- Discourses of Postcolonialism in Contemporary British Children’s Literature by Blanka Grzegorczyk
As Blanka Grzegorczyk notes, scholarly work on the postcolonial significances of contemporary British literature for children and young people has lagged behind postcolonial investigations of the literatures of other Anglophone nations, notably Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. [End Page 422] Instead, research has focused, in the main, on texts of imperialism, particularly studies of adventure novels for boys (see works by critics Joseph Bristow, Martin Green, and Jeffrey Richards, for example). More recently, Michelle Smith, Kristine Moruzi, and others have published books focusing on the extent to which canonical and popular texts for girls during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rehearse and reproduce colonial discourses. Karen Sands-O’Connor’s Soon Come Home to This Island: West Indians in British Children’s Literature (2008), one of the few book-length studies of discourses of race in British literature, covers the long history of representations of West Indians in texts for the young but does not draw upon postcolonial studies in its approach and methodology. Grzegorczyk’s study promises, then, to address an important and neglected topic: how contemporary texts published in what was formerly the center of British imperialism represent the historical and the cultural legacies of the colonial past as well as new forms of imperialism.
If Discourses of Postcolonialism does not quite live up to the ambition articulated at the end of chapter 1—to “recognize the general trend that the criticism of children’s literature is now failing to address” (32)—it offers thought-provoking readings of some key British texts of the last two decades. Chapter 2 addresses novels thematizing migration and the subject-formation of protagonists from ethnic minorities, drawing attention to reformulations of ethnic and national identities. In chapters 3 to 5 Grzegorczyk turns, respectively, to historical fiction, fantasy, and adventure novels, employing a genre-based division of texts that results in a somewhat patchy coverage of ideas; for instance, tropes of exoticization are discussed in three of the book’s five chapters, but a definition is not offered until the final chapter. Nevertheless, Grzegorczyk’s analysis of texts is lively and engaging, focusing to good effect on telling instances of the narrative strategies and implications of texts. In particular, the third chapter (while too brief for the topic it addresses) offers a nuanced account of the complex relationships between history and fiction as modes of truth-telling.
A shortcoming of the book is that its scope (by my calculations, less than seventy thousand words) is quite simply insufficient to address the complex theoretical and analytical questions it raises; another is that it presents as a series of essays rather than a coherently argued whole. Each of its five chapters is followed by a Works Cited list, rather than the consolidated list usual in monographs, and the chapters rarely refer to ideas or texts discussed elsewhere in the book. Further, Grzegorczyk never elucidates her approach to postcolonial studies, explaining that she prefers that “the texts, rather than a predetermined critical framework . . . take center stage” (2). This approach to the writing of Discourses of Postcolonialism has two effects. First, by referring to theorists and critics merely to bolster her readings of texts (and often to prosecute her argument) Grzegorczyk does not develop a sense of the larger concepts that frame her approach, so [End Page 423] that key terms and ideas (including postcolonialism, transnationalism, and globalization) float in something of a vacuum; thus phrases such as “the dominant tropes and formal characteristics of postcolonial fiction” (38) have no referent in the absence of a systematic discussion of such tropes and characteristics. Secondly, Grzegorczyk’s approach affords little scope for any explication of the debates and tensions that characterize postcolonial studies, which, in Graham Huggan’s words, is “not a field one is likely to look to for methodological coherence or consensual politics” (Huggan 22). Instead, Grzegorczyk too often provides a reductive account of postcolonialism; for instance, she compares her study of British postcolonialism to a list of scholarly works on children...