New Reviews

Rereading Childhood Books: A Poetics

Rereading Childhood Books: A Poetics. Alison Waller. Bloomsbury,2019. 237 pages. Hardback. £114.00.

The rising popularity of bibliomemoirs focused on rereading childhood books speaks of a belief in the value of these memories as a source of understanding our current selves in spite of their inherent instability. In the midst of this trend, Alison Waller, Senior Lecturer in Children's Literature at The National Centre for Research in Children's Literature at the University of Roehampton, examines the way in which affectively influential texts or ‘paracanons’ function to produce a poetics of the ‘lifelong reading act’ in her 2019 monograph Rereading Childhood Books: A Poetics (2). Her work is based on a study she conducted between 2009 and 2014 on reading habits of 120 adults, who were invited to supply information on their childhood reading, reread one paracanonical text from their childhood for the first time, and then finally share accounts of their remembering and rereading with Waller. In each chapter, Waller follows a similar structure; she frames the area of memory and rereading that each chapter explores in the relevant theories, while recognizing the contributions of Hugh Crago, Michael Steig, Margaret Mackey, Matei Călinescu, Francis Spufford, Wendy Lesser, Patricia Meyer Spacks, and others, to the field of autobibliography and ‘childist’ rereadings that invite the reader to ‘read as children […] [and] ask what reading as a child actually means’ (Hunt qtd. in Waller 13). She then draws on participant accounts and autobiographical excerpts from British writers that pertain to their own experiences of childhood reading to support her conclusions.

Chapter One examines the reading scene as the model for lifelong reading. It relies on Proust’s classic reminiscences on his own childhood reading, to show how this memory work can fall into nostalgia or aid reconstruction processes. Waller explores various types of memory, phenomenological terms, and the dynamism of the interaction of ‘real life’ with the cognitive processes of the reading scene.

Chapter Two looks at the life space, from autobiographical first encounters with books to spatial reading narratives, with the goal of uncovering how ‘aspects of identity, particularly class and gender, may have inflected textual encounters’ (55). Waller uses the autotopographical approach to examine three spaces: that of the first textual encounter, that of the fictional spaces that are the locales of events in the text itself, and ‘representational spaces in which readers re-enact or respond to stories they have read’ to understand the self through the interaction of identity with lived spaces and artefacts from the personal past (57). Books act as milestones in the nonlinear journey of reading; milestones which include threshold memories such as the accounts of how the participants and memorists learnt how to read and the epiphanies or thresholds around reading that occurred at school. In considering representational spaces, Waller discusses robinsonade reenactments as well as the ways in which the geographies in the text map onto other geographical territories that the childist reader may or may not have actually visited at the time of reading or afterwards.

In the third chapter, Waller moves from mental and geographical spaces to emotions and ‘affective traces’ (89) which are chords pulled between the reader and their early textual encounters that remain capable of conjuring affect when struck. This affect can be as strong as passion or as damp as boredom, but it is almost always related to the book’s use of language. Waller borrows from cultural psychology in order to understand affect, and instead of accepting that the child is ‘a site of pure emotional response’’ she adds to the complexity of understanding the residual affect of fear, transcendence, and grief, by arguing that by the time the child is a reader, they have already learnt “appropriate emotional response” (97).

Chapter Four looks at the purpose of and attitudes towards adult rereading. Waller explores how participants and authors deal with what is uncovered about their identities through the rereading. This archaeological excavation of identity is articulated using such terms as ‘restoration, renovation, and conservation’ (128). This chapter is also where Waller finally deals with nostalgia, with its power to therapeutically gratify and dangerously obfuscate, and the threat of museumizing the child’s literary world if nostalgia drives the valorisation of heirloom books over others written in more recent times. Heirloom books, in this instance, become overly selected to share with the child and are regarded as worthwhile. Interestingly, this is where she elects to discuss rereading attitudes by children’s literature scholars, whose own nostalgia is explored.

Chapter Five looks at forgetting, misremembering, and ‘anamnesis’ (161), the purposeful remembering of childhood books as part of a greater autobiographical narrative. Waller’s findings are unsurprising, as all memories of affectively loaded artefacts merge, adapt, and transform over time. The chapter leaves this reader wondering if the remembered texts are only so because they have been reinforced as canon from the time the participants of Waller’s study left them behind until the time they chose to revisit them.

The final chapter, which contains Waller’s recommendations for future research, draws on the limits of her own and perfectly address this reader’s observations. For instance, while translated books are held up for their value in increasing empathy and understanding, the participants almost exclusively recalled British books or canonical imports such as Spyri’s Heidi (1881). Also, the participants were avid readers and could articulate their reading habits with sophistication, which begged the question how non-reading participants might have fared in this study. Nonetheless, Waller has undoubtedly made a practical and accessible addition to the Bloomsbury Perspectives on Children’s Literature series, the growing body of literature on rereading childhood books, and to ‘childist’ reader-response studies that encourages explorations of the open interpretive space lying between the re-reader and the text and fosters the reader’s own reminiscing.

Yasmine Motawy
The American University in Cairo