Reviews 2009

The Family in English Children’s Literature

The Family in English Children’s Literature. Ann Alston. New York: Routledge, 2008. 160 pages. £60/€76 (hardback).

Ann Alston begins her exploration of families in English children’s literature with the observation that in spite of the revolution in family life over the past two centuries, children’s literature still adheres to the ideal of the “cosy nuclear family” (2). Her conclusion goes as follows: “At the beginning of the twenty-first century, when families and their structures have changed considerably in society we might expect the traditional signifiers of the good family to have become redundant. But as this book has shown, these tropes retain their importance and those families that do not fulfil the ideal are invariably constructed as ‘other’ to the desirable norm” (135). In between these more or less identical observations, Alston presents an analysis of family life in children’s books published between 1818 and 2003. The books she discusses were chosen on the basis of their popularity among children, their availability or because they have been the subject of critical debate. She has not confined herself to a specific age group or genre, because the ideology of the family is present in picture books and realistic books as well as in fantasy and teenage fiction. Alston therefore uses a wide range of texts: from Mrs. Sherwood’s History of the Fairchild Family, via Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Eve Garnett’s The Family to One End Street to John Rowe Townsend’s Gumble’s Yard, Roald Dahl’s Matilda and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, just to name a few.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Alston presents a chronological and historical depiction of family life, in reality as well as in children’s books. Chapter One gives an overview of concepts of the family and of the most important changes in the organization of the family and family relations in reality. This part is based mainly on relevant studies by scholars such as Lawrence Stone, Philippe Ariès, Linda A. Pollock, Leonore Davidoff and others. Now and then, however, Alston also uses children’s books to illustrate changes in reality. Chapters Two and Three focus on the representation of the family in children’s fiction from The History of the Fairchild Family by (1818) to Matilda (1988).

The second section is organized thematically. Chapter Four examines the representation of homes, Chapter Five analyses domestic spaces, while Chapter Six focuses on food in children’s books. In organizing the chapters in this way, Alston wants to take the reader form “outside to inside,” to make her analysis of the family more “intimate,” moving from the social structuring of the family and concluding with a focus on ‘the individual’ (4). Every chapter in this section begins with the history and theory of the specific theme, based on children’s literature criticism and studies from other disciplines such as sociology and philosophy.

The main strength of this book lies in the second section. The themes “There’s No Place Like Home,” “A Room of One’s Own?” and “Edible Fictions” are well chosen and the examples are convincing, also because Alston discusses the books in more detail than she does in the first chronological part of the book. The second section provides a firm basis for her main argument that the similarities between families in children’s fiction over almost two centuries are far more striking than the differences, and that the ideology of the loving, supporting and dedicated family is still very much alive.

The most problematic aspect of this study is its organization. The division into a chronological and a thematic section, both discussing almost the same range of texts, is responsible for much overlap and repetition. This redundancy is reinforced by the fact that the main argument of the study is given right from the start and then repeated over and over again. The book would have benefited from a structure with a greater focus on the themes, in which the primary texts could then have been presented in chronological order. Organizing the material in this way would also have given the author the opportunity to develop her point of the family ideology in children’s fiction more gradually. The Family in English Children’s Literature certainly provides interesting new insights into how the family is portrayed in children’s books, but it is also somewhat disappointing because of its repetitiveness

Helma van Lierop-Debrauwer
Tilburg University/Leiden University, The Netherlands