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  • Time for Childhoods: Young Poets and Questions of Agency by Rachel Conrad
  • Amy Fish (bio)
Rachel Conrad. Time for Childhoods: Young Poets and Questions of Agency. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2020.

Time for Childhoods insists on the value of poetry authored by children for its own sake, in its own time. Merging literary criticism with social science, Rachel Conrad works to dispel common biases against young people's writing and shape an interpretive approach to the genre. She urges a "shif[t] from thinking of children as potential artists training for a future in which they can express themselves and contribute to cultural life … [to] acknowledging that young people can be artists or poets in the present, now, while they are young" (xii). The resulting study not only makes "time for childhoods" but also clears space for future research and teaching on child-authored literature.

As she advocates for young people's verse, Conrad champions interdisciplinary childhood studies. Perspectives from psychology, sociology, and education studies enable Conrad to conceptualize young people's agency and to critique teleologies of development that evaluate young people solely in the terms of their potential as future adults. These social science elements frame literary close readings of youth-authored verse, which build on lyric poetry criticism, as well as recent work on child authorship by such scholars as Victoria Ford Smith, Laurie Langbauer, and Katharine Capshaw. Whereas these three critics represent the strength of the field in historical cases of children's writing, Conrad devotes half her book to young writers of the twenty-first century. This contemporary emphasis may inspire us to attend to present-day children's ways with words as seriously as we monitor the ongoing production of adult-authored children's literature.

In a fresh contribution to conversations on young people's literary agency, Conrad focuses on child poets' exercise of "temporal agency" (1). "Rather than taking time as an unproblematic given or fixed timeline," she argues, young people use their verse to "work with time as a pliable medium that they can shape and reshape" (40). Conrad grounds this idea in children's everyday experiences and actions, as illustrated in an anecdote of her young child Sammy's use of "slow-motion leave-takings" (13). By taking as much time as possible over such preparatory acts as the donning of socks and shoes, despite parental preferences otherwise, Sammy found a way to manage transitions in activity and setting.

The concept of temporal agency proves equally relevant to young people's negotiations of intersectional structures of power, as in Aurelia Davidson's [End Page 208] "Trapped," a 1980 winner of a prize for youth-authored verse created by then-Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks. Conrad tracks the timecentered moves by which Davidson's speaker escapes her constrained state as "'a little Black girl TRAPPED'" by "'the white man.'" As repetitive lines communicating futility and frustration give way to a fast-paced array of assertive actions—"'I look, / I learn / And I sing, / And I dance'"—the speaker shakes free of the set terms of oppression: "'And OUT I COME—/from the past'" (51). Davidson thus consigns to history what Conrad aptly terms the "drawn-out present" while laying claim to an agential future (53). Drawing on Michelle M. Wright's work on the epistemology of blackness, Conrad suggests that only by disrupting linear time, a poetic practice that Conrad terms "dynamic temporality," can Davidson liberate her identity as "a little Black girl." This specificity regarding young poets' confrontations with racism and patriarchy attests to the value of Conrad's temporal lens and constitutes a strength of Time for Childhoods as a whole.

An introductory chapter unfolds the role of time in children's work, setting the stage for four case studies surfacing temporal agency in young people's verse. Archival research drives two historical chapters, each focused on a black woman poet's work with primarily young writers of color. Chapter 2 highlights Brooks's cultivation of child poets in the 1970s and 1980s. Chapter 5 examines The Voice of the Children, a Brooklyn-based youth writing collective directed by poet June Jordan and teacher Terri Bush in...


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pp. 208-210
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