The interviews published below were conducted by the MA students I taught
in Fall/Winter 2016/2017. I want to thank them for their diligence and creativity. I also want to thank all the colleagues who agreed to participate in the project and devoted their time to interact with the students. This collaboration has resulted in creating
a resource that will undoubtedly be useful to all those interested in children’s literature research. My intention is to add new interviews in the future.
Lara Saguisag (interviewed by Gabriela Brzozowska)
Professor Saguisag’s research and teaching interests include children’s literature, young adult literature, and visual-verbal narratives. She has also taught courses in writing for children and the history of childhood. Her book Incorrigibles and Innocents: Constructions of Childhood and Citizenship in Progressive Era Comic Strips (under contract with Rutgers University Press) examines representations of childhood in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century comic strips and draws from histories and theories of childhood, comics, humor, and visual culture. She served on the International Committee of the Children’s Literature Association from 2011 to 2014. She currently serves on the Children’s Literature Association’s Diversity Committee. Professor Saguisag’s research has been supported and recognized by various fellowships and awards, including a Rutgers University Presidential Fellowship, a Library of Congress Swann Foundation Fellowship, a Hannah Beiter Research Grant, a Children’s Literature Association Graduate Student Essay Award (PhD Level), and a Lent Award for Graduate Study in Comics. Her articles on children’s literature and comics have appeared in The International Journal of Comic Art, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and The Horn Book. She has also published several children’s books, including Children of Two Seasons: Poems for Young People (which received the New School Writing Program Chapbook Award) and Ninoy Aquino: A Courageous Homecoming. (taken from: http://www.csi.cuny.edu/)
The interview on Children’s Literature
Interviewer: What do you think about the books you read when you were a child? Did your attitude towards them change over the time? Would you recommend those books to children now, and why?
Lara Saguisag: Just to give you an idea of books I obsessively read and reread when I was young: Dahl’s books; Herge’s Tintin series; Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix series; Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I also collected Sweet Valley High (ugh, yes) and a series of horror books for young people.
I’ve reread most of these books as an adult and of course I am appalled by the racism, sexism, imperialism, etc. coded in these books. Sometimes I am also disappointed to realize that books that felt so unique and original when I read them as a child now come across as hackneyed tripe.
I tended to read Euro-American books (in English). My few encounters with Filipino books often frustrated me because they were not too exciting – they were typically religious, moralistic, and informative. I did read a series of children’s books by Nick Joaquin (a Filipino author). I embraced his books because they weren’t teaching me how to pray, how to behave, or the details of the water cycle.
I do recall how reading foreign books made me long to be part of Euro-American culture. The image of the rabbit hole in Alice made me fantasize about digging a hole to America because, for some reason, I believed there was a lot of gold and candy in the United States. I’m reflecting on this as an adult and it is making me think about how books can become tools that reinforce colonial mentality.
But was I necessarily damaged by my encounters with these texts? Maybe I was in some way, but I also eventually learned to become critical of these texts. I have an ambivalent relationship with these books – I am troubled by them but cannot call for their censorship. The racist, imperialist subtext in Lewis’s Narnia series deeply disturbs me as an adult, but I also remember how thrilling it was to be a child reading about children who became heroes of their own narratives. I may not eagerly press these books into children’s hands, but I won’t necessarily police young people’s reading preferences. I mean, is there such a thing as an ideologically “clean” book for children? I think children should be given freedom to make reading (and viewing) choices; through such encounters, they may learn about the imperfections, complexities, and ambiguities of the world.
I: What is the origin of your interest in children’s literature? Is it a thing that you want to deal with for the rest of your life? Did you always know that it is what you want to do? Or maybe there was a situation that changed everything and aimed you at this direction?
LS: Most of my peers appeared to outgrow children’s books, while I couldn’t, I didn’t. Even when I started reading “books for grown-ups,” I derived more pleasure when I was discovering and reading children’s books.
In college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I wandered in and out of film classes, creative writing classes, and literature classes. I eventually took a class in creative writing for children and became invested in the writing assignments (which resulted in the manuscript Tonyo’s Wishes, eventually published in 2003). My instructor encouraged me to attend a national workshop on writing for children. It was at that workshop (held in 1995) that I met other folks who were interested in the field. After the workshop, some of us got together to found KUTING, an organization of writers for children. I’m proud to say that a remarkable number of the workshop participants went on to establish successful careers in writing, illustrating, editing, and/or studying children’s literature. I also met some folks at that workshop who are now extremely good friends of mine, like Augie Rivera and Robert Magnuson.
I have to say I was VERY immature when I met these wonderful people. I just wanted to become a famous writer. I thought of myself as some “pure” talent so I didn’t really care about the craft and discipline of writing for children. It would take nearly a decade or so before I recognized the larger stakes of participating in the institution of children’s literature. It wasn’t until I enrolled in Hollins University’s MA program in Children’s Literature (2003-2005) that I woke up to the notion that I shouldn’t just treat writing and studying children’s books as some hobby.
Yes, I am very invested in this field and I imagine I will remain in it for a long time. At the moment, I am moving in a particular direction: that of creating intersections between childhood studies and literary studies of children’s literature. Childhood studies explores and advocates children’s rights and social participation, and as a result, I’ve been pondering literature’s connections with advocacy and activism.
I: What is the meaning of children’s literature in your life? Have you ever thought of doing something else? If yes, what would it be?
LS: I am currently an assistant professor at CUNY, and I specialize in teaching children’s and young adult literature. I also explore other subjects like science fiction, comics, graphic novels, and women’s fantasy writing. I find it is necessary for me explore the world outside of children’s books so I don’t get bored; teaching other subjects forces me to recognize and engage with other ways of seeing and thinking about the world. Still, my research and teaching often returns to themes of childhood.
What is the meaning of children’s literature in my life? Hmm. I don’t have anything profound to say about this. All I know is that reading children’s books, studying them, and teaching about childhood and children’s culture gives me pleasure and a sense of purpose.
I: Is your book „Children of two seasons: poems for young people.” a reflection of your childhood? There was a comment on the book that it is „the essence of what’s like to be a true-blue Pinoy kid.” Do you agree with the sentence? What is the meaning of being a Pinoy kid, what is so extraordinary in growing up in the Philippines?
LS: Years ago, a friend of mine made a similar comment about Children of Two Seasons – he said the book presented an “accurate” picture of Filipino childhood. When the book was still in manuscript form, it won a small award from The New School (where I completed my MFA in Writing). The judge praised the poems for being written in an “authentic” child’s voice.
I feel I should be flattered by these comments – they imply that I am able to tap into something universal, or speak in some kind of universal language. But obviously, these comments are problematic because they express the common assumption that there is such a thing as a universal childhood, and that this universal childhood is necessarily characterized by joy, leisure, and adorable moments of “playful” rebellion.
I don’t really know what it means to be a “Pinoy kid.” My childhood was similar to the childhoods of some Filipinos, but also diverged from the experiences of others. I was a lower-middle-class child who grew up in the city. I was educated in a Catholic school which used English as the medium of instruction. My parents both received graduate degrees from American institutions. I grew up female in a patriarchal society. I was often angry that I was born brown-skinned, because the pretty girls I saw on television had fair skin. I was from a politically engaged family. My father was a bit of a troublemaker (I say this with much admiration), one of the many activists who openly protested the Marcos regime. I’m saying all these things to illustrate how my childhood was unique, to show that many factors define the experience of childhood. In other words, Filipino childhoods are diverse.
What’s perhaps striking – though not necessarily unique – about Filipino childhoods is the shocking disparity between the children of the “haves” and the children of the “have-nots.” I think many children of affluent classes tend to grow up in bubbles. They learn to ignore the poverty and social injustices suffered by children who are sometimes living next door to them.
I: Carlos Ruiz Zafón wrote that „Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.” Would you agree with the saying? Do you think that the same book may be interpreted differently by the children? What can influence the children’s perception of the book?
LS: I certainly agree that different child readers may offer different interpretations of a book. I do suspect that children pick up cues from adults and so sometimes, they offer interpretations that adults want them to offer.
Sure, books are mirrors. I won’t dispute the idea that books enable us to recognize (a part of) ourselves. But I also feel that books are maps: they offer representations of the world’s physical and cultural topographies and introduce us to concepts, images, peoples that are unfamiliar to us. Of course, there are often “blind spots” on these maps. But generally, I think reading books can introduce us to different worlds and ways of being. Books often reinforce boundaries between self and other, but they also have the potential to teach us how to dismantle these boundaries.
Aline Frederico (interviewed by Magdalena Neminarz)
Aline Frederico is a PhD student in children’s literature at the Faculty of Education of the University of Cambridge, UK. Some of her research interests are digital literature, visual narratives, semiotics, publishing, and Brazilian children’s literature. She has also worked as editor and designer of children’s books.
The Interviewer: As far as I have observed, you take a special interest in children’s literature presented in a digital form (digital picturebooks, apps, etc.). Do you think it is more effective to encourage children to read by the usage of electronic versions of traditional paper books?
Aline Frederico: You are right, my research is mostly in the area of digital children’s literature, but I don’t have a preference for digital over print. I love print books and think they still have a major role in the lives of children, and I think (and hope) they will always have. I think, however, that digital literature has a phenomenal potential for promoting new forms of storytelling and literacies. It can take us through paths not explored before, and I am very curious and interested in making an x-ray of this phenomenon. I also think that children live in a digitized world, and digital literature should be part of their lives as much as print literature. Digital literature might also speak to an audience that print literature does not, because of many socio-cultural constraints that influence people’s preferences and access to literature.
The Interviewer: Are there and hints that you would consider helpful for a beginning writer of the 21st-century children’s literature?
Aline Frederico : I think these are very difficult and at the same time very exciting times for writers. There is just so much one can do as an author today, and telling stories for children can come in so many configurations. On the other hand, with so much out there, it has become really difficult for beginning writers to find a spot. I think it is important not to limit oneself in terms of what you consider literature to be. Literature is not just words, but image, design, movement, sound. You can write to be published as a codex book, as an app, as a game, as a movie. All these are related to children’s culture nowadays and in some ways are indissociable from children’s literature. And, of course, authors should believe in what they are doing. Do something that you’d like to read yourself, and don’t look down on children.
The Interviewer: Do you have a book or an author from your childhood that had an enormous impact on you, your imagination, and future decisions connected with Your profession?
Aline Frederico: I grew up in Brazil and the book Isto ou Aquilo (Either this or that), by Cecília Meireles, had a great impact on me. It is a poetry book and the main poem is about making choices in life. It is the first book I remember reading for pleasure on my own, although I had read before this one many other books at school and my parents also read to me when I was younger. I also remember being read a book about a Cat who wouldn’t want to eat. I don’t know the title or the author, but now I’m sure it was a translation (the cat would eat kidney pie, a dish certainly not Brazilian). The cover had a soft texture to represent the cat’s soft fur after he had started eating healthily. I remember the pleasure of the physical contact with the book. Considering now that I am so interested in the materiality of the book and the value touch and gestures have in reading digital literature, I see that it all might have started back then, when I was perhaps 3 or 4 years old.
The Interviewer: Have you observed any recurring trends of the topics of children’s literature? Can one take the chance of assigning a particular subject area to the specific literary epoch?
Aline Frederico: In terms of form and formats, I think there is a huge trend in incorporating children’s participation in children’s literature, from interactive print books to of course digital literature and games, but also fan fiction and other texts produced by children. So agency has become an important topic and to what extent children can be real agents when limited in so many ways by different materials and power structures. In terms of content, I think representations of all the diverse people and cultures have finally become an issue. Yes, we still have a minority of books in western societies that represent other than middle-class white cultures, but this is now seen as problematic, with a strong body of people advocating for diversity in children’s literature. I think this is a major change and it might have important social impact, as a great number of children are finally seeing themselves, their families and cultures represented in the books they read.
The Interviewer: In your opinion, should the books concerning „controversial” matters (homosexual relationships, transsexualism, death, etc.) be widely accessible for children at any age? Or should parents play a role of certain „gate keepers”?
Aline Frederico: I think these contents should be available to children, but of course how they are represented should take into account children’s different stages of development. I think it is a mistake to try to shield children from the world. Children are very curious and aware of the world around them, and these „controversial” matters are out there (or sometimes in there, as, for instance, very young children might manifest a gender identity different from their biological one). So if we can provide quality texts that help them deal with these topics, I think we are preparing them better to be confident and comfortable around these issues. Parents will always be gate keepers, though. I think it is natural to show children texts that we like, and in a way this is also a form of stating our world view and taste to the children around us. Even if an adult is for diversity of themes and representations for children, we have to acknowledge there is also an ideology there.
Anastasia Ulanowicz (interviewed by Alicja Mytych)
Anastasia Ulanowicz is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Florida. She received her PhD in English from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006. While at Pittsburgh, she received an Andrew W. Mellon Pre-Doctoral Fellowship. Her book, Second-Generation Memory and Contemporary Children’s Literature: Ghost Images, published in 2013, explores the relationships between cultural notions of childhood, memory, intertextuality, and the intergenerational. Her research interests include children’s literature and media, 20th-century American literature, trauma theory, and religion and literature. (bio from the University of Florida website:
- Why did you start the research within the area of second-generation memory? Did a particular event, person or a book inspire you?
Honestly, I think I’ve been thinking about second-generation memory throughout my entire life. Even as a child growing up in the U.S., I was aware that my family was somewhat different from those of my friends: for example, we spoke Ukrainian (and a little bit of Polish!) at home, and we observed customs and holidays that were different from those of our American neighbors. I was especially aware of how my family’s history was different from that of my friends. Since I was close with my maternal grandmother, I grew up hearing stories about how she, my grandfather, and my mother and aunt escaped Stalinism in Second World War-era Ukraine. For example, my grandmother told me how she was black-listed for refusing to put portraits of Stalin in the classroom where she was teaching; how my grandfather bribed border guards with cigarettes to pass through different regions of war-era Eastern Europe; how the family sought refuge in remote family farms and managed to escape a Nazi concentration camp (thanks to my great-uncle, a dentist who bribed a guard with gold fillings); and how they ultimately gained shelter in a post-war Red Cross refugee camp in Germany, where they secured passage to the U.S. Later, my mother would tell me stories about her early memories of the concentration camp, the Red Cross camp, and her arrival at Ellis Island, New York. I was positively entranced by my grandmother’s and mother’s stories — so much so, in fact, that they made an indelible impression on my own sense of self and my developing political consciousness. For example, I began to see correspondences between their experiences of injustice and those of my African-American and Jewish friends; moreover, I began to perceive connections between my grandmother’s and mother’s experiences and those of more recent war refugees and other marginalized people. In short, I realized that I’d inherited something of a legacy of survival – a legacy that demanded that I take responsibility for speaking on behalf of people who currently experience the vulnerability my mother and grandmother once did.
Certainly, these early experiences of empathy and political awareness were enhanced by my love of reading: for example, books such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl awakened me to experiences of struggle, hope, and otherness that both complemented and differed radically from the stories I’d grown up with as a child. I was especially drawn to works of testimony – for example, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, and Alexander Solzhenitisyn’s The Gulag Archipelago – because they made clear the need to redress past injustices within present circumstances. Eventually, my interest in testimony gave way to my current interest in children’s literature. When I was enrolled in a graduate course on testimonial literature, I happened on a footnote that mentioned Judy Blume’s children’s novel, Starring Sally J Freedman as Herself, which features a Jewish-American protagonist who becomes so obsessed with discovering her relatives’ deaths in Dachau that she begins to reimagine their histories in order to come to terms with her own present moment. I suddenly remembered how much Blume’s novel spoke to me as a child – like her protagonist, I was also obsessed with a past I didn’t yet understand, but nevertheless intuited was very significant – and so I began to search out other works of children’s literature that demonstrate how children and grand-children of trauma survivors inherit memories from their elders and in turn draw on these memories to critically re-imagine their contemporary moments.
I realize that I’ve given you a pretty long-winded response to your comparatively concise question. So here’s the short version: As a second-generation Ukrainian-American, I have felt haunted by the stories of my elders who endured the trauma of the Second World War, and in turn I am compelled by works of children’s literature that feature protagonists who not only engage with their elders’ stories but also draw on them in order to imagine a more just present and future.
- At the very beginning of your book, you used a haunting Faulkner quote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As a person who’s late childhood has been affected by the illness and death of a sibling I can say that the quote is not giving me much hope. Do you believe that traumatic events and memories of them can be fully re-imagined in real life solely by the guidance of the books?
First, I want to thank you for this very frank and intimate question. I am so very sorry for your loss: I simply can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose a sibling. Honestly, I don’t think that any one work of literature could speak to, or rehabilitate, such a profound loss. Even so, I believe in the power of literature (or art, more generally) to offer consolation and hope. Ultimately, the most enduring works of literature – from the early epics to the works of Shakespeare and Goethe to the works of (post-)modernism – have ventured to ask what it means to be human, or, in other words, what it means to be profoundly conscious of both suffering and pleasure, good and evil, and being and mortality. Perhaps works of children’s literature address these questions most poignantly, because they do so in such subtle and deceptively simple ways. For example, Pinnochio and The Velveteen Rabbit call us to envision the richness and sensuousness of a consciously lived – or “authentic” – human experience marked by encounters with both sublime beauty and devastating loss. Likewise, more recent series like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games call readers to imagine themselves in community with others: they assure us that individual losses, no matter how profound, might ultimately be redeemed through shared efforts toward a utopian future (even if this future is constantly delayed or deferred). For me, one of the consolations of literature is the realization that others have already experienced versions of the struggles I am now facing, and have given me particularly well-wrought accounts of how to brave these struggles (or to forgive myself when I can’t).
I would like to explain, however, why I chose Faulkner’s quote at the beginning of my book. As a Southern writer living in rural Mississippi – a state that was still reeling from the trauma of the American Civil War and the racial and class injustices that precipitated this war – Faulkner was keenly aware that the memories of the past could not be easily buried or repressed. Rather, he saw memories of past injustices daily reenacted in, say, the confrontations between poor white sharecroppers and wealthy white landowners, or between poor white peasants and former slaves. According to Faulkner, the memories of the past constantly, and stubbornly, resurfaced in the day-to-day interactions of the early twentieth-century present – and, much like ghosts, they begged for recognition. Later Southern writers – for example, Toni Morrison, the author of Beloved – have made clear that any attempts at progress must first address and redress the persistent, painful, and unjust legacies of the past. In my book, I try to explain how bearers of second-generation memory – that is, individuals who are acutely aware of the legacy of their elders’ past, even as they are equally aware of their position within present material/cultural/historical circumstances – might be particularly effective mediators between the past and the present.
On a more personal note, I am drawn to Faulkner’s statement because it promises the continuation or survival of a past that might be conventionally considered “dead.” I’ll give you an example: When I was in Wrocław this past May, I met up with a colleague from Ukraine, who remarked that I used fairly antiquated expressions in everyday conversation: “You sound like a grandmother coming from church!” she affectionately stated. And of course I sounded like such a grandmother, since I was speaking in the very dialect I learned from my own grandmother after she left Ukraine – and the dialect that was preserved by Second World War-era refugees in the diasporic community in which I was raised. For contemporary Ukrainians, the era of the 1940’s is past, if not dead – until, however, they are confronted with diasporic subjects such as myself, who unconsciously speak the language and embody the gestures of an ostensibly long-gone past. The more I meet members of other diasporic communities – e.g., Cuban-Americans, British Indians, Chinese-Australians, etc – the more I realize that they not only preserve the stories of the past, but also embody long-lost gestures and perform linguistic turns of phrase that might otherwise be considered “lost.” As a scholar of memory, I’m so fascinated by the ways that past societies and ways of being live on – of course, with a difference – in new generations and new cultural settings. But more generally, I’m astounded by how individuals preserve the memory of their loved ones in their very unconscious gestures and turns of phrase. For example, I immediately noticed that my cousin had my grandmother’s eyes – just as he immediately noticed that I used her exact turns of phrase. For that reason, I’m convinced that those who have passed still live within us – and thus, when we do good in the world, we honor not only those we immediately address but also those who impelled us to those actions in the first place. Perhaps works of literature remind us of this: I can’t help, for example, to recall Harry Potter’s emboldening memories of his parents and Dumbledore in the final crisis of J.K. Rowling’s series.
- During our classes we’ve discussed many topics regarding children’s literature and how the literature can help children in various ways. Sadly, almost everything that children put their interests to is on screen of their smartphones, tablets, etc. What are, in your professional opinion, three most important reasons adults (either parents/guardians or teachers) should encourage reading books?
This is a tough question to answer, not least because my experience of “reading books” (and perhaps yours as well!) might be substantially different from those of a new and rising generation. For example, my experience of reading books has been profoundly sensual and material. That is, it has involved not only my investment in character, plot, setting, etc, but also my physical experience of turning a page, placing a bookmark or folding a page at a key narrative moment, or even feeling the texture of a page or smelling the paper used in the production of that particular book. When I return to that same dog-eared book, then, I recall not only what was happening on that page but also where and who I was when I first read it: for example, even now, I associate a well-worn collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales with a rainy summer afternoon in 1984 when I sat on a divan and first imagined myself in the place of a sad little mermaid. Moreover, when I recall reading the compendium of the Grimm’s fairy tales that my mother passed on to me, I realize that the silky-soft texture of the pages inspired a nostalgic longing for an “old world” European past I could never directly know, but that I could imagine touching – in both a literal and symbolic way. Likewise, when I not only read but touched my mother’s dimestore copies of Baum’s Oz books or my father’s carefully preserved Archie comics, I had the profound sense that I was sharing in an inter-generational process of reading. I don’t know how many young people today have the opportunity to read the very same texts that their parents did – but I suspect that those who do might share a certain sense of collaboration with previous generations.
I’m very aware, however, that although younger people might not have these same sensual experiences with material artifacts, they may nevertheless have equally profound experiences with narrative through other media platforms. A great many of my students, for example, have become acquainted with Baum’s Oz books or the Grimms’ collection of fairy tales or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series through their tablets or smartphones. Since these are the platforms through which they have become acquainted with valuable works of literature, then certainly we should consider how these platforms have influenced their reading experiences as much as traditional codexes affected my own generation. For example, many of my undergraduate students immediately respond to texts that they love by interacting on-line with fellow readers and publishing works of fan-fiction that feature (and often re-imagine) their favorite characters and plot-lines. Maybe these readers’ material responses are different from my own (or that of my generation). But then again, maybe they’re not quite different: perhaps, indeed, they might be similarly inspired by imagining oneself as a fantasy character on a rainy summer day…
Ultimately, I think, this is what is most important: that a new generation of readers receives stories that challenge them to think of their own individual experiences in relation to those of others, and in relation to the greater good of a larger global ecosystem in which they are a part, and to which they are beholden. To be sure, my own sensual response to printed books made me aware of this critical relation – but so too might the experiences of younger readers who connect, say, through digital reading groups or fan communities. What matters, ultimately, are the rich and various affective and critical responses that literary texts (and the forms they take) elicit.
- The children’s literature is changing, because our social awareness of certain issues is getting bigger. There are children struggling with their sexual and gender identity, suffering from trauma of not having anyone to talk to about their problems. Do you think that there is an area of children’s literature that has to be expanded? Books regarding what issues do we have too little of?
I’m so glad you asked this question! Here in the States, children’s literature scholars are acutely aware of how works of literature for young people do (or do not) address the experiences of racial, sexual, or class minorities. To this end, the “We Need Diverse Books” movement has compiled a list of texts that all young people in North America should read in order to recognize an intersectional call for literary representation of marginalized voices.
It’s important, however, that scholars who advocate for under-represented texts and voices are offered equal opportunity to present their claims. For example, although the International Research Society for the Study of Children’s Literature (IRSCL) holds a bi-annual conference that ideally features scholarly voices from throughout the globe, only a few scholars who are not from North America or the E.U. can actually attend the event. Additionally, those who teach in small colleges with limited travel stipends, or those who are adjunct or part-time faculty, can barely afford to attend such events – even if they speak to narratives or reader responses that best call attention to under-represented voices in children’s literature. Moreover, some potential conference participants are forbidden from attending conferences (most of which are held in Anglo-American countries or in E.U. countries) because of visa concerns – and yet others cannot attend for financial reasons, even if their visas are eventually cleared. I’d like to insist, then, that international scholarly organizations such as IRSCL and the Child and the Book should do everything they possibly can to (financially/politically/ ideologically) support scholars from non-Anglo-American or non-E.U nations – say, from Colombia or Senegal or Kazakhstan – precisely because they might speak to works of children’s literature, or offer critical evaluations of the scholarly field of children’s literature, that might dramatically challenge and enrich the current discipline.
- I am trying to keep up with the events in the United States as much as it is possible. Even in 2016 in the country I could not even begin to compare to Poland, there are cases of racism and violence (even from the authorities). Now, after the recent presidential election, some people seem to be very anxious about their future. Can children’s literature help youngsters deal with such an anxiety? Furthermore, are there many books in American curriculum that deal with racial hatred?
I’ll be honest with you: if you’re having trouble keeping up with events in the U.S., then so too are the most devoted US citizens! In other words, since Trump has taken office – or even before Trump took office – US citizens have encountered great difficulty in following the dramatic (and often terrifying!) changes his administration has either threatened or imposed. And certainly these recent events have compromised the vision of a just and equitable future that many Americans support. (I speak as someone who has just returned from the protest march on Washington, where I was convinced that most Americans – regardless of race or creed or gender or class – vehemently oppose the policies upheld by Trump’s administration).
I’d like to take heart in the fact that, since Trump’s inauguration, two works of literature have topped US best-seller lists. The first is George Orwell’s 1984, which famously warns of the ways that Stalinist totalitarian measures might be realized in the Anglo-European West. The second is John Lewis’s three-volume graphic narrative, March, which depicts the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s. If these are the two top-selling in the U.S. at this time, then that means that American citizens – or at least, those who care to read – are very much invested in the human and civil rights that their forebears fought so hard to guarantee.
But as far as works of children’s and young adult literature are concerned… I would definitely recommend that all young people, regardless of national identification, read M.T. Anderson’s novel, Feed. Here, Anderson offers a dystopian and not-too-far-off future in which even relatively privileged teenagers are subject to corporate power; what is especially disturbing about his novel, however, is how it envisions global environmental catastrophes permitted by these corporate sanctions. Anderson’s novel is especially disturbing – but also particularly enlightening – once it is paired with his biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony for the City of the Dead, which demonstrates the deadly effects of totalitarianism on otherwise outspoken and free-thinking people.
On a more positive note, I was recently taken by Melanie Crowder’s novel, Audacity, which depicts the efforts of the early twentieth-century Jewish-American labor activist, Clara Lemlich-Shavelson. Crowder’s novel, which is narrated in free verse, certainly does not romanticize Lemlich-Shavelson’s life: indeed, it offers unflinching depictions of the protagonist’s experiences of pogroms in tsarist-occupied Ukraine, her emigration to the U.S., her exploitation in early twentieth-century American sweatshops, and her experience of physical and sexual persecution by turn-of-the-century corporate interests. Even so, Crowder’s novel makes clear that the brave and often self-sacrificial acts of early twentieth century activists like Lemlich-Shavelson not only guaranteed labor rights in the West but also contributed to the struggle for equity throughout the globe. Indeed, Crowder’s novel demonstrates how Lemlich-Shavelson’s call for justice was so successful because it was supported by a critical mass of American women, many of whom represented ethnic, religious, and class backgrounds different from her own – and many of whom pledged to be united despite the substantial differences that might otherwise divide them.
I have to admit that I read Crowder’s novel a few days after Trump’s inauguration, and that it convinced me to reaffirm my commitment to ensuring the rights of exploited and marginalized people throughout the world today – especially women, laborers, religious/cultural minorities, and those stateless and undocumented people who have no one to officially represent them. Certainly, this is the power of literature: not only does it dare us to recognize the uncanny correspondences between the past and the present, but it also challenges us to draw on these unsettling moments of recognition in order to speak on behalf of our fellow humans, especially those who are most vulnerable. In fact, some of the most adventurous literary texts – often works of children’s literature such as Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH – push us to consider how our very notions of “humanness” or “humanity” are in fact dependent, and in profound relation to, animals and other non-human; in so doing, they call us to consider our place in a larger, richer, and more complex global ecosystem.
Kimberley Reynolds (interviewed by Katharina Möllers)
Kimberley Reynolds did her doctoral research on nineteenth century juvenile fiction at the University of Sussex and became a lecturer, reader and professor at the University of Roehampton. During her academic career, she established a Master Programme for Children’s Literature at the University of Roehampton, which was awarded a Queen’s Prize for Further and Higher Education in 2000-2004. She was also awarded the International Brother Grimm Award and Children’s Literature Association Book Award. She became the first Senior Honorary Fellow of the Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence in the History of Emotions. She also won Leverhulme Research Fellowship. During her career she was also President of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature (2003-2007), a founder-member of the UK’s Children’s Laureate and a Trustee of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature. She has also published several books. She works at Newcastle University.
When did your interest of children’s literature start and what was the reason to make it your key research theme?
I have genuinely had a life-long interest in children’s books, so when I left home to go to university, I took my collection of children’s books with me (from childhood but also others I had acquired from the Victorian period). When I married and moved from the US to the UK, I took my collection with me. And when I returned to academia to do a second BA, an MA and a PhD I made children’s literature (from the Victorian period) the focus of my longer essays and my doctoral thesis. At the time this was unusual and not many universities allowed research on children’s literature, but I was at the University of Sussex, where both Nicholas Tucker and Jacqueline Rose were teaching courses about children’s literature and that made it acceptable to the administration. Nicholas Tucker was one of my supervisors in the end – the other was the feminist critic Rachel Bowlby. My thesis was on gender and children’s reading in the late-Edwardian and Victorian period.
What are in your opinion the major trends of children’s literature research in the UK and how have they changed during your academic career?
Currently, it seems to me that we have had a turn towards the history of the book, the history of children’s literature and archival research, with some particularly strong work being done on early children’s literature. But some good studies of comics, graphic novels, and the relationship between children’s lit and PC games/digital cultures are also appearing; lots of work is being done on YA and dystopian fiction, and I am seeing more and more interdisciplinary work, especially in the interfaces between children’s literature and childhood studies. Some perennial favourites are still producing good work, notably fairy tales. Maria Nikolajeva wrote a piece about current trends in children’s literature research that is published in International Research in Children’s Literature 9.2 (2016). Her take on this is rather different from mine – she is very interested in cognitive studies and sees this as leading many aspects of research. You would find it interesting to look at that article I am sure.
When you developed the Master Programme in Children’s Literature, what were the most important points that it should contain?
If you are thinking of the MA at Roehampton, I developed that in the 1990s and critical theory was the key element. The MPhil programme I developed at Newcastle has been more about archival research, though we also look at some key critical areas such as postcolonial theory and children’s literature. The UK government requires that students undertake many hours of research methods training, so we try to adapt that to the needs of the children’s literature community at the University. I have always had an interest in international children’s literature, translation, comparative research and visual texts, so both of these have featured in the programmes I have developed. Because I moved to the North of England, regionality became a focus that could be developed in relation to local authors such as David Almond, Beatrix Potter and Robert Westall. Students have undertaken research into all of these authors as well as ideas of the North.
In your opinion, what are the most important themes in children’s literature? Do you think a book for children should protect children that they have a sheltered childhood or do you think they should also read books that deal with rather problematic themes?
I don’t think there is a simple answer to this because children who are happy and comfortable may well enjoy or need to encounter texts with dark themes while those who have had traumatic experiences may look to children’s literature to be a kind of safe house. Nicholas Tucker (who taught child psychology) has written about the importance of happy endings in an article in Children’s Literature in Education. You might find that helpful. Karen Coats’s work on the Gothic also suggests that happy, healthy children in stable homes may need to read frightening/Gothic texts to help them understand some of the conflicted responses they have to growing up. So I think children’s literature needs to cater for all kinds of children living all kinds of childhoods. To my mind, the most important things are to treat young readers as intelligent, to assume they are interested in ideas, that they require well-crafted writing on important subjects, and that they use books to help them anticipate what will happen to them and to understand their culture. There may be a place for purely amusing/escapist writing, but it’s a limited place. And I am very keen for children’s literature to be innovative in terms of the medium and the way visual and verbal elements interact.
What was your main interest or the main reason to write the book Left out? The forgotten tradition of radical publishing for children in Britain 1910–1949
There were 2 main reasons. The first was that there were several misconceptions about the period covered by the book. Most histories claimed 1) that this was a sterile period characterised by poor writing and 2) that it was a time when children’s literature was politically disengaged and aesthetically conservative. It was such a volatile and dynamic period it seemed to me this needed to be explored more thoroughly – and that led me to write LEFT OUT.
When you were a child, what was your favourite book and has your reading of it changed since then?
Good question. My favourite book was A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeline L’Engle. At the time I thought I liked it for the scientific and spiritual ideas it contained and its use of literary allusion. Later I realised that it was a story about questing to return a father to the family home – my parents divorced when I was little and I am sure that was important to me. I also only understood as an adult that it was a text that set out Cold War politics in a way I now find very crude. It’s a good example of the insidious ways in which texts can disseminate ideologies.
Janice Bland (interviewed by Jagoda Jasiak
Dr. Janice Bland studied English Literature and Drama at the University of North Wales in a small city called Bangor. After graduation she settled in Germany. Teaching and teacher education in the area of language and literature play an important role in her life. She first discovered the great value of children’s literature together with her own children.
Dr. Bland researches and teaches in areas related to ELT in the primary and secondary school, including children’s literature, educational drama, creative writing and global issues. She is Deputy Chair of Teaching English as a Foreign Language, University of Münster.
1 Is there any book from your childhood that you have been inspired by?
I have memories of much pleasure through Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. Blyton was the only children’s author I knew (this was in the 60s), and her works offered tremendous escapism until I grew out of her kind of writing at about the age of eleven.
2 As far as I know, you implemented some elements of theatre in language teaching. What is the purpose of this approach?
Drama offers advantages for involving children and young adults in all dimensions of language learning: cognitive, affective, multisensory and sociological. Drama processes generally require whole-body responses, for example to literary texts and oral stories. Play scripts for children as literary texts for acting out provide multi-sensory clues to meaning, and can support a motivating classroom environment and task-based, context-embedded and embodied language-learning opportunities.
3 What is your advice for writers to be of the 21st century children’s literature?
Play scripts for the kind of learning described above are few and far between!
4 Describe a successful writer of the 21st century children’s literature by taking into account skills and qualification?
I think the most successful writers currently are great worldbuilders. Didactic issues or an agenda are not the foremost thought, but rather a storyworld that encourages empathy, change of perspective and commitment over several books in a series, such as Panem in The Hunger Games trilogy and the wizarding world in the Harry Potter series.
5 I would like to know if you are currently working on some new projects like writing another book? What kind of book is it? What is the topic of the book?
My next book is an edited volume designed to help close the gap in teacher education, which frequently neglects the study of literature teaching with children and young adults who are learning English as a foreign or additional language. International scholars report on pedagogical principles for English Language Teaching with literary texts on provocative and cognitively enriching themes – widening children’s and teenagers’ language and literary competences as well as their horizons through insightful engagement with texts.
Bland, Janice (ed.) (forthcoming 2018). Teaching English with Challenging Texts: English-Language Education with 8-18 Year Olds. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Terri Doughty (interviewed by Anna Dudek)
Terri Doughty is Professor of English at Vancouver Island University. She has a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of British Columbia and a Master’s degree from York University. Her research areas are Victorian literature, Victorian women’s journalism, children’s and young adult literature, fantasy and the fairy tale. In her classroom she values curiosity and engagement. Terri consider the classroom as a place “where individuals with varied knowledge and cultural backgrounds come together to explore ways of thinking and being in the world, as well as the ways in which literary and other texts (including the student’s own) communicate these ideas.”
At first, it would be interesting to know what your favourite books were when you were a child and how those particular books influenced you?
I was a great reader as a child–my favourite part of the week was a trip to the town library. I don’t know what I would have done without the library, as my parents did not buy many books, and we did not have a lot of books in the house. I devoured all sorts of books, and still consider myself an omnivore in my reading. I read classics such as L. M. Montgomery’s Anne and Emily books, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wind in the Willows, as well as many of the popular girls’ series books of my day, Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I also was very fond of Enid Blyton’s Adventure series. I remember loving the children’s independence and being fascinated by the language differences. They were exotic to me, growing up on the west coast of Canada.
I also remember a very large collection of fairy tales from around the world that I read and re-read; this led me to the coloured fairy tale books edited by Andrew Lang. I still have a great interest in fairy tales, not only classics but also all of the retellings/rewritings that continue today.
Probably my main youthful literary passion, though, was sparked by a grade three teacher who loaned me a copy of The Hobbit. I tackled The Lord of the Rings in grade five and read it again almost every year throughout the remainder of my schooling. I had not read Tolkien’s essay „On Fairy Stories,” but I think my child self would have understood his concepts of fantasy providing recovery, escape, and consolation.
I have many books I love from my childhood, each one nurturing a particular aspect of myself. There are too many. I usually took out 10-12 books a week from the library, the maximum allowed, and read them all, and while many were forgettable, there’s still a great many that I remember strongly today. More than any specific book, I think the exposure to so many different worlds, so many different ways of being in the world, was important to my development as a human being.
What do you find so interesting in children’s literature that you decided to focus your research on it?
I did not begin my career as a children’s literature specialist; I trained as a Victorianist. Many years ago, my two colleagues who then taught Children’s Literature at Malaspina University-College (the former name of Vancouver Island University) went on leave, and my Chair said to me that, as a Victorianist, I was the logical choice to take over the popular children’s literature courses.
At first, I was indeed most comfortable with the classics, works written up to about the 1960s. However, I pursued professional development in the 1990s and early 2000s by becoming involved in the Vancouver Island Children’s Book Festival, working on the organizing committee and eventually coordinating the festival for several years. This gave me the opportunity to meet and learn more about many of Canada’s children’s authors and illustrators, such as Kit Pearson, Mary-Louise Gay, Mélanie Watt, Frieda Wishinsky, and Deborah Ellis. I learned a lot from them about contemporary children’s literature. We also had wonderful independent book stores in Nanaimo, where I was able to find many more great children’s and YA books. And of course I applied myself to the main review magazines and journals in the field.
I have maintained my interest in historical fiction through scholarship in late-nineteenth- early-twentieth-century girls’ culture. Researching girls’ periodicals and popular fiction of the period is very satisfying to me, as I feel there are still cultural lessons for us to learn in analyzing the gender and racial politics of this material. As recent political events have shown, these matters are far from settled.
In studying contemporary children’s literature, I tend to focus on fairy tales and speculative fictions (more so fantasy than science fiction). This of course is very much connected to my childhood, but I am also fascinated by the kinds of stories that our culture seems to want to reproduce in multiple forms.
Generally, though, I think the field of children’s and YA literature is compelling because childhood is such a lightning rod for cultural anxieties, such a contested concept. A given culture wants to (re)produce itself through its children, and children in turn struggle to define themselves within and in contrast to their culture’s definitions of childhood. Children’s literature, produced for children not by them, is one of the spaces where these tensions are seen at work.
Your recent publications include Knowing Their Place? Identity and Space in Children’s Literature (Cambridge Scholars 2011). Can you say something more about this publication? What is it about?
Knowing Their Place? Identity and Space in Children’s Literature is a collection of essays edited by my colleague Dawn Thompson and I after Vancouver Island University hosted the annual The Child and the Book conference in 2009. At this time, the conference was dedicated primarily to graduate students and emerging scholars, so Dawn and I thought that it would be important to provide these scholars with an opportunity for publication. The collection broadly looks at the function of place/space in children’s literature as a key element in identity formation. The essays cover a wide range of texts in different genres, from picturebooks to novels, from domestic realism to fantasy. I contributed an essay on Canadian fantasist Charles de Lint’s use of liminal space and otherness to promote identity formation that allows individuals to develop a sense of self in connection to, not in separation from and distrust of, otherness.
Do you think that each epoch requires certain differences/ alternations in children’s literature, referring to different topics and issues? Or maybe children’s literature concerns universal topics that do not change very much, no regardless of the epoch?
I see childhood as culturally and historically constructed, so I would say that children’s literature does indeed change from epoch to epoch, and indeed from place to place. If there is a genre of children’s literature that dates itself less, it is fantasy, but even fantasy can be dated. There are texts I used to teach in a history of children’s literature course that are very challenging to teach today, e. g. The Water-Babies or The Wind in the Willows. Even Alice in Wonderland is better known from Disney and more modern versions–the main figures of the novel are cultural icons separate from the novel and freely adapted.
Is there any advice concerning literature that you could or would like to give to children and parents?
I suppose today my advice would be to read, read, and read some more. I would also tell parents not to be snobbish about what their children read, but to ensure that children have access to a variety of books. Children will find what speaks to them. Reading together is a great pleasure that should be shared as long as possible, but the experience of the child alone with the book is also essential: this is a private space within which the child gains the power of interpretation and explores the boundaries of the self.
Ben Screech (interviewed by Ireneusz Osak)
Ben Screech is currently a PhD student and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of the West of England at the faculty of Arts, Creative Industries and Education. In his research he focuses on children’s literature and Young Adults fiction. He is an active user of Twitter (@benscreech87), where he posts tweets related to his interests.
Interviewer: What are the origins of your interest in children’s literature?
Ben: I have a long-standing interest in children’s literature originally developed from a period of time spent teaching as a primary school teacher. In 2014, I decided to develop this into a PhD project when I saw doctoral scholarships available at my local university.
I: Why did you decide to engage in children’s literature professionally?
B: I had the opportunity to develop my skills as a professional academic through the university-level teaching & conference presenting experiences available to me as a doctoral scholar.
I: What is your research in children’s literature mainly focused on?
B: My thesis is entitled: ‚Reading Otherness in British fiction for Young People, 2001-2012’.
I: Did your work at school influence the way you perceive young readers?
B: Absolutely it did! Prior to going into schools to do reader-response research I had no idea what to expect regarding the level of their engagement with the texts. Ultimately however, I began to realise that children can be just as diligent literary critics as adults, with many of the same ideas and concepts being explored and examined, albeit articulated in a less ‚academic’ way. As a primary teaching I had also long been used to a didactic form of reading teaching known as ‚guided reading’. My doctoral work in school with reader-response groups was much more about getting away from teacher-led readings and interpretations of texts, and much more about the students’ own ideas and ‚readerly’ thought processes. Aidan Chambers calls this the ‚teacher hold back’ approach in which the teacher’s voice should ideally be minimal in discussion. I also thought that some of the ideas from reader-response literary theory were interesting, particularly Rosenblatt’s idea of the reader engaging in a personal ‚transaction’ with a text wherein their own personal experiences and contexts necessarily have an impact on the nature of the response(s) they have with literature.
I: Do you have any distinct memories from your childhood related to any children’s books? Did you have your favourite ones?
B: I was an avid reader as a child & among various favourites, the ones that spring to mind are Jill Murphy’s ‚Worst Witch’ series, Anne Fine’s ‚Madame Doubtfire’ & Jan Mark’s ‚Hairs In The Palm of the Hand.’
I: What is the meaning of children’s literature in your life?
B: Children’s Literature is crucial as a cultural document of what childhood is like in this particular historical moment; as representative of a time, place & context. Characteristic children’s reading is also a good benchmark of a particular social milieu.
Mavis Reimer (interviewed by Natalia Berent)
Professor Mavis Reimer is Dean of Graduate Studies and Professor of English at the University of Winnipeg. She was awarded the Canada Research Chair in the Culture of Childhood in 2005, is the founding director of the Centre for Research in Young People’s Texts and Cultures (CRYTC) at the University of Winnipeg, and the founding President of the Association for Research in Young People’s Cultures (ARCYP). Moreover, she was founding and lead editor of the scholarly journal Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures between 2009 and 2015 and is editor of five collections of scholarly essays. As an author, she wrote more than thirty scholarly essays and chapters on the subject of young people’s texts and cultures and, together with Perry Nodelman, the third edition of The Pleasures of Children’s Literature (2003).
- Why are you interested in children’s literature? What has inspired your research in this field?
If you read the introductory chapter of the book I co-wrote with Perry Nodelman (The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, 3rd ed., 2003), you’ll find quite a long explanation of how I first became interested in the field as an academic study. The story in brief is this: I had earned an M.A. in English Literature, writing a thesis in Renaissance and Jacobean drama, when I had my first child. As a scholar of literature, I was, of course, very interested in thinking about the kinds of books I would share with her. But I quickly found that everything I knew about literature didn’t really prepare me to make judgements about good children’s books. This struck me as very strange. When we moved to Winnipeg when my daughter was about two, I enrolled in a course about children’s literature at the University of Winnipeg that Professor Perry Nodelman was teaching, in order to figure out this puzzle. I was quickly intrigued by what I learned about the fairly short history of this form, about its link to specific conceptions about childhood, and by its unabashed connections to all kinds of political projects, such as nation-building, for example. While the beginning of my interest was personal, it was the politics of children’s literature that motivated – and continues to motivate – my ongoing interest in this genre.
- What does children’s literature mean to you? Do you read it for pleasure? Do you think that children’s literature role has diminished?
I do read children’s literature for pleasure. Children’s literature is often written in relatively simple language; the best of it approaches the power of poetry. Such books are always a pleasure to read. I also read children’s literature for pleasure in the sense that I enjoy thinking about how the books work as single texts and in relation to other texts from the same time and place, or from other countries, and so on.
The role of books in many children’s lives has changed, but the place of fictional texts more generally has not diminished but increased over recent years. These texts may more likely be films, digital books, video games, or TV shows than books, but all of these – and many more – forms of narratives and imaginary worlds continue to work to teach children about the nature and the possibilities and the limitations of their own places and lives.
- What were your favourite books when you were a child? Have you reread them as an adult? Have you studied them as part of your research?
I read very widely as a child and I had a mother who was also an avid reader, so we typically had piles of books in the house, many from lending libraries and so only mine temporarily. I also read all of the books my brother and sisters brought into the house. It’s hard to list just a few favourite books as a result. But I still remember my delight at a few specific moments. One such moment came when I read Marjorie Rawlings’s The Yearling, which was published in 1938 and so already an old book by the time I discovered it – in a library, no doubt – around the age of 8 or 9, I think. It was this book through which I realized that the author did not have to tell readers everything that was happening to the main character, that I could infer some of that by thinking about what was happening to the young deer he had adopted. Understanding how allusion and parallelism, and figurative language more generally, worked was a big step in my development as a reader. Another distinct memory for me is reading Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children, a book first published in 1924. I suspect my mother might have picked this one up at a secondhand bookshop, another favourite place for us to find reading material. The book was very sad – the family of children at the centre of the story believe that they are not wanted by their grandfather and so run away from home to set up housekeeping themselves – but also very exciting, because the children are so ingenious about the way in which they put together a credible home for themselves. I also remember becoming completely immersed in the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series: I read every volume I could find and I read each multiple times. (In fact, I eventually married the boy who owned a full set of Hardy Boy mystery novels in grade 3 and was willing to lend them to me! It’s probably no coincidence that we still enjoy watching detective series on TV and Netflix together.) I also thoroughly enjoyed the Anne of Green Gables series, although it didn’t seem any more real to me than the Nancy Drew series, despite the fact that it was set in Canada.
I don’t think I’ve ever re-read The Yearling as an adult, although I did see a new edition of The Boxcar Children at one point and re-read it standing in a bookstore aisle. I’ve worked on the Anne of Green Gables series as a scholar and I’ve taught Anne of Green Gables in many classes, so I’ve re-read the Montgomery novels many times. My daughter also loved and collected Nancy Drew books, so I have picked those up from time to time to re-read them. The idea of series books as a kind of text has intrigued me for a long time. For my PhD dissertation, I wrote about Victorian girls’ school stories. Recently I’ve edited a collection of essays about series fiction after teaching a graduate course on seriality. (The collection is entitled Seriality and Young People’s Texts: The Compulsion to Repeat, published by Palgrave in 2013.)
- Why do you find culture in studying texts for children crucial?
I often say to people who find it odd that a scholar would study children’s literature that these texts reveal societal consensus in a way that no other texts do. What I mean by this is that it is possible to see quite clearly what a society values by studying the texts it chooses to create and distribute to its children. Sometimes this is not at all a straightforward matter. It can be quite intriguing to see what the adults of a society choose to tell children and how that differs from what adults tell one another. To give you a specific example, I find it interesting that many North America children’s books celebrate the values of sharing and compassion, while the discourses of advertising in North America celebrate the rewards that accrue to people who accumulate a lot of money – expensive clothes, exotic trips, multiple homes, and so on. What do we make of this? Do these two sets of texts reveal the conflicts and contradictions of North American society? Do the tensions between the children’s books and the adult texts suggest that members of this society recognize that they must say one thing in order to accomplish another thing? Or are the values of sharing, compassion, and accumulation all somehow part of the same system of meanings?
- In your biography you said that: “my interests in the texts and cultures of young people move between the historical and the contemporary, the international and the local.” Do you take a particular interest in some specific time or place? What makes you choose a particular text for studying?
I said earlier that my primary interest in children’s literature is in the kind of political projects it supports or makes possible. That is more likely to be in the foreground for me as I choose what texts to study than the specific time or place in which it was produced. Often I find myself drawn to texts that are produced at times of societal change. The Victorian girls’ books I studied as a PhD student, for example, were fascinating to me because they appeared at the same time as first-wave feminists in Britain and its colonies were agitating for votes for women. Montgomery’s Anne series was written at a time when Canada was settling on the narrative it would tell about itself as a nation. Such transitional moments tend to produce complex, intriguing works of fiction. Of course, once I do choose a set of texts to study, I undertake a lot of research into the contexts of the time and place in which they were written, in order to try to understand how these texts reflected or shaped the discourses of their day. This kind of research seems critical to me if scholars of children’s literature want to be able to describe the political work of particular groups of texts within cultural systems.
Lydia Kokkola (interviewed by Małgorzata Knast)
Professor Lydia Kokkola is currently working at Swedish Lulea University of Technology as a chair Professor of English and Education. She is interested in working on Children’s Literature, Adolescence, Trauma Studies, Holocaust Studies, Cognitive Literary Theory and Reading in English as a Foreign Language. Her current research projects are focused on “Matching Reading Strategies with Purposes and Text Types”, aimed at investigating reading strategies of adolescent EFL readers, as well as project called “Sweden’s National Minority Children’s Literature”, during which Professor Kokkola reflects on the works of children’s literature about national minorities from Sweden. All of the information come from the website of Lulea University of Technology, Sweden http://www.ltu.se/staff/l/lydkok-1.93223?l=en
Małgorzata Knast : One of the complaints that adults quite often make is that these days young people do not read at all. Would you agree with this statement?
Professor Kokkola : Not at all. I think that literacy is more common today than at any other time in history. People do still phone each other, but nowadays they are more likely to text/message or use social media to update and keep in constant touch with one another. There is a great deal of snobbishness that assumes that anything that is conducted on a screen is of less value than that which takes place in a book. I think we see this particularly clearly with toddlers where playing with an iPad or similar device tends to be greeted with disapproving looks in public, whereas cloth books and cardboard books which often have no literary merit are greeted with smiles.
What people mean is that there is less sustained, concentrated engagements with texts within young people’s reading habits today. Here, my current research project and the work of people I collaborate with suggests that there is some truth. There are still people who engage with long texts and completely immerse themselves into the fictional world. If you look at the multi-million selling books like Harry Potter, Twilight, Eragon and Hunger Games etc they are all series and demand that readers engage with a single fictional world over several thousand pages. The first three series also have ridiculously long books later in the series when then sales figures have meant the authors can get away with less editor intervention. We’re also seeing more reading among non-fiction readers who have traditionally been overlooked. Whereas checking out non-fiction books from a library tended to be a school project related activity in the past, we are finding that more readers (especially boys) are enjoying reading on-line information texts. So those groups are reading as much, if not more, than before.
What we are seeing, though, is that the middle groups of readers – who have read magazines and a few novels a year – are engaging more with non-sustained reading (such as social media and links to short opinion pieces). Work by Nicholas Carr shows how this makes it harder for our brain to focus on sustained reading, as the brain learns to expect short stimulation and so the willing suspension of disbelief required to read effectively becomes harder. Anne Mangen and her colleagues in Stravanger provides the empirical support for this. They are reading, probably more than young people in earlier generations, but they are not immersing themselves in the way they were earlier.
MK : When I was in my early teens, one of the most important book series of my generation was (and still is) J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter”. Is it an important thing for young adult readers to have such a book series in their life? What does its existence, or the lack of it change in the perception of literature in general among young readers? Does it change anything at all?
Prof. Kokkola : Series reading does enable the sustained immersion in a fictional world I tried to describe in the above comment. I don’t think it needs to be a series, but I do think that people need to find an author or a genre that makes their heart sing. I used to be a primary school teacher, and there is a magical moment when a child has grasped the mechanics of reading and then discovers a book that thrills them and tips the balance from being a child who can read to becoming a reader. It is so important for teachers to be able to match books and children at that point, so that they can find something that will capture the moment and enable them to immerse themselves in text. Generally speaking, I think teachers are pretty good at finding fiction but weaker at helping those who prefer non-fiction. I don’t think it matters whether it is a series, and author or a genre. It needs to enable the child to find the next book independently.
MK : Would you say that there are any taboo topics/themes/motifs in young adult literature at the moment? If so, should such topics be brought up in children/young adult literature, or should they be left out completely?
Prof. Kokkola : I don’t think it is easy to notice taboos – they become visible when they are broken. In my own work, I have found really only a couple of taboos, the strongest of which is hopelessness. It is possible to include pretty much any content – rape, genocide, drug abuse, homelessness, serious illnesses and so on – but as soon as a depressing subject is included in a work for young readers, there is an expectation that it will lead to an optimistic outcome. As soon as there is not an optimistic outcome, people suggest that it is not for young people or reinterpret the ending. Push but Sapphire ends with the knowledge that Precious has HIV (and will die) and that her levels of literacy are so low she will never live a fully independent life. But people insist on focussing on the hopeful matters (she is much better off than she was, she can read to her child etc.) The film encouraged this view as well. Berlant calls this “cruel optimism” and now that it is being discussed in relation to mainstream literature, I think it might come into works for younger readers.
The other two topics that are still taboo are erotica and focalisation through ‘evil’ minds. There is plenty of sex in fiction for young readers, but if it is pleasurable it happens off stage. Only unpleasant sex can be described in works for young readers. Francesca Lia Block has a collection of erotic short stories (Nymph) but they are officially for adults. They are stylistically identical to her other works for young people, but there is too much detail and jouissance for it to be published for a younger readership. In relation to my Holocaust work, I found that we are never allowed to know what an evil person thinks. Nabokov’s narrator in Lolita shook people because he focalised the story through a pedophile. Nothing like that happens in fiction for young people.
“Should they be left out completely?”… Your question implies there is a moral imperative one way or another. I think the more important point is not whether the topics should be present but rather how they should be written. It takes a strong writer to address a difficult topic well, so often such publications are of a very high quality. People wonder why I write so much about depressing topics, and it is partly for this reason. Writing well involves thinking about how much information a reader can cope with, and leaving space for readers to fill in the gaps. It means making the ideas accessible to someone with less life experience. It means not dumbing down, but rather finding ways to express complex ideas in an accessible manner.
MK : LGBTQ themes have been quite present in young adult literature (and not only) throughout the years. Is there any particular genre of children/young adult books that does raise the importance of the LGBTQ characters? Would you say that they are truthfully presented as a part of the community?
Prof. Kokkola : The proportion of LGBTQ characters in fiction does not represent the numbers of us who exist in the real world, so no, we are not considered part of the community. For me, there are two main problems. The first is that queerness tends to be treated as an “issue” or “topic” that has to be resolved. People can’t just be in a same-sex or other queer relationship without that being part of the plot. I would like to see more books where it is simply part of characterisation. Books where the protagonist happens to be queer but the exciting events in the story are about something completely different (for example, a detective story). Single queer characters are in short supply too, but we do continue to be queer even when we have no partner. The other main problem is that children are assumed to be asexual AND becoming-heterosexuals… a combination which is ridiculous (see Bruhm and Hurley for more). So queer characters in literature for young children are in even more scarce supply.
MK : Quite a number of books written for young adult readers were created and published by adult writers. Thanks to the quite recent change in contact between writers and readers, as well as the broader access to the Internet, young adult readers also come up with their own pieces of writing. What they create quite often gets published on the Internet as fanfiction or their own original stories. Do you think that it is possible to include their works and treat them as young adult literature as well?
Prof. Kokkola : I think this is incredibly valuable material for researchers, as well as encouraging new generations of writers. I am fascinated by the changes in the ownership of ideas that this type of writing reveals. It depends on what it is you want to know as to whether it should be labelled “young adult literature”. In my own work, I refuse to use the terms ‘YA’ or ‚young adult’. This kind of writing is different from paper published works that have been through editorial processes. For most investigations, it would be more helpful to use different labels for these different types of works, but there might be research questions where the issue is less relevant.
*MK : Is there any book from your childhood that has left an impact on your life or one that you still do like to come back to?
Prof. Kokkola : Several, although not the ones that tipped me over into become a voracious reader (Enid Blyton and Beverley Nichols’ “Wickedest Witch in the World”). I loved Pooh until I discovered that other people knew the book too and then it wasn’t a special story between my Dad and I any more. Jean Plaidy’s historical novels were important for me then, but I have not come back to those either.
The books I do still return to include Charlotte’s Web, Narnia and Joyce Stranger’s books.
The children’s books I reread most frequently, however, are by Diana Wynne Jones and Helen Dunmore.
Janet Evans (interviewed by Milena Urban)
Dr. Janet Evans is an independent scholar whose main interest is picturebooks. She is a former Senior Lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope University, and Literacy and Educational Consultant. She was previously a primary school teacher. Dr Evans’ publications include, among many others Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks: Creative and Critical Responses to Visual Texts (2015), Talking Beyond the Page: Reading and Responding to Picturebooks (2009), Literacy Moves On : Using Popular Culture, New Technologies and Critical Literacy in the Elementary Classroom (2005), The Writing Classroom: Aspects of Writing and the Primary Child 3-11 years (2001), and What’s in the Picture: Responding to Illustrations (1998).
For more information look at www.janetevans.co.uk
Q: When did you first become interested in children’s literature?
Janet: When I was a little girl I always wanted to be a teacher. When I first started teaching I worked with very young children. I was teaching reading and writing, amongst other things. Reading was obviously a really important thing for young children, so I always knew that I was going to use children’s books. I would read stories to them two, three, four times a day because at that point there wasn’t a very rigid national curriculum. I would relate the reading of books for pleasure to teaching reading to the class of children. I would always make comments and we would look at certain words and letters, but it was the books and the sharing of them that got the children really interested in wanting to read. From there I realised that some of the books, even though they were picturebooks, were dealing with quite complex issues. I realised that those picturebooks were also suitable for older children. The children loved them but it was teachers and parents who frequently said “Oh, my child can read now, why are using picturebooks with my child?” I frequently had to explain that it got the children talking and debating in class. From then on it has become one of my missions, to get picturebooks to a much wider audience. And I think I’m succeeding, because there is now much more research on picturebooks than there was a decade ago.
Q: What does children’s literature mean for you as an adult?
Janet: I’m really passionate about children’s literature. There’s a book called The Meaning Makers, by Gordon Wells, and in this book he says that the single most influential factor in enabling children to learn, not just to learn to read but to learn across all areas of the curriculum is whether children have books read to them and shared with them by their parents and their teachers. I suppose because most of my professional career was spent either teaching children or student teachers it played a really big part in my life. Even now, I still buy books for myself. Reading them is part of my personal and social life, as well.
Q: What makes a picturebook controversial?
Janet : Some books are more challenging and more controversial, than others. What is controversial for some people, wouldn’t be controversial for others. For example, there’s this book titled Hello Baby! by Mem Fox. It’s about a woman who’s living in the Australian outback. In one of the pictures she’s giving birth standing up, surrounded by her family. It’s an absolutely gorgeous book. But for some people that scene would be very challenging. I read this book while I was speaking at an international school conference in Madrid; some delegates really did not like it as it was offensive to them because of their religious beliefs. So it depends on where you’re coming from and what you bring to the text. I have used some books, for example, Smoke by Anton Fortes & Joanna Concejo, which is about the Holocaust, with 7 and 8 year old children. The book does not state that it is about the Holocaust and the meaning is actually in the reader. It’s the reader that brings the meaning to the text.
Q: What can I, as a teacher, do to try to introduce more picturebooks into my classroom if I want my students to be aware of the various issues in today’s society?
Janet: You don’t have to use the kind of controversial books I have talked about. I wouldn’t necessarily be using a book on abortion with primary school children! However, there are picturebooks about domestic abuse which are part of the curriculum in Norway. We wouldn’t use them in England, and I don’t suppose you could use them in Poland. I’m dealing with very controversial books but there is a middle line.
It also depends on what kind of issues there are in the society. When I was teaching I would sometimes take a theme, for example, take a text set of all of the different versions of Red Riding Hood. You might try that, read them to the children and get the children to give their points of view. Try doing that with your children, in that way you would be studying traditional stories, looking at the language and talking about different points of view and different versions of a particular text.
Q: Are there any schools that have the Harry Potter books on their lists of mandatory readings that you are aware of? Have you ever used those books or fragments of them in your classroom?
Janet : Children read them for pleasure. They wouldn’t necessarily be part of the curriculum, but there wouldn’t be any problem with them being part of the curriculum. I know that in some ultra-religious parts of the States those books are banned. I have never used them in my classroom, because I mostly focus on picturebooks.
Other topics also discussed included teaching student teachers how to use picturebooks and using caption books.
In the interview we also discussed the following titles:
Why Is Blue Dog Blue? by George Rodrigue,
Die Menschenfresserin by Valerie Dayre & Wolf Erlbruch,
La visite de Petite Mort by Kitty Crowther,
Snow White by Ana Juan,
Little Red Hood by Marjolaine Leray, as well as Dr. Evans’ own academic publications What’s in the Picture? and Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks: Creative and Critical Responses to Visual Texts.
For other publications and ideas on picturebooks refer to www.janetevans.co.uk
Junko Yokota (interviewed by Kamila Wieszczek)
Dr. Junko Yokota is Professor Emeritus of Reading and Language at National Louis University, Chicago, Director of the Center for Teaching through Children’s Books and former President of the U.S. national section of the International Board on Books for Young People. Her research concerns international picture books, digital picture books for children and literacy instruction through literature. Her main publications include five editions of Children’s Books in Children’s Hands, Kaleidoscope: A Multicultural Booklist for Grades K-8 and The Past, Present and Future of Digital Picturebooks for Children.
- How did your professional experience influence your academic interest in children’s literature?
I have always been interested in children, and as a teenager, I babysat for various families. I was unable to finish high school in a traditional manner, so I began working at age 16, and one of my jobs was teaching English to young children. These experiences influenced my search for a career working with children. I taught children ages 5 – 12 for ten years, both as a classroom teacher, and as a school librarian. During those years, I pursued a PhD in Reading Education with a minor in Library Science. I took a children’s literature course and I was immediately hooked by the first book we were required to read: The Wind in the Willows. I was riveted by the writing, and knew I wanted to study how such engaging writing could be what children read, how they learn to read, and what they are inspired by. I have to mention here that I also took a children’s literature course as an undergraduate foreign student in the United States, and I made a “C” —a very average grade. I had difficulty related to the core book we were required to read and analyze form many perspectives: Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred Taylor. I lacked the background knowledge and understanding of the United States to relate to that book or understand it.
During my doctoral studies, I attended several professional conferences: The American Library Association and the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. I attended sessions by teachers and librarians advocating the inclusion of quality books in teaching, and I met authors and illustrators. I knew I wanted to devote my career to deepening my own understanding of children’s literature so that I might be able to help young readers. My doctoral advisor, Jean Greenlaw, was influential in that her own professional career centered on children’s literature. I was also introduced to her advisor, Pat Cianciolo, and I won a scholarship to spend a summer studying with her in Michigan. These professors influenced my desire to deepen my engagement with children’s literature.
- In your opinion, how do books for children and teenagers shape the minds of young readers?
Just as our bodies are influenced by what foods we eat, our minds are influenced by what experiences we have. Reading and discussing books can feed our minds in healthy ways that nurture our thinking, or it can entertain, and reach our souls emotionally. Good books can be thought-provoking and satisfying, meeting the needs of our curious minds, and expanding our hearts to consider the lives that others live. What separates the influence of books from the influence of social media, and other sources of input, is the ways in which books are conceived, edited and published to offer an authorial voice that is cohesive and with a well-considered communication arc. Books can be self-paced more readily than theatre, film, or other performance-based input. If well selected, good books can push our thinking, expand our awareness, question what we know of our world, and bring us satisfaction. But bad book can make us bored and disinterested.
- How do digital books influence young reader’s response? Are they a real competition for traditional picture books?
There’s no “blanket response” I can make on this matter. It depends. It depends on the choices made, both in digital and in print. They serve different purposes and are different formats, and one does some things better than the other. Basically, digital is great for things like reference, information that is best presented multi-modally and with good links. Quality print picture books are art forms that can be a thing of beauty to hold, and to read.
- What were your favourite books in your childhood?
I didn’t have many books I owned. My parents subscribed to an educational monthly series in Japanese, and I frequented the public library. My mother says I liked a funny comic book about a pig doctor but I don’t have it any more so I don’t even know the title. I spent my savings from odd jobs on monthly comics when I grew old enough to go to a bookstore alone. They were called “Margaret” and were compilations of monthly continued stories in thickly bound, cheap newsprint paper. Once, when I was sick with mumps, my parents bought me the Japanese version of Daddy Long Legs.
- Taking your origins and professional experience into consideration, did you observe many differences between American and Japanese children’s books?
I just submitted a proposal on making a research presentation on this topic. Of course, there are parallels in format, yet distinct uniquenesses as well. Japan is definitely filled with comic format, from historical fiction to informational to fantasy, stories are presented in comic format to great popular appeal. Known a “manga” there is even a manga museum that’s several stories high! There are manga coffee shops where you can sit around and read manga for hours while sipping on something to drink. Picture books have a fairly similar format, except that in terms of design, many Japanese picture books (and books in general) open the reverse direction of western books because traditionally, the writing goes from right to left, from top to bottom. Regarding content, Japan sees the body as a natural thing, so nudity in bathtubs and mention of bodily functions are mainstream; in the US they are less frequently observed in books. On the other hand, realistic fiction in the US is much more diverse in addressing family composition, sexual orientation, etc. and more frankly addresses various learning needs and emotional issues. These are superficial comparisons, but that’s the best I can do in one paragraph!
Marek Oziewicz (interviewed by Anatol Zimoch)
Marek Oziewicz is Professor of Children’s and Young Adult Literature at the University of Minnesota. His main field of interest is speculative fiction, and especially fantasy. Professor Oziewicz summarizes his research as an endeavor to provide answers to the question “how literature empowers young people to reach their full potential so that they can respond to the challenges of the contemporary world in a holistic and ethical way”. In his research, he focuses on the interdependence between the act of storytelling and forming our social world and relationships with others, as well as on deepening our insight into reality. He is also interested in the role of literature in forging young people’s ability to cope with the world they live in, especially in times of rapid global changes we are facing nowadays. Books published by Marek Oziewicz: Justice in Young Adult Speculative Fiction. A Cognitive Reading. Routledge, 2015; One Earth, One people. The Mythopoeic Fantasy Series of Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle and Orson Scott Card. McFarland & Company, 2008.
- First of all, what does children’s literature stand for you as a reader? What is its place in your personal life and why does this particular genre still appeal to you after years? Or maybe, you do not read such books at leisure anymore?
Children’s literature is mostly defined by its diversity: themes, formats, approaches, styles. If this diversity is mirrored in literature for adults, adults tend to read the things they know and like and that’s limiting too. CS Lewis said that children’s literature is more a state of mind, eagerness to explore, and I think this applies to me. This does not mean that any of the things available in children’s lit are not possible in the so-called adult literature—it’s just that the paradigm is different. An adult writing for children (if at all) has a certain leeway that s/he would not have if they were writing for adults. Yes, I do read such books for leisure. I primarily read them for leisure. Work comes next.
- What is the origin of your academic interest in children’s literature? In what circumstances did it first occur to you to research children or young adult fiction in an academic manner? What are the things you are currently occupied with as a researcher?
I’ve always read books but it took me a few years as a grad student to realize I could make it my career. I arrived into children’s lit through fantasy, especially CS Lewis, and I took professional interest in Lewis because I was predominantly interested in mystical poetry and spiritual experience in literature. This took me to studying Narnia as a form of spiritual discourse, then into the work of language and how it mediates and subverts our experience of the real. My current interest is in multicultural speculative fiction, planatarianist literature and education, catastrophist narratives, and the genre of Bloodlands fiction as a subgenre of YA historical fiction.
- I know that one of your main interests is the notion of the sense of justice within young peoples’ minds. Could you tell me something about the principal objectives of your book Justice in Young Adult Speculative Fiction: A Cognitive Reading and shed some light on the issues it is concerned with?
This is too big a question for a simple answer, but the essence is that we process abstract concepts as cognitive scripts, in turn, are extrapolated from the stories we know. The stories are scripts with the “meat” of details; they participate in spreading certain scripts or challenging others. I believe each type of justice is a script—cognitive and cultural at the same time. Modern speculative fiction (like all literature, except it has the largest popular impact) helps accelerate expectations and behavioral patterns related to certain scripts. And that’s how change happens.
- Since I have the opportunity to ask an expert in the field of speculative fiction, I would like to pose a question concerning the purpose of reading fantasy (or any other genre that falls into ‘speculative’ category) books. In what ways reading speculative fiction may benefit a young person’s development? Do you think such literature is able to exert any kind of truly positive influence on a young reader’s way of thinking and his or her personality?
The “purpose” directed way of talking about literature and the humanities in general is a managerial way of thinking within the modern utilitarian framework. Yes, such questions can be asked, but they miss the point. And no matter how many reasons you give them, certain people will still insist that you should outgrow “fairy tales” and embrace adulthood by becoming an accountant, a doctor, a banker, or a manager. Reading is a gateway to expanding our minds, and expanding our minds is the path to any change. Any idea or concept, not to mention revolutionary ones, must first be imagined in a story. Stories are the oldest and the most unique technology human beings have used and speculative fiction is the most powerful weapon to resist reductionist materialist mindset, whose practical applications are currently killing the planet, its life forms and are turning people into slaves of the system. Fantasy is a literature of hope and empowerment: these are some of the “goods” you can’t buy otherwise. Their substitutes, there are many, there’s plenty of that. But the real thing… not so much.
- You have written an entire book devoted to Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I would like to ask you what is the place of this series in the canon of children’s literature nowadays and why these books are of such great importance to you personally.
I have a nostalgic relationship to these books and appreciate a number of effects Lewis achieves (still does for many young people today) but they’re no longer my favorite fantasy books nor most rewarding. They’re part of the canon because, together with Tolkien’s work, they set a direction for mythopoeic fantasy. They’re also important as historical documents of a stage in the development of fantasy and continue to appeal to people who are looking for ways to resist the materialist worldview. They represent, admittedly, only one spiritual tradition—and a tradition enmeshed in specific gender, race, and class prejudices of its time—but that are genuine expressions of that tradition nevertheless and many young readers can sense that too. These are also very ambitious books: nothing less than an entire Christian cosmology presented through the means of fantasy.
Alison Waller (interviewed by Karolina Budzisz)
Professor Alison Waller is well known for her work on young adult fiction and adolescence. Her research interests also include memory in children’s and YA literature and the practice of rereading childhood fiction. She is a member of the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at the University of Roehampton. Professor Alison Waller published Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism (2009), which focuses on the concept of adolescence and how it is constructed by fantastic novels for teenagers, and “Swallows and Amazons Forever: How Adult and Children Engage in Reading Classic Text” (2011), which is a study of the differences across time and generations while reading. Her recent research (”Rereading the Self” (2016), “Amnesia in Young Adult Fiction” (2016)) concentrates on memory under the influence of different factors (e.g., gender, age). Her Remembering and Reviewing the Canon: The Case of The Secret Garden (2016) examines male readers and their belief that the book The Secret Garden (1911) should be classified as ‘girls’ classic’ novel.
1.What inspired you to start your academic research in children’s literature? Was it a book, a person or maybe something else?
I was inspired to start my doctoral research on teenage fiction first by a book, and then by a tutor. The book was Robert Cormier’s Fade, which is one of those texts that can get under your skin and make you think about everything you’ve ever assumed is true about your life and world you live in (and which I’ve written about in “Fade and the Lone Teenager: Young Adult Fantastic Realism shaping Modern Individualism” (2005) ). The tutor was Dr. Murray Knowles at the University of Birmingham, who taught me a class on Language and Power in children’s literature and made me realise that there was an exciting field of literary studies out there to explore.
2.One of your last research outputs focuses on memory, amnesia and selfhood in children’s and young adult literature. Why this kind of interest? Will you continue and elaborate previous subjects or will you focus on something new?
I’m very interested in the relationship between memory and being – it’s the title of one of the modules I designed and teach – and it is an area I plan to research and develop into the future, in a range of different ways. For instance, the book I’m finishing at the moment is called The Poetics of Rereading Childhood Books: Time Capsules Revisited and it explores memories of childhood reading and the practices of rereading in adulthood. I’m also planning some work on the representation of memory in narratives about adolescence and old age, with the hypothesis that there are significant overlaps in literary portrayals of consciousness across the life span. Finally, I would like to build towards a project working with dementia patients, remembered stories, and narrative creation at some point (when I have time!).
- I assume that children’s literature is the biggest part of your life, but apart from that what is the second main interest of yours?
If you mean in terms of work, then I have a strong interest in online and flexible learning. I have helped develop the MA Children’s Literature by distance learning at Roehampton over the last eight years (http://www.roehampton.ac.uk/postgraduate-courses/childrens-literature-distance-learning/index.html), and I am an advocate for ways of studying that give access to non-traditional learners. If you mean outside of work, then it’s probably my two black cats! At least, they probably take up an equal part of my conscious attention, and I like to write stories about them too. I enjoy spending time with the cats and my family, in the south-west of England. Getting away from the desk and into the outdoors is very important – whether that’s a brisk walk in the soggy British countryside, a training run along the canal, or a quick blast down a mountain on a snowboard.
4.How does your perspective about children’s literature changed during those years of academic research?
When I first started working on children’s and young adult literature, I was mostly interested in identifying ways that the literature raised interesting questions and had the potential for subversion, while at the same time it was shaped and constrained by conventions of adult publishing and discourse. I still find the ways in which texts reproduce dominant discourses very compelling but I’m probably more aware of the great diversity of children’s literature as a cultural field and its scope to work from the ‘bottom up’ as well as the ‘top down.’ I’ve also become increasingly drawn to the connections and synergies between young and old, and the continuities of human experience across the lifespan, so I see more and more blurred boundaries between categories (what is children’s literature, and what is old age literature, and how do we remember reading throughout life?).
5.What is the most meaningful life lesson that you have learnt from children’s or young adult literature?
I think children’s literature was where I first learned that things come to an end, but that there is hope and virtue in taking a journey. I adored Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, which ends with the hero having to make a difficult decision about his future and watch many of his own people leave the land he loves without him. I thought it was a terribly sad and noble ending, but it also helped me think through ideas of loss and gain. The same kind of lesson came at the end of Enid Blyton’s school story sequences, when the girls move on from their cozy studies and firm friendships, and leave the reader behind, too. These series books also helped me figure out the pleasures of return and rereading though, unlike the characters, as a reader you can always go back and start again!
William H. Teale (interviewed by Katarzyna Zalisz)
Prof. William H. Teale is Professor of Education and Director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His work focuses on early literacy learning, literacy education and children’s literature. Currently prof. Teale is President of the International Literacy Association (2016-2017).
1/ The very first statement we made during our children’s literature classes was that the books we read as children stay with us for life. Is there any book that was important to you as a child? Why did this particular book appeal to you?
The book I remember most from my earliest childhood is Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss. I still have the copy that was given to me as a present on my birthday when I turned two years of age. (It is the only book I have from my childhood.)
When I began researching the early literacy development of preschool children in the late 1970s and during the 1980s, I did a number of studies on read alouds—both in home and classroom settings. When studying parents reading to their young children at home, I consistently observed that children who are read to and are read the same book multiple times, will engage in their own emergent readings of those books. This brought to mind that this is exactly what I had done with Horton. Thus, Horton reminds me that early literacy learning arises out of social interaction with literature others and that the child him/herself constructs her/his literacy learning out of those interactions.
2/ When did your academic interest in children’s literature begin? What is the meaning of children’s literature in your life?
My academic study of children’s literature arose somewhat later in my career. I had been studying young (age 3-8) children’s literacy development for a number of years and that involved attention to the texts that children interacted with as well as the sociocultural interactions around those texts, but my focus per se was not on children’s literature until the early 1990s when I became involved in a preschool project in Dallas, Texas and began working with the source of all of my knowledge about children’s books, Junko Yokota. Since then, she and I, as well as Miriam Martinez, have collaborated on a number of research projects as well as the development of school curriculum materials designed to be used in school centered on children’s literature.
3/ I have read that a part of your current research focuses on Head Start staff and parents’ concepts of school readiness. Could you tell me more about that?
I am Director of the Center for Literacy at UIC, and the largest funded project that we have is to provide the parents of children enrolled in Head Start with supports ranging from how to manage their finances to helping then get a high school diploma to how to support their preschool children’s early learning. A big part of helping their children involves family literacy. We offer workshops on finding good books to read with their children to how to read with their children. Most of this work from my perspective does not involve research but focuses instead on effective program implementation so that parents establish richer home literacy environments.
4/ Another current investigation of yours is evaluation of the Lead Learn Excel program. Could you please tell me what the program is about? What exactly is Illinois’ Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge?
All of this evaluation work is not of much relevance to children’s literature. Instead, you may want to focus on projects that are more about children’s books. You can go to: https://uic.academia.edu/WilliamTeale
and look at the following that will give you a better sense of our recent work focused specifically on children’s literature:
- Picture Books and the Digital World: Educators Making Informed Choices by William H. Teale and Junko Yokota
- Striving for International Understanding through Literature by William H. Teale and Junko Yokota
- Stories of multiracial experiences in literature for children, ages 9-14 by William H. Teale and Amina Chaudhri
- The book matters! Choosing complex narrative texts to support literary discussion.
5/ Don’t judge a book by its cover. Do you think this old saying can be applicable to children’s literature?
This is definitely not applicable when it comes to children. Children (and young adults) consistently make judgments about whether or not they want to read a book based on the cover. (And publishers know this—hence why so much effort (and money is put into cover design. And by the cover, I mean both the illustration and all of the text that is contained on the front, back, and on the flyleaf or inside the front and back covers. These things function as a kind of “book talk” or “trailer” for the book. They serve to “sell” child readers on the book—just what a teacher does when giving a book talk or creating book trailers to entice children into a work of literature.
Smiljana Narančić Kovač (interviewed by Marcel Salzburg)
Smiljana Narančić Kovač, PhD, is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Teacher Education, University of Zagreb. Her research interests embrace comparative literature, the narrative, children’s literature (contact and transfer studies), picturebook theory, and teaching English to young learners. Her publications include One Story and Two Narrators: Picturebook as a Narrative (2015, in Croatian). She serves as the principal investigator of BIBRICH, a research project on children’s literature translations, funded by the Croatian Science Foundation. She is Editor-in-Chief of Libri & Liberi.
Q: What motivated You when You decided for children’s literature as Your main field of research?
A: It was my genuine interest for the field in combination with very fortunate circumstances that made it possible for me to delve into children’s literature. Literature has always been my primary field of interest. I studied comparative literature and English, but my jobs used to be rather connected to the English language. In spite of that, I pursued my main interest by post-graduate studies focused on literature. When I got a position at the Faculty of Teacher Education in Zagreb (in 1993) with a specific task – to develop the course of study for primary teachers of English – I saw an opportunity to promote literature as an important segment of foreign language teacher education. I established several courses on children’s literature in English. Children’s literature had been taught at teacher-education institutions in Croatia since 1961, but it was a novelty in the context of foreign languages. To prepare for these new courses, I researched the field widely, as my previous education gave me no sound foundations for this task. I really enjoyed exploring and catching up with the scholarship. I was an avid reader when I was a child, and re-discovering children’s literature was very rewarding. Since then, children’s literature has been my primary area of exploration, and I find it extremely important to approach it from theoretical, historical and, finally, practical perspectives. For me, exploring children’s literature is like discovering a treasure chest full of challenges and intellectual adventures.
Q: You mentioned that you work at the Faculty of Teacher Education in Zagreb. Considering the fact that pupils at Primary School will take their first steps in learning a foreign language, how do you think children’s literature – especially when read in English in this case – will help them learn the new language and how do you try to prepare the future teachers at your faculty to support their pupils?
A: This is a complex question that would require a long reply, but I can try to keep it short. Primarily, I believe that it is very important for teachers of any foreign language to be well acquainted with children’s literature in the language they teach, as it is an important part of language usage and conveys the cultures of the nations that speak that particular language. It is impossible to learn a language in isolation, so understanding the language we learn in its wider context is very important for language education in general. Besides, literature is crucial for developing personal qualities, especially the sensibility for artistic expression and higher levels of intellectual skills.
Speaking about using literature in teaching English to young learners, it should be noted that they do not need to start by reading, we rather expose them to literature which is appropriate for them. They start with listening to and learning nursery rhymes and short poems during their FL (Foreign Language) classes. Picturebooks also present an excellent way of sharing literature with young children. There are many advantages of expanding teaching materials and learning contexts with literature, and among them it stands out that, with literature, learners are immersed into the authentic, non-abridged and unmodified original language in its natural context. Young children learn languages in different ways from adults, and they do not have the same potentials (or the same difficulties) as adults. Their specific potentials can be realised by making it possible for them to use the language which is not “disinfected”, as it often happens in LT materials.
This is where literature steps in. In time, children become capable of reading original texts on their own. In that, they need to be guided by their teachers. Therefore, teachers of foreign languages need to be able to help learners in their development as autonomous readers by scaffolding their activities and by helping them choose appropriate original literary texts. Preparing teachers for this is a complex and structured process which involves helping them acquire needed knowledge of children’s literature, consider it from a theoretical perspective, understand its potential in teaching a foreign language, and develop skills to efficiently use literature in practice.
Q: So reaching half time. To develop the issue of education of young teachers and providing them the ability to teach English with the help of children’s literature, how have the results of this programme been so far? Do you think it has, until now, been a success? How do You try to measure it?
A: It has been rather successful, I believe. Most of my former students teach English in state schools, and they follow the official curriculum and use ELT materials, as it is expected. However, they also use literature in additional activities as much as possible. Only those who work in private language schools have the freedom to organise their curricula around literature. We know it is successful because there were such programmes, and such an experience has been described, for instance, by Gail Ellis, Jean Brewster and others in the early 1990s. I could not measure exactly how successful using literature is, but my experiences are reassuring. Also, I get feedback from my former students, who report it is especially the literature courses they attended that help them enrich their teaching and be autonomous, flexible and creative teachers. I believe literature has this potential, and its effects are not only direct, for a purpose, but also indirect, in many ways. It develops our various competences. I get a lot of feedback like that, actually.
Q: To continue with trends in children’s literature: what are, in your opinion, the major trends within children’s literature right now and how do you think they have changed in the last years or decades?
A: It is hard to tell. My first thought is that children’s literature is as open as ever to intellectual challenges and to multimodality. It is multi-layered, and shows respect for young readers’ competences and their ability to understand complex plots and topics. However, when children’s classics of previous periods are considered, it is obvious that the best of books already possess these characteristics; Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a case in point.
On second thought, perhaps the appearance of a new category of young adult literature that has slowly grown out of the body of children’s literature shows the trends best. Introduction of taboos and complex themes and the appearance of thicker books brought about this distinction. Also, books are not written for specific children (as many of the children’s classics indeed were), but for the market – and the competition is huge. There are many more authors than before and they look for ways to make their books ever more attractive and challenging to wide audiences, not only children. Thus, we get more quality books, and a wider choice. The postmodern inclination to combine genres and themes is reflected in children’s literature, too.
Dual audience address is an imperative. Besides, from the thematic point of view, child characters are given more agency and responsibility than before. Adults in their fictional worlds are often unreliable and rarely offer support.
To sum up, in my opinion, the children’s literature of today has more confidence in children, both characters and readers, than the children’s literature of previous decades (but there are exceptions, of course).
Q: To finish off the interview, I would like to ask You a more personal question: what is Your favourite book from Your childhood and how has Your reading of it changed since the first time?
A: It is very difficult to single out one book. As a child I was a dedicated and wide reader and read so many books. I liked many of them. I have always enjoyed a good story, and it was a special treat if a book could make me laugh – or cry, for that matter. I trembled with Gita and Hlapić in The Strange Adventures of Hlapić the Apprentice by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić when they heard someone approaching in the dark. I remember the tears I shed over The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnár and how I enjoyed Emile and the Detectives by Erich Kästner. I was a skillful detective with Koko in The Mystery of Green Hill by Ivan Kušan. I remember I got to like bread and butter upon reading Heidi by Johanna Spyri, which I would not taste before; the image of tasty and rich butter Heidi’s Grandfather gave her and Clara was so convincing.
But if I really have to pick one book which I remember from early childhood, it is a picturebook: Peća i vuk (Peter and the Wolf), based on the composition by Sergey Prokofiev, translated from Russian and illustrated by Frans Haacken. My copy was prepared for publication in Belgrade, but the copyright belongs to Alfred Holz Verlag in Berlin. It was printed in Leipzig in 1958. I do not remember how or when I got it, but I still have it. I remember being fascinated by large illustrations, white lines on the black background, only one colour added in each picture (either red, green, blue or yellow), a fold-out page, strange names of instruments and musical notes at the end. I wondered how a bird, a cat and a wolf would play their instruments. How has my reading changed since my early childhood re-readings? Now I see this picturebook with a theoretician’s eye, and now I know its musical context. I appreciate its quality and firm binding which preserved it to the present day. I understand that a duck can play the oboe only in this fantasy world, and what the willing suspension of disbelief is. I also know that re-reading is crucial for picturebooks, and that every reading reveals new meanings. I recognise some imperfections in the translation of the text into Croatian. Well, in spite of all these differences I still enjoy reading this picturebook, only now it also brings back my early fascination and feelings of discovery and secrecy. It has not lost its magic and it still brings joy.
Sandie Mourão (interviewed by Monika Mleczko)
Sandie Mourão is an independent scholar, working as a teacher educator, author and consultant. She specializes in early years language education. She has experience of working with various age groups and their teachers, but her main focus is pre-primary learners (ages 3 – 6 years). Sandie has an MA in TESOL from the University of Manchester and a PhD in didactics and teacher education from the University of Aveiro in Portugal. Both her MA dissertation and PhD thesis involved research in pre-primary contexts. She has authored a number of language learning courses and resource books and is the co-author of the guidelines for primary English education in Portugal. Professor Sandie is also co-editor of the CLELE journal. Her other passion is picturebooks, a form of children’s literature which uses both picture and word to create meaning. She writes a blog, Picturebooks in ELT, which promotes the use of picturebooks with language learners of all age groups.
Question 1. Why did you become so interested in early years and lower primary education rather than e.g. adults education?
I have been working in early years language education for over 20 years. I began back in 1993 when as a young mother I was raising two bilingual children and I saw the speed with which my children were picking up English and Portuguese. I know that school education is different, but I thought I’d try out some of my ideas with children in school groups, and I never looked back. I love singing and storytelling and I love being with small children. I had no formal training for this age group, which is typical of English language teachers, and so I went on to take an MA and a PhD in this area. It is more than just singing and dancing of course, but working with small children is far more rewarding that working with teens / adults in my view.
Question 2. How can picturebooks and free play promote language learning opportunities among young learners?
That’s an enormous question! But basically it’s about providing authentic opportunities for authentic response and interaction. Naturally we need to ensure that children have some English to rely upon so that both storytelling with picturebooks and play can afford further use of English.
Regarding picturebooks in particular, in my view they can be used in FL education in two different ways:
1) To provide an opportunity to expose children to language they know, so they realise they can understand something even though they may not know very much English. In this case picturebooks with simple repetitive refrains are really useful (e.g. Martin Jr & Carle’s Brown Bear what do you see?) as they give children language to imitate and repeat during retells.
2) To provide an opportunity for children to respond and for these responses to support further development in / through English. In this case picturebooks that provide a more complex picture-word dynamic are more useful and give children lots to talk about as the images show more than just what what the words tell.
Regarding play – this is a child’s work and especially in pre-primary education this is what they do best. As English teachers we need to ensure we emulate pre-primary practices and so we need to ensure children play in English too. This means setting up opportunities for free play as well as teacher-led play, which tends to dominate our classes.
Please note that I believe picturebooks should be used with all age groups, not just young learners (6 – 12 year olds). I have used picturebooks in English classes with teenagers and young adults in Portugal, and I know of a study that used picturebooks in a high security prison in Portugal …
Question 3. What are the reasons that support the idea of including picturebooks in teacher education?
So that teachers can become better prepared to include picturebooks in their planning. It’s about understanding not just the importance of using literature in language education, but of using authentic literature and one which includes images reinforcing the importance of visual literacy and its role in developing a critical literacy.
Question 4. Which picturebooks are especially relevant in language learning process that every young learner should know?
I don’t think there is any one picturebook … it depends on the children’s interests and their requirements at any particular time. Picturebooks support a child’s global development… so pre-primary children may be struggling with respecting each other as individuals, so we can use I’m the best! By Lucy Cousins. Primary children need to understand the importance of seeing other points of view, and so a book like No! by Marta Altés is a useful picturebook, it also supports the acquisition of the topic daily routine in English! Or teenagers are required to discuss drug abuse in secondary education, so they could all take a look at The house that crack built by Clark Taylor and Jan Dicks.
See my blog posts for information about these picturebooks:
Question 5. Would you be so kind to recommend what kind of stories you consider to be the most effective and suggest tips for storytelling?
The list would be endless Monika! If a teacher likes a particular book, that’s half way there! Naturally, as I have mentioned above, it needs to be relevant to the learners for one reason or other. It’s important to share a picturebook with a view to accepting that there is no one story and that children will come to the story sharing session with their own personal experiences, so what they see and hear will prompt different responses.
Different techniques … well I have seven story telling secrets I share with pre-primary teachers:
Sandie’s seven storytelling secrets
- Choose a story you like
- Get to know the story and practice reading / telling it
- Use your voice for effect
- Use gestures and facial expressions
- Respond to and acknowledge children’s responses
- Don’t worry if the children respond initially in the L1.
- Retell the story over several lessons.
This accompanies a webinar I gave earlier in 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQJ3ZtiIrFc
Resources you might find useful:
DUNN O. (1997-2004). REAL BOOK News http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/real-books
Children’s Literature in English Language Education Journal (CLELEjournal) http://clelejournal.org/
ELLIS, G. & BREWSTER, J. (2014). Tell it Again! The New Storytelling Handbook for Primary Teachers. http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/D467_Storytelling_handbook_FINAL_web.pdf
MOURÃO, S. (2011). Picturebooks for all. http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/picture-books-all
MOURÃO, S. (2013). Response to ‚The Lost Thing’: Notes from a secondary classroom. Children’s Literature in English Language Education Journal Vol 1(1) 2013 pp. 81-106. http://clelejournal.org/response-to-the-the-lost-thing-notes-from-a-secondary-classroom/
MOURÃO, S. (2016). Picturebooks in the Primary EFL Classroom: Authentic Literature for an Authentic Response, Children’s Literature in English Language Education Journal, Vol 4(1) 2016 pp. 25-43. http://clelejournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Picturebooks-Authentic-literature-for-an-authentic-response-CLELEjournal-4.1.pdf
MOURÃO S. REALBOOKS in the primary classroom (2003). London: Mary Glasgow Scholastic.
WRIGHT, A. (1995). Storytelling with children. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Birketveit, A. and Williams, G. (eds.) (2013). Literature for the English Classroom, Bergen: Fagbokforlaget.
Bland, J. (2013). Children’s Literature and Learner Empowerment, London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Bland, J. and Lütge, C. (eds), (2013). Children’s Literature in Second Language Education, London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Enever, J. and Schmid-Schönbein, G. (eds) (2006). Picture Books and Primary EFL Learners, Munich: Langenscheidt.
GHOSN, I.-K. (2013). Storybridge to Second Language Literacy. The Theory, Research and Practice of Teaching English with Children’s Literature, Charlotte, NY: Information Age Publishing.
Picturebooks in ELT blog
This is a blog which discusses picturebooks and their use in ELT. It is not a list of photocopiable resources, but instead describes books and helps teachers select appropriately for their contexts.
sandiemourao.eu resources page
This page has a good number of links to resources many of which are related to the use of stories or picturebooks.
sandiemourao.eu articles page
This page has a good number of links to articles related to the use of stories or picturebooks.
British Council Teaching English
The British Council Teaching Centre in Paris produces an excellent set of resources for using picturebooks. They are all downloadable from the TeachingEnglish website.
Magic Pencil Exhibition
The Magic Pencil exhibition and website celebrated children’s book illustration and brought together the work of 13 illustrators who offered familiar as well as new and varied ways of approaching book illustration. Related to the exhibition, a set of materials was created by Carol Read for exploiting picturebook covers
Sara Van den Bossche (interviewed by Magdalena Kamińska)
Dr. Sara Van den Bossche is an assistant professor of children’s literature studies at Tilburg University (the Netherlands). Her main teaching and research focuses are canonization, adaptation, picture books, crossover literature, and cultural diversity. She co-edited Never-ending Stories. Adaptation, Canonisation and Ideology in Children’s Literature (Academia Press, Ghent, 2014).
1.What is your very first memory connected with reading? (Was it enjoyable? What was the title of the book? Do you still have similar feelings connected with this title?)
Sara Van den Bossche : My first memories of reading or being read to are connected to fairy tales – as I am sure are many other people’s. I remember, in particular, two books.
The first one is a collection of fairy tales by Perrault and Grimm (featuring „Snow White”, „Hansel and Gretel”, „The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats”), of which the lesser known Grimm fairy tale „Little Brother and Little Sister” was my absolute favourite. I literally read the book to pieces, but, fortunately, my mother never threw it away and it is now a cherished part of my collection of children’s books, despite the dilapidated state it is in.
Another favourite, the second book I have fond memories of, is a picture book relating the story of Hansel and Gretel, accompanied by marvelous illustrations. It is the illustrations that I remember vividly, they appealed to me very strongly. This book, too, is a key piece in my current collection.
Finally, I should add that songs were as important to me in my childhood as stories. My mother didn’t read stories to my two younger brothers and me particularly often, but she did sing a couple of songs for us before bedtime every night. My memories of that bedtime ritual are in fact much more vivid than those of my early reading.
What about your observations connected with those fairy tales? Are they „child-friendly” or do they have to be mysterious and cruel to teach something? And how does it correspond with today’s books for children?
Sara Van den Bossche : Seeing that one of the two is a stand-alone version of „Hansel and Gretel”, I chose to compare it with the version of that same tale included in the collection. It turns out that both are child-friendly in a practical sense, but neither one of them omitted the grim, cruel parts from the tale. Allow me to explain myself.
When I say that the books are adapted to a child audience in a practical sense, I mean that there are signs of what Göte Klingberg terms „adaptation”, in the sense of aiming the text specifically to child readers in terms of contents, vocabulary, plot structure, and layout, for instance, throughout the two texts.
In both cases, the text is short, the font is large and the vocabulary is fairly easy. The collection is called „My first book of fairy tales” and is clearly aimed at readers who are new to reading: the font size is very large, the sentences are short and no capitals are used.
The collection edition starts with the traditional phrase „Once upon a time…”, but, interestingly, in the stand-alone edition a paragraph is inserted before the stock opening phrase. The opening page features an illustration of a little boy picking up a small object from the ground. The story is introduced by the moon, which is focalised and shown to wonder what that little boy down there by the river is doing, it looks as if he is looking for white stones. Later on in the story, it turns out that this is Hansel, of course.
As far as the plot is concerned, in both editions, what I find to be the most cruel scene – Gretel pushing the witch into the oven and closing it off so that she burns to death – is included. In the collection, the „murder” is related rather matter-of-factly. Gretel tricks the witch by asking her to check the temperature of the oven and then pushes her into it. The stand-alone version goes into more detail with regard to the way in which Gretel lures the witch: it portrays her ruse more elaborately, and shows that the witch in fact already was planning on burning Gretel herself first and had asked Gretel to try out the best way to be slid into the oven. Gretel deliberately does this the wrong way, hence forcing the witch to show how it is done herself. Thereafter Gretel can simply slide the witch into the oven. This rendering, I would say, is probably less child-friendly than I – as an adult – would expect.
When and how did you find out that literature for children is interesting and important for you as a scholar?
Sara Van den Bossche : I would say that the influence of one particular university teacher – Isabelle Desmidt – was instrumental in this realisation. I took an MA in Germanic philology, specialising in Swedish and English. In my third year, I took a course on the translation of children’s literature and that was a real eye-opener for me. In our Swedish classes, examples taken from children’s literature were used quite regularly, as opposed to in English classes. Sweden has always been very progressive as regards the production and study of children’s literature, and that shone through in our programme.
The class on the translation of children’s books appealed to me because I liked the approach to texts adopted in literary studies, but, more importantly, because I loved the examples we studied, such as Harry Potter and Nils Holgersson. It inspired me to write my MA thesis on the news coverage of Astrid Lindgren’s decease, which in turn, eventually led to my pursuing a career as an academic. I devoted my doctoral dissertation to the processes of canonisation discernible in the reception of Astrid Lindgren’s works in Flanders and the Netherlands. Hence, the influence of Ms. Desmidt was pivotal for my career choices.
Would you say that there are any taboo topics/themes/motifs in literature for children/ teenagers at the moment? If so, should such topics be brought up in children/young adult literature, or should they be left out completely, or which of them should be developed?
Sara Van den Bossche : In my opinion, there should be no taboos in children’s books. That is an idea that mainly works in theory, of course. It is my view as a scholar and a theorist of children’s literature. Perhaps that would be different if I were working with children and books myself on a daily basis, and had to deal with their responses to books dealing with taboo subjects. The way I see it, books provide young readers with a window into the world, through which they can get acquainted with pleasant as well as harsh realities outside their own.
The reason I hold this view is that I myself learnt a lot about the world through literature. I grew up in a small, rural community in a very warm and protected family. I didn’t know much about what went on in the world, was never confronted with any problems, scandals, or tragedies. What I knew of such serious topics mostly came from hearsay (typical of such a small village is gossip and rumours being spread) and from books. Stories about children and teenagers growing up in dire circumstances were real eye openers for me. As a teenager, I devoured books about topics such as aids, prostitution, teenage pregnancies, all of which I didn’t encounter in my own life (fortunately, I should add).
As for children’s literature in the Dutch language area, I don’t think that there are any particularly strong taboos, but two topics do come to mind: old age and how to deal with that on the one hand (as a specific choice of subject in a book) and on the other hand, more generally, open or even unhappy endings. I feel that these two things are highly contested among contemporary children’s book critics. A student of mine is actually writing an MA thesis on the second subject, hopefully that will provide some more insight into what is now little more than a general impression and not a substantiated fact.
To be absolutely honest, I thought that your answer will be about sexuality, probably because it is what is missing in our books for children/ teenagers. That’s a good point that the last stage of life is not popular and passing away is also rarely mentioned. What is the purpose of writing for young readers, I mean from an author’s point of view? Do adults write for their inner children? Can anyone write a book for young readers?
Sara Van den Bossche : It’s interesting that you were expecting a different answer when it comes to taboo subjects. I guess it tells us a great deal about the climate of children’s literature in our own cultures. In the Netherlands and Flanders, sexuality isn’t that much of a taboo, I would say. At least not one that is addressed regularly by children’s authors and/or critics. For instance, the theme of this year’s children’s books’ month is „M/F/X”, so gender and issues of gender fluidity and transgender identity are being addressed openly.
As for the last question, the tension experienced by children’s authors between writing for their audience and writing for the child within themselves was quite an important issue in my doctoral dissertation, as it happens. As I mentioned before, I wrote my thesis on the reception and canonisation of Astrid Lindgren’s works in the Netherlands and Flanders. My analysis demonstrates that one of the things the Dutch and Flemish critics of children’s literature appreciated the most was Lindgren’s talent for addressing her child audience directly and writing in a tone that speaks to them and touches them. Often-used phrases are that she takes them seriously and does not talk or write down to them. By contrast, Lindgren herself used to claim that she purely wrote for her inner child, and if other readers happened to like what she wrote, that was a nice bonus, but pleasing others was not her main goal.
In my opinion, striking a balance between the inner and the „outer” child, so to speak (that is, the child outside of the text), is key in a children’s books’ author success. I think this counts for Lindgren, but also for Roald Dahl, for instance, and for Annie M.G. Schmidt, who is one of the most renowned Dutch children’s authors. So, no, I do not believe that anyone can write a children’s book. I am convinced that only those people who are in touch with the child within themselves – however one may quantify that – are able to do so successfully.