Reviews 2017

"Stare" i "nowe" w literaturze dla dzieci i młodzieży – biografie [The "Old" and the "New" in literature for children and young adults: Biographies]

"Stare" i "nowe" w literaturze dla dzieci i młodzieży – biografie [The "Old" and the "New" in literature for children and young adults: Biographies]. Ed. Bożena Olszewska, Olaf Pajączkowski, and Lidia Urbańczyk. Opole: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Opolskiego, 2015. 512 pages. 44,10 zł (paperback).

The volume under review addresses biographical writing in the field of children’s literature studies. The articles it compiles were generated by a conference held at the Literary and Cultural Education Department, University of Opole, in 2014. At the same time, they are a continuation of the "old" and the "new" series, dedicated to essential issues in literature for children and young adults, which was initiated a few years ago. The contributors focus on themes unified by the eponymous idea of the "old" and the "new," which, on the one hand, is reflected in the diachronic and synchronic approaches, and, on the other, refers to the phenomena that could be considered "erstwhile" and "contemporary." The volume covers a highly varied body of literature related to biographical writing and represents several research perspectives, which makes the publication particularly valuable and encourages further reflection on the themes tackled in it. Partly because of the varied wealth of material discussed in the thirty-four articles by authors from universities across Poland, the book is divided into seven parts. Yet, despite the division, all contributions, both the analytically driven and the synthetically-minded ones, albeit examining different issues, are mutually complementary and inspire further exploration of the still under researched themes. Comprised of 512 pages, including the index, the volume was published in paperback format by the Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Opolskiego [Opole University Press]. Its editorial quality is on the whole remarkably solid, though some misprints have not been avoided. Each article contains references and an abstract in English, but there is an absence of notes on the contributors.

Descriptions of real people’s lives, anecdotes and human fortunes and misfortunes framed in literary forms have always served as an important source of knowledge while their literary quality has invariably stirred emotion. Revisiting childhood experiences and important episodes in prominent people’s lives often provides an axis for compelling and relevant plots. Hence, such texts make for desirable readings in adolescence and, today, increasingly so in childhood. Biographical elements have an educational impact, which effectively works on young readers, and acquaints them with a great number of historical personages, thereby developing their interest not only in reading but also in history, tradition and culture. Quite likely, it is the recognition of how important such readings are to young people that informed the very project of producing this volume. The Polish scholars’ interest in biography may also result from the fact that the Polish book market has recently seen relatively a significant number of such publications targeting a young readership. As Bożena Olszewska observes in her Introduction, "a vogue for biographies" has emerged lately, on the one hand prompted by exciting depictions of remarkable people’s lives and, on the other, engineered by the publishers’ advertising campaigns (14). As is commonly known, biographical research forms part of education studies, psychology and anthropology. Human life, framed in a literary form, is a distinct kind of research object that should be investigated within the literary studies framework. Yet, the truths inhering in it are best captured if the theoretical-literary approach is accompanied by appreciation of broader contexts. This is the position the contributors to the volume frequently adopt.

The authors display a comprehensive take on biography, addressing genealogy, history, role models, axiology and the didactic dimension. As a consequence, the volume is polyvocal and multifaceted, giving voice not only to researchers of literature for children and young adults, but also to scholars from other fields such as culture or library studies, which promotes a more inclusive view of the central theme and encourages interdisciplinary dialogue. Interesting and complex reflection is offered on a range of literary genres, including biographical novels, novels of manners, historical novels, hagiography, short stories, brief readers, features, newspaper articles, comic strips, picture books and poetry. The contributors’ focus varies and ranges from the protagonist (a famous person whose life has inspired the plot, or at least provided an anecdote), to formal features (narrative construction, language structure, literary devices, etc.), truth-fiction relationships and role models, to the texts’ educational, cognitive and aesthetic functions.

The articles collected in Part One discuss biographical texts devoted to famous people (Józef Poniatowski, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Copernicus, Maria Curie-Skłodowska, Mark Twain, and Dorota Terakowska). Recently, biographical literature on this theme has been frequently published in order to expand children’s knowledge of the world, culture, and history, and to highlight the relevance of role models in human education. Consequently, it does not come as a surprise that it serves as extensive exemplificatory material in the volume. The authors attend to biographical prose for children and young adults appearing in publication series, as well as to contemporary biographies for the young and artist figures in twenty-first-century children’s literature. Part Two focuses on biographies in texts of culture, such as magazines and comic strips. Here, the authors examine the biographical content of popular Polish inter-war magazines for young readers such as Płomyk, Mały Gość Niedzielny, and Chwilka Dzieci i Młodzieży. Attention is also given to various strategies used by writers and publishers to present people whose lives have been paramount to humanity.

One of the central issues the authors reflect on in the volume involves role models, educational exemplar and the functions of bibliography, as discussed in relation to the work of Janusz Korczak, Juliusz Jerzy Herlinger and Amy Steedman. These articles, rather than delving into didactic functions, seek to generalise on the function of biography as a story. Another theme addressed is the contemporary biographical book for children, its evolution and genealogical intricacies. The authors highlight the considerable challenge of defining the genre, which triggers efforts to identify new varieties of biographical writings for children and coin adequate terminology to convey their distinctiveness. The researchers point to the importance of such knowledge transmission media as cultural data carriers (CDs, biographic entries, tables), which augment literary texts modernising and adapting them to the needs of contemporary young readers. The issues of genealogy in the field of literature for children and young adults still remain largely unexamined. The volume shows that biographical writings make up another uncharted territory in this landscape. Their multitude and variety urge serious work on developing new ways and frameworks to classify the literary material.

Particular attention is due to articles that propose theoretical perspectives on interrelations between autobiographical narrative and the appeal of children’s literature. Also, the authors seek to draw general conclusions on biographical narratives for children, tracing child-adult relations, the interplay of fiction and actual biographies, as well as principles underlying the production of literary biographies.

Besides genealogical and literary-theoretical issues, the volume devotes some space to the role of biography in education, both within and outside of school, and its pedagogical and therapeutic contexts. The contributors tackle the didactic function of biographically coloured texts and its essential utility in young people’s instruction and education.

Clearly, the volume addresses an exceptionally wide range of issues, showing how diverse research approaches and fields engage with genres employing biographical motifs. The publication is highly relevant to the current issues and interests in literary-theoretical and culture research. Its comprehensive scope makes it useful and attractive reading, not only to literary scholars, but also to culture researchers, librarians and educators.

Alicja Ungeheuer-Gołąb
University of Rzeszów, Poland