Politics in Children's Novels: The China Coin
by Suzanne Wilson
Novels for children which encompass notions about history, about culture, and about politics, have been around ever since a 'children's literature' was recognised as something distinct from books for adults. Indeed it is difficult to imagine something more political in its content and aspirations than Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies. But what is interesting today in the light of books for children now being published (and changing attitudes to children's fiction) is what a children's novel that has apparently been 'politicised' says about a literature specifically addressing a young audience. Allan Baillie's achievement. The China Coin, gives readers the opportunity to think in a broader sense about political novels for children and whether such books are in fact a successful way of introducing notions of political and cultural upheaval to the reader. Not only that The China Coin offers us a look at the scope of the novel in the wider field of Australian children's literature in general. What, say some, is the politics of China doing in a children's book? That question implies wider and highly significant issues about audience and the way we categorise a literature for children. And Allan Baillie's outstanding story is an excellent way of beginning to come to terms with such a debate. The China Coin presents a sense of political and cultural upheaval by developing two key elements: Leah is the central pivotal character amongst this background that the reader immediately latches on to; the coin itself is the central trope which Baillie surrounds with layers of meaning - personal, political, cultural and textual. In Leah, we see a girl thrust into China, her mother searching for a family and the answer to a mystery about an ancient Chinese coin. The opening of the novel goes like this: Leah thought Here I am, about to be sold into slavery in the lost mountains of China. The plane dipped a little.
I am being taken to a village so primitive they file their teeth and eat meat raw. I have been kidnapped by an evil aunt, who flies a broom on a full moon Leah felt a slight tightening in her throat and glanced at the woman sleeping beside her. Let's stop frightening ourselves, all right? Enough, enough. Sorry, Mum - Joan. Was only kidding. The China Coin, p. 9
Leah's confusion, her fear, the disruption to her life as she embarks upon a quest into lost mountains, a quest she doesn't particularly wish to undertake, is clear. The implied literary genre is also apparent But more than that is suggested: she's being sold into slavery, she is entering a primitive alien world where people file their teeth and eat meat raw. Fear generates prejudice. Of course Leah knows she is being silly, her Mum's not really an evil aunt, but regardless of Leah's backtracking in the very first paragraphs, that idea is out and it cannot be retracted. She is frightening herself with ridiculous prejudices and fantasies, and through these are conveyed notions of misunderstanding, racism, cultural conflicts, myths about other peoples. It is a theme developed throughout the novel via Leah's own personal identity crisis. She is after all, half-Chinese herself and she wonders where she belongs. Is she Chinese, Australian, English, or an ABC (Australian Bom Chinese)? Her dilemma is that. once Chinese, she win always have links to that ancient mysterious land. Learning to recognise that is part of her quest. (She also has to cope with the 'Asians go home' graffiti in her home town of Sydney.) That opening scene suggests much about the complexity of ideas and ideals the novel develops. Joan, Leah's mother, is on the other hand driven by the possibility of tracking down her relatives in China and solving a family mystery. Leah, at least initially, resents this and remains disinterested. All this personal conflict suggests another main concern in the...