New Reviews

Representing Agency in Popular Culture: Children and Youth on Page, Screen, and in Between

Representing Agency in Popular Culture: Children and Youth on Page, Screen, and in Between. Eds. Ingrid E. Castro and Jessica Clark. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019, 299 pages. £88.00.

Evoking the title of Ellen Key’s seminal Barnets århundrade (The Century of the Child, 1990), in the introduction to his 2013 book, The Agency of Children: From Family to Global Human Rights, David Oswell refers to the twentieth century as ‘the age of children’s agency’ (3). He argues that children ‘make a difference to the world we live in’ because their ‘capacity to do has intensified and the areas in which they are able to do have proliferated’ (3). The first two decades of the twenty-first century have shown that Oswell’s statement that young people ‘are not simply beings, they are more significantly doings’ remains relevant (1). In 2014, at 17, Malala Yousafza, an activist for female education, became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2019, at 16, Greta Thunberg, an environmental activist, was the youngest individual Time Person of the Year. In early 2020, at 18, Billie Eilish was the youngest person to win the four main Grammy categories for a record that she wrote and produced with her brother. While children and teenagers have gained both admiration and strong criticism from adults – for example, Thunberg was cyber-bullied by President Donald Trump – at the same time a belief that they are innocent and passive beings that have little to no agency seems ubiquitous.

In the last three decades, children’s agency has become an important theme in childhood studies and in children’s literature studies. Scholars analyse not only the representation of children as doings (e.g., Child Autonomy and Child Governance in Children’s Literature, 2016, edited by Christopher Kelen and Björn Sundmark), but also discuss the active role of children in carrying out research (e.g., Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak’s ‘Thinking with Deconstruction: Book-Adult-Child Events in Children’s Literature Research’, 2019), Representing Agency in Popular Culture: Children and Youth on Page, Screen, and in Between, edited by Ingrid E. Castro and Jessica Clark, is the newest edition to the scholarly discourse on children’s agency. The authors of the twelve interdisciplinary essays in this fascinating collection explore how child agency is represented in various cultural texts around the world. The book consists of an introduction written by the editors, twelve chapters arranged into three thematic parts (‘Political Agency’, ‘Social Agency’, and ‘Generational Agency’), and an afterword by David Buckingham, a specialist in media literacy education.**

The articles are arranged according to their authors’ theoretical approaches to the representations of children’s agency in literature, film and politics. In the first part, ‘Political Agency’, Catherine Hartung writes about how children were used as political tools during and right after the 2016 presidential election in the USA; Lucy Newby and Fearghus Roulston analyse the representation of children in '71 (2014) and Mickybo & Me (2004), two post-conflict Northern Irish films; and John C. Nelson examines the dehumanization and resistance of war children in Osama (2003) and Turtles Can Fly (2004), pointing out the social and cultural violence girls have to go through.

In the second part, ‘Social Agency’, Anja Höing elaborates on the intersections of the depiction of children’s agency and animalistic agency in British literature, showing how animals help children become stronger. In the next chapter, Michel G. Cornelius writes about classic girls’ college series (1905-1925) and the agentic transition from girlhood to womanhood of their protagonists; Terri Suico examines the descriptions of female friendships in three graphic novels; Jessica Clark analyses material culture, friendship and disability in two books, showing the protective character of friendships; and finally, Tabitha Parry Collins, Mary L. Fahrenbruck and Leanna Lucero discuss the agency of transgender and non-binary characters in young adult novels. The authors choose to use the more inclusive word trans* while discussing the coming out experience of such protagonists.

The last part, ‘Generational Agency’, which discusses kin connections between children and their families and communities, is not as anglophone-oriented as the two previous ones. Michelle Nicole Boyer-Kelly analyses the Māori experience of young people in New Zealand as depicted in selected books and film adaptations. Children in such cultural texts use their generational agency and come up with new agentic roles that help to protect their communities; Sin Wen Lau and Shih-Wen Sue Chen examine Chinese reality television show Where Are We Going, Dad? and the notion of guai representing obedience and a strict set of social and gender norms attributed to children; John Kerr elaborates on the portrayal of children in maternal gothic films and the way mothers benefit from children’s agency; and finally Ingrid E. Castro analyses Hayao Miyazaki’s films and their protagonists, agentic girls who, when separated from their families, challenge traditional gender roles. In the afterword, Buckingham summarises the theoretical approaches taken by the authors and points to the issues that need further scholarly scrutiny.

In the insightful introduction, the editors mention Harper Lee’s seminal To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and argue that there has been ‘no attention from the field of Childhood Studies to this celebrated novel’ (xii). Maybe this statement is right when it comes to sociological childhood studies, but it is definitely incorrect in the context of research on literature (e.g., Świetlicki, 2017). This sentence can be used to describe the main problem I have observed while reading this interesting volume. While Representing Agency in Popular Culture: Children and Youth on Page, Screen, and in Between is a good sociological book, and some articles contain brilliant readings, it seems a little disappointing due to the lack of mention of the countless children’s literature sources about the agency of young people. For example, recent studies by Clémentine Beauvais (The Mighty Child, 2015), Roni Natov (The Courage to Imagine, 2018), and Vanessa Joosen (Adulthood in Children’s Literature, 2018) could have been useful for many authors analysing children’s books in Representing Agency. This absence proves that, unfortunately, there is still a gap between the fields of childhood studies and children’s literature studies.

Works Cited

Oswell, D. The Agency of Children from Family to Global Human Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Świetlicki, Mateusz. 'Coming Out of the Ghostly Gay Children in Truman Capote's Other Voicesm Other Rooms and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird'. Prikarpats'kij Visnik NTŠ: Slovo 3.39(2017):201-210.

Mateusz Świetlicki
University of Wroclaw

** Buckingham is the autor of a number of improtant publications on children's interactions with electronic media, e.g., Children Talking Television: The Making of Television Literacy (1993), Moving Images: Understanding Children's Emotional Responses to Television (1996), After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic Media (200), Beyond Technology: Children's Learning in the Age of Digital Culture> (2007), and The Material Child: Groing Up in Consumer Culture (2011).