Why should adults read children’s books?

‘Is the MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton for people who work with children?’ a prospective student asked me the other day. ‘Well yes…’ I told her, ‘…and no.’ The truth is, many of our students do have an active involvement with children and young people. Many are parents, grandparents, carers, teachers, school librarians, or child psychologists. Others write, illustrate, publish or market books for children. Reading and studying children’s literature can enrich and support this kind of professional activity, but it is not essential to work with, for, or even near children to study children’s literature (to illustrate: I have noticed a small yet significant cohort of lawyers with no obvious link to children who have recently been thriving on the distance learning MA programme).

There are lots of different reasons to read and study children’s literature, of course. One excellent motivation is simply the quality and inventiveness of much imaginative writing crafted for emerging and youthful minds – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Coraline, this is material that demands literary attention. Another reason is to discover more about how society has constructed and transmitted ideas of childhood, and exactly what kinds of cultural artefacts we have considered to be appropriate for young people at different points in history. It is also crucial to think about the way real and imagined children might encounter these fictions and to scrutinise the process whereby scratches on a page become words, sentences, character, action and meaning. Indeed, some time ago Peter Hunt called for a “childist” form of children’s literature criticism which considered what it means to “read as a child,” however hard that might be in practice.

Violet Needham's Pandora of Parrham

Violet Needham's Pandora of Parrham (1951)

I think there is a further purpose in reading children’s literature as adults that is often overlooked because it seems too private, too pleasurable, and is perhaps even on the edge of whimsy. And this purpose is to read certain children’s books – that is, books from our own childhood – so that they can tell us adults something about our personal histories of reading and meaning making. I recently spoke to Bath’s University of the Third Age (a lifelong learning co-operative for older people no longer in full time work) on this topic and was delighted to see a wave of memories pass through the audience as personal narratives of childhood reading were spontaneously reconstructed. Individuals recalled books that had been important to them in their youth (what Katherine Jones has called ‘generational literature’); stories that had stuck in the consciousness for some reason, whether because they made up the great literature that has retained cultural currency (classics such as Tom Brown’s SchooldaysThe Secret Garden, or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) or because they had inspired private relationships with imaginative texts that transcended shifting tastes (the work of Malcolm Saville and Violet Needham were two excellent examples given by the audience).

Malcolm Saville's The Elusive Grasshopper

Malcolm Saville's The Elusive Grasshopper (1951)

And collectively, a room full of adults who had all been children somewhere between approximately 1925 and 1970 also managed to begin building a picture of reading habits that extended beyond the individual. Understanding the literature that shaped large parts of a whole generation (and not just the books that have survived into a generally accepted canon) might have quite an important function in understanding the population itself.

Some of the members of Bath U3A and other general readers have been helping me explore the specific processes involved when readers remember and return to books from their childhood, in a project called ‘Rereading Children’s Fiction’. The way fiction is remembered throws up some fascinating questions. Which elements are recalled most vividly? What emotions attend those memories? What literary events, characters or images are forgotten until the book is reread? And do our reading selves change completely from childhood to adulthood, or is there some aspect of rereading a fiercely remembered book that can lead to an encounter with our childhood imagination? Enough questions for a whole MA, probably – but in the meantime children’s literature continues to be published and a whole new set of generational texts are being created!

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NCRCL Blog

This is the home of the NCRCL blog, where you will find news, updates and posts from members of the staff, students and alumni at the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (NCRCL) at Roehampton University in west London.  You can read more about our popular MA in Children’s Literature which is run on-site and through distance learning, as well as undergraduate teaching in children’s literature in both our English and the Creative Writing departments. Please feel free to comment with questions or thoughts.

NCRCL Blog – What’s all this about doing an MA in Children’s Literature?

Welcome to the new NCRCL blog. To start things off, I thought I’d post something I’ve put on my personal blog but which makes sense here as well.

I am writing today about the work I do at the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (NCRCL) at Roehampton University in London. I thought some people might be interested in knowing more about what this sort of degree involves.

I originally came to do the MA myself in September 2001. I had been working in children’s publishing for the previous seven years, and while I enjoyed the creative process of editing and helping art direct/design picture books, I was getting fed up with the politics of the industry. I had absolutely adored my undergraduate study at Reed College, where I was able to write an undergraduate thesis on Victorian fantasy author George Macdonald. I loved researching and writing about children’s books in an academic context, but wasn’t ready then for further study (this was in 1992 – I feel so old!).

So back to 2001, I started trawling around the internet, and through finding out about the Children’s Literature International Summer School which was run at that time by the NCRCL, I also discovered that they had a Masters degree. I had looked at MAs in the US such as the one at Simmons, and discovered that it was significantly cheaper for me to do the one-year MA at Roehampton University in England than it was for me to study in the US. I’m not sure how much longer this will be true, as UK educational institutions are being forced to follow a more American model of pricing. But at the time, it was around a third of the cost.

So I figured, why not go to England for a year, learn more about books from a UK perspective, and get an MA degree at the same time. Modules I took included Critical Theory and Perspectives (CTP – required of all students), Visual Texts, British Children’s Literature 1900-1960, and Children’s Literature in Performance. I was especially impressed and engaged by the rigorous CTP module, which pushes students to apply various critical models, such as Marxism, Feminism or Psychoanalytic theory, to children’s books. I wrote my dissertation on graphic novels set around WWII and based on memories of the creators: Barefoot GenMaus and Ethel & Ernest. (There’s a list of dissertation topics up to this point here, and shows the breadth of topics people write about).

  

I graduated in 2002 with a great cohort of friends, many of whom I am still in touch with (such as Vanessa Joosen who teaches children’s literature at the University of Antwerp, Angela Colvert who teaches in the Education department at Roehampton University, Natasha Worswick who worked for Walker Books and now does freelance work for Booktrust, Posey Furnish who works at the General Teaching Council, and Leila Rasheed who is now a published children’s book author).

I am lucky now to be a part-time lecturer at the NCRCL. We are a close-knit team with a range of experience: Gillian Lathey, our director, whose expertise is children’s literature in translation; Lisa Sainsbury whose work currently focuses on children’s books and philosophy (alongside editing a series for Continuum); Liz Thiel who has published on the Victorian family and is now focusing on the degenerate child in nineteenth-century literature; and Alison Waller, who has published on YA fantasy and is currently looking at memories of childhood reading. Alison also runs the Distance Learning MA programme (DL) which has students from all over the world. It is a privilege to have five of us all teaching childen’s literature, as we can share ideas, resources and contacts.

While I primarily teach Creative Writing for a Young Audience to both MA and undergraduate students, I have also taught a DL Visual Texts module, as well as contributing to Children’s Literature in Migration, British Children’s Literature 1900-1960, and CTP. For the MA creative writing students, we meet once a week for a 2-hour session and focus on aspects of writing such as narrative voice, ideology and didacticism, the short story form, intertextuality and experimentation. Students write a short story for children and a self-critical analysis for their final submission. We have a combination of class writing exercises, peer review and tutorials to be sure that students get a good degree of feedback on their work. From my publishing experience, I am able to help students understand the children’s book market, but our main priority is learning the craft of writing for children.

I’m happy to answer questions if anyone has them. And I hope this helps anyone wondering about what is involved in a MA study of children’s literature.