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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Children's Literature, New World Orders, and Utopian Rhetoric

Prof. John Stephens.

The engagement of children's literature with social practices was arguably pushed in a new direction by the geopolitical upheaval which began with the end of the Cold War in 1986-87 and is still in train, and the recurrent declarations of New World Orders replacing the (apparent) binary ideological certitudes of the Cold War era. Fiction and other texts written for children reflect and/or respond to such significant historical moments, with consequent shifts in the social and political discourses informing the literature; for example, disaster literature, originating as a cold-war phenomenon in children's literature of the 1960s, has changed its focus from nuclear holocaust to pollution, greenhouse gases and global warming. To grasp what texts written for young readers propose about values, politics and social practices is to see what they envisage as desirable possibilities for the world. There exist clear contrasts between dystopian texts informed by alarm and pessimism about political conflict, war and environmental degradation and utopian rhetoric which reinvokes Romantic formulations of an innocent child. The books to be discussed here are examples of this contrast.
Utopian writing and thought seems to chart certain moments or ruptures in Western social history - times particularly marked by anticipation and anxiety, and hence times when utopian desires and hopes for the future are driven by both hope and fear. There is a large body of children's fiction from the 1980s to the present in which utopian tropes are evident either within constructions of fantastic or realistic worlds (both utopias and anti-utopias), or implied through their opposites in dystopian narratives. In Jean Ure's futuristic fantasy, "After the Plague", the two main characters represent and explicitly debate the implications of ideological positions and practices. Terry Pratchett's comic novel "Only You Can Save Mankind" explores how the media reporting of the Gulf War impacted on the mentalities of child culture. David Almond's "Kit's Wilderness" focuses on a specific and local setting to recuperate a dystopian past. In the simpler text of Michael Foreman's "One World", children are led by represented example to consider the world in a different way.


Prof. John Stephens  (Australia)
Professor in English
Department of English
Macquarie University

John Stephens is Professor in English at Macquarie University, where his main teaching and research is in children's literature. He is author of "Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction", "Retelling Stories, Framing Culture" (with Robyn McCallum), editor of "Ways of Being Male: Representing Masculinities in Children's Literature and Film", along with about sixty articles, and two books on discourse analysis. He is currently part of a research team investigating the impact of geopolitical shifts on children's literature since the end of the Cold War.

  • Children's Literature
  • New World Orders
  • Utopias and Dystopias

(30 min Conference Paper, English)