Reviews 2014

Looking Out and Looking In: National Identity in Picturebooks of the New Millennium

Looking Out and Looking In: National Identity in Picturebooks of the New Millennium. Åse Marie Ommundsen (ed.). Oslo: Novus, 2013. 201 pages. $46.00 (hardback).

Åse Marie Ommundsen, a scholar of Nordic children's literature, has edited this collection of articles from The Child and the Book conference titled: “Picturebooks of the new millennium” organized by the University of Oslo in 2011. While a third of the contributions are from the Nordic countries, the volume also incorporates a formidable range of other countries including Australia, Saudi Arabia, Canada, China and the EU. While there is no strongly cohesive editorial thesis and a fairly loose synergy between the articles, the diversity of the primary texts and analyses testify to the success and richness of the picturebook form in negotiations of nation, identity and ecology.

The first section, “Where is here?” examines idyllic, uncontested landscapes as a feature of nationalism, with two ecocritical surveys of Arabic and Portuguese works, and two spatial surveys of Canadian and Australian landscapes in picture books. Sabah Aisawi considers the image of nature in contemporary Arabic picturebooks as elucidating and mirroring Islamic perspectives on nature that parallel Western ecological views. Her useful catalogue of ecocritical messages is framed within seminal pioneering texts on ecocriticism by Cheryll Glotfelty (1996) and Jhan Hochman (1997) but not in relation to more recent works such as Sidney Dobrin and Kenneth Kidd’s 2004 edited volume Wild Things as well as works that consider the more current ecofeminism and deep ecology in relation to children’s literature such as Alice Curry’s Environmental Crisis in Young Adult Fiction: A Poetics of Earth (2013). From Portugal, Rui and Ana Margarida Ramos shift the focus to co-author a piece on two recent picturebook collections; the state-commissioned “Pintar o Verde com Letras” and the “Biblioteca Infantil” that “provide [an] environmental education” (60) that is less utilitarian and recognizes the variety of complex relationships humans can have with the environment.

Margot Hillel considers how Alison Lester’s depiction of a road trip in Are we there yet? celebrates Australian identity by presenting “landscape [as] part of the “iconography of nationhood”” (Carpenter et al qtd. in 15), while Erin Spring looks at Canadian picturebooks; arguing that most focus on a regional rather than national identity, and geographically situate the narrator and reader as either insiders or outsiders to the landscape and community.

The second part, “Picturebooks used to build, rebuild or strengthen national identity” is arguably the strongest and most cohesive. Fengxia Tan recognizes that Chinese picturebooks that counter the market domination of foreign picturebooks in China have created a trend of aesthetically “Chinese” picturebooks that struggle for market share and innovativeness beyond traditional tales and aesthetics. This is a valuable exploration that resonates with that of every national literature competing for audiences with foreign cultural production. Volume editor, Åse Marie Ommundsen, then examines two delightful Norwegian picturebooks that follow the popular nation-building story of how the Danish Prince Carl became King Haakon of Norway and how being a proficient skier plays a vital role in his becoming a “true Norwegian” (88). Clémentine Beauvais contributes a particularly excellent article examining three contemporary French picturebooks that embrace revolutionary instincts as a facet of “Frenchness” and “address the child as a citizen of a nation in permanent and sometimes violent restructuration” (105). Beauvais points out the ideological contradictions inherent in picturebooks where “hidden adults” reaffirm their authority on one hand and encourage rebellion on the other (115). This decade of revolt and the explosion of cultural output that attempts to make sense of it, benefits greatly from works like this that contextualize and problematize it.

The final part, “Changing identities,” discusses picturebooks that extend identity from the national to the global, and act as a medium for negotiating changing ideas of how nationality is constructed. Jaana Pesonen offers valuable insights into how identities are subtly moderated as she surveys 200 Finnish picturebooks that explore national identity. Pesonen discusses a multicultural selection of five books that challenge the narratives of Finnish cultural ethnic and societal homogeneity with presentations of class differences and racial diversity. Petros Panaou also deconstructs five books collected for the ‘European Picture Book Collection II’ with animal protagonists that negotiate constructed communal EU identities alongside ethnic identities. Tzina Kalogirou looks at two sets of war stories; some that rewrite H.C. Andersen tales to the backdrop of war and others that depict the Holocaust that complicate the us/them divide, while Anne-Kari Skarðhamar asks “what ideas of national and European identity are explored in six picturebooks from the Faroe Islands” (166). Nina Christensen closes the volume with an analysis of the Stian Hole ‘Garman trilogy’ that explores the question of whether there is a particular “Nordic” picturebook and childhood.

The articles–all featuring beautiful colour illustrations-are as stimulating as attending an international conference on picturebooks, where the presentations are a wonderful visual feast with offerings from all over the world. In fact, many chapters still have the feel of international conference presentations; interesting novel material that is “presented” to an audience that is less familiar with the specific cultural context so the presentation restricts itself to “showing” the picturebooks and situating them within a clear straightforward thesis that does not feel compelled to weave cripplingly complex arguments. In that sense, this is a refreshing no-nonsense volume that surveys a number of interesting areas such as revolution, ecology, and nation-making in international picturebooks. At 280 NOK this is in fact a less expensive way of enjoying a missed conference!

Like conferences however, the volume is characterized by some unevenness; some articles examine national literatures in a way that delves less into the cultural specificity of the book than into the questions the text raises that have applicability beyond the specific context. Many articles, therefore, offer little more than a simple survey with some critical expository commentary. While most of the primary texts examined are recent, they are greatly reliant on a critical vocabulary and perspective from Nikolajeva and Scott’s seminal How Picturebooks Work and none from visual grammar of other disciplines. They look at picturebooks through a uniform lens that forgoes enrichment from national critical methodologies, theories and perspectives that only native experts can bring to scholarship.

Many – alas, not all - chapters helpfully clarify that the international books discussed are sufficiently mainstream to have received awards or other forms of recognition which should mean they are accessible to interested scholars. It may therefore be good practice for English language international scholarship to include an appendix delineating how the books may be accessed, what translations are available, as well as possible ‘further reading’ lists of primary texts.

Ommundsen has made a valuable and intensely accessible contribution to the study of contemporary picturebooks which will remain an excellent resource for those studying national identity-formation in children’s culture or international picturebooks, as well as those seeking inspiration for course reading lists, and further areas of research.

Yasmine Motawy
The American University in Cairo, Egypt