Reviews 2017

A Grey Background in Children’s Literature: Death, Shipwreck, War and Disasters [Literatura infantil y juvenil con fondo gris: muerte, naufragios, guerras y desastres]

A Grey Background in Children’s Literature: Death, Shipwreck, War and Disasters [Literatura infantil y juvenil con fondo gris: muerte, naufragios, guerras y desastres]. Ed. Riitta Oittinen and Blanca-Ana Roig Rechou. München: Iudicium Verlag, 2016. 327 pages. £30.87 (hardback).

A Grey Background in Children’s Literature: Death, Shipwreck, War and Disasters includes nineteen chapters on "difficult" topics in children’s literature, the most prominent of these being death. The book discusses current representations of death and other emotionally straining topics in children’s literature, how these representations have changed over time, and how they are and have been censored. The authors represent universities in Spain, Costa Rica and Brazil. Four of the nineteen chapters have been written in English, the rest in Spanish. Hence the book offers a welcome break from the hegemony of English as a dominant language in academic research.

The book starts with an introduction written by the editors. Blanca-Ana Roig Recheu opens the section by briefly introducing the chapters of the book and comparing them to the ways in which similar topics have been discussed in previous research. Riitta Oittinen continues by discussing the censorship of children’s literature on a more general level. The first chapter, by Veljka Ruzicka and Lourdes Lorenzo, offers a thorough chronological review of how the topic of death has appeared in children’s literature and cinema, as well as a review of academic research investigating death in children’s literature. The chapter sets the stage for the following eighteen more specific contributions. The book is not thematically structured, but reoccurring themes and converging perspectives are apparent. Some of the chapters concentrate on current representations of death in different types of artistic works aimed for a child audience. Carmen Ferreira Boo, for instance, compares Galician-language picturebooks that discuss the topic of war and analyses the strategies these books employ in making the difficult topic understandable for the child audience. Rebeca López González examines how the topic of death is dealt with (or avoided) in animated feature films by Pixar and DreamWorks, such as Finding Nemo, Shrek, and Up.

Other chapters focus on how death and other emotionally straining topics are represented in the literary works of a particular author. José Domingo Dueñas Lorente discusses books by Jordi Sierra i Fabra, reflecting on the nature of the implied reader created by the author, as well as on the functions of violence and death in the author’s storytelling. Cristina Cañamares Torrijos and César Sánchez Ortiz examine how the traumatic life experiences of authors can be reflected in their literary work by discussing the life and works of Antoniorrobles (Antonio Joaquín Robles Soler), a famous Spanish children’s author, who was exiled to Mexico during the Spanish civil war and the Franco regime. Some of the chapters also include interesting comparisons of death-related themes across cultures. Maria Jesús Barsanti Vigo’s chapter discusses death-related sayings and expressions in children’s literature written in Spanish and compares them to equivalent ones in German. María José Corvo Sánchez discusses how the representation of death differs in a German picturebook and a fantasy novel written for an adolescent audience in the United States.

The chapter by Javier Ignacio Arnal Gil, Xabier Etxaniz Erle, and José Manuel López Gaseni is a good example of how the book contributes to our current understanding of the characteristics of children’s literature. The authors set out to test Teresa Colomer’s (2010) claim that contemporary children’s literature tends to feature (humanised) animal characters, as opposed to humans, when discussing topics as delicate and difficult as death. For this purpose, the authors analyse a corpus of 57 picturebooks and illustrated children’s books that have been published in Spanish between 1980 and 2008 and that discuss the topic of death. Based on the corpus, Colomer’s argument does not appear to hold: a total of 41 books out of the 57 feature human protagonists. The death of a grandfather was the most common of these topics (17 books), followed by the death of a grandmother (9 books), a child character (6 books), and a mother (4 books). A potential avenue for continuing the analysis would be to examine possible differences between books that were originally written in Spanish and books that were written in another cultural environment and subsequently translated for a Spanish-speaking audience since the corpus includes both.

Death has also been the topic of other research into children’s and adolescent literature in recent years. Examples of books dedicated to the topic include Jane Gangi’s Genocide in Contemporary Children’s and Young Adult Literature (2014) and Global Perspectives on Death in Children’s Literature (2015), edited by Lesley D. Clement and Leyli Jamali. Some of the contributions in Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks (2015), edited by Janet Evans, also touch upon the topic of death. Despite the abundance of other recent advances discussing death and other difficult topics in children’s literature, the present book does offer new insights into the theme. The way in which we represent difficult concepts to our children through literature reflects the prevailing child images in each society. We seldom become fully aware of these child images until we compare them with those in other cultures. A comparison of these representations requires thorough background research in various cultural environments. Perspectives from Spain and Latin America have been underrepresented in the discussion so far. The greatest strength of the present book, I propose, lies in offering an intensive cross-section of how the theme is discussed in literature written in Spanish, Galician, and Portuguese.

Anne Ketola
University of Tampere, Finland