Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law by Jonathan Todres and Sarah Higinbotham (review)
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Reviewed by
Jonathan Todres and Sarah Higinbotham. Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law. New York: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.

In October 2014, Malala Yousafzai, an advocate for international children’s education rights, became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of seventeen. Malala’s1 impassioned campaign for girls’ education in her native country of Pakistan made her the target of the Taliban: indeed, in 2002, she was shot by soldiers on her way to school (“Malala Yousafzai”). Thirteen years later, just days before her eighteenth birthday, Malala attended the Oslo Education Summit in July 2015 to urge world leaders to “invest more in education and ensure 12 years of quality education” for every child. She argued that “[b]ooks are a better investment in our future than bullets. Books, not bullets, will pave the path towards peace and prosperity” (“Malala’s Speech”). [End Page 353]

That the work of a young activist like Malala holds the same weight as the work of adult human rights activists such as Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Marian Wright Edelman in Human Rights in Children’s Literature speaks strongly to the unique character and work being done by this text. The simplest synopsis of this book would describe it as a close reading of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child through both a legal and literary lens; however, it is in fact a far more complex weaving of legal theory, literary analysis, cultural studies, child studies, ethics, child psychology, and reader response.

This text describes and analyzes formal declarations by institutions such as the United Nations, UNICEF, the Human Rights Commission, and the U.S. Supreme Court through the context of children’s books by authors as varied as Dr. Seuss, L. Frank Baum, Suzanne Collins, Roald Dahl, Walter Dean Myers, Ezra Jack Keats, and Mo Willems. Todres and Higinbotham note that each section of the text is dedicated to the

rights of the child protected under international law, with each of the subsequent chapters exploring different rights such as the right to participate, the right to equal treatment, the right to a family and an identity, children’s civil and political rights and their economic and social rights.

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Within this framework, the authors analyze and discuss children’s books that exemplify the rights and ideas covered within that area of international law, as well as reader responses from children engaged with those same fictional texts. The result is a book that is complex, informative, and multifaceted.

The qualitative study at the center of this book was designed to help the authors “understand the ways in which children interpret human rights in the books they read” (12). It placed the authors in real classrooms reading popular children’s literature stories like Horton Hears a Who!, The Story of Ferdinand, Curious George, and The Day the Crayons Quit to children ranging in ages from four to seventeen. The authors then attempted to “encourage genuine participation: we did not ‘prime’ or teach’ them to articulate specifically about law and rights, but rather encouraged them to talk at any point in the reading and allowed them to pursue conversational tangents” (12). In discussing The Sneetches, the children in the study

confirmed literature’s ability to foster respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms . . . one child told us that “[the Sneetches] learned what it felt like to be in the wrong group when they went through the Fix-it-Up Chappie’s Machine. Once you know how it feels to be in the wrong group, you will stop doing it [discriminating].”

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The selected results of this qualitative study help bolster the authors’ claims that children’s literature can and does affect the perception of human rights among young readers while supporting the idea that the study of children’s literature is valid and important in this context. [End Page 354]

This above conversation around The Sneetches forms a part of the larger conversation on “Confronting Discrimination, Pursuing Equality,” in chapter 3; this chapter serves as a strong example of the authors’ methodology and framework throughout the...