The Embodied Child: Readings in Children's Literature and Culture ed. by Roxanne Harde and Lydia Kokkola
Roxanne Harde and Lydia Kokkola's edited collection comprises sixteen remarkable essays that examine representations of the child's body in literature and culture as well as the "embodiedness of the reading process" (3). The essays provide robust considerations of a range of (mostly North American and European) children's texts from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day by employing a myriad of theoretical lenses including literary criticism, education, cultural studies, philosophy, disability studies, gender studies, and religious studies. Kokkola acknowledges in her introduction that much children's literature scholarship separates the body from the mind, where the child is traditionally associated with the desiring body and the adult with the rational mind. The dual purpose of this text, therefore, is to challenge such readings by examining the identity [End Page 93] politics surrounding children's bodies, and to "consolidate the disparate streams of scholarship on children and their bodies" (15).
The first essay in the collection, "Anne's Body Has a Mind (and Soul) of Its Own" by Janet Wesselius, gives readers an overview of the history of mind-body dualism and relates it to the child's body in L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. The essays that follow are arranged in four broadly thematic sections, each with its own introduction. Section 1, Politicizations," deals with the politics surrounding the child's body and the functions of power in a myriad of social structures including race, gender, and class. Karen Sands-O'Connor's "Learning Not to Hate What We Are" engages with biographies of Marcus Garvey from the United States, the United Kingdom, and the West Indies during the Black Power movement (which politicized the bodies of African American children even as it helped them build self-esteem). Harde's analysis of Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy as the Appalachian body is among the most compelling essays in the collection. She argues that Katniss's body synecdochally becomes the homeland she represents, as her body—and the surrounding ecosystem—are repeatedly destroyed and rejuvenated. The last two essays in this section highlight the internalization of (often unattainable) female beauty standards: Heather Braun demonstrates how ultra-thinness is equated to (often powerless) sexual desirability in Louise O'Neill's Only Ever Yours; Michelle Martin and Rachelle D. Washington's essay on representations of African American hair in contemporary picturebooks begins with autobiographical criticism to exemplify how black girls and women are under enormous pressure to conform to Caucasian beauty standards. Each of the essays in this section calls readers' attention to diverse cultural constructions of the child's body and the impact that they have on society.
The second section, "Corporealities," analyzes how normalcy is constructed and enforced in texts that feature differently abled bodies. The three essays in this section focus on novels and ephemera published between 1872 and 1930 that endeavored to teach young readers "corporeal lessons about morality, citizenship, and wellness" (96): first, Julie Pfeiffer and Darla Schumm read Katy's disabled body in What Katy Did as punishment for breaking gender codes in "Disciplining Normalcy"; next, Kristine Moruzi examines the early years of the Junior Red Cross magazine (1922–30) to show how "Canadian children were guided towards behaviors and attitudes designed to promote a healthy and charitable life" (113); finally, Amanda Hollander engages in discussions of how "eugenics seeped into mainstream British and American children's literature" by analyzing the works of Fabian authors such as E. Nesbit and Jean Webster (127). Ultimately, all three essays individually demonstrate how literature published over six decades in three different countries guided the child reader toward being a good (read: socially and culturally acceptable) citizen. [End Page 94]
Section 3, "Reading Bodies," acknowledges that the "reading body is intimately intertwined with the processes of meaning-formation, critical and emotional response, and the forging of memories" (142). Cleverly organized, each essay in this section augments readers' understanding of the "embodied nature of the reading process" (142); read together, the four essays provide a holistic understanding of how children read with regard to physical space and place, cultural/historical identity, emotional responses, the physical body, and cognition. In "My Story Starts Right Here," Erin Spring exemplifies how reading is inherently embodied and considers the reading experiences of First Nations youth in southern Alberta with regard to the physical places and spaces—including geographies, histories, cultures—that they inhabit. In the next chapter, Adrielle Britten uses affective neuroscience to demonstrate how the picturebooks in her primary corpus (such as Bob Graham's Silver Buttons and Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen's Extra Yarn) encourage very young readers to think about emotional well-being. The last two chapters in this section, Margaret Mackey's "The Child's Reading Body" and Kokkola's "Hands on Reading," investigate the physicality of the reading process: Mackey's essay addresses the process of reading by considering the role of eyes, "hands, ears, and the whole body, as represented in the mind" (176); Kokkola, on the other hand, uses theories of cognition and technology such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to demonstrate how "different forms of texts have different impacts on the brain" (191).
The final section, "Commodifications," "combines both the reading body and the body that is read in order to examine how the child's body becomes a carrier of cultural ideology within the cultural imagination" (17). The four engaging essays in this section highlight how various media in Western cultures treat the child's body as a commodity, especially since popular culture "functions as a means of disciplining the child into a limited range of possible outcomes" (207). Essays by Samantha Christensen and Harde and by Jennifer M. Miskec discuss the idealized (read: thin) feminine body: Christensen and Harde analyze female characters' relationships to food in nineteenth-century stories for girls in "Little Cooks"; in "Break Dancing," Miskec deconstructs the problematic ideology surrounding the ballerina as exemplified in the graphic narrative To Dance. Kate Norbury continues the discussion of dance in her analysis of same-sex desires embodied through the performances of cheerleaders and dancers in television series such as Glee and Leading Ladies. The section concludes with "A Dolla Makes Her Holla," an excellent essay by Lance Weldy that considers Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson's performance as the "'Knowing' child" as a response to the adult gaze on the reality TV series Toddlers & Tiaras (255). Ranging from the historical to the present, the diverse essays in this section highlight how popular culture—fiction, television, and even YouTube videos—influence how children [End Page 95] become aware of and understand their own bodies.
Immense in both scope and scholarship, Harde and Kokkola's text is a much-needed addition to the fields of material theories and children's and young adult literature. Each thoroughly researched section, coupled with the contributors' and editors' diverse perspectives, is certain to enhance readers' understandings of what (all) embodiment might entail, especially with regard to the child's body and the ideologies of the cultures that shape it.
Tharini Viswanath is a PhD candidate in English studies at Illinois State University, with a specialization in children's literature. Her articles on feminine agency in adolescent and young adult literature with regard to voice, embodiment, and female friendships have appeared in the journals Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature and Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures.