IBBY/NCRCL Conference Report: Parallel Presentations

In addition to the main IBBY/NCRCL Conference programme (you can read the report on the main programme here), we ran a series of parallel sessions responding to the theme ‘Beyond the Book’. People often say they wish they could attend more than one, so hopefully these summaries will help with that problem…

Workshop A:
Michelle Ann Abate. The Big Smallness: Niche Market Picture Books and the New Children’s Literature
Gwen Athene Tarbox. Just a Figment? Online Participatory Writing Communities and the Future of the YA Novel

Abate spoke about niche market publishing for children in the USA. She showed examples of her subject, including a book designed to explain to a young child the cosmetic surgery being administered to its parent and a book on the process of having a tattoo. My immediate reaction was to wonder how such weird niche publications would go down in Britain.

Tarbox’s subject was an online writing community, also based in the USA, aimed at teens and called Figment. Teens can publish their own fiction under genre headings similar to that used in offline publishing. They are also encouraged by earning badges to review and comment on each other’s work. She showed us the profiles of some of Figment’s most prolific contributors and explained how some had managed to publish further afield, as a result of their success in Figment. I was initially taken with the idea. But my enthusiasm waned when the true character of the website was made clear. Although it was intended to be used by educators to understand the literary interests and aspirations of young people, it had in reality become a marketing tool for publishers, who use it to work out where they can launch successful products. In the end a project that began life as an educational service proved that even the imaginations of teens are used to promote the interests of the almighty dollar.

(Rebecca Butler, alumnus of On-site MA)

Workshop B:
Mieke K.T. Desmet. SMELL THE COFFEE Miffy, Peter Rabbit, Paddington Bear and Co Sell Coffee and More
Kiera Vaclavik. The Dress of the Book: Children’s Literature, Fashion and Fancy Dress

Sadly, we were unable to get a summary of this session. If you attended the conference and would like to submit something, please get in touch.

Workshop C:
Ciara Gallagher. Virtual Worlds and New Literary Interactions in Salman Rushdie’sLuka and the Fire of Life
Maaike Palmier-Claus. The Blank Page: The Writing Process and the Creative Dissertation

Ciara opened the workshop with an examination of Salman Rushdie’s 2010 book Luka and the Fire of Life. The text engages with ideas of alternative realities. Ciara used two short films which are based on the novel to examine the themes within the text. The first film is the promotional film created to go with the publication of Luka and features Rushdie along with child narrators reading different sections from the text. The video reflects the non-linear nature of the narrative through jump cuts between Rushdie and child narrators. The second short film was the winner of a competition in Kingston University. It was an animated video that reflected the nature of the narrative through highlighting the element of computer games within the narrative and also looks at the tension between tradition and modernity in the relationship between the child protagonist and his father. There is a comic tone in the video but also a darker undercurrent which similarly reflects the ambiguity within the narrative in relation to the potential of the alternative realities. Using these two short films was a really interesting way to look at themes within the text, particularly the alternate realities in their potential benefits and pitfalls. There is an element of excitement in the possibilities of alternate realities, with the potential to change identities, endless opportunities and active diversity, but there is also a lack of actuality and a heavy commercialisation and an element of self-deception. Having not read the novel before the workshop I was definitely inspired to seek it out!

Maaike’s presentation dealt with the process of writing the creative dissertation. One of the opening lines of presentation was “Writing is like walking into a cave of self-doubt” and the emotional commitment necessary to complete a creative dissertation was highlighted throughout. Maaika explained her creative process moving from the short story module in the MA – which was a darkly comic story which began with a boy killing his father – to her creative dissertation which centred on the internal world of a teenage girl who is in a coma following an accident. Maaika highlighted the importance of getting to know your characters and her short readings of her story had most of us in tears, showing how emotionally powerful it was in just a few paragraphs. Definitely a dissertation I’d love to read more of.

(Sinead Moriarty, alumni On-site MA in Children’s Literature)

Workshop D:
Hannah Field. Children’s Movable and the Threat of the Mechanical Book
Carey Gibbons. Reimagining the Form of the Book: Su Blackwell’s Book Sculptures

Sadly, we were unable to get a summary of this session. If you attended the conference and would like to submit something, please get in touch.

Workshop E:
Kerenza Ghosh. Walking with Wolves: Children’s Responses to the Wolf Tradition in Stories
Sally Maynard. The Impact of E-Books on Young Children’s Reading Habits

Kerenza Gosh’s excellent talk highlighted her work with a group of upper Key Stage 2 children while they explored the wolf tradition in fairy stories. The children were already very aware of the wolf’s aggressive, gluttonous and dishonest reputation in folk and fairy tales, fables and legends. The children discussed the wolf stereotypes and also parodic subversions of these images. The film ‘Hoodwinked’ was especially enjoyed by the children, with its portrayal of a helpful detective wolf and some very suspect sheep. The children had produced their own illustrations based on a wide range of sources; traditional stories, films, Doctor Who episodes and factual diagrams. It was interesting that many children drew the wolf as howling at the moon, an activity not specifically linked to wolves, but perhaps linking to a Jungian cultural heritage of collective unconscious. On reading Walk With A Wolf by Janni Howker, illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies, empathetically showing the wolves in their natural environment, the children became more aware of the actuality of a wolf’s life. They were also fascinated that while watching a documentary of wolves hunting a bull elk, the wolf didn’t always succeed in killing its prey.

Karenza summarised that the constant literary smear campaign against the wolf has maintained the  almost primeval fear of wild animals, perhaps a necessary survival instinct in the days when wolves and men lived closely together. Today our fear of wolves has become perhaps more symbolic, though our fear of sinister strangers, we fantasise about the hybrid werewolf but a re-visioning of the wolf should really be sought in order to understand how they truly function in the wild. In the subsequent discussion, an interesting point was raised that although there were instances of female wolves providing nurturing tropes ( Mowgli, Romulus and Remus), the ‘big bad wolves’ were usually shown as male.

 Reading is widely considered to be an important part of childhood; it helps with countless aspects of children’s growth and maturation but recent reports have found that the amount of reading done by young people is decreasing. Sally Maynard opened her workshop by noting that reading has increasingly had to compete with television, computer games and hand held devices (including mobile phones) which have a particular emphasis on visual media. On questioning reluctant readers, their difficulties were not only due to the concentration levels but also to feelings of embarrassment in being seen reading a book. It is possible that e-books may be able to help by offering a more picture-based experience and also by utilising technology that the children are more comfortable with using in public.

The first project that Sally outlined was held in 1990 where children were asked to use CD-ROMs. These were designed to give a book-like experience (pages which ‘turned’ and bookmarks) but was operated using a computer. At the time it was suspected that girls did not enjoy the ‘new’ technology as much as boys, but in Sally’s study it was found that the girls enjoyed the electronic books just as much as the boys. It was not until 2010 when there were more advances in hand-held devices that Sally continued her research. Families were issued with a Kindle, a Nintendo DS Lite and an iPod Touch, preloaded with examples of software. Despite being a small sample, the children, in general, were more receptive than the adults, taking to the new devices enthusiastically. Sally was hopeful that with even more advances in technology (the iPad was launched in later in 2010) e-books would provide valuable reading experiences for reluctant readers.

(Hilary Clarke, current Distance Learning MA student)

Workshop F:
Erica Berry Irving. Beyond the ‘grown up child’: the quality of childness in Matilda: The Musical
Anne Malewski. Second to the Right & Straight on till Gallifrey: The Uses of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who

The Group F parallel discussions featured Erica Berry Irving’s discussion on the Stage Musical Adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. She posited that Matilda became a more active and revolutionary character compared to her largely passive and internalized role in Dahl’s original text. Musically, the show emphasizes Matilda’s hopeful, dreamer nature rather than the oppression of the adults over the “grown up child” of Matilda. The ancillary children were included in this exploration of ‘childness’ as they grow closer with Matilda, changing from a group of ‘I’s to a collective ‘We.’

Partnered with this was Ann Malewski’s presentation on Steven Moffat’s use of the Peter Pan mythology in Doctor Who. Amelia Pond was a key source of intermedial references. Just as Wendy meets Peter, Amy meets the Doctor as a child in her nightgown and we see her floating outside the TARDIS over a glowing space-scape. The incorporation of Barry’s text plays throughout Amy’s tenure as companion. Matt Smith’s Doctor is both “ageless and ancient”, like Peter. Neither has a home – Gallifrey having been destroyed in war, and Peter an orphan. The Doctor validates Amy’s childhood experiences as “Amy’s Imaginary friend,” much as Peter validates Wendy’s childhood experiences when he returns to take her daughter on an adventure. This mode of intermediality encourages viewers to become “detective viewers”, leading the audience to re-read the source text in order to gain a greater insight into the commercial fiction of Doctor Who. While Peter Pan is in the collective imagination of western audiences, repurposing its themes in this manner adds depth to both the source text and meaning to the target text.

(Carissa McQueen, current On-site MA student)

Workshop G:
Kirsty Jenkins. Enhancing the Experience: Rekindling and Renewing Forgotten Texts
Lucy Pearson. What’s the problem? Building teenage publishing in Britain

In their papers, chaired by Dr Alison Waller, Kirsty Jenkins and Lucy Pearson offered two perspectives on publishing for young people. Or is that a misleading term?

Jenkins explored the recent rise of small publishers dedicated to republishing children’s novels that have fallen out of print and out of season. Girls Gone By, to name one of many, specialise in school stories (such as Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet Girls), but their catalogue also runs to such surprising names as Geoffrey Trease. The accent is definitely on nostalgia, and Jenkins also talked about the huge volume of fan activity that goes way ‘beyond the book’, in the form of original fiction, scholarly activity and even winter holidays.

Pearson, author of a new monograph on children’s publishing, talked about Kaye Webb’s faltering approach to repeating her great success with Puffin Books by launching teen-oriented Peacock Books. Pearson read Webb’s misreading of her own readers in the context of a cultural anxiety over the ‘problem’ of teenagers, and the recommendation of Aidan Chambers (ignored at first, later vindicated) that young adult readers – particularly reluctant ones – deserved their own literature. Together, the very different subjects of these papers suggested that new and valuable models of reader engagement can be led and originated by publishers themselves.

(Nick Campbell, current PhD student)

Workshop H: 
Marta Borges and Sandie Mourão. Planeta Tangerina: an editorial concept that pushes boundaries
Dominique Sandis. Greek Children’s Literature in the Digital Age: An overview

In workshop H, Marta, Sandie and I, under Penni Cotton’s forever caring eyes, presented our cosy group with two different perspectives of publishing in the realm of children’s books.

Filled with excitement and pride, Marta Borges and Sandie Mourao, presented the independent and exceptionally innovative publishing house, Planeta Tangerina , from Portugal. Specialising in picture books, the editorial/creative team of Planeta Tangerina believe that the picturebook is one of the most challenging arenas for experimentation. They have two house rules: do not follow formulas and always challenge the reader. Marta and Sandie described the internal dynamics of the publishing house – the relationships that are nurtured between the creators and how these have influenced their books. Throughout their presentation, they showed us examples of the books which were met with awe. In addition to the creation and publication of their books, the publishing house also follows marketing and promotional techniques that further aid in constructing the ultimate literary experience for all those who come in contact with the books. Marta and Sandie provided tangible evidence of the notion of “beyond” the book – from its initial birth, creation and through to the reader’s ultimate engagement.

Next, I presented our group with a brief overview of the digital developments in Greek children’s publishing. Some 2500 e-titles have made available by the end of 2011 by approximately 50 publishers, including backlist titles and new releases. While the greater part of ebook sales belongs to adult fiction and non-fiction, scattered sales of YA fiction titles have been noted. Sadly sales of children’s e-books are still scarce. The majority of eBook buyers tend to hail from Greece and Cyprus, yet sales are also notable in countries that retain strong Greek speaking immigrant populations (i.e. US, UK, Australia and Canada). Psichogios Publications is currently the biggest ebook publisher in Greece and a pioneer in publishing interactive picture book apps in Greece. Its apps were briefly presented to the group. While there are many aspects, both positive and negative, discussed about the digital age, a positive effect that was noted was that digital developments have in fact offered national literature previously constrained by language, borders and their small readership with a way out of confinement. Apps, for example, are deliberately aimed at an international market and produced in additional languages other than the home market (i.e. English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese). Each new app is made as innovative and advanced as possible so to become internationally competitive and accessible across cultures while retaining their unique national flavor. We can only hope that originality, exciting plots, clever ideas and fun illustrations will help to make an impact.

When the presentations came to an end, our group entered into a discussion regarding children’s book publishing in general, beginning with a small conversation about the situation in Greece and then moving on to explore the different trends that have been noticed lately, especially in YA literature. It was a very open and honest discussion and I came away having shared but also learned many different things about this further aspect that is so closely tied to the book, but yet can often go so far beyond it.

(Dominique Sandis, completed PhD student)