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Politically committed literature? Sounds like brainwashing to me

For years, Dr Clémentine Beauvais has been interested in politically committed literature for children. It is an admission that often prompts questions such as, ‘What, like, propaganda?’, or even, ‘Like Nazi children’s books?’. The academic and children’s author, explains that these are contemporary books for children that portray and encourage social change through political activism and has nothing to do with ‘brainwashing’.

Interesting that ‘politically committed literature’ should be instinctively distasteful today. Not so long ago, it had a golden age. Jean-Paul Sartre, in What Is Literature? (1948), argued that any literary text must commit both author and reader. The author should strive to render the world in all its imperfections, its complex layers of commitments, its spaces for freedom. Then, it is the reader’s responsibility to do something with it: to make it a project for the world. The work of art, Sartre said, must be ‘a demand and a gift.’

But soon came the nouveau roman and the postmodern novel, and new critical perspectives. In the latter half of the 20th century, authorial intentions became unknowable, language ever-slipperier, and political ideology an alluringly deconstructible entity. A French academic, Benoit Denis, speculates that political commitment à la Sartre today no longer exists in literary fiction, but persists in ‘minor or middle-brow art forms’, like photography, or in ‘popular or trivial genres’, like comics or science fiction.

bravepotatoesOr… children’s and young-adult books, which have always been highly politicised spaces, exploring intense social questions, and, often, didactically issuing guidelines for action. In an earlier research project, I studied politically committed picture books for very young readers (see list below). Some were comic tales of group activism – rebelling potatoes, cows keen on electric blankets – that familiarise toddlers with political protests. Others were much darker. After years painting flags for various fictional nations, a little flag painter is killed. Political participation may be fun, but it is always dangerous.

Currently, I’m researching contemporary teenage French novels which deploy similar literary strategies and understandings of political activism as older ‘thesis novels’ like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins or Albert Camus’s The Plague (early results have been presented in Beauvais, ‘Une lecture sartrienne du roman engagé pour la jeunesse,’ in L’Idéologie dans le roman pour la jeunesse au XXIe siècle).

Those masterpieces’ genes run, today, in the blood of others. The polyphonic, complex young adult fresques I explore take place at times of heightened political tension, where teenage characters must make choices that commit them and others. The all-female cast of Charlotte Bousquet’s Là où tombent les anges (Where the angels fall), on the Parisian home front during World War I, reconfigure by their actions the roles of women in post-war France.

dansledesordreMarion Brunet’s Dans le désordre (In disarray), or Cécile Roumiguière’s Lily explosively render the messiness and anguish of political decisions made young, and followed through, with death a very real possibility, from the war in Algeria to 2015 squats. Those novels present political action, like their Beauvoirian, Camusian or Sartrian ancestors, as always situated, contextual, imperfect, unpredictable and sometimes life-shattering.

Do teenagers care? Here I slip into anecdote. An author myself, I meet many teenagers, and they don’t just want to know if you’re rich, they hunger after thoughtful discussion of big issues, from cyberbullying to women’s rights through to the refugee crisis. Those books get read because they take seriously those interests, those questions and that desire to commit.

And they get written, because the need for politically committed novels and their aesthetic attraction has not disappeared. Disapproved of by elite literary critics and writers, political commitment has relocated to more accommodating genres.

Dr Clémentine Beauvais is a lecturer in English in Education at the University of York, finishing a project on the history, philosophy and cultural sociology of child precocity. Previously, she was a Junior Research Fellow at Homerton College, Cambridge. Her PhD research focused on children’s literature theory, particularly the theorization of politically committed children’s literature. She is also a children’s author in French and English. Her French books have won several national awards and international distinctions. In English, she is the author of the Sesame Seade and the Royal Babysitters series.

Works cited:
Clémentine Beauvais, ‘The problem of power: Metacritical implications of aetonormativity for children’s literature research’. Children’s Literature in Education, Vol. 44, n.1., 2013a.

Clémentine Beauvais, ‘Transmettre mai 68 : construction et paradoxes de l’idéal révolutionnaire à travers l’album jeunesse contemporain.’ Strenae, vol.5, 2013b.

Clémentine Beauvais, ‘Little tweaks and fundamental changes: Two aspects of sociopolitical transformation in children’s literature’, in Power and Ideology in Children’s Literature, ed. by Áine McGillicuddy & Marian Keyes, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014a.

Clémentine Beauvais, The Mighty Child: Time and Power in Children’s Literature, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2015.

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