In the various branches of the natural, mathematical, and human sciences, “identity” has a range of uses related to the property of sameness or consistency of an element regardless of the influence of other variables. “Personal identity,” the subset most relevant to studies of children’s literature, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “the sameness of a person or thing at all times and in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else.” This definition has a rigidity that most contemporary scholars of children’s literature will find objectionable. Rather than being an invariant condition or a fact, identity is more likely to be conceptualized as a goal or an achievement. It is usually thought of as developmental, and is entirely dependent on the influence of variables such as race, culture, religion, family, ideology, and embodiment.
Moreover, the concept of identity is a product of its time, or at least of the dominant epistemological stance in which it is being considered. The OED definition is marked by its modernist heritage, and it rests on assumptions of the outward display of an autonomous, unified, authentic self that remains consistent over time. Postmodern critique has taken these assumptions to task, arguing that identity is instead provisional and fluid; that it is more dependent on external forces than inner potentialities; that it is fundamentally discursive and performative, and thus any appearance of sameness over time is merely the result of the repetition of certain kinds of performances. Rather than a condition of sameness emanating from an inner core, identity has become more of an outward show seeking recognition and uptake; hence a more felicitous definition for contemporary thinkers might be that offered by Mark Bracher (2002): “the sense of oneself as a more or less coherent and continuous force that matters in the world.”
John Locke (1690) provides the first extended exploration of the concept of personal identity, and his ideas about the development of personhood have become inescapably important for scholars of children’s literature. Locke’s idea of the self as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, makes understanding the images and ideologies of children’s culture crucial to understanding the contours of modern identity. Locke’s view culminates a way of thinking initiated by Augustine (397–98 c.e.), who established the notion that the self possessed inner depths that one must navigate in one’s search for self-knowledge and, ultimately, for God. Developing further this methodology of looking within, René Descartes (1641) sought to strip away the contingencies of sensual experience in order to locate the eternal truths of our existence, and he took subjectivity itself as an object of disengaged investigation. While both Augustine and Descartes believed that humans possess innate tendencies toward truth, Locke believed that our reason is clouded with superstitions, customs, and traditions learned largely through childhood experience. He concluded that the developmental and educational process of children must be carefully controlled and scrutinized, because lessons absorbed in childhood remain forever imprinted on the self unless scrupulously interrogated. He was particularly concerned to limit children’s exposure to stories of ghosts and other supernatural horrors so that such fantasies would not interfere with their growth into rational adults. Developmental psychologists and children’s literature theorists would argue against such a rigid prohibition, and thinkers since Sigmund Freud would disagree with the notion that children’s minds are blank slates or that rationality is the reigning disposition in the development of the person. However, Locke’s premise that identity parameters are deeply influenced by childhood experience remains unchallenged. Further, his commitment to the rigorous interrogation of identity has remained a persistent area of inquiry across multiple disciplines.
By posing the questions “Who am I?” and “How do I know what I know?” philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and sociologists have established a split in the self, between the self who is the object of study and the self who is asking the questions, testing the hypotheses, and reflecting on the process. The answers to the first question lead to the establishment of a sense of identity as a series of identifications and dis-identifications, many of which are based in fantasy and willed assertion—I am strong like my father, I am not a crybaby like my sister, I am smart like my teacher, I am beautiful like a princess, I am not at all like the stinky kid in my class—most of which involve some sort of performance, complete with costume, and almost all of which are mediated through feedback from others. Whereas modernist culture saw the outcome of these identifications as ideally leading to an integrated, composite whole, postmodern culture emphasizes the provisionality of these identifications and performances; the goal is not to discover or even craft some core truth of who we are, but to fashion an identity that gives us the kind of recognition we crave. Frank Portman’s King Dork (2006) is exemplary of this sort of identity construction through continual self-examination and revision; his protagonist talks of kids going to school in music-themed Halloween costumes and continually changes the name of his band, reflecting the lack of a stable, continuous identity.
Sociologist Charles H. Cooley (1902) developed the notion of what he called “the looking glass self,” whereby our sense of identity emerges through how we imagine others see and react to us. Recognition of this reflected self is situated in children’s literature as a key element on the road to a desirable identity. Mary Lennox, in The Secret Garden (1911), has no idea of how she appears to others when she first arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, nor does she care. Learning to care, and to adjust her behavior accordingly, is part of her becoming a likable young woman. Jamilah, a Lebanese Muslim living in Australia in Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Ten Things I Hate about Me (2006), dyes her hair blonde and wears blue contact lenses in an attempt to hide her ethnicity from her peers. Each of these books acknowledges the importance of society in the construction of identity, and while many children’s books offer an explicit message that their protagonists should embrace their individuality rather than conform to the group, there is almost always an implicit undercurrent of identity management according to group ideals. Abdel-Fattah seems to lead her protagonist through a process of liberation from the tyranny of the looking glass self, but ultimately simply repositions the looking glass so that it reflects a different community for Jamie to respond to—the community of Lebanese Muslims of whom she should be proud, rather than the bigoted high school classmates whom she should reject.
Because children do use their literature for sites of identification, both authors and critics often focus on identity with a qualifying adjective—gender identity, national identity, racial identity, ethnic identity, class identity. Adults have long believed that it is crucial for children “to see themselves in the book” so that their particular identity structures are validated and affirmed. Black girls need stories about black girls, gay boys need to read about gay boys, and so on, so that they do not have to adopt alienating and oppressive subject positions or feel invisible as they read. Identity in a global, highly and multiply literate culture, however, cannot be essentialized quite so completely. People draw their identifications, and hence craft their identities, from a range of models, often taking the values of the dominant culture as an important component of their identity structure, even when that culture could be viewed as historically or culturally oppressive. For instance, a person from a nonwhite culture with strong communitarian values may internalize individual achievement, a prominent feature of mainstream white culture, as a core identity component. Such is the identity crisis explored by Sherman Alexie in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007). In his desire to get a good education and escape the soul-deadening atmosphere of the reservation, Junior leaves his best friend, Rowdy, behind. Rowdy condemns him as a traitor, not only to their friendship, but to his people, whom he has abandoned in favor of white culture through white education. Junior questions his desires, but he also questions the values of those around him. Eventually, Rowdy validates Junior’s choices by connecting him with the nomadic side of his Native heritage: according to Rowdy, Junior can still own his identity as an Indian because there is a stronger tradition of Indians as nomads than there is of Indians staying in one place, as they do now on the rez.
The answer to the second question of the philosophers—“How do I know what I know?”—is of crucial importance to scholars of children’s literature, as our subject is one of the key sites of ideological interpellation through which children are called to identify with models and ideals, but also through which they learn what counts as an identity and the processes whereby one achieves one. In other words, literature is one avenue through which we learn what we know. It is certainly one of the most important ways that we learn about identity. In postmodern culture, identity is no longer conceived as something one achieves through looking inward for the eternal, unchanging truth of oneself, but instead emerges at the nexus of a set of discourses—of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and so on—that one uses with degrees of submissiveness or subversion to fashion a provisional performance of the self. The discourses—their rules, their costumes, their vocabulary, their gestures—often come from literature, and we know how they’re supposed to work because of the ways the stories end. Feedback is also critical: if our performance gains us recognition, we are likely to repeat it, at least until we find a new model worth trying. The models are variable, and that in itself lets us know that there is no guaranteed path to success, and that it is okay not only to follow different trajectories, but also to end up in different places. The primary goal of identity construction in contemporary culture is recognition from others; ultimately, what we desire is to matter to the people who matter to us.