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Reviewed by:
  • The Moral Project of Childhood: Motherhood, Material Life, and Early Children's Consumer Culture by Daniel Thomas Cook
  • Maureen Mauk, Helle Strandgaard Jensen, Rebekah Willett, and Natalie Coulter
The Moral Project of Childhood: Motherhood, Material Life, and Early Children's Consumer Culture. By Daniel Thomas Cook. New York: New York University Press, 2020. x + 256 pp. Paper $30.00, cloth $89.00.

This is an extended review that emanated out of a reading club, which developed around this book as a result of pandemic restrictions and new possibilities. The approach was to reflect upon each chapter from the perspective of what Cook's work adds to each of the participants' own narrow fields. This process allowed the group to slowly and purposefully consider the complex and nuanced ways that childhoods are embedded in and contribute to consumer culture. Daniel Cook is an important figure in childhood studies. In perusing Cook's vast publication record, there is evidence of his works forging pathways in the field and shaping theory connected with the economic, sociological, and cultural tensions of childhood. As the author of The Commodification of Childhood: The Children's Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer (2004, Duke University Press), Cook's scholarship allowed for a reimagining of the consumer market surrounding the child. His latest book, The Moral Project of Childhood: Motherhood, Material Life, and Early Children's Consumer Culture was released at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when so much that we assume to be natural and flowing in childhood, academia, and life in general came to a sudden halt.

Around the same time that this book was released, a major conference on childhood studies was cancelled due to the pandemic. Out of a desire to connect with our fellow childhood studies colleagues, the four authors of this review decided to read Cook's book together as a form of "slow scholarship," reading each chapter slowly and attentively followed by a discussion meeting every few weeks on each chapter while jokingly calling our group the "Cook Book Club." With each month that passed during the pandemic, our book club allowed us to pursue joint interests and created a space to discuss and relate Cook's research to our own work. In our final meeting, we invited Dan Cook to join us. This book review is unique in that it carries the thoughts relative to four reviewers, each working from a different space of scholarship, in [End Page 149] three different countries, and at various stages of our academic careers. While the pandemic created isolation within our own university contexts and also cancelled conferences, speaking opportunities, and a proper launch of Cook's monograph, it ironically generated the freedom and space to amply connect and relate together over Cook's work, his themes, and his approach. In this review, Helle Strandgaard Jensen begins by explaining the takeaways of this important book from her perspective as a contemporary cultural historian, reviewing the introduction and Chapter 1. Maureen Mauk, studying media and culture as it relates to parents, reviews Chapter 2 and points to how Cook's methodology might avail young scholars. Rebekah Willett reviews Chapters 3 and 5 from her childhood studies and education perspective. And Natalie Coulter examines Chapter 4 from the perspective of her work on the ecologies of children's media and negotiations of the child within the marketplace. Following these chapter reviews, we offer a reflection of the relevance of the book to our specific fields of interest.


In his book, Cook tracks the history of children's relationship to market considerations, and the economy more generally, to demonstrate how childhood is a contested site that develops in relation to consumption. In addition to childhood studies' and childhood history's central analytical question of "what a child is" in different contexts, he also asks "when is a child"? (5) In doing so, he points to the importance of considering the particular circumstances for which children and childhood are being defined. For Cook, this relates to consumption—not only the consumption of particular goods, but also the restriction or absence of consumption—as...