- Contemporary British Children’s Fiction and Cosmopolitanism by Fiona McCulloch
Fiona McCulloch convincingly draws a connection between the contemporary British political climate and how young adult texts approach difference. McCulloch moves beyond multiculturalism by turning to the concept of cosmopolitanism, which she defines as “allow[ing] for a space in which differences can be celebrated and communitarian empathy offered” (2). She argues that this concept of cosmopolitanism, while potentially fraught with the same problems as multiculturalism, can be more useful because it focuses on celebrating difference and making connections through mutual empathy rather than erasing difference in order to create ordered sameness. She finds that this concept has been applied predominantly to adults, both in politics and in literature, whereas in Great Britain cosmopolitanism is a largely youth-led movement. Thus Contemporary British Children’s Fiction and Cosmopolitanism makes a case for how cosmopolitan young adult literature can positively affect the current conception of cosmopolitanism and tomorrow’s British citizens.
McCulloch contends that the best exemplars of British cosmopolitanism are Scottish young adult novels written by women since devolution, the decentralization of power in Great Britain. She argues that devolution has had the biggest impact in Scotland, where the 2014 election for independence came close to passing, revealing a rise in youth political activism. According to McCulloch, this new wave of citizens is pressing for cosmopolitanism, for a revised sense of nationalism that recognizes difference on personal, communal, and national levels while also encouraging empathetic connection. Women writers in particular bring this movement together with feminism to form what McCulloch calls cosmofeminism, a cosmopolitanism that is nonhierarchical and engages many different ways of thinking and perspectives, as much feminist theory today urges. This way of thinking recognizes difference but does not rank it; it negotiates boundaries between people and identities, remaining flexible as concepts change and grow. Ultimately, she argues that texts for adolescents written by Scottish women are best able to encapsulate this nonhierarchical, mobile sense of national interconnectivity, teaching these traits to the rising generation of citizens.
McCulloch breaks the book into three sections, with each chapter analyzing one text to demonstrate different ways that female authors can and do engage British cosmopolitanism. In part 1, “Ethical Endeavours,” she explores “the cosmopolitical routes charted” in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Jackie Kay’s Strawgirl “in their endeavours to encourage ethical post-devolution nationhood” (29). She argues that both of these authors are positively affecting young people by demonstrating how people can learn empathy through difference. Part 2, “Conflict and Conciliation,” focuses on Theresa Breslin’s Divided City, Gillian Cross’s Where I Belong, [End Page 120] and Kerry Drewery’s A Brighter Fear, all of which “interrogate contemporary conflicts, including domestic sectarianism and global warfare” (31). While McCulloch holds that Divided City successfully “considers the detrimental impact of static territorial national domesticity and encourages . . . readers to recognise others within a mobilised global home of cosmopolitan hospitality” (84), she demonstrates that due to their foreign settings, Where I Belong and A Brighter Fear, which have similar messages, ultimately “speak over rather than up for the globally dispossessed” (98; orig. emphasis). Finally, part 3, “Future Freedoms,” “analyses YA futuristic dystopian worlds and how they are engaging with contemporary real-world politics through their narrative space,” focusing on Saci Lloyd’s Momentum and Julie Bertagna’s Exodus trilogy (31). McCulloch argues that these books offer young adults agency through the ability to see past authoritative regimes.
As this summary highlights, one of the more impressive elements of this book is how its author explores topics, such as love and community, that are traditionally considered “sappy” or overly sentimental. Modern scholarship has often denigrated these themes as part of “lowly” women’s writing, and, as McCulloch points out, women have been the predominant writers of children’s fiction. She effectively demonstrates, however, how these themes can be used to empower children and young adults to make positive political changes along the lines of cosmopolitanism. While resisting easy gender binaries, she suggests that women writers tend to write paths away from...