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  • Life Narratives and Youth Culture: Representation, Agency and Participation by Kate Douglas and Anna Poletti
  • Victoria Ford Smith (bio)
Kate Douglas and Anna Poletti. Life Narratives and Youth Culture: Representation, Agency and Participation. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, xi + 267 pp. ISBN 978-1137551160, $109.00.

Youth is a contradictory state, suggesting simultaneously power and vulnerability. In Life Narratives and Youth Culture: Representation, Agency and Participation, Kate Douglas and Anna Poletti foreground this tension, considering the profound cultural contributions of young diarists, memoirists, artists, bloggers, and activists alongside the particular perils young people face in a field of cultural production that sometimes fetishizes, sometimes disparages, but always multiply mediates their work. Across the nine chapters of their book, Douglas and Poletti not only recover the work of writers who, due to [End Page 406] their age, have remained largely invisible to life writing studies but also reconsider a range of familiar writers, from Dave Eggers to Malala Yousafzai, by emphasizing their writing as literature as well as cultural or ideological artifacts. The young people included in this volume emerge as innovative subjects with a keen awareness of the cultural freight of their youth—and who often display savviness about how to use it.

Douglas and Poletti's book, in fact, is best characterized as an investigation of the advantages and ethics of studying youth life writing and a testing ground for new approaches, drawn from both life writing and childhood studies, that value young people as practitioners. In other words, Life Narratives and Youth Culture is as much about methodology as it is about the texts examined in its pages. For example, in chapter three, which focuses on children's diaries produced during World War II, the authors acknowledge the dominant tropes that shape our reading of such diaries—in particular the cultural investment in the child as a witness or victim—and the impact of a publishing industry that frequently excerpts, anthologizes, or otherwise transforms young people's words. Such practices necessarily obscure our view of the actual diarist, the authors note. However, rather than concluding that these young diarists are, therefore, inaccessible except as figurations of an adult marketplace, Douglas and Poletti insist upon the dignity and agency of young authors and their creative self-representation.

To consider these two realities side by side, Douglas and Poletti devise an approach to WWII diaries that recognizes but does not concede complete authority to adult interventions. Their solution is to examine how the words of one WWII child diarist, David Rubinowicz, appear across three different anthologies—Jacob Boas's We Are Witnesses, Laurel Holliday's Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries, and Alexandra Zapruder's Salvaged Pages: Young Writers' Diaries of the Holocaust—gauging in each instance the degree and impact of the anthologists' interventions. Boas, the authors find, intervenes frequently in Rubinowicz's diary entries, creating a more constructed portrait of the diarist while providing rich pedagogical context, while Holliday's and Zapruder's editorial decisions more clearly frame Rubinowicz as a writer as well as a witness, fostering attention to his use of figurative language, tone, and symbol, and his manipulation of the diary mode.

The interplay between youth writers' self-representation and adults' intervention is not always so benign, as is evident in those chapters in Douglas and Poletti's book that consider the ways adult editors, publishers, reviewers, and readers have disparaged a writers' work due to their youth or, in some cases, exploited the appeal of childhood. Chapter four's investigation of [End Page 407] child-soldier memoirs describes this more troubling dynamic, outlining the controversy surrounding Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. The Australian newspaper exposed Beah's account of his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone as "exaggerated" or "false," claims that not only summon the specters of hoax and fictionalization but also ignore the impact Beah's age and trauma might exert on his ability to remember his past accurately. This fidelity-focused reception takes into account Beah's role as a witness but ignores the literary qualities of a youth-authored trauma memoir, including a warped representation of...


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pp. 406-410
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