Have a look at some of our reviews of key texts in the field of children’s literature:
- Literary Conceptualizations of Growth: Metaphors and Cognition in Adolescent Literature
- Animality and Children’s Literature and Film
- Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde
Roberta Seelinger Trites
Literary Conceptualizations of Growth: Metaphors and Cognition in Adolescent Literature
(Philadelphia, USA: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2014)
Rebecca Long, Trinity College Dublin, December 2016
Animality and Children’s Literature and Film
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
Dr Anne Markey, Dublin City University, December 2016.
Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde
Elina Druker & Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (eds)
(Philadelphia, USA: John Benjamin’s Publishing Company, 2015)
Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde provides a thought-provoking, stimulating contribution to scholarly research in the field of Children’s Literature Studies. Edited by Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (University of Tübingen) and Elina Druker (Stockholm University) this fifth volume in the Children’s Literature, Culture and Cognition (CLCC) series of John Benjamin’s Publishing Company aims, as it outlines in its mission statement, to “emphasize a non-Anglo-American focus, bringing in exciting new research from other areas.” Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde certainly succeeds in these endeavours.
The Introduction begins with a thorough investigation of the meaning, origins and development of the ‘avant-garde’ from the late nineteenth century in France to its continuing influence today, providing a useful backdrop for analysis of the links between the avant-garde and children’s books, before finally outlining the aims of this particular volume. Describing the avant-garde as “an artistic alternative to hegemonic art since the beginning of the twentieth century” (4), the editors emphasise that “the avant-garde is not a bygone era, but might be regarded as an open project with immediate relevance to the present” (4). In examining the relationship between avant-garde and children’s literature, Kümmerling-Meibauer and Druker highlight its fractured and uneven nature where, apart from some exceptions, studies of the avant-garde tend to ignore children’s literature and vice versa. What is clear, as they argue, is that avant-garde children’s books at the beginning of the twentieth century triggered the modernization of children’s literature and “introduced new aesthetic and narrative concepts into children’s books” (7). In light of these arguments then this volume is ambitious in scope in charting the underexplored territory of avant-garde and children’s literature and in convincing the reader of the intertwined nature of the relationship between the two.
As the editors outline in the final part of their Introduction the book comprises a collection of eleven essays penned not only by well-known scholars in the domain of Children’s Literature Studies but also by experts in other fields, such as art history, Russian art, human geography and comparative literature. This provides the reader with multi-faceted and richly layered approaches to the relationship between avant-garde literature, art and children’s literature.
The editors usefully divide the essays into three sections. Part I entitled ‘Vanguard tendencies since the beginning of the twentieth century’ comprises four essays which range in subject and context from Marilynn S. Olson’s essay on the mutual influences of children’s literature and the avant-garde in Victorian and early twentieth-century Britain. Olson focuses in particular on the views of art critic and social reformer John Ruskin on the relationship between art, political caricature and children’s literature and his belief that childhood is a “site for resistance” (41). Moving to a different cultural context of the same era, Elina Druker’s essay discusses the work of Swedish artist Einar Nermann, offering a fascinating insight into the mutual influences of his work as a caricaturist, commercial graphic artist, children’s picturebook illustrator and his work for dance and theatre productions, both in Sweden and internationally. Samuel D. Albert’s essay is an absorbing account of the life of the Hungarian modernist artist Sandór Bortnyik, a member of the radical Ma group. As an art historian, Albert’s discussion of the avant-garde features of Potty és Pötty (1927), Bortnyik’s only known children’s book and of its various translations in German and English, is highly engaging, providing the reader with interesting insights into the radical artistic milieu in interwar Hungary and the Weimar Republic, where Bortnyik spent some time. In the concluding essay in Part I we return to the British context with an essay by Kimberley Reynolds which does not focus on one particular writer or artist but is instead an eloquent overview of the British interpretation of the avant-garde, termed as “romantic Modernism” and of now forgotten radical British children’s books. Not only does Reynold’s discussion of a selection of early twentieth-century children’s literature demonstrate the extent of avant-garde influences from the European continent and how these were adapted to the British context but also that such children’s literature from the early twentieth century “shaped this very British avant-garde” (108).
The second part of this publication turns its attention to the strong influences of the Russian avant-garde and its influences on children’s books. Entitled ‘The impact of the Russian avant-garde’, the four essays in this section discuss in various ways the influences of Russian and in particular Soviet picture books in the international arena. The title of Sara Pankenier Weld’s essay “The square as regal infant. The avant-garde infantile in early Soviet picturebooks” alludes to Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich’s work ‘Black Square (1915) and is the springboard for Weld’s thought-provoking discussion on the infantile nature of avant-garde art and avant-garde art for a juvenile audience which queries assumptions and pre-conceptions about the Russian avant-garde’s infantile primitivist approaches, particularly in Soviet era picturebooks for children. Soviet picturebooks are again the topic of the following essay, jointly written by Serge-Aljosja Stommels and Albert Lemmens, entitled “The 1929 Amsterdam exhibition of early Soviet children’s picturebooks. A reconstruction” is both a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the books on display at the 1929 exhibition of Soviet children’s picturebooks. Drawing on the 1929 Amsterdam catalogue, the publisher’s catalogue of GIZ, one of the leading Soviet children’s book publishers of the time and the Bibliography of Russian Children’s Books, the authors clearly demonstrate the preponderant presence of and preference for avant-garde illustrated children’s book in that exhibition, particularly for pre-school children, and its influence on the Dutch and Flemish publishing markets. Nina Christensen’s essay, “Rupture. Ideological, aesthetic and educational transformations in Danish picturebooks around 1933” argues that terms such as “avant-garde” and “Modernism” are interpreted in a different manner in the Danish context to others, such as the Swedish one, and in fact do not refer to Danish picturebooks in the 1930s. Nonetheless, as Christensen very ably demonstrates, the influence of Soviet picturebooks of the 1920s is palpable in Denmark, particularly from 1933 onwards. The final chapter in this second part of the volume by Evegny Steiner entitled “Mirror images. On Soviet-Western reflections in children’s books of the 1920 and 1930s” is a fascinating essay which convincingly (and surprisingly) argues that the underlying ideologies of Soviet and American children’s picturebooks during the 1920s and 1930s were not as dissimilar as one might assume.
The last part of the book ‘Postbellum avant-garde children’s books’ focuses mainly on the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries but refer back to the influences of avant-garde writers and artists of the early twentieth century. As with the other two parts of this book, the complementary nature of many of the arguments and references in these final three chapters underscores both the careful editing process and the cross-cultural nature and enduring influences of the avant-garde. This is already evident from the title of Sandra L. Beckett’s essay “Manifestations of the avant-garde and its legacy in French children’s literature. In a wide-ranging account with references to 1920s avant-garde movements onwards, from Constructivism and Surrealism to Pop Art, Beckett skilfully outlines the influence of such movements on French children’s books. Drawing on a wide selection of examples, including works published in the 1960s and 1970s in France by the revolutionary Franco-American publishers Harlin Quist, she demonstrates how French children’s books continue to enjoy a reputation as provocative and daring in the present day, appealing to a crossover audience of both adults and children. Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer’s chapter “Just what is it that makes Pop Art picturebooks so different, so appealing?” provides the reader with an extensive and thorough examination of Pop Art picturebooks in many different cultural contexts and the influences of earlier avant-garde artists on such works. Complementing Beckett’s discussion on the often challenging publications of Harlin Quist, Kümmerling-Meibauer focuses on the American context where Harlin Quist first established a publishing house and his influence on European publishers, leading to the translation of many innovative Pop Art picture books in and out of English. The eleventh and final chapter in this book by Philip Nel “Surrealism for children. Paradoxes and possibilities” fittingly looks to the future of avant-garde children’s literature and its reception by both adults and children. Revising his own earlier claims that avant-garde books for children were both possible and viable, Nel now argues that avant-garde artists do not always take into consideration a juvenile audience’s knowledge of the world and differing experiences and expectations, which can often be quite different to those of the adults writing and illustrating such books for children. Drawing on two surrealist works, one an American picturebook from 1955, Harold and the Purple Crayon and the other a more recent French work from 2011, Un Livre (Press Here) Nel critically examines how the former shows that a surrealist literature for children can be possible but the latter, despite a reputation for being subversive and avant-garde, fails, in his opinion, to engage with the imaginations of its intended young audience. As is his intention, Nel’s essay leaves the reader with many questions to ponder upon.
A review of Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde would not be complete without commenting on the wonderful and in many cases near-forgotten illustrations throughout (sixty-one in total) which colourfully enhance the discussion of the many avant-garde picturebooks referenced in this work and are certainly a visual treat for the reader. This comparative study of avant-garde, children’s literature and art, spanning many cultural contexts and movements from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first centuries, Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde is an absorbing book – a timely and welcome addition to both avant-garde and children’s literature studies.
Dr Áine McGillicuddy, Dublin City University, October 2017.