Review written by Marcia Kean
A Distance Learner Finds Her Way to Roehampton At Last!
One of the most delightful aspects of the Roehampton Distance Learning program is the opportunity to chat with our tutors on the phone during the semester. Now, double that pleasure for an actual onsite visit, which I did last month for the ‘Being Human in YA Literatures’ symposium and the MA Open Day. I used these events as my ‘excuse’ and Virgin Atlantic was happy to carry me across the Pond from Boston. Here, I share my experiences of both events.
‘Being Human in YA Literatures’
The campus was lovely on a spring day, and staying at Elm Grove provided a great vantage point to enjoy it. My room had a view of the pond and surrounding trees, and I could look towards the Library and see others heading across campus. A few steps brought me to the Duchesne building, and to a warm welcome from the symposium organizer Emily Corbett and a few fellow Distance students – at last, faces to connect with names!
Alison Waller’s keynote (“Homework, High Streets, and Cups of Tea: Being Ordinary in YA Fantastic Realism”) was, like all her work, erudite and fascinating. She asked us if being human really is being ‘ordinary’, and noted that as teenagers, we learn how ordinariness shapes us. The texts she analyzed (Patrick Ness’ Release and Melvin Burgess’ The Lost Witch) bring the ordinary into the discourse for young adults. Adolescents, of course, have deep anxiety over their ‘normalness’ or lack thereof, and commonplace objects that situate us can be appealing to them. In these texts, the ordinary pervades the extraordinary worlds, and the authors use the flow of time to contrast quotidian routines with catalyzing moments. Alison observed too that there are different cultural practices of the ordinary in the UK compared with the US – different icons represent various lifestyles – suggesting that material culture is ordinary only in its own context.
In the first parallel session I chose, Yolanda Hood set a dramatic tone in her talk (“The Disavowal of Fast Black Girls and Cunts: Love and Sex in Young Adult Literature by African American Authors”). She asked when young black girls ever see each other in normalized love relationships. Referencing Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, Yolanda explored the strong black woman trope, an image that encourages black women to do everything without any support, at a huge cost to themselves. She cited hip hop scholars who have commented on social media about sexual ‘scripts,’ including the diva, the gold digger, the weirdo, the dyke, the gangster bitch, the sister savior, the earth mother, and the baby mama. Early sexualization negatively impacts the social/cognitive development of black girls, to their detriment. References to Rudine Sims Bishop’s work shed light on the “windows, mirrors, and doors” experiences of black girls. Mary Ann Harlan balanced Yolanda’s talk with her presentation on “Collective Voice: Fighting Back in Moxie and The Nowhere Girls,” from her viewpoint on information literacy. Young Adult literature could be a place to fight misogyny, she suggested, but in YA literatures, girls often struggle alone and do not challenge the patriarchy. The two texts she analyzed provide a model for counteracting a culture that silences girls. (Note to self: next time clone myself and sit in on both parallel sessions to avoid missing great talks!)
The Plenary session by Leah Phillips on “Reframing Myths of Adolescent Girlhood” covered the terrain of being the ‘hero,’ an archetypal character who is essentially adolescent. The thing that is never questioned, she noted, is the hero’s body: male, heterosexual, able-bodied. But, what happens to people who don’t fit the hero’s physical attributes? Leah covered the phenomenon of girl power, and mythopoeic YA texts that create the exceptional female hero and frustrate the binary opposition of the hero myth. She asked us if YA is in fact a misnomer, since it is a liminal field of literature, media and culture. Leah invited us to join the YA Literature, Media, and Culture Association that she launched to connect YA scholars.
Alas, another choice between parallel sessions: I opted for Emma Reay (“To err is human, to forgive, divine”: Intergenerational Recognition in Young Adult Videogames) and Ronan Kelly (“Focalising Adolescence in a Troubled World: Inventive use of storytelling modes to foreground pertinent questions in YA novel Eva and teen superhero film Chronicle”). Emma noted that videogames raise philosophical and practical questions about equating fallibility with humanity, and she asked if youngsters forgive the older generation. Videogames are well suited for reflective imaginings, and even if not explicitly targeted to YA audiences, they really are for them. Ronan considered post-human narratives that question the centrality of humans over other creatures: in Eva, there is a questioning of human knowledge and its purposes. In Chronicle, where the camera and events exist together, the viewer perhaps becomes complicit, as the camera brings us closer to abuse and trauma. Is it a commentary on the lack of a moral compass?
In the final plenary session, Amy Waite tantalized us with “Teeming Stomachs and Infinite Spirals: Posthuman Anxiety in John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down and Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here,” in which she considered post-human anxiety in those texts, and the forces that make every activity difficult. YA includes tropes of post-human potential, but there are mental health dangers embedded in that force. Finally, as both researcher and tireless moderator for the day, Emily Corbett gave a paper entitled ‘“I’m a girl. A real girl, at last.” Transgender Bodies in Young Adult Superhero Fiction.’ Exploring the Nemesis series, Emily discussed what it means to have the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ body in which a person can be trapped, and how problematic it can be to show gender transformation as either easy or super-difficult.
What a day – it felt like taking a semester’s course packed into 8 hours! But relaxation came quickly in the form of drinks and dinner at the local pub for those who had time – yet another way to engage with the experts both external and on the faculty at Roehampton.
MA Open Day
The Open Day was more casual, but no less provocative. Karen Williams’ talk on “The Creation and Reception of the Juvenile Christmas Annual” spotlighted the tiny juvenile books that were bound and illustrated in their heyday of 1823-1859. For readers, we learned, these publications were like training grounds for reading novels, as they were read aloud in groups. Their editors were curators, uniting the disparate writings and carefully structuring the stories to move children from piece to piece.
In the hallway, we viewed posters created by MA students doing their dissertations.
Sadly, I had to leave before the close of the day’s program – but I don’t doubt I shall return next year. I hope other Distance Students will make the trek as well! I am so grateful to the instructors I met in person — Alison Waller, Lisa Sainsbury, and Nicki Humble — for being so welcoming to me and for being such academic super-stars!
Marcia Amsterdam Kean enrolled in the Roehampton Masters program in Children’s Literature after a long career in science and health care communications. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts with her husband, and is currently at work on a picture book about her cat who uses the computer to make friends with other cats online.