- Regarding the Pain of Children
Mr. and Mrs. Bishop look across at each other in the dark. Mrs. Bishop says desperately:
We’re all they’ve got, Walt.
Mr. Bishop takes a deep breath. He says finally, with a dawning realization:
It’s not enough.Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
What do we study when we study children’s literature and culture? Some answers, prompted by the books under review here: eighteenth-century captivity narratives, mid-twentieth-century young adult novels of cross-species love, 1930s picture books about talking trains, the dreamwork and screenwork of children’s classics. Yet for all their variety of (mostly) textual artifacts, these books strikingly share an interest in narratives of children’s suffering and pain. Anna Mae Duane investigates a historical process and its product; as her subtitle has it, “violence, race, and the making of the child victim.” Eric Tribunella explores (as his subtitle has it) the “use of trauma.” For these two scholars, in first books that speak to each other across historical periods, children’s suffering makes something happen, historically (Duane) and developmentally [End Page 418] (Tribunella), as well as culturally and socially. If Duane is largely interested in the historical emergence of a still-resonant icon—the child victim—Tribunella’s object is a narrative mode that both models and evokes the psychic and developmental process he calls melancholic maturation. Kenneth Kidd’s Freud in Oz (2011) surveys some of the same psychic and cultural territory, which his subtitle’s GPS locates “at the intersections of psychoanalysis and children’s literature.” A chapter called “T Is for Trauma” closes the book and the content of many of the genres he invokes (fairy tales, case studies, picture books) prominently features children’s pain. While Natalie op de Beeck’s Suspended Animation (2010) aims for a broadly cultural analysis of a single genre or format, picture books for children, she enticingly finds in them a “fairy tale of modernity,” whose visual and verbal imagery, especially in the best chapter, on “sentient machines,” provides another entree for thinking about the meanings of pain and loss in children’s literature under the conditions of late modernity.
All participating in a by-now well-developed children’s turn in American literary studies, these books emerge from distinct literary-historical traditions and methodologies. Duane works in early American literary history and American studies, while Tribunella and Kidd are more firmly planted in a psychoanalytically informed children’s literature studies. Op de Beeck, grounded in children’s literary studies and in art history, offers a more broadly and loosely cultural–theoretical approach. These disciplinary distinctions bear on their objects of study, or the problematic of the object of study.
The promise and challenges of Anna Mae Duane’s project are captured in its title. Here, it is the abstract childhood that suffers, while it is simultaneously suffered by someone (presumably the children who inhabit it). And out of an admixture of violence and race in early America, a child victim is made. As the tensions of the title suggest, there’s something alluringly intransigent about Duane’s object of study that makes it difficult to describe. It’s both a trope and a topos, a figure, a place, and a process: a child victim and the representational, cultural work that images of suffering children do. The materials that might reveal something about the children in question are naturally difficult to access; there’s little in the way of firsthand testimony or narrative of any kind by children in any period, to say nothing of in early American sources. But Duane’s method of closely...