„But what, then, is a naturalistic writer for children to do? Can he present the child with evil and an insoluble problem…. To give a child a picture of… gas chambers… or famines or the cruelties of a psychotic patient, and say, ‘Well, baby, this is how it is, what are you going to make of it?’ – that is surely unethical. If you suggest that there is a ‘solution’ to these monstrous facts, you are lying to the child. If you insist that there isn’t, you are overwhelming him with a load he is not strong enough yet to carry.“
Ursula Le Guin, The Language of the Night, 1992
Atrocity, as Ursula Le Guin suggests, presents a problem to the writer of children’s literature. To represent events of such terrible magnitude and impersonal will as the Holocaust, the Transatlantic Slave Trade or the Rwandan Genocide such that they fit into a three-act structure with a comprehensible moral (to serve, in the words of Adrienne Kurtzer, ‘our need for hope and happy endings’) is to do a disservice to the victims. Yet to confront the child with the fact of wide-scale violence without resolution is, Le Guin argues, to confront him of her with realties which may be emotionally disturbing and even damaging.
Others, among them CS Lewis and Elizabeth R Bayer, have argued, conversely, that children’s literature represents an ideal site for (to use Bayer’s term) ‘confrontational’ texts, where children can first encounter historical truths in a safe and guided environment. These concerns can be even more pressing when one considers that the audience for such works may, themselves, be victims of atrocity either directly or by heritage. In such settings a literature of atrocity may help a child to make sense of his or her own life or the lives of his or her parents and grandparents.
Even if we accept the value of children’s literature which addresses atrocity, however, problems remain. Scholars such as Lawrence L Langer argue that the ethics of atrocity literature must be tempered by the question of what can be articulated – that atrocity as a lived experience must remain, at least in part, beyond the possibility of representation.
Despite these challenges, the question of atrocity remains a recurring theme in children’s literature. The 1980s saw an outpouring of works which engaged with the Holocaust and the trend shows no sign of abating, with new works such as (to name just one) Gavriel Savit’s Anna and the Swallow Man (2017). Indeed, the features of Holocaust literature for children have informed other texts which approach the question of atrocity such as, as Yoo Kyung Sung argues, Korean picture books which concern the lives of ‘comfort women’ during World War II.
This edited collection seeks original contributions on the problem of atrocity in children’s literature. We are particularly interested in contributions which engage with comics for children, recent or otherwise under-discussed works, and international children’s literature. We welcome literary analysis, arguments which take a historical view, and reports from education professionals.
Abstracts of 100-200 words due by January 15. First drafts will be due June 15. Proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Drs. Victoria Nesfield and Philip Smith are co-editors of The Struggle for Understanding: The Fiction of Elie Wiesel (forthcoming from SUNY Press in 2019). Dr. Philip Smith is the author of Reading Art Spiegelman (Routledge, 2015).