- The Mighty Child: Time and Power in Children’s Literature by Clémentine Beauvais
Anyone committed to the study of children’s literature must reckon with the power dynamics between the adult writers and child readers of any children’s text. Following Jacqueline Rose, Perry Nodelman, and Kimberley Reynolds, among others, in theorizing what Nodelman calls the “hidden adult” in children’s literature, Clémentine Beauvais insists that we have misread power in this genre. In The Mighty Child, she offers us a new conceptualization of the implied child reader: the eponymous “mighty child.” “For if the difference between childhood and adulthood is symbolically temporal,” Beauvais argues, “it does not necessarily follow that the advantage lies on the side of age rather than on the side of what I call time left. What if ‘unrealised’ time were a stronger currency than ‘realised’ time? A currency in which the child—therefore—would be richer than the adult; more powerful in some sense” (18). Drawing primarily from the theories of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Nicholas Grimaldi, Beauvais performs a vast reading of existentialist philosophy in contemporary children’s literature; by bringing together these discourses, she argues, we can see the contemporary genre as a literature of optimism, one that does include a hidden adult but also relies on the hope that children’s futurity is unpredictable—in short, mighty.
This concept of might does a lot of work for the book. Part 1, “Time,” explores this temporal potential of children as an advantage. Reading A. A. Milne’s “Halfway Down,” Antoine de St. Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, Isabel Minhós Martins and Bernardo Cavalho’s Depressa, Devagar (Quickly, Slowly), and Dave Shelton’s A Boy [End Page 102] and a Bear in a Boat, Beauvais argues that the Romantic child sealed in the past has given way to a temporally flexible puer existens, a child “thrown into existence” (26). Ultimately, using Grimaldi’s theories of existential wait, Beauvais makes a case for considering hope to be “the very fabric of the didactic discourse of children’s literature, counteracting the dwindling length of time of the adult’s life by decentering its actions onto the new timeframe opening up thanks to children” (48). In other words, the relationship between adults and the implied child reader of children’s literature is based as much on the child’s potential—a potential to upset expectations—as it is on the adults’ authority.
With this claim, Beauvais offers up a new way of reading didacticism. In part 2, “Otherness,” she subtly takes to task critics such as Wayne Booth and Wolfgang Iser for marginalizing the didactic mode without fully explicating it, and one of the beauties of this book is its contribution to the studies of didactic relationship. Beauvais remedies the oversight, exploring an “ambitious didactic discourse where adult knowledge is not assumed to be complete” (72). Building on Iser’s interpretations of implied readership, Beauvais puts pressure on the “gaps” that allow for meaning to emerge between author and reader. The didactic purpose, she claims, is to leave meaning-making to the child of potential. In reading Rafik Schami and Ole Könnecke’s Wie ich Papa die Angst vor Fremden Nahm/Mon papa a peur des étrangers (How I Cured Dad of His Fear of Foreigners), Armin Greder’s The Island, Jacqueline Wilson’s Double Act, Anthony Browne’s Zoo, John Seven and Jana Christy’s A Rule Is to Break, and even Richard Hargreaves’s Mr. Tickle, she demonstrates how children’s books “throw forth the child reader into accepting a solid and unique existence among others” (143). These contemporary children’s texts, in Beauvais’s view, force both child and adult readers to confront the “scandal” of others.
The significance of Beauvais’s argument becomes clear: by reconsidering didacticism and the “problems of others,” we can better understand both the importance of childhood to existential questions and the way in which we have traditionally conceived of power in children’s literature: “In...