Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Article: Philip Nel & Lissa Paul - Keywords for Children’s Literature: mapping the critical moment

Nel, Philip & Paul, Lissa. Keywords for Children’s Literature: mapping the critical moment. Nordic Journal of ChildLit Aesthetics, Vol. 4, 2013

Keywords for Children’s Literature: mapping the critical moment

Philip Nel1* and Lissa Paul2*
1Department of English, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, USA; 2Faculty of Education, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada
As Anglophone co-editors of Keywords for Children’s Literature, we (Philip Nel and Lissa Paul) were delighted to be invited as keynote speakers for the Nordic Children’s Literature Conference in Oslo. When we gave our live talk in August 2012, we staged it is as a performance, a dialogue accompanied by PowerPoint images. Because our performance would not work on the page, we composed a print version of our talk to read both as a coherent prose narrative, and as a reflection on ways in which we were shaped by the occasion. In keeping with one of the central mandates of the conference—“to serve as a meeting point for new research environments”—we decided to open our talk on Keywords for Children’s Literature by positioning it in the research environments in which it began. We later explained how the book “works,” and concluded by projecting ways in which we might situate it in emerging research environments.
Keywords: keywords; children’s literature; editing

Our book is just one of a cluster of academic works in English published in the last few years mapping a contemporary critical moment in the study of (predominantly Anglophone) children’s literature. It sits in the company of other major works of scholarship in the field, including: Julia Mickenberg and Lynne Vallone’s Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature (2011), Matthew Grenby and Andrea Immel’s Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature (2009), Jack Zipes’ Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature (2006) and The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature (2005), edited by Jack Zipes, Lissa Paul, Lynne Vallone, Peter Hunt and Gillian Avery. Each book contributes in its way to the gradual construction of a working scholarly apparatus. What distinguishes our book from the others is that Keywords for Children’s Literature aims to provide historical context and clarification to the critical terms that have been all too often used cavalierly or without sufficient focus on their origins and/or disciplinary contexts. Keywords to Children’s Literature is an attempt to map the critical terrain of studies in children’s literature.
We appreciate that scholarship in children’s literature does have a long and honourable history—dating from Mrs. Trimmer’s early-nineteenth-century Guardian of Education and F. J. Harvey Darton’s early-twentieth-century Children’s Books in England—but we made a conscious decision in our presentation to focus only on critical mapping activities dating from the late 1960s as they coincided with the explosion of children’s books published for the post-war baby-boom market. The pace of the critical mapping picked up during the same period, beginning with the establishment in the early 1970s of scholarly journals, such as Signal, Children’s Literature in Education and Children’s Literature. As the body of scholarship developed, books surveying the critical terrain began to appear, including the three volumes of Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children’s Literature (1985, 1987 and 1989), and the first scholarly post-structuralist overviews dedicated to mapping the field: Peter Hunt’s Children’s Literature: The Development of Criticism (1990) and then his Routledge Encylopedia of Children’s Literature (1993). That sudden burst of scholarly work on children’s literature emerged not just because of the boom in the book market, but because the critical climate had changed. The toppling of New Criticism (which had been hostile to scholarship on children’s literature) as the dominant critical mode in the late 1960s and early 1970s coincided with a corresponding rise of Feminist Studies, African–American Studies, Cultural and Post-colonial Studies, all of which offered not only more productive critical strategies but also an openness to works previously considered unsuitable for academic inquiry. Only then did Children’s Literature begin to receive serious scholarly attention in the literature departments. In the context of the range of post-structuralist critical approaches that developed at the end of the twentieth century, children’s literature criticism generally, and our book in particular, was inspired in part, via a discipline, American Studies, noted for bringing many disparate subjects into its sphere.
Keywords for Children’s Literature really began in 2007 when Phil attended a week-long Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth College, and Glen Hendler stepped up to the podium to talk about his new Keywords for American Cultural Studies, a book he had co-edited with Bruce Burgett and that would be published later that year. Hendler circulated a photocopied list of the 64 words that would appear in the book: African, Class, Democracy, Exceptionalism, Gender, Indian, Public, Religion, Secularism, Sex, Slavery and White. Noting that Children and Childhood were not present in the list, Phil then had an epiphany: Why not a Keywords for Children’s Literature? He began jotting down ideas: Picture books, Family, Cross-Writing, Gender, Audience. Phil immediately recognised that Keywords for Children’s Literature was a book he would like to read, but, fearing he did not know enough people in the field to author essays on the keywords he had generated, he enlisted Lissa, as co-editor, to help. And so, we began.
Generally, we knew that we wanted our Keywords for Children’s Literature to follow in the spirit of Raymond Williams’s influential 1976 Keywords by offering “an exploration of the vocabulary of a crucial area of social and cultural discussion.” For Williams, the contentiousness of a particular theoretical term was the defining feature. So during our initial word-selection process, we used “contested” and “conflicted” as a litmus test for determining the viability of potential keywords. We considered whether or not we had seen or heard individual words used, as Williams says, in “interesting or difficult ways” (14). Similar to Williams, we also wanted our book to unlock discussions of society and culture that have endured into the twenty-first century, even as the terms and their definitions have shifted. “Keywords” itself is a case in point. Its definition depends on its discipline. For librarians, keywords are search terms identifying the main content of a document. For educators, keywords are high-frequency words (so used in the “look–say” method of reading instruction). And for literary and cultural studies scholars, the word “keywords” conjures up Raymond Williams’s coinage and his definitions of words used to explain the sociology of language.
In children’s literature studies, critical keywords, in Raymond Williams’s sense, present particularly complicated problems, primarily because people working in the field come from so many disciplines. Since the 1970s people from literature, education, library and information science, as well as from culture and media studies, all claimed to be working as scholars in the field of children’s literature. The problem is that because they are from disparate disciplines they were often using the same terms to convey very different clusters of ideas. As a result, meanings were often blurred, and cross-disciplinary conversations confused. Yet, the linguistic confusion that arose because of the cross-disciplinarity is the very thing that provided the impetus for Keywords for Children’s Literature, and, we hope, will nourish its potential market. As the world shrinks, with new technologies bridging cultures and countries, there is perhaps a greater need to change the disciplinary maps than ever before.


When terrain is uncharted, disciplinary maps, like all maps, are difficult to make. So, it was only as we began to articulate our reasons for excluding particular keywords that we developed a clearer sense of what words we wanted to include. We rejected words that were methodologies because we did not want to fix meanings in place—as a reference work such as a dictionary or encyclopedia might—but rather we wanted to map out a nexus of interconnected ideas. So, for instance, despite the popularity of psychological approaches, Freudian does not appear as a keyword—though both Freudian and Freud appear in the book. The keywords Childhood, Culture, Gender, Home, Identity, Innocence and Theory all invoke Freud by name. Freud’s ideas have been contested, but the term Freudian—though important—has not been contested sufficiently to qualify as a keyword.
Given our inclusion of African American and Latino/a we also considered including Asian American and Native American, as both are interesting, difficult and contested (so in keeping with the keywords mandate). However, both lacked the necessary sustained body of literature and surrounding critical discourse to justify inclusion. What our discussion did reveal, however, was a distinct bias towards the American side of Anglo-American. We understand the bias: our Keywords for Children’s Literature was itself partly inspired by Keywords for American Studies. We are both acutely aware—especially in the light of our limited linguistic abilities—that one of the last divides in children’s literature studies is that Anglophones have limited access to primary texts not published in English. Only Lissa had ever taught a Norwegian children’s book in translation: Zeppelin by Tormod Haugen, published 20 years ago in a short-lived publishing venture by Aidan Chambers.
Even in the early stages of the development of Keywords for Children’s Literature, we knew that our volume would be provisional. In the end, we did make a conscious editorial decision to focus on critical words used in Anglophone discussions and concentrate on providing access to words migrating between disciplines. We did, for example, decide to include Liminality, a word that has migrated from Anthropology, as the author of the essay, Michael Joseph, explains. He elegantly defines “liminality” as “the quality of being socially segregated, set apart and divested of status” and includes related characteristics such as “indeterminacy, ambiguity, selflessness and becomingness,” all strangely appropriate for the discussions of children’s literature criticism itself. Although we appreciated that liminality was not exactly a commonly used word, its currency in children’s literature studies was on the rise, so we decided to include it. If we decide to undertake a revised Keywords for Children’s Literature in a decade or so, we hope to be able to see how critical conversations have evolved and consider terms arising out of a more global and more digital landscape.


For our initial attempt, however, our major problem was to match selected words with scholars in disciplines related to children’s literature: authors, literary scholars, librarians and educators. We wanted people from Anglophone countries, so British, Americans, Canadians and Australians. We needed people who possessed depth of knowledge and who could be trusted to communicate with grace and economy to people across disciplinary—if not linguistic—bounds. Keywords essays, were, and are, tricky to write. They are expository theory. They are etymologies. They have to have clear chronological and critical lines. They need examples not just from children’s literature, but also from different kinds of literature, and, as much as possible, we wanted works from different eras and countries, works by people of different genders, ethnicities and nationalities. Ideally, the examples from children’s books also had to be situated in the context of literary histories and traditions unmarked as being for children. And each essay had to be readable, elegant and to the point. We wanted educated general readers to be able to pick up the book, flip to an entry and find the information presented in an accessible manner. They are very hard essays to write.
As Children’s Literature itself was a difficult-to-define term, one of the first potential contributors we approached was someone who had already constructed a significant body of work on the term: Peter Hunt. His well-researched and comprehensive essay begins by locating the central problem. “Children’s Literature,” he says,” is a term used to describe both a set of texts and an academic discipline—and it is often regarded as an oxymoron. If ‘children’ commonly connotes immaturity and ‘literature’ commonly connotes sophistication in texts and reading, then the two terms may seem to be incompatible” (42).1 Hunt resolves the simple/complex dichotomies by invoking Raymond Williams:
Both parts of the term [children and literature] are what Raymond Williams (1976/1983a) would have called difficult in that both cover a huge range of meanings, synchronically and diachronically, and together they have caused much confusion and influenced (often negatively) the development of the areas that they ostensibly name. (42)
We were pleased to see how well Hunt’s essay on Children’s Literature connected with Joseph Thomas’s discussion—in his essay on Aesthetics—on the distinctions between “phenomenal beauty” as high-art and “mass-market popular” as low art. Overall, Hunt’s essay on Children’s Literature and Thomas’s essay on Aesthetics provide an example of the enhanced features we wanted to build into our Keywords contour-mapping of the field.
As our list of words and authors grew, we sometimes found that authors we had identified to write particular essays had other ideas for words—which turned out to be better than the suggestions we had given to them. We originally thought, for instance, that Philip Pullman, as author of the magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy (1995, 1997 and 2000) and the controversial The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010) would be a great choice to write about Religion, a word we had chosen because it is entwined with so much children’s book history and the history of reading instruction. Pullman suggested Intention instead, a word that we, as critics schooled in post-structuralist theories, had not anticipated. We assumed that “intention” was a dated critical word, one that had already been long out of the conflicted or contested categories. We were wrong. Pullman encouraged us to face head-on the uncomfortable truth that as readers we want to know, even when we do not necessarily acknowledge it, “how closely the interpretation matches the one the author intended” (128). He reminds us that people really do want to be assured that they “will not be shown up as ignorant of a truth that everyone knows.” They want “an answer,” the right answer. But as Pullman shows us in his essay, there is not always a right answer, and just because an author intends to write a certain kind of story, it does not mean that the story will turn out as the author intends.
Towards the end of his essay, Pullman reminds us that when readers are “puzzled” by a book, the best thing that they can do is talk about it, and “let meanings emerge from the conversation, democratically” (133). We took his advice to heart on more than one occasion and were pleased by the results. Marah Gubar was another author who ended up choosing her own word.
We had originally asked Gubar to write the Golden Age essay, as at the time she was just finishing the manuscript for Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Instead, Gubar said that she would prefer to write about Innocence. It was an inspired choice. She begins her essay by noting the term’s associations with both childhood and desire. Then she juxtaposes Shirley Temple’s first films—shorts known as Baby Burlesks (which placed tiny children in compromising positions) against Playboy’s “Playmate of the Month,” which has, as Gubar notes, “a distinctly juvenile appellation.” Innocence, she reminds us, was not always linked to childhood: prior to and during the nineteenth century, sin was linked to childhood. It was not until Locke, Rousseau and Wordsworth popularised notions of the innocent child—ideas that inspired much that is beneficial, including the late nineteenth-century social reform movements that banned child labour and led to free public education—that the sinful child was relegated to the past. What is particularly interesting about Gubar’s essay is that she eloquently articulates the way a word as seemingly transparent as innocence has a complex history and an array of different uses and associations.


As we edited the Keywords essay drafts, we increasingly realised that the essays worked most effectively if there were references to ways in which particular terms could be applied to specific children’s books and to specific critical approaches. So, we were pleased when we found that an individual work of children’s literature turned up repeatedly in several categories, as when Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was cited in the Childhood, Classic, Golden Age and Liminality essays. From the very beginning of our Keywords work, we had hoped that an instructor putting together a syllabus for a course would be able to put a children’s book on the course list and then access individual Keywords essays to demonstrate potential critical approaches to that book: that is, we hoped it would be possible to map a book by plotting keyword co-ordinates. That is, in fact, what happened.
Sherman Alexie’s 2007 novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian turns up in essays on Boyhood, Class Identity, Postcolonial and Young Adult. Citing books about boyhood that depart from classic “boy’s books,” Eric Tribunella, author of the Boyhood essay, notes that Alexie’s depiction of a Spokane Indian boy living on a Washington State reservation offers a more complex depiction of masculinity. Though Arnold Spirit (a.k.a. Junior) does play sports, athletics are not a major component of his story—he is poor, nerdy, an outcast both in his all-white school (as its sole Native American), and in his Spokane community (for choosing to go to the all-white school over the one on the reservation—or, “rez” as it is known colloquially). By focusing on Junior’s class position, Liz Bullen, in the Class essay, cites the novel as an example of “issues of class” being “overwritten by race of ethnicity” (50). Clare Bradford, in her Postcolonial essay, sees the novel commenting on the influence of colonialism upon the lives of indigenous people (180). Considered in terms of her Identity essay, Karen Coats focuses on the challenges Junior faces in negotiating between his Native heritage and the white culture of his school. Ultimately, the friend who considered Junior a traitor for attending the white school suggests, as Coats says, that “Junior can still own his identity as an Indian because there is a stronger tradition of Indians as nomads than there is of Indians staying in one place as they do now on the rez” (112). Lee Talley, in Young Adult, locates Alexie’s novel alongside other crossover books, such as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion. The shifting location of Alexie’s story in the context of a range of Keywords essays, reinforces not only the idea that context creates meaning but also that meanings—like contexts—are multiple, overlapping and contingent.
We had a similar experience as we traced Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic, The Secret Garden, through the Keywords essays. In Kelly Hager’s essay on Body, we were struck by her focus on “resurrection through touch, through taste, through smell, through the exercise of bodiliness” in The Secret Garden (19). Peter Hunt, in Children’s Literature, identifies the novel as a children’s book that had “crossed over” to classic status, partly “supported by academic, textual apparatus” (44). Mavis Reimer, in Home, attends to both literal and figurative sites in the novel in which “young people … mother and nurture themselves” (196). Karen Coats, in Identity, explains how Mary “adjusts her behavior … as part of her becoming a likeable young woman” (111). Peter Hollindale, in Nature, discusses “the mythical bonding between child and nature,” and, finally, Kate Capshaw Smith, in Race reminds us about “the prejudicial constructions of race” in even the best-loved novels. As we flipped through the series of readings of The Secret Garden in the Keywords essays—from ideas of bodiliness, to identify, to crossover, to a warning example about prejudice, we felt as if we had been given instant access to a complete quick reference chart of interpretive possibilities.


After Keywords for Children’s Literature was published in 2011, we began taking it out for test-drives in our own courses. And we began obsessing about the words that got away: missing words, commissioned words that never made it into the published volume, and words we considered but then excluded because we thought they were clearly defined—so not meeting our “contested or conflicted” test. One phrase we would include now, but did not initially, was Children’s Poetry. A conversation with Joseph Thomas (author of the Aesthetics essay) first made us think we did made a mistake by excluding Children’s Poetry. Thomas pointed out that the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry (which appears annually in the September issue of the journal) is for a book of poetry—that is, for a book as a material object. In considering the genre of children’s poetry, the book matters, as does its layout and often its accompanying images. We also remembered Richard Flynn’s comments in his ‘Fear of Poetry’ essay for the Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature, in which he described the “vast bulk of children’s poetry published today [as] goofy, sentimental or recycled from days of yore” (Flynn, 76). Both Flynn’s comments and Thomas’s alerted us to the fact that “children’s poetry” is a conflicted term which engages the same constellation of concerns addressed in other essays in our volume, including Aesthetics, Popular, Classic and Golden Age—to name a few. We regret that we excluded Children’s Poetry and would argue now for its inclusion in the second edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature. Another term about which we are having second thoughts is Fairy Tale. We had excluded it originally on the grounds that it was a genre term, but given the recent debate about the origins of the fairy tale (literary works annexed by oral tradition vs. oral works fixed into literary tradition), we have reconsidered.
We have also become conscious of completely new directions we might consider for a future edition. Technology is high on our list, in terms of what and how we read and in theories of interpretation. As yet, there is little scholarship on enhanced eBooks for children, but if these do catch on—which appears likely—we will want to think about how that interactive medium works. In an enhanced eBook, the book can, in fact, read itself to you, highlighting each word as it is pronounced. And, as in the enhanced eBook of Peter Rabbit, it can have music and sound effects. Click on the animals and they make the appropriate noises: mice squeak, owls hoot and cats meow. Touch Peter Rabbit’s mother and she hums, in a human voice. Touch Peter’s sisters, and they giggle. Touch Peter, and he does too.
Reading may not, in fact be the correct word to describe the experience of an enhanced eBook. We do not read a film. We watch a film. We do not read a video game, we play a video game. Although reading can certainly occur in an enhanced eBook, perhaps we need a new verb. Work? Use? Play? Experience? What we do not necessarily do any more is turn paper pages.
Technologies of the future might also enable a Keywords project to be less Anglocentric. Although Google Translate may only offer fairly clunky translations at the moment, it is clear that software and technologies are improving. If so, then people who do not speak Norwegian or Swedish or Danish—the two of us for example—might have greater access to both literary and scholarly works in languages we do not speak. Of course, a more promising solution would be better and more authorised translations of children’s books and scholarship, as would Anglophone scholars learning other languages and opening up to foreign scholarship and literature. We recognise that this solution would require structural changes in educational systems, but it is a goal worth pursuing.
Criticism, as well as literature, is also being changed by technology. By using emerging methodologies, such as “algorithmic” criticism—described by Stephen Ramsay in Reading Machines: Towards an Algorithmic Criticism—it is possible to begin to map, graphically, critical trends. In fact, graphic maps already turn up as images generated via texts fed into programmes, such as Google Ngram and Wordle (which makes “word clouds”). Michael Joseph, author of the Keywords essay on Liminality, suggests that it might be possible to put the digitised contents of all the articles from all the major children’s literature journals into a “Wordsmith” programme, then, using the word frequency function, trace accurately the rise and fall of particular critical terms. We know that critical fashions change, so we could, theoretically, analyse the influence of various critical movements—Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, semiotics—on children’s literature by tracking these terms through the journals. It would then be possible to map the changes. Although we cannot imagine a keyword that might come out of such a project at the moment, we can see that it might be able to spot emerging keywords, which would be of interest. On these glimpses of the possible future of both children’s literature and children’s literature criticism, we conclude by inviting you to join us in considering a future Keywords for Children’s Literature. What keywords will need to be added to the map? Which texts (and words) would make a new edition less strictly Anglophone and more global? Should we get the opportunity to edit a revised version, we think that a richer, more inclusive map will improve the critical conversation, allowing readers to better navigate the dynamic landscape of children’s literature.


Aesthetics, African American, audience, body, boyhood, censorship, character, childhood, children’s literature, class, classic, crossover literature, culture, domestic, education, empire, fantasy, gender, girlhood, golden age, graphic novel, home, identity, ideology, image, innocence, intention, Latino/a, liminality, literacy, marketing, modernism, multicultural, nature, nonsense, picture book, popular, postcolonial, postmodernism, queer, race, reading, realism, science fiction, story, theory, tomboy, voice, young adult.


1. Unless otherwise noted, page numbers in parenthetical references are for our Keywords for Children’s Literature.


Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little Brown, 2007.
Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. Harmondsworth: Penguin-Puffin Books, 1911, 1951.
Burgett, Bruce, and Glenn Hendler. Keywords for American Cultural Studies. New York: New York University Press, 2007.
Darton, Frederick J. Children’s Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life. 1932. 3rd ed. revised by Brian Alderson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Farmer, Nancy. The House of the Scorpion. 2002. New York: Atheneum, 2004.
Flynn, Richard. ‘The Fear of Poetry.’ In Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature, eds. Matthew O. Grenby and Andrea Immel, 76–90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Grenby, Matthew O. and Andrea Immel. Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Gubar, Marah. Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. 2003. London: Definitions/Random House, 2004.
Haugen, Tormod. Zeppelin. Trans. David R. Jacobs. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Turton and Chambers, 1991.
Hunt, Peter, ed., Children’s Literature: The Development of Criticism. London: Routledge, 1990.
Hunt, Peter, ed., International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. 1996. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2004.
Hunt, Peter, ed. “RE: keywords (children’s literature).” Email to Lissa Paul. 2 Dec. 2007.
Mickenberg, Julia and Lynne Vallone, eds., Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Nel, Philip and Lissa Paul, eds., Keywords for Children’s Literature. New York: New York University Press, 2011.
Nodelman, Perry, ed., Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children’s Literature. 3 vols. Lafayette: Children’s Literature Association, 1985, 1987, 1989.
Potter, Beatrix. PopOut! The Tale of Peter Rabbit. LoudCrow Interactive, 2011. eBook.
Pullman, Philip. The Amber Spyglass. London: Scholastic, 2000.
Pullman, Philip. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2010.
Pullman, Philip. Northern Lights 1995. London: Scholastic, 1998
Pullman, Philip. The Subtle Knife. 1997. London: Scholastic, 1998
Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Towards an Algorithmic Criticism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
Trimmer, Sarah. The Guardian of Education, a Periodical work; consisting of a practical essay on Christian education founded immediately on the Scriptures and the Sacred Offices of the Church of England: Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, and Extracts from their Writings; Extracts from Sermons and Other books relating to Religious Education; and a copious Examination of Modern Systems of Education, Children’s Books, and Books for Young Persons/Conducted by Mrs. Trimmer. Vol 1. London: J. Hatchard, 1802.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. 1976. rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983
Zipes, Jack, Lissa Paul, Lynne Vallone, Peter Hunt, and Gillian Avery, eds., The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature. New York: Norton, 2005.

Article: Reimer - Mobile characters, mobile texts: homelessness and intertextuality in contemporary texts for young people

Reimer, Mavis. Mobile characters, mobile texts: homelessness and intertextuality in contemporary texts for young people. Journal of Children's Literature Research, Vol. 36, 2013

Mobile characters, mobile texts: homelessness and intertextuality in contemporary texts for young people

Mavis Reimer
Abstract: Since the 1990s, narratives about homelessness for and about young people have proliferated around the world. A cluster of thematic elements shared by many of these narratives of the age of globalization points to the deep anxiety that is being expressed about a social, economic, and cultural system under stress or struggling to find a new formation. More surprisingly, many of the narratives also use canonical cultural texts extensively as intertexts. This article considers three novels from three different national traditions to address the work of intertextuality in narratives about homelessness: Skellig by UK author David Almond, which was published in 1998; Chronicler of the Winds by Swedish author Henning Mankell, which was first published in 1988 in Swedish as Comédia Infantil and published in an English translation in 2006; and Stained Glass by Canadian author Michael Bedard, which was published in 2002. Using Julia Kristeva's definition of intertextuality as the “transposition of one (or several) sign systems into another,” I propose that all intertexts can be thought of as metaphoric texts, in the precise sense that they carry one text into another. In the narratives under discussion in this article, the idea of homelessness is in perpetual motion between texts and intertexts, ground and figure, the literal and the symbolic. What the child characters and the readers who take up the position offered to implied readers are asked to do, I argue, is to put on a way of seeing that does not settle, a way of being that strains forward toward the new.
Keywords: homelessness, metaphor, young people's narratives, intertextuality, transposition, globalization, Julia Kristeva, street kids, uncanny, home

Children on the move is the situation at the heart of most children's literature.1 As Perry Nodelman and I argue in The Pleasures of Children's Literature, the most common story for young people is a circular journey, in which a central child character leaves home in search of an adventure or is pushed out of an originary home by the behavior of powerful adults, journeys to an unfamiliar place, and, after a series of exciting and/or dangerous experiences, returns home or chooses to claim the unfamiliar space as a new home.2 The new millennium, however, has seen an increasing number of narratives for young readers internationally that challenge the terms of the earlier pattern. Since the 1990s, narratives about child subjects on the move have proliferated around the world: these children might be immigrants, refugees, or exiles, if the narrative is working within political valences; vagrants, street kids, runaways, or “throwaways,” if the narrative is working within (or against) the genre of domestic realism that continues to dominate the field of young people's texts; or tourists and travelers, if the narrative is working within the terms of fantasy and adventure (including comic misadventure). What distinguishes these recent narratives from the generic pattern is that the central child characters do not move inside or settle at the conclusion of their narratives. Rather, they find happy endings – or, at least, narrative closure – in remaining homeless at the end of their stories.
My most systematic mapping of such narratives has occurred within the Canadian context. Between 1999 and 2008, at least twenty-four novels for young people featuring mobile child subjects were published in Canada. Many of these narratives clearly locate themselves within the context of a social-justice pedagogy and are concerned with both teaching young people the facts of homelessness and promoting thoughtful reflections on the underlying social causes of which homelessness is the symptom; but readers are also invited to understand the young characters in the text more abstractly, as figures that represent possible ways of being in the world. The relevant context for this interest in homelessness, I've argued in several of my articles over the past few years, is globalization, a world system that, according to political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, takes “as its very conditions of possibility” “[c]irculation, mobility, diversity, and mixture” (150).3 The cluster of thematic elements shared by these narratives points to the deep anxiety that is being expressed about a social, economic, and cultural system under stress or struggling to find a new formation: porous and confused boundaries between inside and outside; mental illnesses and addictions; broken relationships with fathers and father figures; the regular intrusion of police and other institutional representatives into the lives and stories of the main characters; an interest in numbers, sometimes money and sometimes random sets of numbers; and a focus on communication systems, often specifically computers and the Internet.
Surprisingly, many of the Canadian narratives also allude to texts of “elite” culture and often use these “elite” texts extensively as intertexts – Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, Einstein's theories of relativity, and Van Gogh's painting Starry Night are just a few examples that come to mind.4 In my past work, as I've tried to decipher the ways in which writers for young people translate the vocabularies of globalization into fiction, this item on the list of shared thematic elements has continued to perplex me. Networked communication systems are both the literal vehicle of, and the metaphor for, globalization, but it is not clear how canonical cultural intertexts from earlier periods fit into this framework. Moreover, the Canadian texts are not unique in this regard; rather, this characteristic appears to be common in texts about homeless young people from many places.
In this article, I consider three narratives from three different national traditions, in order to ask the question of the work of intertextuality in narratives about homelessness. The three texts are Chronicler of the Winds by Swedish author Henning Mankell, which was first published in 1988 in Swedish as Comédia Infantil and published in an English translation in 2006; Skellig by British author David Almond, which was published in 1998; and Stained Glass by Canadian author Michael Bedard, which was published in 2002. My project is an exploratory rather than finished one, and the article itself is structured as an account of my attempt to puzzle out the significance of the insistent use of intertexts in this group of texts. At the end of the article, I make the claim that these books set in motion the desire to wander: in retrospect, I can see the wandering line of my argument to be an intellectual response to this invitation.
All three of the texts I've selected for this initial exploration are somewhat eccentric in relation to the thematic cluster of the Canadian texts. In Skellig, there is no broken relationship with father or mother, although there are fears of the death of a sister. In Skellig and Stained Glass, the central child characters are not themselves homeless, although both boys have recently moved into new homes; in both books, as well, the relationship between the protagonist and a homeless character is not only at the center of the plot, but also the subject of extensive reflection for the character and narrator. Chronicler of the Winds is not explicitly directed to young readers, but it is the story of a young street child in an African port city and, like the other two books, it thematizes questions of home and not-home. All three of the books are tissues of intertexts and citations. My hope is that, by looking to texts at the margins of the form I've been studying, I will be able to identify the assumptions subtending this practice of intertextuality.
Chronicler of the Winds is a novel about a ten-year-old homeless boy, Nelio, who lives on the streets of an unnamed city in Africa (presumably Maputo, a port city in Mozambique, given the cover description of the author's position as director of a theatre in this city). The narrator of the novel is José Antonio Maria Vaz, a young baker who listens to Nelio tell the story of his short life over nine days, as Nelio lies dying on the roof of the bakery where José works: the narrative tells of Nelio's escape from the bandits who attacked and burned his village and killed many of its inhabitants, all in the name of liberating them; his travels with an albino dwarf through the hills to the sea, the shore of which Nelio follows to the city; his life on the streets of the city with the group of other street kids whom he chooses as his family; and, finally, the events leading to the moment when he is shot on the stage of a theatre that he and his gang have broken into at night. Chronicler of the Winds opens with three epigraphs – from Angelus Silesius, a seventeenth-century German mystic and poet; from Voltaire; and from the biblical book of Proverbs. Stories and songs remembered by the street boys from their early home lives are woven into the story that José tells.
Skellig is the story of ten-year-old Michael, who has recently moved with his family to a new house in a new area of town, and who finds a vagrant, Skellig, sheltering in the derelict garage in the back garden. Skellig appears to be close to death, and Michael, in trying to figure out how to help him without alerting adults (whom he believes will be either incredulous or exploitative), enlists his new friend from next door, home-schooled and independent-minded Mina. The young people gradually come to see that Skellig is an uncategorizable being, a composite creature – part human, part owl, part angel – who cannot be defined by any “single knowledge system,” as Elizabeth Bullen and Elizabeth Parsons put it (127). At the same time as the two young people help to restore Skellig to himself, Michael's baby sister, born with a defective heart, fights for her young life. The novel is peppered with references to other texts – the local Chinese takeout menu, Greek myths, science textbooks on evolution, encyclopedia entries about birds, and the poetry of William Blake.
Finally, Stained Glass is the account of a weekend in the life of a young teenager, Charles, who has moved with his mother and siblings into his grandmother's house after the sudden death of his father. The novel begins with Charles escaping into an old church to avoid the piano lessons that he inexplicably no longer wants to take. While he is there, Charles sees the caretaker accidentally break one of the stained-glass windows he is cleaning and comes to the aid of Ambriel, a confused young vagrant who seems to have been struck by the falling glass while sleeping on a bench in the church and who, perhaps for this reason, does not know who she is or how she has come to be in St. Bart's. (A secondary narrative, which focuses on the caretaker's repair of the window, opens another possible explanation for readers – that Ambriel has escaped from the text represented in the stained glass when it broke.) The primary narrative involves the journey of the two young people through the streets of the small Ontario town of Caledon as they try to piece together her identity. The novel is laced together with intertexts: epigraphs from the poetry of Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot, interpolations from medieval treatises on glassmaking, a detailed description of the layered transparencies that compose the illustration of the human body in a medical dictionary, and allusions to fairy tales from A Wonder Book of Tales for Boys and Girls, among others.
As I review the lists of texts set into the three narratives that I've taken to be exemplary texts about young people and homelessness, I realize that my initial characterization of the intertexts as “elite” texts may itself have been a stumbling block in my search for an understanding of their significance. Clearly, not all of the important intertexts in this group of narratives are, in fact, iconic texts of high culture: neither the takeout menu in Skellig nor the medical dictionary in Stained Glass, for example, could be described in these terms. What, then, might be a better descriptor for them? The way forward, it seems, might be to take a step sideways and to look again at the critical term intertextuality.
Introduced into French semiotics in the 1960s by Bulgarian psychoanalyst and theorist Julia Kristeva, intertextuality was her representation and development of Mikhail Bakhtin's notions of dialogism and carnival, which she saw as bringing “a dynamic dimension” to structuralist analysis (Desire in Language 65). For Bakhtin, she observed, the “literary word” is “an intersection of textual surfaces rather than a point (a fixed meaning),” and “a dialogue among several writings: that of the writer, the addressee (or the character), and the contemporary or earlier cultural context” (65). In a much-quoted passage from Desire in Language in which Kristeva uses the term intertextuality, she employs two more metaphors to convey her sense of the multiplicity and dynamism of the text: “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another. The notion of intertextuality replaces that of intersubjectivity, and poetic language is read as at least double” (66). Despite her proliferation of explanations, however, intertextual reading in practice often seemed to her to be reduced to the hunt for allusions – “identifying texts that participate in the final text” or “identifying their sources” – as she observed in an 1985 interview with Margaret Waller (281). As a result, she proposed in Revolution in Poetic Language that a better term for the articulation and redistribution of “semiotic polyvalence” that she was describing might be transposition, the “transposition of one (or several) sign systems into another” (59–60). Transposition, in her view, “specifies that the passage from one signifying system to another demands a new articulation of … enunciative and denotative positionality” (60). That is, the movement of one text into another transforms the place(s) from which speech proceeds and the object(s) of that speaking. As Kristeva goes on to observe,
If one grants that every signifying practice is a field of transpositions of various signifying systems (an inter-textuality), one then understands that its “place” of enunciation and its denoted “object” are never single, complete, and identical to themselves, but always plural, shattered, capable of being tabulated. (Revolution, 60)
Critic and theorist Jill Schostak has pointed out that this statement makes it clear that, when “‘word’ as intersecting textual surfaces emerges, ‘word’ as Master signifier breaks down” ([10]). According to Schostak, in Kristeva's view of intertextuality, both writers and readers become plural, subjects-in-process: “The intertextual intersection sets in motion … a sense of the dynamic, the ephemeral and elusive, the invoking-ing, the becoming other, becoming nomad” ([12–13]).5
But what does all of this mean in relation to the narratives at hand? What, for example, can we make of the Chinese takeout menu in Skellig, the intertext that seems the least obviously meaningful, in light of these definitions and explanations? The name of the restaurant from which Michael's family orders food is never specified in the novel, so it is impossible to know from the text alone whether this particular menu has a pre-text as its source. David Almond has confirmed in an email conversation with me (on 22 March 2013) that he did have a specific text in mind while writing Skellig, the menu of “a very good Chinese takeaway called The Peninsula” in Newcastle, although he invented the specific numbers of the dishes that become important in Michael's story.6 But, as Kristeva notes, the hunt for sources is at best a weak form of studying intertextuality. Echoing this observation in the context of mapping the work of ideology in children's literature, John Stephens remarks that “the study of intertextuality is not to be confused with mere source-study,” but is, rather, “concerned with how meaning is produced at points of intersection” of various discourses, including those of genre and ideology (117).
If, following Stephens, we consider the discourses in which the Chinese takeout menu is embedded, there is much that we can observe. As a kind of text, the takeout menu is an advertisement and a catalog of goods; it effaces its status as an authored text through its use of impersonal, conventional, functional codes; and it implies a reader seeking information and instructions on purchasing prepared foods (literally an efferent reader, to use Louise Rosenblatt's famous term). The menu assumes the contemporary context of a consumer capitalist society and the historical context of British economic and political adventures in the world: in this sense, the intertext marks what Graham Allen describes as the “text's emergence from the ‘social text’ but also its continued existence within society and history” (36). Set into the narrative of Michael's search to understand the circumstances of his profoundly changed life–his infant sister's illness, his mother's emotional unavailability to him, his new home, and the now-difficult journey to school – the menu seems to mark the inadequacy of community and nurturance in Michael's social world.
But how could such an intertext be said to shatter the completeness of the text, to return to Kristeva's terms, or to set into motion a sense of the dynamic, to use Schostak's terms? In Desire in Language, in the section immediately preceding her definition of intertextuality, Kristeva remarks that signification “articulates itself” in the space of the text “through a joining of differences” (65). If the takeout menu is read in this light, it can, indeed, be seen to mobilize plural and dynamic objects and places of enunciation. The first explicit mention of the menu comes when Michael's father decides to bring in supper for his family on the evening when his wife is to return from hospital: he prepares an order to call in to “the Chinese round the corner” (21). This construction joins that which is adjacent (the local takeaway) with that which is distant (China). The two items on the menu that Skellig requests are given initially only as numbers, #27 and #53, arbitrary positions in an ordinal system of classification that puzzle Michael when he hears them. He soon deduces, however, that these arbitrary and abstract symbols also have concrete and specific referents: if one reads them in the context of the takeout menu, they signify spring rolls and pork char sui. Skellig repeatedly apostrophizes the two dishes as the “[f]ood of the gods” (29), although, ironically, he first tasted them after finding leftovers in the trashcan of the previous owner of the house. Michael's father sees their reliance on the takeaway as an irresponsible food choice that will undoubtedly contribute to his problematic body weight but also as a convenience he is unwilling to deny his family in light of their deep emotional distress.
Carried into Almond's text, then, the takeout menu, among other things, joins the adjacent to the distant, the arbitrary to the specific, the abstract to the concrete, human body to divine being, spiritual sustenance to waste material, problem to promise. It multiplies the significations of food. It articulates various positions from which the menu is decoded. These multiple significations and articulations are set in motion and kept in circulation in the signifying field for the reader through the initial unhoming and then the refusal to settle of Michael, the central focalizing character. Michael is unhomed not only because he has moved into a new home from which his mother is absent, but also because the disrupted state of the house (which the family is renovating) makes it difficult for his father to cook and otherwise to keep the household in order. Indeed, Michael's refusal to settle is the subject of much of the narrative and accounts for such actions as his decision not to tell adults about Skellig; his increasingly frequent absences from school, which he justifies to himself as necessary to care for Skellig; and his exploration with his new friend Mina of the abandoned house from which they eventually release Skellig.
In proposing that intertextuality be thought of as transposition, Kristeva suggests that transposition is third in the list of fundamental psychic meaning-making processes, the other two being the processes identified by Sigmund Freud as displacement and condensation, or, in the linguistic terms preferred by Jacques Lacan, the figures of metonymy and metaphor (Revolution 59). But, while transposition is a separate process in that it identifies “the passage from one sign system to another,” it also “comes about through a combination of displacement [or metonymy] and condensation [or metaphor]” (Revolution, 59). As Kristeva describes transposition, in fact, it seems that all intertexts can be thought of as metaphoric texts, in the precise sense that they transport one text into another text. The literal meaning of the Greek word from which metaphor is derived translates into English as “carry another place” (Tronstad 217). In other words, each of these intertexts as intertext is a metaphor in the sense that, by breaking with its original context and lodging itself in another place, it has become something other than it was and it has transformed the place in which it has lodged itself.
Thought of in this way, it is perhaps not surprising that the writers of these narratives should so often reach for poetic and philosophic intertexts, many of which explicitly articulate the need to see doubly and consider the work of language to be to unsettle. Kristeva highlights this characteristic of poetic language in comparison to prosaic language in her extended discussion of intertextuality in the interview with Waller, where she remarks that “[t]he poetic experience is more openly regressive … it confronts more directly the moments of loss of meaning” (284). Consider, for example, the epigraph from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets that opens the first section of Stained Glass, in which Eliot can imagine stillness only as the center of motion:
At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point,
there the dance is …
Or, consider the first of the three epigraphs to Chronicler of the Winds, from the seventeenth-century mystic Silesius, in which double vision is understood as the basic condition of the human being:
The human being has two eyes;
one sees only what moves in ephemeral time,
the other
what is eternal and divine.
While some of these philosophic and poetic intertexts are iconic cultural texts, which carry a weight of cultural meaning and are accompanied by a trail of critical commentary, the question of their source or status may be less significant than the way in which they instantiate the intertextuality of all human subjects and of all of the objects of human discourse. Indeed, what Kristeva dismisses as the “banal” version of intertextuality, in which it is taken primarily as a “study of sources,” might be understood as a readerly attempt to stabilize the text by resituating it within a diachronic tradition rather than opening oneself to the play of “semiotic polyvalence” that the intertext has set in motion (Revolution 60).7
At the level of the narratives, unsettling and doubling are the work of the homeless characters in all three of the books. In Almond's novel, there is an unflinching insistence that the reader recognize the abjectness of Skellig's body – “the stench of his breath, the stench of the things the owls had given him to eat” (119) – at the same time as Michael and Mina are “lifted from the floor” to dance with Skellig in the silvery moonlight of the abandoned house in which they have put him for safekeeping (120). To reach toward the new, “to be ready to move forward,” and to understand, as Mina speculates, that “this is not how we are meant to be forever,” feels to Michael like “calling Skellig out from somewhere deep inside me” (99). Charles, in Bedard's Stained Glass, is acutely conscious of the way in which he is taking on the marks of homelessness as he drifts around town with Ambriel – his clothes are torn, and his lip is bruised from a fall; he is sunburnt and parched with thirst – but he nevertheless feels bereft when Ambriel suddenly disappears without explanation. When, at the end of the narrative, he sees her again (perhaps in a dream) at the window of his upper-story bedroom at night, he experiences “sheer delight” (279). “I could never leave you …. Any more than you could leave me,” she tells him, and “they spoke a long time together,” Bedard's narrator tells readers, “though whether there were words, [Charles] could not say. It seemed rather that speech sprang from every pore of them” (280). Clearly, then, there is a sense in which Skellig and Ambriel can be read as aspects of Michael and Charles. In this sense, both of these narratives seem to function in part as the “lay analysis” that Kristeva describes as typical of contemporary narratives that incorporate “the poetic experience in an intertextual manner” (Waller 286).
In more general terms, we might say that, in Almond's and Bedard's narratives, the homeless characters Skellig and Ambriel simultaneously unsettle the possibility of the full achievement of home for the central child character and deny the focalizing character any triumphant emancipation from home. The doubleness of this condition is captured exactly in the English construction homeless, which in itself both calls up the idea of home and insists on its lack. What is asked both of the child characters and of the readers who take up the position offered to implied readers is to put on a way of seeing that does not settle, that remains restless, a way of being that strains forward toward the new. Chronicler of the Winds literalizes this way of being: at the end of the narrative, we learn that the narrator José has left his good job and his good-enough home to live on the streets with the mission of telling Nelio's story. The world could get along without one baker, he concludes, but “[t]he world could not get along without [Nelio's story]” (226), and he sets out to seek, like a lizard, “a crack in the wall that was wide enough for me,” a way of living that would “cost nothing” (229).
The recurrent use of what I initially characterized as “elite” intertexts in the Canadian narratives – and what I would now want to characterize as intertextuality or transpositionality – was one of the first indications to me that these narratives about homelessness were situating themselves within a semantic field larger than that of documentary realism. In other words, to repeat the conclusions I proposed at the beginning of this article, no matter how interested the texts are in issues of social justice or with the underlying causes of homelessness in society, it is also the case that readers are being invited to understand the homeless characters in the text more abstractly, as figures that represent possible ways of being and moving in the world. In one of the early forums at which I reported this conclusion – an interdisciplinary group of social science and humanities scholars at the University of Winnipeg – I was met with considerable resistance: to propose that homelessness could or should be read as a rhetorical figure, as a metaphor, seemed to some of my interlocutors to belittle the plight of a particularly downtrodden segment of society. To appropriate the suffering of such a marginalized group and to exploit it as an explanatory paradigm for the anxieties of the white, middle-class liberal subject at the center of contemporary Canadian society were simply unethical, they said. The response of this group of scholars, many of whom I respect for their activism as much as for their scholarship, sent me back to the critical and theoretical literature on homelessness to reconsider my methods. In Martin Jay's Cultural Semantics: Keywords of Our Time, I found a discussion of exactly this problem. Jay points to the same objection made by my colleagues, quoting the warning of cultural commentator Anthony Vidler about the dangers of trivializing political or social action by conflating “reflection on the ‘transcendental’ or psychological unhomely” with “the intolerable state of real homelessness” (163). The quotation comes in the course of Jay's discussion of the keyword uncanny, the English term that is typically used to translate the German unheimlich, although the German word literally translates into English as “the unhomely.” Jay points out that, in the theoretical passages of Freud's concept through the late twentieth century, the term has functioned primarily to unsettle “phantasmatic notions of home” (161) and to deny “the plenitudinous presence of full emancipation” (160), exactly the work that I have already said Skellig and Ambriel do in Almond's and Bedard's narratives. Mankell's novel suggests another possible explanation for the distress that the metaphorical identification of the homeless and the homed seems to cause: perhaps it is not so much that figurative connections between the vagrant and the burger belittle the intolerable condition of real homelessness, as it is that such figurations privilege the condition of homelessness as a model for a responsible, for a good, life.
In the piece from Cultural Semantics that I have mentioned in this article, Jay summarizes the work of what he cleverly calls “the unheimlich manoeuvre” as “tirelessly” “undermin[ing] the hard and fast distinction between the metaphoric and the real, the symbolic and the literal, the animate and inanimate” (163). This, I suggest, is also a good description of the work of homelessness in contemporary texts for and about young people, an idea that is in perpetual motion in these texts between the literal and the metaphoric, the ground and the figure, or what I have called, earlier in this article, the facts and the figures. Philosopher Claire Colebrook, in a discussion of the tactics of metaphor, observes that such thinkers as French philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel de Certeau “reverse the traditional metaphoric casual chain” in which metaphor “has been seen as a rhetorical effect or secondary movement.” For them, she suggests, metaphor can itself only be thought metaphorically, so that it is “[o]nly with the metaphors of figural effect, movement, or passage” that “a prefigural, proper, or ground” can be thought (566). The implication is that the ground or the literal is “the effect of a figuration that has erased itself” (566). Kevin Kohan puts it this way: “Metaphor is not grounded in literal truth, but in fact precedes truth, [and] generates it” (136). In Colebrook's formulation, metaphor always already is a figure of homelessness, in that it is the figure of passage, of movement, of setting in motion. Refusing the figuration of homelessness, then, might be understood as an attempt to keep the current systems of meaning in place. On the other hand, writers working and reworking the facts and figures of homelessness might be understood as struggling to articulate a new “prefigural, proper, or ground” (Colebrook 566).
It is just this struggle to articulate a new ground for home that Nelio undertakes in the final chapters of Chronicler of the Winds. In the world as he has found it, he observes, “People no longer build houses, they build hiding places” (182). Home, he thinks, should be something other than a hiding place. He sets out to find the island that his sick friend Alfredo Bomba remembers from a story told to him by his mother and to which he wants to journey before he dies: “If you ever visit that island, afterwards you'll never be afraid of anything for the rest of your life,” Alfredo recalls her saying (189). When Nelio's diligent research in the “tattered atlas of the world” that has been “found in a rubbish bin and given to him as a present” by one of his group (181) leads him to recognize that the island does not exist on the “poor maps” of the world that are available to him (193), he begins to build the place from the bits and pieces of the story that Alfredo has told him. “What doesn't exist you have to create yourself,” Nelio tells the other boys (198), and they set to work on the empty stage of the theatre at night, assembling the props and rehearsing the play through which Alfredo can complete “the journey that he had dreamed of and prepared for all his life” (213).
The interpolated story of Alfredo's journey is a textbook example of the multiplication of enunciative positions and objects entailed by the simultaneous “adherence to different sign systems” in intertextual discourse (Kristeva, Revolution 60). Set into italics and so marked off from the rest of the narrative, the story is focalized through Alfredo; it is the first extended passage in which readers have been asked to see events through his eyes. It is impossible to determine, however, who is speaking: the novel itself is presented to readers as José's recounting of Nelio's account of his life, but the voice in this passage is not like either of the two voices readers have been accustomed to hearing in the novel. Rather, like the storyteller's voice in a traditional folk narrative, this voice sounds like the amalgamated voice of a tale that has been passed from one teller to another. The objects in the interpolated story exist both on the stage and in the story, demanding at least a double vision: readers know, for example, that Alfredo is the delirious street boy who has been carried into the theatre by his friends but he also appears in the story as the character Old Alfredo Bomba, a wise man who has prepared “all his life” for this journey (213). Moreover, the focalizer Alfredo both registers the fact that the dog accompanying him oddly has human hands instead of paws and realizes the truth “that journeys along unknown coasts meant travelling in the company of strange creatures that no one had ever seen before” (213). The effect of the interpolated story is that the reader, too, is asked to travel along unknown coasts with strange companions. Set into the final section of the narrative, the story multiplies, rather than closes, the trajectories of the narrative and unsettles, rather than confirms, the terms of the textual world with which the reader has grown familiar.
Kristeva's description of intertextuality as “the passage of one sign system into another” (Revolution 59) could be read as a gloss on the recent narratives about mobile child subjects in the age of globalization. In these narratives, homeless characters such as Nelio, Skellig, and Ambriel appear to have wandered into the texts from other places and narratives, while homed subjects such as José, Michael, and Charles move toward various states of homelessness. “[I]ntertextuality ‘at work’ inevitably takes the form of boundary-crossing,” according to Patrick O'Donnell and Robert Con Davis, in that “it creates crises, aporiae, ideology wherever it goes” (xiv). Thought of as a metaphorical operation, intertextuality “at work” in these narratives can also be seen as the sign that the thought of going beyond, going beyond the logic of what is, of what is understood to be home and not-home, has been set in motion.
Biographical information: Mavis Reimer is Canada Research Chair in Young People's Texts and Cultures and professor of English at the University of Winnipeg in Canada. She is editor of the scholarly journal Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures and serves at present as president of the International Research Society for Children's Literature. She is coauthor, with Perry Nodelman, of The Pleasures of Children's Literature (3rd ed.).


1 This article is based on a keynote lecture presented at the Nordisk forskerkonferanse that took place in Oslo, Norway, in August 2012. The author acknowledges the research assistance of Charlie Peters in preparing both the keynote address and this article.
2 See the chapter entitled “Children's Literature as Repertoire,” in The Pleasures of Children's Literature, pages 184–217.
3 See my essay, “‘No Place like Home’: The Facts and Figures of Homelessness in Contemporary Texts for Young People,” for a detailed argument about the ways in which these texts take up the rhetoric of the theorists of globalization. See also my essay, “On Location: The Home and the Street in Recent Films about Street Children.”
4 In, respectively, Martine Leavitt's (2004) Tom Finder, Barbara Haworth-Attard's (2003) Theories of Relativity, and Eric Walter's (2007) Sketches.
5 No page numbers are used in the online document; the numbers in square brackets indicate my count of the pages.
6 Personal correspondence with the author, 22 March 2013. The Peninsula Takeaway Menu can be viewed at
7 Don Latham's (2008) discussion of David Almond's intertextual practice in three novels demonstrates the pull of the first kind of interpretation, which is also suggested by Latham's emphasis on the “empowerment” of young readers.


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Article: Braithwaite-Constructions of guilt in a selection of disaster texts for young adults

Braithwaite, Elizabeth. “The hope – the one hope – is that your generation will prove wiser and more responsible than mine.” Constructions of guilt in a selection of disaster texts for young adults. Journal of Children's Literature Research, Vol. 35, 2012

“The hope – the one hope – is that your generation will prove wiser and more responsible than mine.” Constructions of guilt in a selection of disaster texts for young adults

Abstract: This paper explores a range of definitions of guilt, and argues that fiction for young adults which is set after a major disaster that has been caused by humans has surprisingly little emphasis on guilt. Focusing on Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells, Nuclear War Diary by James E. Sanford (Jr), The Last Children by Gudrun Pausewang, The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd and its sequel, The Carbon Diaries 2017, and Days Like This by Alison Stewart, the paper argues that in post-nuclear texts for young adults the emphasis tends to be on the perceived responsibility of the young adult reader's generation to work towards preventing the disaster from becoming reality, rather than on the guilt of the adult generation that caused the disaster. However, in texts dealing with environmental disaster, the young adult reader's generation can be seen to have some measure of culpability, and so the issues of guilt and responsibility become more complex

Keywords: nuclear, environment, carbon, climate change, fiction, responsibility
Fiction for young readers about major disaster caused by human action provides fertile ground for studying representations of guilt, whether in connection with adults looking to young people to solve problems the older generation has created, as Robert Swindells suggests in the quotation above, from the Afterword to his post-nuclear novel, Brother in the Land (1986, 153), or in the complicity of young people in an environmental catastrophe which their generation is also being called upon to fix. This paper will discuss constructions of guilt and responsibility in a range of young adult novels set after a major disaster caused by humans, and will ask, “What is the ideological function of guilt in the texts, and how does it relate to notions of responsibility?”
Guilt is a notoriously difficult concept to define (Blum 2008, 91). Broadly speaking, discussions of guilt tend to regard it in relation to emotion or affect (to the experience of “feeling guilty”) or to an actor's connection with a particular event (who committed the crime?), and in some cases can cover both. Heidegger, for example, distinguishes between “existential guilt”, resulting from incomplete self-understanding and self-possession, and guilt coming from “contingent indebtedness or moral responsibility” (Carman 2003, 287). In a legal context, Wild 2006 defines “guilty” as “The state of being deemed responsible for the commission of a crime, either as a result of a plea or the adjudication of a judge or jury” (149) and thus focuses on the perceived relationship of a person to a given action, and not on the way she or he feels. By contrast, Branscombe et al. 2004 contend that “guilt reflects an acceptance of responsibility for a moral violation that results in harm to another” (17). Guilt for them, therefore, relies on the actor concerned admitting fault. Drawing on the work of Klass, Blum similarly focuses on guilt as the acknowledgement of having contravened a particular moral code: “Phenomenologically, guilt is described as an aversive conscious emotion that involves criticism of and remorse for one's thoughts, feelings, or actions” (2008, 97, emphasis in the original). Similarly focusing on emotion, Dost and Yagmurlu 2008, incorporating Eisenberg's work, (109) explain that guilt and shame are “self-conscious” emotions because they “involve a reflective thought process on the self”. This is particularly important in literature for young readers, which is often concerned with notions of identity and how the subject acts as a result of his or her concept of self. Kubany and Watson (2003, 55) offer a model of guilt based on the interaction of five interconnected issues which draw together both of the recurring strands in the definitions of guilt given above: the action itself, and the actor's feelings towards having committed that action. These strands are: concern about an undesired outcome, responsibility for the guilt-inducing event, whether the actor believed the event to be justified, the event as violating the actor's values, and whether the event could have been foreseen and prevented.
Responsibility, which – as many of the definitions above demonstrate – can be linked with guilt, is also difficult to define, as Miller points out (2007, 82). He suggests that there are two types of responsibility: “outcome responsibility”, which, drawing on the work of Honoré, he explains “has to do with agents producing outcomes”, and “remedial responsibility” which “has to do with agents having a duty or obligation to put a bad situation right” (Miller 2007, 83–84). Outcome responsibility can be seen to be connected with situations such as employment in which a person is paid in order to perform particular tasks and produce certain outcomes, but is also connected with situations in which an action has produced a particular undesirable result. In this type of situation, “outcome responsibility” can be seen to align with culpability. When guilt is seen in connection with responsibility, therefore, the focus is on action: what was done, and what needs to be done to fix the resulting problem.
The paper will argue that the texts work primarily on notions of responsibility, and that guilt appears surprisingly rarely, given that the disasters are the result of human action. It will demonstrate that in texts which focus on nuclear disaster, guilt is assigned to the adult characters and functions to disempower the adult and to encourage the young protagonist to work to improve chances of survival, as well as to spur the young reader towards action, and indeed responsibility, to prevent the disaster from becoming reality.
Nuclear texts can be seen to be part of the genre of post-disaster fictions for young readers, and are focused on future action, which highlights the peculiar way in which time operates within the genre. As Stephens 1992 writes, the “past” in post-disaster fiction is usually constructed as a version of the implied reader's “present”, and therefore “because the message of such a [text] applies at the moment of reading, then the possibility of a new beginning is also displaced into the moment of reading” (126). The paper will argue that guilt therefore has little place in nuclear texts as the young adult has no culpability for the disaster, but that it can have more of a place in texts dealing with environmental disaster, given that the young adult in the text's past is in all likelihood contributing in some way to the disaster.
The texts for study are:
  1. Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells (1984, 1986 and 2000, focusing on nuclear disaster)
  2. The Last Children by Gudrun Pausewang (1983, English translation 1989, nuclear disaster)
  3. Nuclear War Diary by James E. Sanford (Jr) (1989, nuclear disaster)
  4. The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd (2008, climate change)
  5. The Carbon Diaries 2017 by Saci Lloyd (2009, climate change)
  6. Days Like This by Alison Stewart (2011, climate change)

These texts may all be considered to be “critical dystopias”, in that “they do not give up on hope despite the dystopian worlds they depict” (Bradford et al. 2008, 139), for even in The Last Children, in which it is likely that all the children will die, there is still hope because the implied young adult reader is positioned to act to prevent the disaster and its resultant dystopia from becoming reality. Dystopia here is defined as “a negatively deformed future of our own world” (see Baccolini 2003, 115), and all the texts for study show clear links with aspects of late twentieth and early twenty first century Western life, especially in their portrayal of language, physical locations and in their depictions of capitalism and related types of lifestyle.
The reason for focusing on texts dealing with either nuclear disaster or with climate change is that they are two very different types of disaster: nuclear disaster is a “system break” (Wehmeyer 1981, 26), whereas climate change is slower and harder to define. Also, post-nuclear texts usually either imply or state openly that young readers could not have prevented the disaster in the text, but they can – or indeed should – work towards preventing it becoming reality. This draws on the opposition between the guilty adult and the innocent and redemptive young adult, as implied in Swindells’ message quoted in the title to this paper, and also calls upon the notion of young person as redeemer (Hillel 2003; Bradford et al. 2008). On the other hand, many young people are contributing to environmental damage by the kinds of carbon-expensive consumption that Western society encourages: electronic devices, clothes, make up and so on, and even it could be argued, by reading books since there is a carbon cost in the production of printed matter.
The remainder of the paper will be in two parts: the first which will explore guilt in terms of causing the disaster, and the second which will discuss guilt in terms of behaviour in the disaster world.

Guilt and the cause of the disaster

Glazer 1986 observes that in many texts dealing with nuclear disaster, the reason for the disaster is given “in the context of preventing its recurrence” (87). This is unsurprising, given that nuclear texts often position their implied young reader as someone who could act to prevent the disaster from becoming reality. Mutton 1987 writes of Brother in the Land that the very ordinariness of protagonist Danny positions the young adult reader to identify with him and therefore to “Take heed lest the situation in the novel become reality” (3). It is made very clear in the opening pages of the novel that it will not matter if nuclear weapons are fired deliberately or not: the very fact that they exist means that there is the possibility they will wreak havoc:
[M]aybe it was a difference of opinion or just a computer malfunction. Either way, it set off a chain of events that nobody but a madman could have wanted and which nobody, not even the madmen, could stop.
(Swindells 2000, 1)

The guilt does not belong to a political party, or to a nation, but rather to those who built the weapons in the first place, or who allowed them to be built. Implicitly, the “madmen” are those who hold power: those who in another kind of war might have been able to negotiate for peace, but who have instead allowed the construction of nuclear weapons over which they are ultimately powerless. The responsibility therefore, implicitly lies with humanity, not with an individual country, and similarly it is not possible to dismiss the issue by saying “It is all one particular country's fault”.
Two of the few texts that do lay the blame for the disaster at the feet of a particular country, Miklowitz's After The Bomb, and After The Bomb: Week One, also point out that the disaster was an accident, and that it could easily have been the country of the protagonist which accidentally fired the weapons (Miklowitz 1985, 1987, 135–36). In other words, the only way to avoid nuclear disaster is not to have bombs at all.
It is typical of nuclear texts for young adults that the reason for the disaster is given in metaphysical rather than political terms. The wise guide figure in Brother in the Land, Branwell, says to Danny:
We watched death and destruction on T.V. newsreels till it meant nothing to us – till it didn't shock us any more. If we'd realized in time what was happening to us, if we'd clung on to our reverence for life, then we'd never have launched those missiles.
(Swindells 2000, 76)

Again, there is a suggestion that the young reader can do something to prevent the disaster from becoming reality: turning off the television. How effective that would be, however, is debatable. As Bosmajian 1989 has suggested about other texts about nuclear disaster: “The cure remains undiscovered, even where the young reader is supposedly given an answer” (323).
The responsibility of the young adult in preventing the disaster which has been set up by the adult generation is particularly obvious in the Afterword to the 1986 edition of Brother in the Land, partially quoted in the title of this paper:
There is no hope in my story because it is about a time after the bombs have fallen. The hope – the one hope – is that your generation will prove wiser and more responsible than mine, and that the bombs will not fall. Soon our lovely, fragile world will pass into your hands. Safe hands, I believe.
(Swindells 1986, 153)

The individual reader “you” is constructed as representative of the “young people” who are keen to be told by the responsible and caring adult what they “must do” to stop the disaster from happening. The adult generation may be guilty of bringing the world to the brink of nuclear disaster, but the final word still belongs to the adult author.
As with Brother in the Land, the perpetrator of the nuclear attack in Nuclear War Diary is unknown (Sanford 1989, 1). The closest suggestion to a reason for the disaster is given when Jessie is thinking about having killing three people in order to save her family. She writes, “Millions of people have recently died because governments disagreed about different philosophies” (1989, 77). As with Brother in the Land and After the Bomb and its sequel, the young reader is positioned not to trust the authorities, who fire bombs accidentally or for no good reason, but instead to listen to the wisdom of the adult author. The adult generation may be guilty, but the voice of the adult author is still to be obeyed.
Nuclear War Diary positions itself clearly as a didactic text with its Preface and its Discussion Topics, Questions, and Related Reading List. The Last Children does so less overtly, but concludes with an authorial afterword, which indicates clearly the didactic intention of the text, and positions the reader firmly away from seeing the work simply as one of fiction. Pausewang writes:
There can hardly be any doubt that our very existence is being threatened by the steadily growing number of nuclear weapons. But many people put this threat out of their minds and refuse to think about it.
(1989: Epilogue)

This notion of refusal to face the possibility of nuclear disaster being in itself a contributing factor to the disaster actually happening permeates much of the actual text of The Last Children. Roland's father argues that “‘[O]ur governments will work things out all right whether we go on holiday or not’” (1989, 8), but of course the point is that the governments don't work things out and the disaster does eventuate. The danger of Roland's father's view is foregrounded towards the end of the novel, when Roland observes that nothing could be gained by blaming members of his parents’ generation who had not intervened when nuclear weapons were being built, having given the “lame excuse” that they could not stop the arms build up, and who had put what the novel shows is too high a value on their own “comfort and prosperity” (1989, 121). As in Brother in the Land, the adult generation is portrayed as bringing the world to disaster but the young adult generation is constructed as being able to save it. Thus, the adult generation may have the guilt in terms of having allowed the disaster to happen, but the young adult generation has the responsibility: in Miller's terms, the outcome responsibility lies with the adults, but the remedial responsibility with the young adults.
The idea of young people fixing the world is also articulated by the Headmaster in The Carbon Diaries 2015, whom teenage Laura describes as “saying our generation would be thanked by all those to come – it was us who finally made the choice to change our lives and save the planet” (Lloyd 2008, 269). How much good Laura's generation could do without the next generation up following suit is debatable, but she nonetheless struggles with feelings of shame: although she is not old enough to vote, she can admit to herself that she wants her old life back. This text is not about the brave and noble young adult who thinks in the metaphysical terms of respect for life recommended in Brother in the Land, for example, but rather points out the difficulties of changing ways of thinking and behaving, juxtaposed with the necessity of changing carbon-expensive practices.
In the nuclear texts there is often a marked contrast set up between the culpable adult generation as a whole and the innocent young adult generation who will nonetheless be the saviours of the world. By contrast, in The Carbon Diaries novels there is still a young adult and adult contrast, largely to do with the ability to adjust to the new way of life, but there is not the guilty/innocent opposition. The behaviour of Laura's sister, Kim, for example, is presented in opposition to the behaviour the text advocates. Early on, Laura comes home to find Kim in the bathroom with the stereo on, and their parents asleep in front of the television with all the lights blazing, and at one stage Kim has the television on all day (2008, 5, 15). Laura responds to the frustration she feels with her family by drawing, which is virtually carbon neutral given that she uses the paper given to her as part of the “Energy Saver Pack envelope” provided by her school.
The idea of the adult generation putting the responsibility onto the young adult generation is mocked: the adults try to solve the problem by making meaningless statements and gestures – ironically, the “Energy Saver Pack envelope” is crammed with material objects that would have cost carbon to produce: “leaflets, pens, paperclips and … post-it notes” (2008, 14). In contrast with her mother, who selfishly goes to the carbon-expensive gym because she wants some normality (2008, 58), Laura and the members of her band, the dirty angels [sic], each vow to give up 10 carbon points per week so that the band can keep going. And whereas her mother tries to hide her culpability, Laura feels “dead emotional” when she makes her vow to contribute the carbon points (Lloyd 2008, 25). Although the band is still using carbon, the terms of the economy have changed: for Laura's mother, life is still about consumption and the self, for Laura, it has become about the new way of living in which learning to reduce her carbon consumption is connected with her growing sense of self and independence from her family. Selfishness is equated with guilt, and responsibility with being a productive part of a group.
The Carbon Diaries 2015 suggests that greed is the major cause of the unfolding disaster: “Looting? … It's just greed, stupid greed – same thing that got us into this mess in the first place” (2008, 39). The text and its sequel suggest that Laura, and the implied reader with her, need to assist in the development of the different kind of economy which exists at least in some measure in the dirty angels: an economy in which the terms of exchange are not material and consuming, but social and creative.
The texts discussed so far all can be considered “survivor texts” (Braithwaite 2010, 8) in that they focus on coping with a disaster that has just happened, or, in the case of The Carbon Diaries texts, a disaster that is potentially unfolding. Guilt is therefore largely framed in terms of the cause of the disaster, and responsibility within the text is seen in terms of how to survive in the most ethical way, and for the implied young reader, as stated earlier, in terms of how to prevent the disaster from becoming reality.
Within the genre of disaster fiction, Days Like This can be seen as a “social order text” in that it is “set many years after the disaster, when a new society has been established, usually a dystopia” (Braithwaite 2010, 11). As Hintz and Ostry 2003 write, “A common trope in [dystopian literature for young readers] is the emphasis on the lie, the secret and unsavoury workings of the society that the teen hero uncovers” (9). This is precisely what happens for teenage protagonist Lily, who slowly comes to realise the truth about the society in which she lives, which has developed after global warming has led to the decision to build a wall across Sydney Harbour to separate the haves from the have-nots. The so-called privileged group, however, are not as advantaged as they may first appear, because the adults on the inner side of the wall are force-fed with drugs which make them sacrifice their children to a system which either harvests the young people's hormones to produce drugs to keep the adults young, or compels certain young women to become breeders of the next generation.
Adults such as Meredith, who realise what they have done in giving away their children, tend to go mad with the guilt (2011, 87). Days Like This does not refer frequently to the disaster which precipitated the formation of the dystopian social order, but responsibility for the disaster is attributed to “the damage the people of the past had done to their world” (2011, 44). Rather than the opposition between young adult and adult, as in the nuclear texts, or between the responsible young adult who relates to those around her and the selfish adult or other young adult, Days Like This sets up an opposition between present and past: the past of the text being, as Stephens explains above, the reader's present. Days Like This also puts forward compassion for others as the way towards the best kind of society:
Let us put that bad time behind us and look to the future. Let us never return to a world that forgot its people. Let us try to respect and value one another, even those who forgot how to do this.
(Stewart 2011, 284)

Although this statement is in connection with the dystopia, the reader can also see it as applying to the pre-disaster present: “try to respect and value one another” rather than damage the world in a way that may lead to the disaster becoming reality. This double meaning is emphasised in the title: does Days Like This refer to the reader's pre-disaster world or to what is happening in the text?

Guilt and behaviour in the disaster world

Guilt in terms of actions which the protagonist would not have undertaken before the disaster but which are now needed for survival is usually presented as part of the wider narrative of why it is important to stop the disaster happening: not only will the disaster kill and maim people, but it will force people to behave in ways that compromise the moral code of the text.
This is most obvious in Nuclear War Diary. The new way of life that the disaster has forced into being, which compels people to rethink their pre-disaster moral values, is particularly evident when Jessie kills the men threatening her family:
I had a sense of relief, like I had just performed a badly needed bowel movement. I had just eliminated a little radioactive waste from the planet and felt comfortable about it.
(Sanford 1989, 76)

The analogy and metaphor used here, however, show the extremes to which post-disaster survival demands have forced Jessie. Nonetheless, she has not degenerated completely, and remains the courageous and morally virtuous young adult protagonist typical of much post-disaster fiction. As her diary continues, she admits to having diverse emotions, musing on the upbringing she has had that teaches killing is wrong, and yet she has “heard that people had to defend themselves” (1989, 77). She draws a distinction between large scale killing because of disagreement about philosophies, and killing a small number of people to save her family (1989, 77), but is still reluctant to justify the taking of life.
In Brother in the Land, Danny first meets teenage Kim when he saves her from being attacked, but then prevents her from killing her attacker. As he lies awake that night, Danny ponders the idea that they are in a “new game” in which the old rules such as codes of morality no longer apply, and that perhaps he had had no right to stop Kim from killing the man who attacked her (Swindells 2000, 34). This raises one of the key questions in the novel: how is it possible to make sense of this new world, where what had been assumed to be “right” in the old world can no longer guarantee quality of life?
The Last Children also shows how values need to change in order for survival, especially in the characters of the two Nicoles, who give their lives for “their” children where adults seek to kill them (1989, 83), yet who will also steal to keep the children safe. The guilt of the parent generation is emphasised by the words “Parents be Damned” that the crippled boy Andreas writes on the walls of the castle where he and the other children are living (1989, 80), but Andreas cannot cope with the physical discomfort and psychological pain of his injuries caused by the disaster, and persuades Roland to help him commit suicide (1989, 84–85). Andreas provides an important contrast with Roland in that Andreas is consumed by his anger at the adult generation for causing the disaster, whereas Roland understands that there is no point accusing (1989, 121). The adult generation may be guilty, but it is self destructive for the young adult to maintain anger at the adults who could have prevented the disaster.
As already explained, the chief manifestation of guilt in Days Like This is connected with parents who realise what they have done to their children. The evil Committee is guilty of setting up the social order which preys on the young people, but the Committee members remain largely anonymous, so, with the exception of the odious Max, it is hard for the young reader to see them as people.
Of all the texts discussed, the actual word “guilt” appears most frequently in The Carbon Diaries 2017. There is the guilt that Laura feels about having kissed Sam when she is in a relationship with Adi (Lloyd 2009, 90) but also the existential guilt that can go with privilege. Nate and Adi argue about taking risks to change the system and whether it is about trying to assuage “college boy guilt”, and also whether taking risks that result in needing help, such as Adi travelling to the Sudan and needing Red Cross aid, is valuable or merely self-indulgent (2009, 242). Laura also feels guilty when her mother tells her about the family's financial problems (2009, 136), but the guilt she experiences spurs her into action, such as inspiring her to sort out exactly how she feels about political action. Guilt in this sense is positive, assisting in personal growth in the terms the text sets up.


Whitehead 1991 has observed that texts for young readers dealing with nuclear disaster rarely have their characters display any survival guilt (185). Of the texts under discussion, Nuclear War Diary is the only one in which there is any significant reference to this type of guilt. Jessie writes:
At first I thought it might be better to have died in the first attack; now I'm glad I survived. I'm scared, but I'm not guilty or ashamed that I have survived. I really want to live and accomplish something in the new world. There must be a reason my family and I survived.
(Sanford 1989, 13)

Later on she makes reference to the survivors at New Los Medanos, whom she writes “have … accepted the role of survivors, without guilt or remorse” (1989, 99). However, survival guilt does not enter into the other nuclear texts under discussion, which reinforces the idea that the nuclear texts work by keeping both the teenage protagonist and the implied reader innocent of the disaster, and in so doing they position the reader to be the saviour of the fallen adult world.
By contrast, the implied young adult reader tends to be complicit in the disaster in environmental texts, and thus cannot maintain that mantle of innocence. But the kind of guilt constructed for the young adult is the type that leads to action, not to self-blame. Overall, disaster texts tend to position the young reader in a position of responsibility for preventing the disaster from becoming reality, but just how much agency that reader has, particularly in texts concerned with nuclear disaster, is another matter.


Many thanks to Rebecca Hutton for her insights on The Carbon Diaries 2015.
Biographical information: Elizabeth Braithwaite is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Memory, Imagination and Invention at Deakin University.


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