relates to the formation of the Self and, consequently, to the empowerment of the character and, possibly, the child reader. Empowerment is to be understood here, as Lassén-Seger clarifies in the introduction, not as gaining power over others but rather, following Roberta Seelinger Trites, as "agency, subjectivity, positive forms of autonomy, self-expression, and self-awareness" (3). As such, empowerment is closely linked to the process of individuation that takes place, in the texts analyzed, through metamorphosis. However, Lassén-Seger refrains from oversimplifying her findings and maintains that child-other metamorphosis can be employed both as a potentially subversive motif, resulting in empowerment, and as a means of reinforcing existing power hierarchies, typically resulting in disempowerment. Her study ultimately leads her to conclude that recent children's literature employing the motif of metamorphosis tends to move away from the didactic and toward the liberating: "in contemporary stories of this kind metamorphosis is less obviously socializing/ didactic and increasingly ambivalent and postmodernist" (263).
The scope of Adventures into Otherness is limited to English-language texts for children and adolescents from Great Britain, North America, and Australia that feature a protagonist below the age of eighteen. Lassén-Seger analyzes both canonized fictions, such as Roald Dahl's The Witches (1983), and lesser-known tales, including Janet Anderson's Going through the Gate (1997). Lassén-Seger's study includes both novels as well as picture books, and the appendix contains eighteen pages of illustrations, in color, that demonstrate visually the child-other metamorphosis that constitutes the focus of the book. While the appendix also helpfully provides a chronological list of the primary texts, most of which were published in the 1980s and 1990s, Lassén-Seger organizes her study thematically into three subcategories: "Wild and Uncivilized Child Metamorphs," "Innocent, Playful, and Rebellious Child Metamorphs," and "Victimized and Lost Child Metamorphs." She employs narratological tools throughout to analyze the texts' discourses, and her reading of the tales grouped under the second heading relies also on the use of play theory and Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque.
The author explains her methodology extensively in the introduction, where she also provides an overview of the recent debate regarding power structures and Self/Other binaries in children's literature, summarizing the points and perspectives put forth by renowned scholars such as David Rudd, Trites, Jacqueline Rose, Perry Nodelman, Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, and others. Lassén-Seger ultimately maintains that "children's literature comprises a variety of genres and artistic ambitions . . . [and] narratives for children and [End Page 421] teenagers may actually question child/adult power relationships" (20). While she thus asserts her own position in the contemporary discourse on children's literature, her argument here is neither surprising nor original but simply restates other scholars' findings. Yet although this synopsis of contemporary criticism in children's literature holds little new for those familiar with the work of the scholars Lassén-Seger refers to, this introduction can serve as an informative and clear overview for the student who is relatively new to...