- Literary Conceptualizations of Growth by Roberta Seelinger Trites
Roberta Trites’s new book continues her concern with the fact that adolescent literature uniquely seeks to eradicate its own subject and target audience. However, I did not realize this continuity with her prior work until I reached the end of chapter 6, “The Hegemony of Growth in Adolescent Literature.” In her concluding sentence, she asks: “Do those of us in childhood studies ever want to write about childhood and adolescence employing metaphors that effectively entail youth as negative, as something to be outgrown?” (145). Trites’s book represents, I believe, an introductory view of cognitive narratology, as illustrated by adolescent literature. The book’s structure departs from the usual method of our field; it moves from general to specific, from overview to argument, and from cognitive psychology to literature as example of cognitive principle. My sense is that the publication series, Children’s Literature, Culture, and Cognition, seeks to reach a general audience and introduce it to literary concepts that are quite familiar to practicing critics. The series’ goal is to present interdisciplinary research in multiple linguistic areas for an international audience. Trites’s book has a lecture-like feel and briefly uses works of literature as examples and illustrations of general concepts. I found myself thinking that its overarching thesis seems to be that literature operates with a similar method to that of human consciousness. Trites uses this correspondence to interrogate some of the major concepts that we blindly accept as critics of children’s and adolescent literature.
The book is a broad-brush view of the inescapable metaphor of growth in the novel, in critical accounts of literature, and in philosophy. The project involves Trites in taking a step back from close reading to a larger, general view of how literature fits into the field of cognitive psychology, where she finds persistent “scripts” and “embodied metaphors” for pondering human development. These appear to be the two poles around which the book orbits. Scripts, in my nontechnical understanding, are basically sequential narratives that we use to make sense of situations; they range from basic to complex, from the invisible (for example, the way we represent growth as a journey) to the stereotypical. Embodied metaphors intersect with scripts; they represent the brain’s need to conceptualize the world by analogy between physical matters and ideas. Trites introduces embodied metaphors so she can play with them throughout this volume, showing how ideas emergent from [End Page 204] bodies become interesting sites in such works as Unwind.
There are other cognitive psychology tools used throughout this study. Trites’s purpose seems to be tracking how cognition operates throughout texts across space, time, and culture; in her view, adolescent literature mirrors the brain’s need to embody ideas, conceptualize, blend concepts, and employ scripts for efficiency and understanding. However, I think her larger purpose is to show how literature can use these tools to critique them as well; she does not state this, but as the book goes on, the critical voice of Trites with which we have become familiar emerges—for example, when in chapter 4 she castigates Pixar for its gender norms. I leave the book with the feeling that the project might have begun because of an underlying irritation at the persistence of certain seemingly unshakable scripts.
The lively, critical voice that Trites usually employs comes and goes in the book, but it is fully present in the Pixar chapter. I have worked on complex issues of masculinity in Pixar, and Trites puts these issues in a broader context. She shows how the myth that “girls are more mature than boys” circulates as an underlying assumption throughout the Pixar canon. I had always assumed that films such as Toy Story embody young male perspectives, which preclude nonstereotypical female characters; I had never considered the broader mythology that Trites illuminates in this chapter.
Other chapters similarly analyze overarching myths that we take for granted, embodying a very wide perspective on not only our own field but everyday tropes as well. Chapter 1 defines embodied metaphors...