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  • The Curating Child:Runaways and Museums in Children’s Fiction
  • Virginia Zimmerman (bio)

Museums appear in a range of children’s novels, from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) and E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet (1906) to Blue Balliett and Brett Helquist’s Chasing Vermeer (2004) and Allyson Condie’s Matched (2010).1 In each instance, the museum setting highlights the relationship between objects and identity, whether cultural or personal. The amulet in Nesbit’s novel, for instance, serves at once to lead the children to assorted cultures and times and to reunite their family. In Matched, Cassia’s discovery that confiscated personal artifacts are not on display in the museum advances her realization that individuality is effaced in her society. In a succinct articulation of how museum objects signify, Jean Baudrillard, in “The System of Collecting,” asserts that “the antique object . . . presents itself as a myth of origins” (76). Indeed, some museum theorists have explored the idea of objects on display as cultural coming-of-age narratives.2 An exhibit is a material representation of the culture that produced or acquired the objects on display, revealing origins but also a narrative arc—the objects tell the story of how a culture assumed its contemporary form.3 At the personal level, museums offer individuals the opportunity to place themselves in context and thus provide a material encounter that shapes identity. John H. Falk states plainly, “The key to understanding the museum visitor’s experience [is] the construct of identity” (9). The connection between origins and identity displayed in museums is particularly germane for children for whom the business of building a sense of self is the primary business of life. In this essay, I examine two novels in which children run away and find themselves living, for a brief time, in museums: E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967) and Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck (2011) demonstrate how museums prompt children to curate themselves. I offer curating—understanding [End Page 42] the layers of meaning signified by an object and setting that object in an appropriate context—as a novel way to understand coming-of-age.

Coming-of-age is perhaps most commonly associated with the bildungsroman, in which the meaning of the phrase is straightforward: a character develops from a child into an adult. Yet, scholars and teachers of children’s literature also use “coming-of-age” to describe child characters who are still children at the end of their narratives. In this usage, the definition of the term is more elusive. In general, it describes a growing physical and emotional maturity that allows children to make better choices and to take on more responsibility. In addition, coming-of-age usually involves a movement away from safe and protected spaces, literally and metaphorically, as children face troubling realities. Recent theorists of adolescent literature have emphasized the tension between the independent self and the restricting elements of society as a key issue in coming-of-age narratives. For example, in “The Harry Potter Novels as a Test Case for Adolescent Literature,” Roberta Seelinger Trites argues that coming-of-age is associated with the dawning recognition of the limits society imposes on identity. Karen Coats makes a similar point, though from a psychoanalytic perspective, in Looking Glasses and Neverlands: Lacan, Desire, and Subjectivity in Children’s Literature, describing subjectivity as “a movement between that which we control and that which controls us” (5). In Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The Dialogic Construction of Subjectivity, Robyn McCallum explores a dialogic relationship between the child and the society. Following Bakhtin, she resists reading a power dynamic in this diode, but, like Coats and Trites, she sees the collision of child and society as the trigger for development. Although the novels I consider here may not be classified as adolescent literature,4 I find Trites, Coats, and McCallum useful in formulating my own definition of coming-of-age. I use the term to mean the movement from a limited or confused understanding of the self to a richer sense of self-in-context. This coming-of-age process parallels the way an object...


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