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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 70
Year: 2001
Author: Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, Editora
Title: El río de los sueños: Aproximaciones críticas a la obra de Ana María Shua


Ana María Shua never intended to write for children, in spite of the fact that she invented many stories for her daughters Gabi, Paloma and Vera when they were young. In a personal interview, the author explained to me the origin of these stories: “Sólo sirvieron para ellas porque eran muy personales. Realmente no han salido para publicar.” In fact, her writing for children began only after her publisher, Editorial Sudamericana, requested she contribute to their new series, Sudamericana Infantil, under the direction of Canela (Gigliola Zecchini de Duhalde), the host of popular children’s television and radio programs in the 70’s and 80’s, and a writer herself.1 Editorial Sudamericana’s desire for this new series can be attributed to the sudden boom in Argentine children’s literature that began in the mid 1980’s when writers not trained in pedagogy, but in literature and journalism, were changing the style of children’s literature and the philosophy behind it. Moreover, by visiting the children in the schools, and by inviting the children’s own opinions and commentaries—unheard of in Argentina at that time—, the writers were establishing a new, personal relationship between themselves and their readers, backing away from the roles of distant propriety and the all-knowing narrator. At the forefront were Graciela Cabal, Laura Devetach, Graciela Montes, Ricardo Marino, Gustavo Roldán and Ema Wolfe, all of whom then published with Colihüe or Quirquincho.2

For Shua, the transition to children’s literature proved difficult. At first, she says: “empecé trabajando auto-censurada porque el tema de psicologismo que pesa sobre los escritores para niños en general, pero en la Argentina en particular, es muy fuerte. Entonces uno tarda en permitirse encontrar un conflicto en la literatura para chicos. Uno tarda en permitirse contar una historia que no está mitigada por el humor, [. . .] ni por la broma. [. . .] pero si no hay conflicto, no hay narración.”3 During my interview, Shua goes on to say that her first attempts at writing for children followed the same tendencies she had observed and criticized: “las de estirar un conflicto mínimo, y llenarlo de frases simpáticas y ‘poéticas’ sin atender al relato.” Her older daughters were the ones who helped her find the balance she was seeking. They read and rejected her early drafts, telling her what worked, and what did not, until our author was satisfied she had found what for her was the proper tone of expression for story telling. In reality what she did was come to her own understanding of children’s literature, which she explained to me in our interview: “es algo que pueden leer con igual interés los chicos y los grandes. Hay literatura para adultos que no interesa a los chicos pero no puede haber literatura para los chicos que no interese a los adultos porque no es buena.”4 Her conclusion echoes that stated by C. S. Lewis in his often reprinted study, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”: “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz” (210).

Interestingly, Shua and Lewis are both writers of fantasy literature, which according to Lloyd Alexander, children’s author and Newberry Medal Winner, “presents the world as it should be [. . .] where courage, justice, love and mercy actually function” (146). Moreover fantasy literature is steeped in rationality and logic, replete with realistic details, and rooted in oral and traditional patterns. Lewis’ work The Chronicles of Narnia is cited as one of the prime examples of the subgenre high fantasy, characterized by the struggles between good and evil in worlds far removed from our own in time and space. Shua’s books for children, on the other hand, belong to the subgenre of low fantasy, which deals more with commonplace issues, specifically in Shua’s case a groundless argument among friends, disillusionment, money to raise, obstacles or fears to overcome.5 Low fantasy appeals to children because it invites them to enter and/or expand their imagination by addressing the question, “What if?” The direct and uncomplicated plot follows a chronological sequence and the protagonists are often types.

Jane Langton’s 1973 essay “The Weak Place in the Cloth: A Study of Fantasy for Children” still serves as the basic text for defining the types of low fantasy. These include the tall tale, the real world left behind for a magical one, the real and the imaginary existing side by side, the once-upon-a-time, talking beasts, time travel, and ghost stories (178-196). Each of Shua’s stories features a specific element associated with these types of low fantasy: personified animals (Batalla entre los cocodrilos y los elefantes), a personified toy and magical objects (“Puerta para salir del mundo” and “Una pluma de paloma”), an eccentric character involved in outlandish situations (“Mis aventuras en el Polo Sur” and “Mis aventuras en el centro del mundo”) and ghost stories (the 14 stories collected in La fabrica del terror and La fabrica del terror II ).