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Home, Journey, and Identity in Children’s Books

The genre of children’s books might appear to be rather unsophisticated and plain to the uninitiated. However, on closer inspection, the world of children’s literature will reveal that it has no boundaries for imagination and, therefore, can stretch across the themes and subgenres hat no other type of literature can. Therefore, the specified genre deserves a more meticulous analysis as the repository of unique worlds and characters created to teach essential lessons to its target audience. By focusing on the idea of being alienated from others and seeking for meaningful friendships, children’s books establish and scrutinize crucial themes of home, journey, and identity.

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The connection between the three components specified above is rarely explicit in children’s literature, which is why most scholars tend to consider them separately, outlining the presence of each in a particular work of fiction for young readers. For instance, Cadden in his analysis of Burnett’s “The Secret Garden” specifies that the book is “a novel of realism written in a time when cultural difference could be equated with biological difference through metaphor in an unselfconscious narrative” (Cadden 53). Thus, the theme of identity is addressed clearly, with the issue of home being intertwined with the main narrative since the lead character finds herself estranged from the place where she spent most of her life and, instead, has to learn to adjust to a new environment and find new friends.

The issues of journey and identity are also frequently examined in tandem since the former often implicitly leads to the latter, allowing character to grow and acquire new characteristics as they complete their journey, be it physical or metaphorical. For example, Philip Nel in his article “Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature” declares that the issue of journey is intrinsically tied to the process of embracing personal identity in children through narrative. According to the author, the described process is especially apparent in the narratives about immigrant children (Nel 361). Indeed, with the metaphorical journey as the symbol for personal growth overlapping with the physical one, namely, the migration to a different country ad integration into a new community, changes in one’s identity are expected to occur. The author posits that the concept of identity is inherently connected to that one of a journey due to the need to confront and overcome change that the said journey entails. Namely, Nel states that children’s stories of the described type show young readers “how, and on whose behalf, paths of belonging are forged in settler societies” (359). As a result, the opportunities for children to grasp the concept of personal identity and connect it to cultural signifiers, as well as their unique intrinsic characteristics, emerges. Thus, by connecting the notion of journey and identity in their narratives, children’s books guide their young readers to the path of better self-understanding and introduce them t the idea of self-exploration.

Remarkably, the same sentiment is shared by Nel and Paul in their 2011 book “Keywords for Children’s Literature.” In the specified work, Nel takes his argument further by considering the connection between home and identity as concepts in children’s literature. Thus, the principles of building a cultural identity are established, guiding young readers toward the acceptance of themselves and the interpretation of their self-image through the lens of their culture. Namely, Nel and Paul mention the concept of a house as a nurturing site in children’s literature by addressing the plot of “Pippi Longstocking” (106). Therefore, the premise for examining changes in identity as a protagonist sets out on a journey are created.

Likewise, the issues of home and identity are often intertwined in children’s books, especially those that seek to explore challenges that immigrant children face in the environment of their new home. In her article, Savsar explains that the problem of nostalgia related to a child’s home and the need for the development of their personal identity in the new context while retaining the semblance of their sociocultural background is often addressed in children’s books. Namely, the author specifies that the described concern is explained best when scrutinized through the lens of an immigrant. According to Savsar, a child protagonist is “the ideal subject with agency at the heart of the migrant’s narrative” since the specified type of character is devoid of acquired racist ideas and, therefore, does not have the bias that would have made the experience otherwise prejudiced (396). As a result, a personal journey can be accomplished, and progress can be reached.

However, when considering the role of home, journey, and identity in children’s books, one should consider the specified concepts not only as separate constructs but also as the constituents of a greater whole. Namely, Nel’s conclusions lead to the assumption that the notions of home, journey, and identity in children’s literature represent a continuity of character development and a specific plot line that a character can follow in order to complete their journey. Indeed, multiple books for children align with the described framework, starting with the problem of defining home, then setting the character on a journey, be it an actual or a metaphorical quest, and allowing the character to define their identity in the process.

Considering actual examples, one could mention Burnett’s books as the stories that start with the problem or a theme of a home, then proceeding by introducing a concept of an actual or a metaphorical journey, and helping the character to coin their identity in the process. Cadden explains that Burnett’s “The Secret Garden,” in which the protagonist literally loses her home, the journey of self-discovery that she has to take in order to make a personal change and discover the importance of friendship, loyalty, and integrity, aligns with the described structure (Cadden 55). Therefore, the described constructs, namely, the ideas of home, journey, and identity, often represent a linear structure that allows for character development and the creation of a capturing plot. Remarkably, authors’ compliance with the described strategy of building their plot and characters does not make their writing any less predictable or uninspiring; instead, it helps introduce an effective three-act structure, introducing vital points in it.

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One could debate the importance and the linear nature of home, journey, and identity in children’s books by pointing out that the described elements are not necessarily included into the narrative. Indeed, some stories take characters out of the context of their mundane home environment and transport then to the magic realm where fascinating adventures can take place. Moreover, the presence of a journey is not a necessary element of a children’s book unless it describes the adventures of the protagonist. Likewise, very few books for children focus meticulously on the description and explicit search for the character’s identity, understandably assuming that most children will become easily disinterested with the specified stories.

However, the lack of an explicit emphasis on the subjects of home, journey, and identity in children’s books does not mean that the specified type of literature is devoid of them. On the contrary, Nel and Paul explain that the theme of journey and, thus, the one of identity, is inherently present in most children’s books as the metaphor for growing up and learning vital life lessons (106). Therefore, the presence of the specified elements appears to be ubiquitous in children’s literature since they help to shape children’s sense of self and accept crucial values, while also understanding the significance of personal development and growth. Although some children’s stories do not have the specified items established clearly as themes or items within a storyline, they are inherently integrated into the plot structure and the character arc, thus making the book and its characters all the more relatable to a child. Moreover, the integration of the concepts of home, journey, and identity proves to be useful in children’s books as the basis for helping a child to gain agency and spur their independence.

Creating the scenarios in which a leading character needs to face ostracism and the experience of being a stranger in a new environment, children’s books explore the concepts of home, journey, and identity and allow their readers to embrace the specified notions both as unique entities and as a continuity. Indeed, further analysis will show that children’s books tend to connect the specified themes, starting with the sense of homelessness and alienation in lead characters, thus setting them on a journey, and causing them to experience noticeable development in their identity. As a result, children reading these books can identify with the main character and learn crucial lessons that will define their further personal and social development.

Works Cited

Cadden, Mike. “Home is a Matter of Blood, Time, and Genre: Essentialism in Burnett and McKinley.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, vol. 28, no. 1, 1997, pp. 54-67.

Nel, Philip. “Introduction: Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 4, 2018, pp. 357-362.

Nel, Philip, and Lissa Paul, eds. Keywords for Children’s Literature, vol. 2, NYU Press, 2011.

Savsar, Leyla. “’Mother Tells Me to Forget’: Nostalgic Re-presentations, Re-membering, and Re-telling the Child Migrant’s Identity and Agency in Children’s Literature.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 4, 2018, pp. 395-411.

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