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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Rortian Irony and Redescription in Burningham

Catherine McLaughlin.

My paper explores the ways in which Rortian irony and redescription show up in the children's picture books of John Burningham-in, ironically, the very texts handed to children for educative reasons. Is our 'public rhetoric' becoming ironist (see Rorty 87)? What are the consequences of such a shift? Revolutionary, I suggest: the contemporary children's picture book demands of child readers-heretofore a marginalized, 'ex-centric' group (Hutcheon )-the difficult work of doubt and redescription. For instance, Burningham's 1999 book 'Whaddayamean', looks at inequalities between children and adults by centering upon the difficulties a group of children have in voicing their concerns about the environment to grownups. The book is in many senses 'about' redescription: children meet hostile challenges to their environmental concerns — 'Whaddayamean?' — with patient explanations. If forests are cut, animal and plant species extinguish; if the globe warms, flooding and catastrophe ensue. This information is accepted and acted upon with farcical ease — Burningham's ironic 'if only', inversely proportional to the actual resistance that redescription provokes. In fact, the grownups change their tune only when they find out that God has sent the children to smarten them up. "Oh, if it was God who said we must not do this, then we must stop..." (Burningham 24; italics in original). The children's voices do not register until a higher power — the 'metanarrative' of divine retribution (see Lyotard xxiv) — intervenes. Indeed, the specter of resistance haunts the children's success and troubles any predictions that children's voices outside the book will be similarly heeded.


Catherine McLaughlin  (Canada)
Doctoral Student
University of Calgary

I am a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Calgary, researching the contemporary children's picture book.

  • Irony
  • Redescription
  • Socialization of children
  • Power imbalances between adults and children
  • Environment

(Virtual Presentation, English)