Ontological Dialogues & Metaphysical Structures: NCRCL Research Talk with Lisa Sainsbury

paul kidby

Illustration for Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Paul Kidby

“It’s not someone unless it can talk! Otherwise it’s just food!”
Ontological Dialogues and the Metaphysical Structures of Children’s Literature

Dr Lisa Sainsbury, NCRCL
Department of English and Creative Writing, University of Roehampton

In this talk I will reveal a pattern of dialogue that can be found in children’s books across different periods and cultures. The ‘ontological argument’ is a polemical vein that runs through dialogues in children’s literature from Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) by Philippa Pearce to Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (2014). Evaluations of power are central to dialogues that rehearse tensions between Kantian and Cartesian notions of existence as property — and I show that changing attitudes to childhood and its literature can be traced in the way these dialogues are framed. Some of these arguments are between one child and another (peer dialogues), as is the case in Pearce’s novel, while others are between adults and children (adult-child dialogues), as in The Book of Everything (2006) by Guus Kuijer. The dialogues offer a form for the working through of power relations rooted in and out of existential crisis. For the characters involved, being is at stake in the dialogue — ‘Nothing exists any longer. I don’t either’ (Kuijer 2006: 14) — and the common factor across these texts is this sort of ontological struggle. The wider significance of this existential concern is revealed by the ubiquity of such dialogue and I will suggest that close examination of the ontological argument is key to understanding the formal structures and deep concerns of children’s literature.

Wednesday 21st March 2018, 1-2pm*
Fincham Building, Fi 001
Digby Stuart College, University of Roehampton


* Please note that this talk will be accompanied by a research talk by Dr Kate Teltscher: ‘“Gigantic children of the sun”: Kew’s Palm House and the Victorian Cultural Imagination’


Kay Waddilove: Motherhood in 1950s Populist Children’s Literature

You are warmly invited to

‘Housewife or Citizen? Constructing Motherhood in Populist Children’s Literature of the 1950s’
Kay Waddilove, NCRCL PhD Candidate, Roehampton University


1957 cover of John Bull magazine. Image via Gillian Thomas.

The talk examines the construction of motherhood in stories by four popular children’s writers in the context of post-war citizenship. Giving central importance to the family was seen by government as a crucial part of national reconciliation after the Second World War, and a new concept of wives and mothers as citizens was to emerge. The traditional female role became a lynchpin of consensus, and the consequent gendered notions of citizenship for women conflated their performance of the maternal biological and nurturing role with their proficiency as housewives. This talk will situate representations of mothers by popular authors such as Noel Streatfeild and Enid Blyton within such discursive constructions of maternity during the 1950s.

Wednesday 7th December
1-2 pm
Fincham 001, Roehampton University


Research Talk: Transitional Identities: Crossing the Threshold in Young Adult Genre Fiction

English and Creative Writing Research Talk

‘Transitional Identities: Crossing the Threshold in Young Adult Genre Fiction’

Human Sadri, University of Gothenburg

Wednesday 19th October, 1pm

Fincham 001, Digby Stuart, University of Roehampton

Do the protagonists of Young Adult genre narratives correspond to the status of monomythical hero, and if so to what extent? 

Maria Nikolajeva has noted that fiction written specifically for a younger audience tends to correspond to the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey, as defined by the mythologist Joseph Campbell. This pattern describes the trajectory of the protagonist of any given narrative from that which they are now towards the person they are ultimately meant to become. Nikolajeva argues that “[t]he hero in Campbell’s model is a young person going through a rite of passage. In this respect, the pattern of all children’s literature is similar to the monomyth, and all characters in children’s fiction are a further development of the mythic hero.”1 She suggests that this is doubly true of fantasy-based Young Adult (YA) and children’s literature, wherein the crossing of the threshold tends to be represented by the literal transportation of the protagonist to some kind of alternate world or reality.2 In contrast to the literalism of this approach, in which Campbell’s narrative model is taken in its entirety as the basis for YA narrative structure, this paper sets out to suggest that these fantastic realist narratives – while conforming to monomythical structures and tropes – actually represent only the fulfilment of the first chapter of Campbell’s pattern. By the conclusion of their narrative trajectory the protagonists have achieved only the crossing of the threshold into burgeoning maturity or adulthood, as opposed to enlightenment or a boon for mankind. Throughout their respective narratives, these nascent heroes develop transitional identities, and the boon they achieve is to cross the threshold towards eventually becoming their true selves. This analysis is supported through a dual methodology. Firstly, through close readings of three key YA genre texts – Coraline by Neil Gaiman, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond. These have been chosen not only for the contrasting ways in which they approach folkloric and mythological tropes and storytelling patterns, but also because of the differing ages of the novels’ protagonists; in this way I also explore the different implications of the transitions in question on young people at different stages of their emotional development. Secondly, the stages of the Hero’s Journey itself, and the movement of the adult hero towards the boon of enlightenment are contrasted with that of the young hero towards the goal of beginning his or her journey anew, and in doing this the monomyth is shown to be open-ended in nature: enlightenment does not need to be a boon that is only granted once.

1 Nikolajeva, Maria. “The Changing Aesthetics of Character in Children’s Fiction.” Style Volume 35, No.3, 2001. (p431.) 2 Ibid.


Mary Galbraith: The Narrative Art of Raymond Briggs

The National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature 

You are invited to a research seminar

Wednesday 14th October 2015
1.00 -2.00pm

Fincham 001

The Narrative Art of Raymond Briggs

Mary Galbraith, San Diego State University

Raymond Briggs is a picture-book auteur and a pioneer of the graphic memoir.  His best-known works are The Snowman, Fungus the Bogeyman, When the Wind Blows, Father Christmas, and Ethel and Ernest. My current project focuses on Briggs’s representation of himself and his parents in cartoon strip format and his handling of two narrative universes—fantasy fiction and memoir.  Since my approach is eccentric in a number of ways, the final version of this project will lay out my understanding of biographical interpretation, fictional epistemology, and the definition of narrative art.  

Mary Galbraith is on sabbatical from San Diego State University, where she teaches many courses in children’s literature. Her primary focus is on classic children’s novels and picture books.  She is currently a visiting scholar at Roehampton University.  Her articles on picture books include “Meditation on The Polar Express,” “Agony in the Kindergarten: Indelible German Images in American Picture Books,” and “Madeline as a Secret Space of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Childhood.”


NCRCL Research Talk: Dr Debby Thacker

You are all cordially invited to the NCRCL’s first research talk of the 2015-2016 academic year:


What do we mean when we refer to ‘the child’s voice’?

Encounters with the Storytelling Child.

Dr Debby Thacker, University of Gloucestershire

Wednesday 16th September, 18:00-19:00

Covent Parlour, Digby Stuart, University of Roehampton

Digby Stuart

Sinead Moriarty: ‘Physical suffering and child development in Antarctic whaling literature’


You are warmly welcomed to

‘Physical suffering and child development in Antarctic whaling literature’
Sinead Moriarty, NCRCL PhD Candidate, ECW Roehampton University

Antarctic Whaling literature for children describes a modern rite of passage in which young boys are sent into the wilderness and pushed to their limits to test their ability to join the adult community. This presentation will examine the connection between physical suffering and child development in these narratives.

Wednesday 22nd April
Fincham 001, Roehampton University


‘A poem in the head (what’s it worth?)’

ncrcllogoWe are pleased to invite you to this year’s second NCRCL Research Talk:

A poem in the head (what’s it worth?)’
Debbie Pullinger, Homerton College, Cambridge

Now that we can summon a thousand poems to our screen in seconds, what’s the point of having a poem in your head? And where does a poem really live, anyway? On the page, in the ear, in performance, or in memory? In considering these questions, I shall share some of the conceptual foundations of the Poetry and Memory project and some of the emerging insights from the literature in related fields. Focusing on the ways in which memorisation and recitation of poetry have been valued in different ways at different times, we will think about some possible ways of theorising the relationship between them.

Wednesday 22nd October 2014
1.00 – 2.00pm
Fincham 001

Fincham Building (Digby Stuart Campus)

Entrance Free – All Welcome!