Reviews 2017

Children's Literature and the Avant-Garde

Children's Literature and the Avant-Garde. Ed. Elina Druker and Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2015. 295 pages. £83.00 (hardback).

Children's Literature and the Avant-Garde is, as the editors inform, the first book devoted exclusively to the issue of the relationship between avant-garde and children's literature, which makes it a truly pioneering project. It was published in 2015 as a result of an international conference "Children's Literature and European Avant-Garde," which took place in 2012 at the University of Norrköping in Sweden. The book is the fifth publication in the series Children's Literature, Culture and Cognition, being a vital theoretically-based contribution within the collection. The multidisciplinary focus and the international scope of the book promise a broad-ranging study of art and children's literature crossovers.

Not surprisingly, due to its highly specialised perspective, the project has gathered the findings of experienced scholars of children's literature and the history of art. The editors, both of whom are renowned researchers in the field of children's literature, have also coordinated and supervised the international project "Children's Literature and European Avant-Garde," funded by the European Science Foundation. In their introduction, Elina Druker and Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer point to the difficulties in establishing the definition of the term "avant-garde" and discuss what they see as different manifestations of avant-garde art, situating them in the context of children's literature. The introduction effectively delineates undeveloped areas of academic inquiry in the discussed field. It only briefly addresses the philosophy behind the avant-garde and differences between the artistic and philosophical underpinnings of particular movements – perhaps deliberately so, as the editors emphasise that these phenomena are not always unproblematically associated with the term ‘avant-garde’ and are not necessarily easily comparable. In a tripartite structure that follows the introduction the readers can find articles by the eleven contributors. Most essays offer a historical perspective, conflating it productively with a range of other analytical methods.

The clear, chronologically arranged structure enables the readers to navigate effortlessly among the chapters: Part 1 is devoted to the analysis of vanguard tendencies in the early twentieth century onwards, Part 2 discusses the impact of the Russian avant-garde, while Part 3 studies the legacy of avant-garde movements in more recent children's literature. The book ends with notes on the editors and the contributors, which are followed by the subject index and the name index. What some readers would probably find helpful would be the English translations of non-English reference books in the bibliographies that quote such sources. Other than that, the book's structure is well thought-over, with the chapters being accompanied by selected reproductions of illustrations from the books under inquiry. They certainly enhance the informative value of the collection, which also contains photographs and posters analysed by some authors.

The main subject of academic inquiry in the book is the way the avant-garde has possibly contributed to a revision of traditional concepts of childhood and children's books, including picturebooks. The contributors examine the potential impact of avant-garde movements on children's literature (and occasionally on other media) in Europe and in North America. All the chapters provoke thinking about children's literature through the prism of its constant dialogue with art and its immersion in a wider cultural discourse.

Part 1 starts with Marilynn S. Olson's insightful essay on the eminent figure of the art critic and social reformer John Ruskin. The author examines ways in which Ruskin's interest in childhood and his enthusiastic belief in the value of childlike sensibility in art has changed the status of children's books and helped to acknowledge the intersection of the spirit of the avant-garde and children's literature. This chapter is followed by two case studies by Elina Druker and Samuel D. Albert, each of which focuses on the work of one early twentieth-century children's artist: the Swedish artist Einar Nerman and the Hungarian artist Sándor Bortnyik. Elina Druker discusses Nerman's work from the point of view of its interaction with other media and areas of art, including dance and stage design. Samuel D. Albert's text provides a thoroughly researched background into Bortnyik's oeuvre, including his only children's book, Potty és Pötty, published in Hungarian, German and American versions, all of them with words not authored by Bortnyik. Somewhat surprisingly, the author makes only a passing comment on the lack of correspondence between the book's innovative visual form and its rather conventional storyline, whereas the texts added by the publishers receive his lavish attention, despite his acknowledgement of the value of the image advocated by Bortnyik himself. This part ends with Kimberley Reynolds's comprehensive chapter on the way some of the avant-garde conventions were appropriated by British artists during the period of thirty years in the first half of the twentieth century. The author focuses on relatively unknown examples of children's literature of the era, hoping to restore them to cultural memory.

Sara Pankenier Weld's thought-provoking text opens the book's second part; it introduces the readers to the concept of the avant-garde infantile in early Soviet children's books. Relying on the importance avant-garde artists attached to childhood consciousness, the author examines infantile aesthetics in avant-garde art and examples of avant-garde infantile in the artistically radical picturebooks by El Lissitzky and Vladimir Lebedev. The two articles that follow are centred around the international exhibitions of early Soviet picturebooks. In their historical account, Serge Aljosja Stommels and Albert Lemmens reconstruct the impact of the 1929 Amsterdam exhibition. Nina Christensen continues this theme with her analysis of the reception of the 1932 exhibition in Denmark in light of the popularity of democratic and progressive educational ideas in Danish society in the 1930s. Examining what is now known as the "progressive" or "new" trend in Danish children's books, the author contrasts them with the more traditional illustrations termed by her as "naturalistic" (180, 186). This part ends with Evgeny Steiner's erudite essay on the artistic and cultural dialogue between the Soviet and the Western children's book authors in the 1920s and the 1930s.

Changing focus slightly, the last part discusses the impact of different avant-garde movements on more contemporary children's literature. Sandra Beckett's contribution highlights affinities between avant-garde trends and the innovative illustrative conventions in French children's literature, while Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer's chapter analyses the complex ways in which art and politics are intertwined in European and US-American picturebooks inspired by Pop Art. Both essays place emphasis on the international significance of Harlin Quist publisher. Philip Nel's chapter ends this part with an illuminating qualification of avant-garde manifestations in children's literature and inspiring comments on the sanitisation of avant-garde strategies in some contemporary children's books.

Children's Literature and the Avant-Garde undertakes an ambitious task of highlighting mutual links between a number of radical art movements and children's literature. All the contributions undoubtedly display sensitivity to the heterogeneity of these trends and their different historical situatedness; each offers a glimpse into the socio-cultural embedding of art and literature. The other crucial aspect of the project is accentuated in Philip Nel's chapter, where the author points out the importance of examining the underlying senses of the books, especially those examples of avant-garde literature which do make the world's absurdities clear to the child reader (68). This meaningful conclusion to the volume echoes the hope expressed in the introduction that the contributions will expand thinking about the way in which aesthetic strategies used by the artists may affect the meaning of the books in question. As this aspect reverberates in all of the chapters, and in some it becomes a priority, the volume as a whole certainly achieves the goal.

Katarzyna Smyczyńska
Kazimierz Wielki University, Poland