Happily Ever After: The Power of Story

The 24th annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 11th November 2017 at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education in London. This year’s theme was ‘Happily Ever After: The Evolution of Fairy Tales Across Time and Cultures’. Nick Campbell, who completed his PhD with the NCRCL this year, reports on his experience of the conference.

Once upon a time, not my time, not your time, but a very good time, a bold traveller arrived at a marvellous, gleaming building, in a city of endless rains – and there, I was given a cup of coffee, a biscuit and a schedule for the annual IBBY/NCRCL conference. This year, the theme of the conference was fairy tales: telling them, retelling them and rereading them.

There is a strange magic in the collaborative nature of this conference: the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature, and the International Board on Books for the Young, which seeks to promote international understanding through children’s books. Added to that interdisciplinary character was our venue that day, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education. The conference audience was formed of teachers, librarians, academics, writers and illustrators, representing many perspectives and experiences. This multiplicity was reflected in the speakers: researchers, writers, a translator, an illustrator, a publisher.

blackberry blue

Cover of Jamila Gavin’s fairy tale collection Blackberry Blue. Image via illustrator Richard Collingridge

My own viewpoint is double, like the story of the woman with faery ointment on one eye only: I’ve just completed a Doctorate with the NCRCL, partly looking at ways children’s novelists have used folk tales, rooting unreal tales in solid places. At the same time, I work in a bookshop and am alive to the responsibility that accompanies such potent ideology and such irresistible tales.

The opening presentation, indeed, was a challenge to both original tales and retellings. Vanessa Joosen, a graduate of Roehampton’s MA in Children’s Literature, currently lectures at the University of Antwerp, specialising in fairy tales. Here, she looked at them in terms of age studies: how do they present girls and elderly women, and what about the generation between, who so rarely get anything to do? Why aren’t Japanese tales with elderly protagonists (such as “The Old Man Who Made Withered Trees to Blossom”) told in the West? Joosen described the ways certain tales are retold in order to address one character’s agency, as in Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch, whilst incidentally perpetuating ageist discourse. The “wise old mentor” trope, for example, is often innately impassive and purely of service to the young.

That challenge was a lens for Daniel Hahn’s interview with Hilary McKay and Deirdre Sullivan, each of whom published fairy tale retellings in 2017. Sullivan’s work (for YA readers) is clearly intended as critique and subversion of so many tales told to children about women whose only role is “earning husbands – that’s not okay and it’s not true.” It does its work with the “immersive and unsettling” intimacy of the second person, and a focus on the human body. In her tales, McKay looked for a disregarded character with an interesting new point of view, such as the Mayor in the tale of the Pied Piper. I was taken with her description of a fairy tale’s universality, as a line on a map with signposts and markings, which each reader follows for themselves. Both writers, it seemed, were producing a sense of strangeness out of the tension of universality and subjectivity.

Lina Iordanaki _Daniel Hahn, Hilary McKay and Deidre Sullivan

Daniel Hahn, Hilary McKay, and Deirdre Sullivan

In the parallel session (one of three) that I attended, Jennifer Duffy explored Sulivan’s Tangleweed and Brine even further, suggesting that it has quickly found admirers within and outside children’s literature research. The session also included an exploration of Beatrix Potter’s love of fairy tales, by Elizabeth Jacklin, curator of the Frederick Warne archive at the Victoria & Albert Museum. This was a reminder for me of the personal, illuminating secrets hidden in archives, awaiting exploration by researchers. How much was Potter influenced by the fairy tales of her childhood – their beauty, their sense of justice, their bloodthirstiness?

Potter was a naturalist and mycologist who paid close attention to animal physiognomy – yet the world she depicts is far from wild. Her animals are in service to their human tales. You can’t imagine Jackie Morris putting her animals in bonnets and breeches. The magic of her work comes from close attention – looking at animals, listening for tales in the landscape. Morris was alert, also, to accusations of cultural appropriation. Does she have the right, for instance, to retell the tale of the fisherman and the Selkie? She emphasised her deep appreciation for the tales of other cultures – the Native American tales of nature’s animus, for instance, which made more sense to her as a child than Christian tales of humans as “stewards of nature”.

Lina Iordanaki _Jackie Morris

Jackie Morris

Morris spoke of the need for more diverse voices in publishing, but distinguished that from the rootless, travelling magic of story itself. In a panel discussion that followed, Sally Pomme Clayton, a professional storyteller, recalled a Kurdish proverb, that stories travel without need of passports. (Clayton went on to conclude the day’s events with a thrilling tale of Baba Yaga’s daughter. Hoo! Hoo!)

Beverley Naidoo, the celebrated South African children’s writer, spoke of two duties: the freedom of the writer, and another duty of social justice and access for writers to publishing. She talked about her love for Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book as a child, and a conscious dissociation from them when she saw their attachment to colonialism. In more recent years, Naidoo has worked more with traditional tales, including a collection of Aesop’s Fables that draws out their African origins. Jamila Gavin, another important contributor to children’s literature, spoke of her love for fairy tales since childhood: “I accepted them as one accepted food.” She described reading deeper into such tales, seeing that they had travelled – as Morris had earlier said – down trade routes, across borders. With a sense of herself as a writer of cultural transition, Gavin invented new tales in a European fairy tale tradition, with people of colour as her protagonists.

Lina Iordanaki_Beverley Naidoo, Jamila Gavin, IBBY Host, Delaram Ghanimifard

Beverley Naidoo, Jamila Gavin, Ann Lazim, Sally Pomme Clayton, and Delaram Ghanimifard

Naidoo and Gavin have both written for independent publisher Tiny Owl, represented on the panel by its founder, Delaram Ghanimifard. She spoke of how difficult it is, in modern publishing, for picture books that represent other cultures – and how she doesn’t want to see it die. Tiny Owl, she said, was committed to books as bridges between cultures.

In this project, the panel reflected the interests of IBBY and the interdisciplinarity of the day as a whole. Many tales, many tellers, an audience full of diverse perspectives – with plenty for researchers to explore, illuminate and critique – but one central belief in the transcendental power of story.

Dr Nick Campbell is a writer, researcher and children’s bookseller living in London. He gained his doctorate from the University of Roehampton in 2017, and was the first doctoral student to benefit from the Jacqueline Wilson Scholarship. He is interested in the publishing and critical history of children’s literature, and its capacity to disconcert readers. His favourite fairy tale is “The King of the Cats”.

Photos by Lina Iordanaki.

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