The 21st annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 8 November 2014 at the University of Roehampton. This year’s theme was ‘Belonging is… an exploration of the right to be included and the barriers that must be overcome’. This week on the NCRCL blog, alumni and current NCRCL students will be reporting on various aspects of the conference, including the speakers, panelists and parallel sessions.
Gay Boyhoods and Ultimate Outsiders: Parallel Session E
By Erica Gillingham
Parallel Session E of the IBBY/NCRCL MA conference began with Michele Gill‘s paper entitled ‘”Out, but not so Proud?”: The Representation of Gay Boyhoods in Contemporary British Young Adult Fiction’. Unfortunately, Gill could not be there on the day, but kindly sent her paper anyway and it was read by the session chair, Alison Waller of NCRCL. The premise for Gill’s paper was to analyse the patterns in young adult fiction in terms of their representation of gay male characters in the UK since the new millennium. She noted that since that time there has been a shift in UK publishing (as well as in the US and Australia) in the ways in which male characters are already identified as gay within the text and questioned whether this was a shift away from the ‘issue novel’ style handling of sexuality into a style of narrative that was more inclusive.
Gill utilised R.W. Connell’s Masculinties (1993) to look at the ways in which some boys are privileged over others, and how that might effect the representation of ‘boyhood’ vs ‘gay boyhood’ in young adult fiction. Some examples of the novels Gill looked at included: Lucky (2004) by Eddie de Oliveira, My Side of the Story (2007) by Will Davis, and What’s Up With Jody Barton? (2012) by Hayley Long. Gill noted that there was an overall acceptance of the gay male characters in the novels, but that their sexuality was still set up as problematic–‘ambivalent representations’ of gay boyhoods at best. In light of those findings, quoting US author David Levithan, Gill called for more novels that allowed their characters to simply ‘be’.
Librarian Jennifer Smith spoke next, her paper entitled ‘The Ultimate Outsider: The Misfit Persona of Protagonists in Popular Young Adult Fiction’. For her talk, Smith was interested in the ‘misfit persona’ as found in popular young adult fiction–indeed, best-selling fiction–and suggested that teenage readers are likely to relate to the ‘outsider’ status of their favourite protagonists because teenagers may feel like ‘outsiders’ at that age as well. She compared the protagonists in each of the following popular series and/or best-selling novels: Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the Twilight saga by Stephanie Meyer, Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth, and The Fault in Our Stars (2012) by John Green. Smith discussed how some characters were born or quickly came into their ‘outsider’ status–such as Harry being brought up by the Dursley family and Hermione being born a ‘muggle’ in Harry Potter–in contrast to other ‘outsider’ characters who have some choice in the matter–like Katniss in Hunger Games who is both set apart from the community by her family structure but also volunteers as tribute (an ultimate outsider) in place of her sister. Overall, Smith argued that it is the agency of these ‘misfit’ characters, particularly Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, that offer new approaches of what it means to be an ‘outsider’ and what confidence can be gained from that status.
Erica Gillingham is a PhD student with NCRCL at the University of Roehampton. Her research looks at lesbian romance in contemporary young adult fiction, and she has taught classes on feminisms and queer theory, LGBT picture books, and subversive children’s literature. Erica is editor of the NCRCL blog and also on Twitter.