Travels in Children’s Literature

We asked two of the current students of the MA in Children’s Literature, Judith Digby and Katharina Schaefers, to write about their experiences from the Travels in Children’s Literature module taught by Dr Alison Waller in Spring 2015.

As part of the MA in Children’s Literature, the Travel in Children’s Literature module aims to ‘examine the importance of travel and journeys in classic and contemporary children’s literature. Through texts such as the seminal Gulliver’s Travels and more recent books such as The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean, students will explore the role of literary children as explorers and adventurers, but also as refugees, migrants, tourists, and students of the world. From accounts of personal odysseys to stories of historical or fantastic voyages, the texts studied will raise questions about how children can move through geographical and imaginative space, as well as issues of nation, race and culture.’

To find out more about Travels in Children’s Literature or the MA/PGDip programme, read Judith and Katharina’s reviews below and consider attending the NCRCL Open Day or Virtual Open Day 2015.

10 things I took away from Travels in Children’s Literature

By Judith Digby

  1. In week one we looked at travel writing and discussed what journeying meant to us. I discovered that Gulliver’s Travels was not as boring as I had thought.
  2. Week two was about quests and I learnt that there’s more to The Hobbit than hairy feet and second breakfasts. Our inspiring discussion touched on the home-away-home format, Gandalf’s role and the potentially essentialist nature of the different ‘races’ of creatures and much, much more.
  3. The third seminar dealt with the teaching of geography and it struck me that old maps and school texts helped make young Brits think the world revolved around them.
  4. The ‘us and them’ theme continued when we looked at Rider Haggard’s She in week four as part of our consideration of Empire and the Other and the orientalist discourse. I found the text complex and wondered whether ‘She who must be obeyed’ was used in an ironic anti-feminist way.
  5. I was looking forward to week five on Exploration as the texts were Journey to the River Sea and Babar but I had car trouble so I learnt a rather prosaic lesson.
  6. Another recurrent theme of the Master’s course caused lively debate in week six on The Middle Passage – what are suitable subjects for children’s books? We were disturbed by Paula Fox’s The Slave Danceras we should be and probably children should be too.
  7. Week seven brought more upsetting reading about Refugees and Migrants with Elizabeth Laird’s compelling account of the escape of a Kurdish family in Kiss the Dust and Sarah Garland’s Azzi in Between. Focusing on individual lives helped to put faces and stories to tragic displacements.
  8. We went on a study trip in week eight to the area around St Paul’s Cathedral and thought about Literary Tourism, discussing Bhajju Shyam’s London Jungle Book in a pub after a treasure hunt. My abiding memory is of going up in a great glass elevator at One New Change and discovering St George and the dragon and a beautiful twilight view over London.
  9. Keith Gray’s Ostrich Boys divided us with its dark humour and Sharon Creech’s The Wanderer revealed some of its layers of meaning as we discussed Voyages and Road Trips in week nine.
  10. We were intrigued and fascinated by Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness in the final week when the theme was Wilderness and City Scapes and new literary forms were opened up to some of us with the interactive Inanimate Alice.
Throughout the module our tutor, Dr Alison Waller, expertly guided our discussion and elicited responses some of us didn’t know we could voice. I audited the course. I think that means listening in and not having to write the essay, rather than looking for business irregularities. Whichever way, my rating would be A1. It was very inspiring and I now have a reading list to last me into old age.



Travels in Children’s Literature: A Module Review

By Katharina Schaefers

This module– as the title already indicates – focused on the notion of travel and traveling in the context of Children’s Literature. We started by thinking about the genre of travel writing and how it might be applied to different texts. Everyone seemed to agree that the multifarious portrayal of journeys gives us useful tools to open up the dialog and to gain an understanding of different thematic aspects. As our discussion progressed we also started to locate the thematic aspects and stylistic devices the authors use and named them. We thought that the child/adolescent perspective on culture, geography, history, identity, nation, space, and time was very much foregrounded in the novels we read. The negotiation of belonging somewhere and the navigation of children through a world ruled and shaped by adults was very important to us.

We also looked at the transformative quality that traveling seemed to have in all of the novels – how not only maturation, but change in general were almost always visible. Within this discussion, we discovered the importance of the different roles for traveling children. Depending on the purpose for their journey, they could be an adventurer, hero, refugee, migrant, tourist, student or victim of other special circumstances. We particularly looked at the point of view of children/adolescents in relation to isolation and survival. Through careful consideration of the texts, we decided that they often rely on their instincts and intelligence/world knowledge. Also, the modes of transportation and the actual carrying out of the journey itself were examined. As children usually depend on adults (public transportation, parents or guardians) to travel, we stressed the importance of recognising both the autonomous and the dependant aspects of the modes of transportation in the novels.

From this idea, we concluded that the mode of transportation or the mode of traveling in general also highly depends on the spaces in which the child/adolescent finds him- or herself. In the city, the child/adolescent can turn into a flâneur and observe and wander through the streets. The easily accessible public transportation allows for quick departures. At the same time, an urban environment stands for danger and is limited by adults. In the wilderness, a child can test limits and act more independently, but cannot travel easily (as they cannot drive a car or often there is no public transport).

Even though we had a different guiding topic for each week (quests, empire, exploration, literary tourism, roadtrips, wilderness, cityscapes, etc.), we concluded that many of the above mentioned thematic aspects overlap in the novels and that they can also usefully work to create the “ingredients” for the genre of travel writing for children and adolescents. Usually, we had to read two novels for each week and one or two secondary texts. It was very helpful and productive to consider the parallels between the novels and also the secondary reading was a supportive springboard for the discussion. The class was very interactive and everybody had the chance to contribute to the outcome and shape of the seminar.


About Erica Gillingham

Academic, Writer, Craft. LGBT Children's Literature. London, UK, via California ·

2 thoughts on “Travels in Children’s Literature

  1. It was very useful to see a week by week overview for the Travels in Children’s Literature module, as outlined by Judith Digby. It would be great to see this done for other modules as it provides a great insight in to the course for prospective students like myself.

    • Thanks, Georgina! I’m so glad you found the overview useful; I will let Judith know as well. For this term, we don’t have any more module ‘reviews’ scheduled for the blog, but we are looking to do another one in the autumn. Are you able to attend one of the open days this coming weekend? There will be a number of students on hand (past and present) who could discuss various courses with you if you’re looking to start an MA sometime soon.

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