The whole world shook : shifts in ethnic, national and heroic identities in children's fiction about 9/11 Conference Paper uri icon


  • Like many other cataclysmic events September 11, a day now popularly believed to have 'changed the world', has become a topic taken up by children's writers. This thesis, titled The Whole World Shook: Ethnic, National and Heroic Identities in Children's Fiction About 9/11, examines how cultural identities are constructed within fictional texts for young people written about the attacks on the Twin Towers. It identifies three significant identity categories encoded in 9/11 books for children: ethnic identities, national identities, and heroic identities. The thesis argues that the identities formed within the selected children's texts are in flux, privileging performances of identities that are contingent on post-9/11 politics. This study is located within the field of children's literature criticism, which supports the understanding that children's books, like all texts, play a role in the production of identities. Children's literature is highly significant both in its pedagogical intent (to instruct and induct children into cultural practices and beliefs) and in its obscurity (in making the complex simple enough for children, and from sometimes intentionally shying away from difficult things). This literary criticism informed the study that the texts, if they were to be written at all, would be complex, varied and most likely as ambiguous and contradictory as the responses to the attacks on New York themselves. The theoretical framework for this thesis draws on a range of critical theories including literary theory, cultural studies, studies of performativity and postmodernism. This critical framework informs the approach by providing ways for: (i) understanding how political and ideological work is performed in children's literature; (ii) interrogating the constructed nature of cultural identities; (iii) developing a nuanced methodology for carrying out a close textual analysis. The textual analysis examines a representative sample of children's texts about 9/11, including picture books, young adult fiction, and a selection of DC Comics. Each chapter focuses on a different though related identity category. Chapter Four examines the performance of ethnic identities and race politics within a sample of picture books and young adult fiction; Chapter Five analyses the construction of collective, national identities in another set of texts; and Chapter Six does analytic work on a third set of texts, demonstrating the strategic performance of particular kinds of heroic identities. I argue that performances of cultural identities constructed in these texts draw on familiar versions of identities as well as contribute to new ones. These textual constructions can be seen as offering some certainties in increasingly uncertain times. The study finds, in its sample of books a co-mingling of xenophobia and tolerance; a binaried competition between good and evil and global harmony and national insularity; and a lauding of both the commonplace hero and the super-human. Being a recent corpus of texts about 9/11, these texts provide information on the kinds of 'selves' that appear to be privileged in the West since 2001. The thesis concludes that the shifting identities evident in texts that are being produced for children about 9/11 offer implicit and explicit accounts of what constitute good citizenship, loyalty to nation and community, and desirable attributes in a Western post-9/11 context. This thesis makes an original contribution to the field of children's literature by providing a focussed and sustained analysis of how texts for children about 9/11 contribute to formations of identity in these complex times of cultural unease and global unrest.

publication date

  • 2007