The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 11, No 3 (2007)

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The Looking Glass, Volume 11, Issue 3, 2007

Representing and Projecting Possible Identities: Australian Children's Literature

Vaughan Prain

Vaughan Prain is currently Head of the School of Education at La Trobe University's Bendigo campus, Victoria, Australia. He has published extensively in children's literature and literacy with particular recent work focusing on the role of representation in learning across the curriculum.

In this essay he questions the assertion by John Stephens that Australian (and, thus, any national) children's literature is primarily representational and that it should be interpreted predominantly in terms of established socio-cultural positions and values.

What are the possible relationships between a nation’s culture and its literature?  It seems very tempting to answer that a national literature will always be a manifest sign of the culture’s values, psyche, or dominant obsessions. From this perspective, a national literature is understood as a record of the culture from which it derives, and it therefore represents, or “tells the truth” about that culture’s prior conditions, situation, histories, anxieties or concerns.  From this perspective, texts in a national literature must ultimately always correspond to, or capture, known or hidden cultural realities.

In a recent editorial commentary on the nature of Australian children’s literature, John Stephens (2003) broadly agreed with this representational perspective. He assumed that this literature must express, reflect or represent pre-existent mores, social conditions, and value positions within Australian culture, and therefore should be interpreted as a set of signs or “schema” of these prior or emergent realities and values. While his representational account of the distinctive “Australianness” of this literature might seem reasonable, and various texts might seem to confirm this truth-telling ideological function, in this introduction I would like to suggest the possibility of more varied relationships between these texts and their contexts. In sketching out this case, I will comment on his specific “schema” of distinctly Australian themes in this literature, and their persuasiveness. I draw in part on Peirce’s (1999) The Country of Lost Children, a thematic study of the abandoned/bush-lost child in Australian adult literature, to question the plausibility of this list. I conclude by arguing that texts in Australian children’s literature participate in more complex relations to cultural mores than merely representing or reminiscing about them.

For Stephens, the representations of childhood by Australian authors “tell us something about the representing culture—its aspirations, its fears, how it seeks to shape and regulate itself, and especially how it seeks to shape and regulate attitudes towards distinctions made in terms of ethnicity, gender, class, religious belief and culture” (p. viii). In this way, “fiction offers models of socialization by presenting experience as a dynamic, enmeshed in processes of conflict, or moments of crisis or transition” (p. viii). Presumably it is difficult for anyone to disagree with such a mild, qualified account of the relation between texts and context. On this basis of this analysis, Stephens identified the following five “typically” Australian themes or principles:

1) Autonomous selfhood is necessary to quality of life, and it is desirable, if not essential, for individuals to strive for it.
2) Such a selfhood is intersubjective, not solipsistic; altruistic, not self-serving.
3) Democratically organized political and social structures are preferable to overt or implicit sociopolitical hierarchies, hegemonies or forms of tyranny.
4) The emotional health of human beings, especially children, is best served by life within some, perhaps broadly conceived, version of the nuclear family.
5) Human sexuality operates most satisfactorily within relationships grounded on sexual equality. (p. ix)

The obvious point to note here is the blandness of this list as a set of “essential” Australian value positions. Certainly no texts in Australian children literature advocate political dictatorship and sexual tyranny,  or oppose the pursuit of “autonomous selfhood” (although how this attribute might flourish within “nuclear families” is presumably an interesting challenge for authors).  However, surely this literature is more distinctive, diverse, more open to unexpected disruptions, than this thematic list would suggest. To put this another way, does this schema really pin down the Australianness in the works of acclaimed authors such as Sonya Hartnett, John Marsden, Shaun Tan and Garth Nix? For that matter, are the themes found in the works of these high profile authors indicative of those commonly met in this literature more generally? What might count as evidence of a particular Australianness in themes or authorial perspectives, as opposed to international trends in publications for children? Does repetition of a theme across various texts always signal truth-telling about a deep-seated Australian cultural value, or might it be evidence of a fashion or use of a proven valuable plot premise? Stephens partly anticipates a possible reaction to his list’s lack of immediate distinctiveness by arguing that “these principles … construct an ideology of childhood, which is to some extent common to Western societies because these principles are also basic tenets of Western liberal humanism” (p. ix). Nevertheless he claims that these generalities are inflected by local Australian cultural conditions, and therefore take on a distinctive character in this literature. This move certainly allows for interpretive flexibility, but are there plausible alternative accounts of themes in this literature that move beyond a representational logic of expressing pre-existent truths about the local culture or cultures, and how values around childhood are depicted?

Take, for example, the broadly identified theme of the abandoned, lost or betrayed child, noted by Peirce (1999) in much nineteenth century Australian adult literature, and seemingly evident in much fiction for young and adolescent readers in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century, as typified in many of John Marsden’s novels. Peirce glosses this theme in the earlier works as indicative of adult anxieties about the physical environment of Australia, and commentators on Marsden’s books have claimed that he is representing adolescent entrapment in resentment about the values and behaviour of adults/parents who have betrayed “normal” nuclear family responsibilities. However, rather than re-presenting the truth about the “emotional health” of real Australian adolescents beyond his textual worlds, or an ideological projection of this theme, (and Marsden himself has claimed that this is his intention) it could be argued that Marsden’s texts are personal projective fantasies. From this perspective, they offer adolescents a psychologically irresistible invitation to participate in justified angst and projective autonomy (adults have caused, and cannot help you solve, your problems, and you are now in charge of any possible solutions). Adolescents may indeed see these books as re-presenting truths about their emotional worlds, but as noted by Deleuze and and Guattari (1994), this kind of “truth” is a derivative effect of literature’s capacity to create new worlds of experience rather than proof that these texts simply capture or reconfirm pre-existent worlds or ideologies. Whether Marsden’s obsession with this theme of betrayal (along with other authors who share an interest in the opportunities of this fictional premise) constitutes a mainstream plank in an “ideology of Australian childhood” remains questionable.  The extent to which his or Sonya Hartnett’s leading characters seek or achieve “autonomous selfhood” within “a nuclear family” also remains an open question, but perhaps Stephens considers these authors to be ideological outriders in terms of his list of essential Australian themes. I am certainly not proposing that this issue can be resolved by a more extensive inductive count of confirmatory examples (as in how many “abandoned child” storylines would need to be spotted to establish a distinctive Australian ideology of childhood around this theme?) At the same time, a deductive approach is also suspect because it merely presupposes the existence of particular national ideological themes identified elsewhere, and then finds overt or air-brushed evidence of such themes in the work of some popular children’s authors.

Many books in Australian children’s literature that deal with racial and social problems could be interpreted as seeking to project new worlds of possibility rather than simply re-present known difficulties or injustices.  The positive solutions to themes of racial or class intolerance in books such as Nips X1 and Deadly Unna, could be understood in this way as seeking to imagine how these new worlds might come into existence rather than simply reconfirming supposed versions of Australian social “reality”.  In this way, the creative projective dimension of literature can confound the assumptions of a straightforward representational perspective, including its faith in the idea that stable prior or hidden cultural ideological commitments can be tracked down and exposed, in the manner proposed by Stephens.

Can we easily identify quintessential Australian texts, assuming such a representational capacity is possible? Popular and critical acclaim is clearly not proof that an author deeply represents overt, hidden or divided aspects of a national culture. The picture books of Shaun Tan, another highly acclaimed Australian children’s author, pose a challenge to this representational view of cultural meaning, or the idea that resolved value positions within texts can be offered as evidence of a distinctively Australian perspective. Tan’s books, including The Rabbits,  Memorial, The Lost Thing, The Red Tree and The Arrival, might seem to invite such a reading by engaging with various overt national and personal themes, such as colonial invasion, a sense of belonging for the immigrant outsider or for inter-generational community members within a town, as well as intense personal themes of loneliness, depression, and hope (perhaps implying a dystopian community or culture). However, rather than represent these themes in a tightly structured way, Tan’s (2007) works construct new ways of perceiving and new perceptions about these themes through the interplay of images and text that express a thought-provoking “disquiet”, and invite readers and viewers to make their own imaginative connections between their worlds and ideas and those suggested in the texts. They refuse the neat sense of ideological resolution implied in Stephens’ list of essentially Australian themes. To suggest that these texts are asserting that “autonomous selfhood” is “intersubjective, not solipsistic” and “altruistic, not self-serving” seems (a) contestable, (b) inadequate to the expressive openness and richness of associative pictorial and verbal meanings in these texts, and (c) unconvincing as an attempt to establish any distinctive Australian characteristics to these books’ implicit themes. In might be argued that at least the apparent themes of The Rabbits accord with the view that its authors favour “democratically organized political and social structures” in preference to “overt or implicit sociopolitical hierarchies, hegemonies or forms of tyranny”.  However, this text, rather than focusing on the superior social structures of the numbat-like victims of the invasion, seeks to emphasize the surreal strangeness of the invaders and the cumulative cost of colonialism, thematic aspects that have seen the book highly praised in various other countries. Several of Tan’s books have also been successfully translated into other languages, suggesting at the very least a cross-cultural meaningfulness in his texts for diverse readerships. There are many ways to account for the broad appeal and distinctiveness of these books, without having to reach for explanatory accounts framed by putative “national” characteristics.

Of course, authors of fiction generally rely on some referential meaning to make connections between readers’ worlds and values, and their own textual “worlds’, inevitably inviting some form of representational contract. When a novel is set in Sydney, for example, and we are familiar with this city, we expect the account of the setting to match our knowledge of this locale. However, the meanings produced by this representational contract, as I have already suggested, may do more or other than re-present Australian culture’s self-regulatory processes and recognizable “modes of socialization”.  The assumption that authors of Australian children’s literature are predominantly passive antennae of cultural mores and simply reproduce these mores (or their underpinning ideologies) in a mainly unreflective way needs to be questioned.

Does this mean that attempts to identify quintessential themes in Australian children’s literature will always be suspect? Certainly not. However, such work will always face the challenge of establishing a convincing case for plausible reciprocities, resistances, creative departures, extensions, or projections between cultural and textual meanings. I have suggested that some Australian authors seem to defy or resist producing texts that offer a convenient touchstone to truth-telling about prior cultural conditions. Stephens’ list of Western liberal cultural values assumes too readily that the works of all authors in this field can be read persuasively as predictable, tame, sociological representation.


Reference List

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. What Is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Peirce, Peter. The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Stephens, John. "Always Facing the Issues—Preoccupations in Australian Children's Literature." The Lion and the Unicorn 27.2 (2003): v-xvii.

Tan, Shaun. "Picture Books. Who Are They For?" 2007. <>.


"Representing and Projecting Identities:Australian Children's Literature" © Vaughan Prain, 2007.

The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680