- Using Literary Criticism for Children’s Rights:Toward a Participatory Research Model of Children’s Literature Studies
“Did you know that according to the UN every human has the right to clean water every day (laughs)? And to electricity (laughs)? But that doesn’t mean they have it. It’s like human rights; it doesn’t really exist” (Deszcz-Tryhubczak). I heard this rather disheartening comment from Philip, a sixteen-year-old participant of a reader response study that I conducted in Wroclaw, Poland, in 2014.1 One of the aims of the study was to investigate young readers’ responses to Radical Fantasy Fiction, a recent development in the fantasy genre. Philip’s remarks were occasioned by our discussion of China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun (2007), a fantasy novel about economically and politically oppressed groups that subvert a coalition of capitalists and politicians. Milek, another sixteen-year-old participant of the same discussion group, offered a similarly discouraging comment: “We want to be treated like adults and we don’t know why no one treats us like adults, but I realized why I wasn’t treated like adult: I really wasn’t one” (Deszcz-Tryhubczak).
Philip’s and Milek’s comments shed a skeptical light on Miéville’s novel. Un Lun Dun arguably envisions children as rights-bearing subjects whose actions can have significant impact on social policies. The novel concludes with the twelve-year Deeba confronting Ms. Elizabeth Rawley, British Secretary of State for the Environment. Rawley had conspired with the Prime Minister to deploy the Smog, a cloud-like pollutant that has come to life, as a chemical weapon. The very idea of a teenage girl storming into a minister’s office to demand transparent policies is a literary representation of a child insisting on her rights, specifically as articulated in Articles 12, 13, and 24 in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Articles 12 and 13 require that children should be [End Page 215] informed, involved, and consulted about all decisions influencing their lives, while Article 24 guarantees children the right to a safe and clean environment. Commenting on the conception of childhood underlying the CRC, Jacqueline Bhabha argues that the Convention romanticizes and idealizes children, simultaneously disenfranchising and disempowering them: The CRC posits a child who is “at once separate from adulthood because [it is] particularly vulnerable, and thus deserving of special protection, and at the same time similar but inferior to adulthood in its capacity for agency and entitlement to autonomy, subjecthood, and voice” (1528). Miéville’s vision of child agency transcends this child-adult binary: during her visit to Rawley’s office, Deeba is accompanied by several adult characters following her lead and supporting her cause. Thus the novel reflects the idea of child-centered jurisprudence which, as Annette Ruth Appell explains, “breaks out of a narrow focus on dependency and vulnerability while … bolstering the public role of childhood and its deep connections to adulthood—both to the adults who support children and through the adults that children will become” (34). In offering an alternative construction of childhood, Un Lun Dun is an example of radical children’s literature, which Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel describe as texts that enable young readers to “think critically about the world they will inherit…” (467). As Mickenberg and Nel assert, a more just and sustainable future “will begin with children who are willing to question the status quo” (467).
However, I contend that Philip’s and Milek’s comments—even if they were elicited in a small-scale study—should give pause to children’s literature authors and scholars who idealize the potential of radical literary texts to empower young readers. Children are certainly both aware of the concept of their rights and adept at interpreting literature aimed at empowering them. Nevertheless, faced with real-life instances of violation of human rights in local and global contexts, they may not necessarily be amenable to adult visions of social justice. Yet, this distrust does not imply that they will be willing to question adult ideas. Nor should adults expect that young people believe to...