Reviews 2017

O tym, co Alicja odkryła...: W kręgu badań nad toposem dzieciństwa i literaturą dla dzieci i młodzieży [What Alice Found...: Around the Research on the Topos of Childhood and Children’s and Young Adult Literature]

O tym, co Alicja odkryła...: W kręgu badań nad toposem dzieciństwa i literaturą dla dzieci i młodzieży [What Alice Found...: Around the Research on the Topos of Childhood and Children’s and Young Adult Literature]. Ed. Alicja Ungeheuer-Gołąb, Małgorzata Chrobak, and Michał Rogoż. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Pedagogicznego, 2015. 416 pages. 46PLN (hardback).

O tym, co Alicja odkryła... [What Alice Found...], edited by Alicja Ungeheuer-Gołąb, Małgorzata Chrobak, and Michał Rogoż, is a collective volume in honour of Alicja Baluch – one of the most renowned figures in the field of children’s and young adult literature in Poland, both as a pioneer in academic archetypal critique and as a writer. The decision to title the book after Lewis Carroll’s famous story (it is worth mentioning that in Polish "Alicja" is equivalent to the English "Alice") clearly refers to Baluch’s interests. This determines the topics of the studies included in the publication. Their authors – Baluch’s friends, colleagues, and former students – attempt to present and analyse various cultural texts linked with two main issues recurrent in the volume: the topos of childhood and children’s and young adult literature. The book consists of the introduction, two non-scholarly chapters regarding the career and life of Alicja Baluch, and thirty-four academic papers.

The latter, which make up the core of the publication, are organised into five parts, enigmatically titled, respectively: (1) What Alicja Found..., (2) The Crumbs of Childhood, (3) Careful Reading, (4) What is Hidden in the Garden?, and (5) Children and Their Worlds. As much as it is clear that the first section of the book includes texts concerning ideas emerging from both the scholarly and literary works of Baluch herself (there are, for example, papers on her writings perceived as so-called "intersemiotic ceremonies" or on the traces of sacrum in her poetry), the division of the rest of the chapters seems to be rather chaotic. We can mention Grzegorz Leszczyński’s and Ewa Teodorowicz-Hellman’s very interesting chapters, both focused mainly on children and war, but which are separated from each other by, for example, Katarzyna Wądolny-Tatar’s well-written and erudite piece about Anna Janko’s "prenatal narratives," and Bolesław Faron’s chapter regarding Jerzy Harasimowicz’s poetry. Of course, it is difficult to select and arrange diverse contributions representing different methodological perspectives, subjects of research and writing styles, but the criteria of their division should be clearly stated in the introduction and more satisfyingly commented on than they are. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of linguistic errors and mistakes in the book, including spelling, punctuation, and grammatical ones.

The themes of the articles are diverse: from the poetic image of the child in Marta Tomaszewska’s prose, excellently discussed by Małgorzata Chrobak, to the influence of new technologies on children’s and young adult’s literary culture, entertainingly presented by Michał Rogoż. This makes the book seem more of an interdisciplinary work, rather than a coherent, yet thematically limited, volume focused on a particular matter, which is partially true. The reader can find a handful of interesting chapters herein, such as Ryszard Waksmund’s contribution on Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson, Jolanta Ługowska’s discussion of Four Children and It by Jacqueline Wilson or Violetta Wróblewska’s well-informed essay on children in Polish crime novels after 1989. Despite focusing on different topics and using various tools of literary analysis and interpretation, all these authors have produced satisfying papers. But, unfortunately, there are also poorly-written chapters in the book, mainly in its first part, which covers articles inspired by Baluch’s own writings. Some of these seem to simply praise the scholar instead of providing academic content. Nevertheless, even in this section there are brilliant attempts to show the importance of Baluch’s work for children’s and young adult literature studies in Poland. This goal is achieved, for example, by Krystyna Zabawa’s article on fairy tales.

Having said all of this, we should keep in mind that O tym, co Alicja odkryła... is not a typical scholarly volume, but a book in honour of Alicja Baluch herself, which makes it very difficult to evaluate. Some papers are in-depth analyses with the use of well-established, yet productive tools of literary studies (such as Katarzyna Slany’s brave paper on Coraline by Neil Gaiman); several essays are interesting, but more of a personal nature (such as Alicja Ungeheuer-Gołąb’s amusing one on Baluch’s writings); and some seem to be produced by authors who probably felt obliged to submit anything more or less linked with the topos of the child and children’s and young adult literature. In the introduction, the editors emphasise that potential readers are likely to feel joy when reading the collection. However, this ‘joy’ is only to be discovered to a certain extent.

What I find the most interesting in this book is its initial chapters, covering Alicja Baluch’s own reflections on her achievements and an interview with the scholar’s husband, Jacek Baluch, an academic expert in Slavic studies himself. Alicja Baluch tells of her memories of the people, situations, institutions, and places (especially Cracow and Prague) that were the milestones in her career. She notes that it is very difficult to keep distance when analysing and describing oneself. This self-reflection, interspersed with references to poetry and prose, provides quite a lot of interesting insights into the process of becoming a children-oriented academic, a writer, and a tireless propagator of juvenile culture. Her essay appears to be almost of an anthropological nature, which is not so common when it comes to the field of literary studies in Poland. The interview with Jacek Baluch, although not as in-depth as it may look at first sight, introduces some new elements, including anecdotes, which substantiate the image of his wife Alicja as an extraordinary person. This is the goal that the reviewed volume achieves successfully.

Maciej Skowera
University of Warsaw, Poland