- The Child Savage, 1890–2010: From Comics to Games ed. by Elisabeth Wesseling
The Child Savage's most striking quality is the way in which it draws on a breadth of contributors, national traditions, and media to create a nuanced cultural history of the child-savage trope. Its editor, Elisabeth Wesseling, brings together scholars from children's literature, education, media studies, cultural theory, history, popular culture, and other fields to expose the way the child-savage trope persists and adapts as it moves among media.
While the child-savage figure appears in early stories and myths, the emphasis on scientific study during the Enlightenment and the Romantic idealization of the natural child created a renewed fascination with feral children. The discussion of the child-savage engages with work on the feral tale, primitivism, orientalism, and colonial paternalism. Previous scholarly work by Kenneth Kidd establishes the ways the feral tale acts as a managed performance of wildness and is later remythologized to help construct American boyhood and represent transgressive sexuality. Also, as scholars such as Perry Nodelman and Judith Plotz have demonstrated, the literary depiction of the Romantic child as an innocent close to nature is used to extend a paternal relationship to colonized subjects. The child-savage includes depictions of the feral child (raised by animals outside society) with colonial discourses that represent the child as primitive (a rudimentary throwback who can be progressed) and the child as savage (a true outsider unconnected to the dominant group's history).
As a collection, The Child Savage establishes an expansive category (child-savage) to provide a broad backdrop for the scholarly work already focused on specific facets of savage and feral children. It does not try to define a historical timeline for the trope's development, which is a strength of the collection. Instead the essays offer snapshots from specific cultural moments where changes in prevailing ideas of science, governance, and language add to and complicate the child-savage repertoire. The collection is divided into three sections: "The Child-Savage in (Neo-)Colonial Discourse," "Domestic Savages," and "Postcolonial Playgrounds." Each section investigates the ways portrayals of feral and wild children are shaped by the technologies, epistemologies, and government of the time and place they are written. The collection poses the child-savage as a central metaphor for identifying and working through cultural anxieties. It also strives to reveal the ways different media use the child-savage figure to exploit and expose those anxieties. [End Page 238] It continues the field's trend toward demonstrating the ways specific child figures are represented paradoxically—for example, Roberta Trites' ambivalent adolescent constantly challenging but also constrained by authority, Marah Gubar's artful dodger who is both naive and knowingly performative, and Megan Norcia's citizen-critic who both learns imperial ideology and reveals its ineptitude. The collection's main contribution is the variety of portrayals it has collected. Together they exemplify why the child-savage's position is an essential metaphor within children's literature: it encapsulates the contradictory impulses of the primitive's need for instruction and the independent and creative savage who can manipulate authority.
The collection's international focus makes for fascinating comparisons of popular media for children across many traditions, including Irish, Dutch, English, the Pan-African/negritude movement, German, French, Belgian, Japanese, Nigerian, and U.S. American. Moreover, the collection's juxtaposition of these perspectives highlights the ways that the figure of the child is used across media to maintain and challenge national and imperial stereotypes. These texts all negotiate their own balance of child as naive primitive and child as a powerful creative agent, the major thematic connection among all the national literatures represented in part one. For example, Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer's essay, "Childhood and the Discourse about Primitivism," shows how the negritude movement works against "the Eurocentric view on Africa" (108) by creating an avant-garde aesthetic that celebrates the innovative possibility of reconciling the innocent Romantic child and African animistic worldviews. She argues Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Franz Hellens, and Blaise Cendrars all redeploy the...