To those visiting Roehampton University campus for the first time on 30thMay, the prospect of a talk on ‘mapping nonsense’ might have seemed apt, as building works required a circuitous route to be navigated to the car park. But the welcome at Duchesne building was, as always, warm and friendly for current and prospective students and alumni.
A brief coffee provided an energy boost to those of us who’d enjoyed an early start, and we moved into the lecture theatre where Lisa Sainsbury, on-site convener of the MA in Children’s Literature, introduced Olga Holownia (University of Iceland). Olga’s talk: ‘An Island made of water quite surrounded by earth’. Mapping out the seascape of nonsense literature took us on a journey through the works of children’s authors renowned for their nonsense writing, including Lear and Gorey, but with a focus on the illustrations that accompanied and enhanced their work. In particular, Olga looked at the use of maps, through which we attempt to structure our interpretation of a story, to make ‘sense’of ‘nonsense’ as it were. But even though the components of nonsense literature can be defined, as by Wim Tigges in his An Anatomy of Literary Nonsense, its very nature means that it is imprecise, playing with boundaries and subverting expectations. Olga’s visual voyage of images, rhymes, and ideas finished with a trip through the maelstrom, to arrive at a second coffee break.
This offered the opportunity to look at the Poster presentations created by current MA dissertation students: several were in attendance to discuss their research. With themes as diverse as dystopian Young Adult fiction, Harry Potter, and dogs in mythology it provided an insight for those considering the MA into the multiple directions in which the course can take you. Students answered questions from staff and visitors, including describing their research to author and Roehampton Chancellor, Professor Dame Jacqueline Wilson – who was to be the next speaker of the day.
Professor Wilson gave a humorous insight into her writing process, describing the inspiration behind her recently-published 100th book, Opal Plumstead, which is set just prior to the First World War. The book’s eponymous heroine is a fourteen-year-old girl who has to give up school to work in a factory when her father is imprisoned, and develops an interest in the suffragette movement. Professor Wilson talked about her character development, including creating a heroine that modern-day readers can identify with, and her historical research – which included an in-depth exploration of the sweet-making process.
The few hours of the NCRCL Open Day were packed with activity: tutors outlined their research interests and the MA programme; prizes were awarded to students Katharina Schaefers and Stephanie Tanizar for their poster presentations; the annual Pinsent Prize for outstanding work was presented to Eleanor Hamblen; an optional library tour of the collections and archives was available. And, of course, there were plenty of opportunities to chat and share ideas with fellow lovers of children’s literature.
Rebecca Wallis lives in Solihull and has just completed her second year of the MA Children’s Literature (Distance Learning). She is fascinated by children’s literature’s ability to subvert ideological structures, heterotopias in fantasy, and the gendered nature of magic, and is currently attempting to work up a proposal for her dissertation that combines these.