NCRCL Conference Report: Part I

A few of our Distance Learning MA students took notes while attending the NCRCL Conference: Children’s Literature and the Inner World which took place on May 12th. This is the first of two reports: the next one will include summaries of Alison Waller‘s excellent lecture which opened the day and Philip Gross‘s thought-provoking discussion of his creative practice, which closed the event, as well as Workshop 1. For those who couldn’t attend this intellectually-stimulating conference, you can get a taste of what you missed.

Val Edgar wrote about David Rudd’s plenary talk:

Before lunch David Rudd presented “Inner and Outer, One Moebius Strip Later.” In this lively and highly entertaining talk Rudd linked the Moebius strip which confounds notions of inner and outer with the child in literature. Moving back and forth between the thoughts and theories of Lacan, Derrida and Freud and his chosen key texts, Rudd challenged traditional ways of thinking about fantasy and realism which link fantasy exclusively with the inner self. Rudd started by highlighting the inner self of Hetty’s dream landscape in Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce. He went on to explain how Max’s ineffectual outward anger in Where the Wild Things Are quickly turns to the inner rumpus we all so love. On that thought he paid tribute to Maurice Sendak, recently deceased. Rudd gave an example-packed summary of the notions of inner and outer in Anthony Browne’s Zoo. He described how Browne plays around with the inner/outer divide using binary opposites. One example of his fascinating analysis focussed on the close up illustrated image of a gorilla. Rudd explained that with the size and intense detail there is too much of him to contain, but on the reverse page is the image of a boy with cage bar shadows. Could this inner/ outer reverse be the gorilla’s fantasy of the caged human? He went on to explore the uncanny in the Alice stories, explaining the effect when familiar words erupt with strangeness. Rudd’s presentation was full and varied, leaving me contemplating this inner/outer divide.

And here are Deborah Bacon’s notes on Farah Mendelsohn’s plenary lecture:

Refreshed by lunch and the unaccustomed warmth of some Roehampton sunshine, we settled to listen to Farah Mendlesohn share with us what she claimed were rushed thoughts about the “Child” to which we refer when we speak of child readers.  She took as her starting point Jacqueline Rose’s much-discussed point that children’s literature is impossible because it is written by adults who have a vested interest in seeing the “Child” as something “Other”.  Mendlesohn made the point that in fact any writer is very often writing for someone they are not, in that most readers are not writers as well (a point subsequently questioned by Philip Gross).    In fact, there is a point of contact that makes the process of writing for children that much more possible – all adults were once children!  Mendlesohn reflected that different people remember their childhoods with varying intensity and fullness – perhaps it is just that Rose did not vividly remember being a child.

Mendlesohn also warned against seeking to lump all young readers together, for we are presumptuous to think we can get at the inner life of any child and ideas of childhood may in fact have little to do with what it is actually like to be a child.  She referred to Look at Kids by Leila Berg.  However, as important as the knowledge that we can only know other people incompletely is the knowledge that we are programmed to try to seek out another’s Inner Self.

Just to mention a couple of the additional factors that Mendlesohn drew particular attention to: the danger that, in lumping children together, we may fail to notice a mismatch between reading ability and maturity of comprehension, and also the unreliability of memories of childhood:  how can we ever know that what we believe we remember is not just a fiction constructed on the basis of some need of our own? Mendlesohn referred to the work of Cordelia Fine.  In Mendlesohn’s own experience, memories formed of vivid images are more historically reliable than narrative-type memories.

Mendlesohn had introduced her talk by indicating that, because of an unanticipated extra workload, her thoughts had not been worked up into a fully-rounded argument.  Nevertheless there were lots of extremely thought-provoking ideas that I certainly shall carry with me in my researches and my more general interaction with children.

Deborah also wrote on Workshop 2: Love and Embarrassment

The first speaker, Magdalena Sikorska, looked at the way in which visual texts incorporate images that seek to convey and evoke emotions. Magdalena drew on a wide variety of texts, many of which were unknown to me as they originated from Poland and elsewhere. She drew very much on her own personal responses to the images and how they reinforced the emotional content of the narrative of the books. What struck me was not only the vast amount that can be conveyed by a seemingly very simple illustration but also what a huge variety of pictorial styles are used to illustrate children’s books – I will seriously consider the Visual Texts module next year!

The second speaker, Erica Gillingham, spoke about the portrayal of falling in love and coming out in Young Adult fiction. Erica looked at a number of novels published since 2000 in which the experience of falling in love for lesbian, gay or bisexual teenagers is handled, sometimes as part of a process of acknowledging sexuality and coming out, sometimes as part of a narrative that sees the teenagers as untroubled by others’ reactions to their sexuality. I found the talk extremely interesting, and will be particularly intrigued to watch how portrayals of this subject change in the next few years to reflect altering attitudes.

The third speaker, Anthony Pavlik, considered anthropomorphism in children’s literature. His starting point was that there seems to have been a lot of dismissive criticism of anthropomorphism in recent years, although the consensus in the room was that generally it is “a good thing”. Anthony mainly discussed anthropomorphism as a way to open up children’s appreciation of the animal world and thereby encouraging respect and consideration for the animal and wider natural world. What the talk left me thinking about in particular was what a particular child might actually think of a pig in a story who can speak English – do they learn to respect its “pigness” or is it rather a distanced version of a child or adult that they encounter?

Val Edgar wrote the following reports on Workshop 3: Interiority and Children’s Reading.

Jeffrey Canton’s lively and passionate presentation, “Curiouser and Curioser: A Childist Approach to Reading Children’s Literature”, focused on three texts to explore the sense of childness of modern children using the strategies of Mary Galbraith. Firstly he introduced and passed around copies of Michele leMieux’s Stormy Night, a lengthy picture book with minimal text which displays the deep philosophical thoughts of the inner child.  He questioned: Why shouldn’t children have these thoughts? Next as we sat in tense silence Canton highlighted some of the gripping and disturbing examples of the value systems of a child which appear in Nothing by Janne Teller where a bike, a pair of sandals, and a girl’s virginity all carry equal weight. Canton went on to express his scepticism about education today, seeing it as a process of socialisation rather than engaging in critical thinking. In his final chosen text, I’ll Be Watching You by Pamela Porter, Canton praised the representation of the reality of being a child, with authentic adult characters, both good and bad. He finished by confirming what I’m sure many of us already believe, that the best place to find the inner world of childhood is in children’s literature.  He strongly recommended Peter Hollindale’s Signs of Childness in Children’s Books.

The next speaker, Margot Stafford, presented “Beauty and the The My Book House Home Library: Childhood Reading as Interior Design”. Stafford outlined the history of the 1920 USA home library for children which led them from first texts through to adolescence. She explained the importance of aestheticism, as reading beautiful books was considered in the period to make the child’s inner space beautiful thereby forming a positive adult. She also discussed the “house beautiful” movement which has seen a move from the beauty of the home feeding the spirit to being a vehicle to show off one’s good taste. Stafford went on to highlight interesting features of the chosen home library texts:  the somewhat questionable attempts at internationalism; the focus on beauty on every page also taking in unexpected aestheticism such as a gentle illustration of city smoke.

To be continued…

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About Laura Atkins

I am a children's book author and editor who has worked in the children's book field for over twenty years. My published books include picture book SLED DOG DACHSHUND (illustrated by An Phan), and the middle grade biography FRED KOREMATSU SPEAKS UP (co-written with Stan Yogi, illustrated by Yutaka Houlette). This is the first in the Fighting for Justice series - the next book about Biddy Mason to be co-written with Arisa White will come out in February 2019. I spent seven years in editorial departments in the United States where I helped to produce winners of the Coretta Scott King Award and American Library Association Notable Book selections, among others. I continued to work as a freelance editor and as a Senior Lecturer at the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature (NCRCL) at Roehampton University in London. Now based in Berkeley, California, I work with clients all over the world. I have an MA in Children's Literature from Roehampton University, and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. My website is www.lauraatkins.com.

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