Reviews 2014

Genocide in Contemporary Children’s and Young Adult Literature: Cambodia to Darfur

Genocide in Contemporary Children’s and Young Adult Literature: Cambodia to Darfur. Jane M. Gangi. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2014. Children’s Literature and Culture Series. 224 pages. $140.00 (hardback).

Hidden away on page 82 of Jane M. Gangi’s important new book is a quotation from Deborah Ellis’s Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak – "In World War I, 15 percent of all casualties were civilians. In World War II, 50 percent of all casualties were civilians. In 2004, 90 percent of the casualties in war are civilians" – to which Gangi adds: "And more than half of those causalities are children." This in itself is reason enough to read Genocide in Contemporary Children’s and Young Adult Literature. And while there has never been a period of history devoid of atrocity or bloodshed, reading this book midway through 2014 during escalating turbulence across Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, it appears more relevant than ever. Gangi’s own relationship with the book’s subject matter is a personal one; in dedicating the study to "those who have died during the genocides of the last forty years, and to their loved ones who remain," Gangi bears witness to human suffering and enjoins us to do the same (xvii).

Few scholarly studies in the field of children’s literature have been written on genocides other than the Holocaust, and even fewer courses are taught on the subject. Thus Gangi turns to genocides that have taken place since 1945 in Cambodia, Guatemala, Kurdish Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Rwanda and Darfur. Her study is a brave one. She makes no hesitation about whether or not genocides and their consequences should be studied in school or represented in children’s books; the only issue at stake is how. And here Gangi treats this most sensitive of subjects with caution and responsibility, constructing a framework for writing and teaching about genocide that seeks – in the words of Linda Alcoff – to "speak with and to rather than for others" (2). Since her study is primarily directed towards teachers and educationalists, Gangi’s awareness that her subject matter is traumatising is at the heart of her study; she notes the importance of stepping back from the material if it becomes too overwhelming and of always using one’s discretion when introducing the books in question to children.

Gangi’s study begins with an introduction to the challenges of writing about genocide before moving to chapter-length studies of each genocide in turn. Not least of these initial challenges is to come to a satisfactory definition of genocide itself which, it seems, is frequently and irresponsibly glossed as civil war in books for children and young adults. After a further chapter on comprehensive texts on genocide, Gangi dedicates a chapter to the ways in which genocide might be taught in schools before offering a concluding chapter on some of the residual problems, issues and potential solutions to writing about genocide for children and young adults. Throughout, Gangi is acutely aware of her status both as a "cultural outsider" and as a member of a dominant culture whose access to the atrocities about which she writes is always mediated by other pens. It is for this reason that she documents her discussions with various "cultural insiders" during the writing of her book and lays out a comprehensive set of criteria by which to judge each book informed by critical pedagogy and historical best practice, asking such questions as: what biases or predispositions does the author have?; whose values, symbols, cultures and truths are being presented? While there are often no easy answers to these questions, Gangi’s thorough scholarly research – evidenced in the study’s comprehensive bibliography – stands her in good stead to offer some suggestions.

Gangi’s chapters are ordered according to those books she recommends, those she recommends with reservations and problematic books that misrepresent the genocides on which they are based. It is shocking to note the common mistakes, distortions and outright bias still embedded within many texts of this kind, and Gangi’s outrage is to be applauded. She finds, for instance, that many texts fail to give the necessary historical information that will contextualise each genocide, blaming such atrocities instead on spontaneous tribal outbursts or ancient ethnic hatreds when in reality the situations were far more complex. What is disturbing beyond the books’ own inaccuracies is the frequency with which the international community, buoyed by the deceptive rhetoric of the countries’ heads of state, used such excuses to justify inaction. Gangi’s work is particularly insightful when she questions whether the Holocaust could ever be described as civil war or tribal conflict; with the answer quite clearly being no, Gangi effectively highlights the racism inherent in so many books on genocide for children and young adults.

In following Gangi through this series of genocides, atrocities which – shamefully – begin to blend into one another through their sheer horror and magnitude, it is a credit to Gangi and refreshing to the reader to learn of some of the unique coping strategies used by children during the genocides that perceptive authors have captured in their novels. One example is traditional dance in Cambodia which has been rehabilitated by survivors as a way to reclaim lost cultural heritage. In Gangi’s final chapter, in fact, in which she attempts to address some of the root causes of genocide, she finds partial answers in art, spirituality and an increased focus on one’s inner lives, using the Senoi people of Malaysia as an example of a community whose practice of dream therapy may contribute to their determination to live peacefully despite manifold oppressions. Teachers will find her non-didactic chapter on teaching strategies, in which Gangi recommends the use of art and multimedia to mediate learners’ encounters with genocide texts, particularly helpful. Gangi’s own severe critique of the US Common Core State Standards for K-12 schools which dictate that elementary school children will read 50% informational texts and 50% literary texts, increasing to 70%/30% in high school, further highlights her approbation of the arts as a medium for engagement with genocide as well as a step towards healing. It is a shame in this context, although hardly surprising, that so many of the texts she analyses are in fact informational rather than literary.

Gangi’s study is not a theoretical analysis of the conceptual or aesthetic properties of her focus texts; as she herself declares, "aesthetic experience is rarely the purpose of texts about genocide for children and young people" (151). Although one of her aforementioned criteria is to judge the literary quality of the work in question, her comments are generally confined to the lucidity of the prose and the engagingness of the design work. Similarly, the postcolonial theory on which she draws is rather summarily outlined and reliant in large part on Said’s and Levinas’ differing constructions of "the Other" (3). However, Gangi’s study is an impressively-researched and powerful introduction to a comprehensive range of books – from historical novels to biographies of George Clooney and Angelina Jolie – and the ways in which they provide, or fail to provide, a responsible and accurate portrayal of genocide. Like Vivian Yenika-Agbaw’s celebrated Representing Africa in Children’s Literature on which Gangi herself draws, this book unerringly seeks out bias, prejudice and racism and reminds readers of the privilege of whiteness that is evident in so many of the texts under discussion. As Gangi notes of those who disseminate prejudice: "If we don’t sit down and be quiet, we will continue to publish and consume books that perpetuate stereotypes and myths and dishonour the victims of genocide, a form of genocide denial" (195). Gangi’s book is a moving testament to those who – far from sitting down and being quiet – stand up to condemn inequalities and shout loudly that such atrocities must never happen again.

Alice Curry
Founder and co-director of Lantana Publishing

Works Cited

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique 20 (1991-1992): 5-32.

Ellis, Deborah. Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak. Toronto: Groundwood, 2004.