The essays for this issue of The Lion and Unicorn reflect the broad range of approaches toward the study of children’s and young adult literature in the twenty-first century.
In “Guantanamo Boy (2009) and the Task of Critique,” Alex Adams argues that this novel for young adults illuminates but does not, in the end, sufficiently answer the questions it engages about torture, both its morality and its efficacy. Using Guantanamo Boy as a template, Adams’ essay offers two levels of critique: first, a reading of the novel’s story of one young detainee at Guantanamo, and second, how this novel fails to counter popular notions of the utility of torture and recognize the complex politics of difference. Adams argues that if critique is to be effective, it must “address, rebut, and challenge” the views it opposes. This young adult novel, like other literary texts, is constrained by its genre in conveying its moral and political messages.
Sara Austin’s “Two Separate Hearts: Virginia Hamilton and the Black Arts Movement” examines the early novels of Virginia Hamilton in the context of this cultural phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s. The Black Arts Movement, which included such artists as Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Nikki Giovanni, among others, sought to redefine “in positive terms what it meant to be black.” Although Hamilton herself never overtly identified with the short-lived movement, Austin argues that her work from this time period bears many of its hallmarks and reflects its spirit. Just as the Black Arts Movement called for, in Etheridge Knight’s words, “a new history new symbols, myths, and legends,” Hamilton’s early works contains these very elements. The specific Hamilton books examined are Zeely, The House of Dies Drear, and Time-Ago Tales of Jahdu, all of which, Austin argues, seek to create a new and positive black identity, particularly through the use of forceful female characters and characters who are politically engaged, who, in turn, may become a “force for social change.” [End Page v]
In “Privilege and Exploitation: Food as Dual Signifier in Pamela Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising,” Kara Keeling and Scott Pollard examine the cultural influence in Ryan’s book as exemplified by the use of food. Food, indeed, is one of the primary symbols in the story (all the chapter titles are named for food items). Pollard and Keeling trace Esperanza’s difficult transition from a position near the topic of Mexico’s landed class to one near the bottom social rung in the United States, where she becomes one of the laboring class. Initially, food is the source of wealth for Esperanza’s family, but it soon comes to foreshadow her future as a field hand in America. Observing Esperanza’s fate, her fall from privilege, the readers become aware (along with Esperanza) of the exploitative farm labor system found in both Mexico and the United States in the 1930s. Pollard and Keeling argue that Muñoz Ryan breaks down the stereotype of the passive Mexican farm worker and portrays characters of complexity and depth, characters who possess agency and effect change.
Jennifer Geer, in “The Case of the Celebrity Sleuth: The Girl Detective as Star in Early Nancy Drew Novels,” provides some fascinating social insights into the portrayal of the most famous of the early girl detectives. Geer proposes that many of Nancy Drew’s attributes are very much the same as those touted in fan magazines as belonging to the reigning movie queens—the first Hollywood stars. Although molded for somewhat different audiences, both phenomena—the Hollywood star and flawless character of Nancy Drew—exhibit many of the same characteristics. Indeed, Geer argues, both are products created as idealized fantasies serving as antidotes to the dreary deprivation of the Great Depression. Geer carefully explores the history of Hollywood star-making in the 1930s and demonstrates the parallels in the media’s portrayal of the stars and the delineation of Nancy Drew’s character throughout the myriad of books in which she “starred.” In fact, much of Nancy Drew’s success as a detective, Geer maintains, derives from her privileged social status, which...