- The Courage to Imagine: The Child Hero in Children's Literature by Roni Natov
Roni Natov has established an enduring legacy as a scholar of children's literature. In 1977, she and Geraldine DeLuca founded The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature. She was recognized by the Children's Literature Association in 1995 with one of its highest honors, the Anne Devereaux Jordan Award, for her significant contributions to the field, and she has also received the International Research Society for Children's Literature Award for her 2003 book, The Poetics of Childhood. Her most recent monograph, The Courage to Imagine: The Child Hero in Children's Literature (2017), follows up on some of the themes of her earlier book and could only have been executed by a scholar of Natov's stature. It represents a sweeping meditation on the power of children's literature to expand the child's imagination. Natov identifies a broad selection of works that has the potential to inspire in children the "courage to imagine" new and different ways of seeing themselves, their abilities, and the world around them. The texts she discusses range widely from nineteenth-century classics such as Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1882) to contemporary realist novels such as Walter Dean Myers's Monster (1999) and graphic fiction such as Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (2006). The premise of The Courage to Imagine is [End Page 238] that books "with unconventional stories, characters, narratives, and ways of telling stories can provide an opening for the imagination" (3), so Natov surveys an assortment of texts that meet these criteria and discusses how they offer models to readers for engaging in courageous imaginative work.
Natov provides a thematic focus that frames each chapter and then examines a wide array of mostly mid-twentieth-century through early twenty-first-century children's and young adult works that exemplify the chapter theme. Some of the texts she discusses are well known and highly regarded, such as Gene Luen Yang's Printz Award winner American Born Chinese (2006) and Neil Gaiman's Newbery-winning The Graveyard Book (2008), while other relatively less prominent works stand to benefit from Natov's inclusion of them, such as Brock Cole's The Goats (1987) and Bryan Talbot's The Tale of One Bad Rat (1994). Chapter 1, "Landscapes of Childhood," considers how the spaces of children's literature, especially pastoral landscapes of forests and rivers, can occasion a sense of safety and freedom needed for imaginative engagement. In chapter 2, "The Construction of the Creative Child," Natov very briefly reviews different philosophical and critical contexts that have constructed the child as a privileged source of creativity and imagination.
Two chapters focus on single authors. Her third chapter, "The Freedom to Imagine: Childhood Creativity and Socialization in the Work of William Steig," focuses on how Steig's picture books visually encourage imagination while suggesting that "being creative is antagonistic to socialization" (22). Since socialization is one of the defining experiences of childhood, Steig's books playfully present to children the conflict between embracing creativity and embodying convention. The seventh chapter, "Imagine Empathy: Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane," explores how DiCamillo's fantasy works inspire the difference in perspective needed to foster empathy. For Natov, fantasy literature "can bring the world more sharply into focus, which allows us to see with the heart as well as the mind" (145).
The book's middle chapters tackle larger themes and sets of texts. Chapter 4, "Imagining Difference and Diversity," considers class, immigration, race, disability, nation, and sexuality. Natov seeks to describe the ways children's and young adult literature can cultivate an appreciation for cultural differences, and she seems optimistic that reading culturally diverse books during childhood can help combat the ideological sway of hegemonic cultural hierarchies. Chapter 5, "Reimagining Fear and [End Page 239] Trauma," explores the use of imagination for coping with terror...