You are invited to join colleagues at the Newcastle University for the internal launch of the Centre of Research Excellence (NUCoRE) for Children and Youth, on 26th May at the Boiler House, 11am-1pm. The aim of the NUCoRE is to improve childhoods for all through pioneering and interdisciplinary research. We will be bringing researchers together from all University faculties to share methodologies and resources, and build opportunities for collaborative and partnership work.
Our event will include brief provocations from each faculty, along with ample time to discuss how the NUCoRE can benefit you. Lunch is provided, and you can sign up here: https://forms.ncl.ac.uk/view.php?id=13876382
Additionally, if you would like to join our mailing list, fill out this form: https://forms.ncl.ac.uk/view.php?id=14174033
Forgiving Our Fathers (and Mothers): The Role of Adolescence in Crisis Narratives within American Studies and Children’s Literature
Dr Emily Murphy brings the first in a series of posts exploring the intersections between American studies and children’s literature. The remarks presented here by Julia Mickenberg and Donald Pease are from the launch event for Murphy’s new book, Growing Up with America, which took place on 1 September 2021. This series makes space for continued conversations which Murphy believes the newer field of childhood studies helps to facilitate. The next part of this series will explore more the role of adolescence in shaping and bridging these two fields of study.
In his 1998 film, Smoke Signals, American Indian author Sherman Alexie quotes the poem “Forgiving Our Fathers” by Dick Lourie. One of the main characters in Alexie’s film, an eccentric orphan named Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, asks, “How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream…Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs? Or in their deaths, saying it to them or not saying it. If we forgive our fathers, what is left?” The question of how to “forgive our fathers” is one that is relevant to many fields of study, but I’d like to approach it from two fields that are central to my own research: American studies and children’s literature. At the source of the question raised by Lourie’s poem about fathers is an anxiety about the absence left when the tension between and the older and younger generation dissipates: does this lack of tension, often the source of new critical insights in the case of academia, leave the one who forgives feeling empty and uninspired? Or, in forgiving those who came before, are we actually setting ourselves free and escaping the boundaries (disciplinary or otherwise) set by them?
On the one-year anniversary of the publication of my first monograph, Growing Up with America (2020), I had the pleasure of engaging in a dialogue about intersections between childhood studies and American studies with Donald Pease and Julia Mickenberg. Pease, as those in American studies will well know, has greatly contributed to the field as it currently stands, adding to conversations about the “transnational turn” in American studies and opening up new insights into the field as founder/director of the Futures of American Studies Institute and editor of the New Americanists series from Duke University Press. Similarly, Julia Mickenberg is an early advocate for bridging the fields of American studies and children’s literature, drawing our attention to the radical politics in both and recognizing the importance of girlhood, in particular, through her scholarship on Cold War politics. In their commentary on the book, they make a series of important criticisms about the potential risk of the narrative I create in Growing Up with America, which seeks to intervene in the field of American studies by revealing the role of adolescence in the shaping of some of its early history, particularly in the Cold War era when the myth-symbol criticism became popular through the efforts of founding figures that included Henry Nash Smith, Perry Miller, R.W.B. Lewis, and Leo Marx.
What is at risk here, as both Pease and Mickenberg rightfully pointed out, is that in returning to this scholarship we repeat it—something I think that connects to larger conversations about “decolonizing the curriculum” that are happening more broadly within literary studies. This is an argument that American studies has circled back to again and again, and that is most eloquently described in Brian T. Edwards and Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar’s edited collection Globalizing American Studies (2010), to which Pease also contributes. In the introduction to this collection, Edwards and Gaonkar remark on what they call “founding” and “crisis” narratives, which they view as responses to some of the central currents of “disciplinary anxiety” within the field. They define these two types of narratives as follows: the founding narrative employs a metacritical approach whereby either new objects of study and/or methods of studying these objects are put forward; in the case of the crisis narrative, however, a “discursive rather than performative” mode is more common. This type of narrative is metacritical in a way that is distinct from that of founding narratives, and on occasion uses these founding narratives as a springboard for its insights (8). Edwards and Gaonkar give the example of Amy Kaplan’s influential essay, “Left Alone with America” (1993), where she first analyses the intellectual impulses in myth-symbol critic Perry Miller’s preface to the Errand into the Wilderness (1956). However, in returning to the founding myths of America that Miller deploys in his scholarship, Kaplan also “unwittingly reinstalls exceptionalism” by failing to locate the United States in a global framework (Edwards and Gaonkar 9). It is a classic conundrum, in the sense that by returning to foundational texts, even without intention, scholars take the risk (and I am guilty of this myself) of letting these voices and the narratives they promote continue to have dominance.
We have seen a similar critical turn within children’s literature, whose own founding narrative begins with figures such as Jacqueline Rose. Rose, who famously declared that “children’s fiction is impossible”—by now one of the most-cited phrases within children’s literature criticism—was preoccupied with language, fantasy, and desire, in large part due to her own investment in Lacanian theory (1). Rose launched a set of disciplinary anxieties specific to children’s literature that continue to permeate the field, in a manner similar to the myth of American exceptionalism which plagues American studies. How, those in the field of children’s literature continue to ask themselves, can we take account of the power dynamics between adult and child in the production and consumption of children’s fiction? And, more recently, to what extent does the child have a say in all of this? A special anniversary edition of Children’s Literature Association (ChLA) Quarterly from 2010 offered a “return to Rose,” but far more insightful are critical essays that attempt a more daring paradigm shift, breaking from Rose’s limiting critical lens for interpreting childhood and children’s literature. I am thinking, for instance, of Marah Gubar’s wonderful essay “Risky Business: Talking about Children in Children’s Literature Criticism” (2013), where she discards what she calls the “difference” and “deficit” models of childhood in favor of a more flexible model of growth—the “kinship model”—that rejects the binary opposition of adult/child altogether (450).
While American studies has yet to locate the child within the field to this extent, there are some interesting moments of critical overlap. Rose, for example, appears in Pease’s influential study The New American Exceptionalism. Here, though, Pease is not looking to her famous work on children’s fiction, The Case of Peter Pan, but rather to her later work on the role of fantasy in relation to English studies in States of Fantasy (1998). Rose’s interest in a psychoanalytic approach to fantasy remains, over ten years after the publication of her study on children’s fiction, and Pease utilizes this scholarship to talk about what he calls the “state fantasy” of American exceptionalism (7). Similarly, in Beverly Lyon Clark’s Kiddie Lit, which is still a definitive history of the field, American studies enters into her argument about the marginalization of children’s literature and childhood. Here, Clark remarks on the way in which, if it did enter the conversation, childhood was simply a reflection on adolescent rebellion in a larger narrative of manhood promoted by the early proponents of American studies (67). In reflecting, then, on founding myths, it is perhaps these moments where one field enters into the other that provides the richer context for the role of childhood and adolescence in shaping American culture and literary thought. As Julia Mickenberg raises in her observations about the shifting academic landscape at the annual American Studies Association meeting, there is now a significantly larger group of children’s literature scholars who have been drawn and converted to the insights offered by American studies. I am certainly a good example of this having trained in children’s literature and only having come to the scholarship of American studies in 2012 after passing my PhD exams and embarking on my dissertation project, which is the early version of Growing Up with America.
So where does this leave us in terms of the founders? Firstly, there is the question of who constitutes as a founder? Is it the “fathers” of the myth-symbol school? Is it a founding “mother” such as Jacqueline Rose—a mother, importantly, who abandoned her “child” (if we continue with the familial metaphors) of children’s literature? And, importantly, in casting ourselves as “fathers” or “mothers,” “sons” or “daughters,” are we doing a disservice to children, who we employ metaphorically to create narratives of progress about these academic fields of study? (I am thinking, for instance, back to the 2010 issue of ChLA Quarterly I mentioned earlier, where Perry Nodelman quips about the “possibility of growing wiser,” in a play on Rose’s famous quote on children’s fiction). The truth is that both fields are continually being founded and refounded, and this isn’t because American studies or children’s literature has “grown up” into a new, mature self—that would do a disservice to children who we are then casting as immature and naïve. Instead, we might take our clue from childhood studies and the models of growth, such as those I have cited here, that seek to disrupt such linear narratives of progress and maturation. In doing so, even if we cannot completely escape it, we might be able to alleviate some of the disciplinary anxieties at the root of both fields and break the cyclical pattern of a return to the founders that limits the boundaries of them.
Clark, Beverly Lyon. Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Print.
Edwards, Brian T., and Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, eds. “Introduction: Globalizing American Studies.” Globalizing American Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 1–44. Print.
Gubar, Marah. “Risky Business: Talking about Children in Children’s Literature Criticism” (2013).
Nodelman, Perry. “Former Editor’s Comments: Or, The Possibility of Growing Wiser.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 35.3 (2010): 230–242. Print.
O’Brien, Sharon. “Commentary.” In Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline. Ed. Lucy Maddox. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 110–113. Print.
Pease, Donald. The New American Exceptionalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan. 1984. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.
Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Miramax Films, 1999. DVD.
Today, Universal Children’s Day, the 20th of November 2017, the International Research Society for Children’s Research in Children’s Literature (IRSCL) issues a Statement of Principles, concerned about the ways in which contemporary geopolitics curtail academic freedom.
This summer, the IRSCL convened its 23rd biennial congress in Canada. More than 20 percent of the scholars whose papers were accepted were unable to attend due to radical economic disparities and restrictive travel policies in the world.
The IRSCL is worried by the current xenophobic situation as it curtails academic freedom. The free flow of people and ideas across borders has to be defended anew, says Lies Wesseling, President of the IRSCL.
For this reason, the IRSCL today issues a Statement of Principles, which explains why scholarship can flourish only in a world with open borders. The statement is in the format of a collection of videos featuring IRSCL members reading the statement in their native language.
The statement is issued on Universal Children’s Day to emphasise not only the importance of our research, but also of children’s literature’s potential to foster empathy, nurture creativity, and imagine a better world, says Lies Wesseling.
The IRSCL is an international scholarly organisation dedicated to children’s and young adult literature with 360 members from 47 different countries worldwide. This announcement has been adapted from the IRSCL press release. You can learn more about the IRSCL on the IRSCL website and follow the IRSCL on Facebook.
Every second year the organisation arranges the IRSCL Congress, the world’s most international congress within the research field. Please read on for a report of this year’s congress by Professor Kim Reynolds.
IRSCL Congress 2017
Possible & Impossible Childhoods
Professor Kim Reynolds
The 23rd biennial gathering of the International Research Society for Children’s Research in Children’s Literature (IRSCL) convened at York University, Toronto at the end of July. Lasting 5 days, it was a full-on programme with more than 300 papers, and a programme of complementary events. Over the years I have come to prefer smaller, more tightly focused symposia where it is possible to hear most of the papers and have ample time for discussion and networking. This, however, was a beautifully constructed programme on the theme of ‘Possible and Impossible Childhoods’ with an emphasis on exploring the intersections between children’s literature and childhood studies. An added feature of this year’s conference was a much-deserved celebration of the work of Jack Zipes, who had several books appear in this, the year of his 80th birthday. Jack has not only been a great contributor to children’s literature scholarship through his publications and projects on fairy tales, storytelling, translation and adaptions of children’s books, but also a good friend to scholars young and old and a great ambassador for both children’s literature and childhood studies. One of his recent publications looks at retellings of tales about the sorcerer’s apprentice, popularised in the Disney film Fantasia. Zipes shows that one strand of these tales is unusual for showing how those who are enslaved or otherwise have little power manage to challenge elites and transform the status quo. For those of us interested in the use of magic in children’s literature, it’s an important new resource.
Perhaps I enjoyed this conference more than other huge events I have been to recently because I chose which sessions to attend more carefully. There are always competing pressures to hear new voices, as well as to attend sessions by students and friends, to learn what established figures are thinking, and to support those who may be at the margins of a conference in terms of language and corpus. So a tip to those who are new to the conference scene – be both a little selfish and a little adventurous as you plan your schedule so that you get the maximum from what can be a costly experience in terms of time, energy and money.
Unlike, say, the main annual conference of the Children’s Literature Association, another huge event with a strong US/Anglophone focus, the IRSCL congresses are always truly international. Those who attend them tend to be very welcoming to colleagues from all countries and at all stages in their careers, for this society was formed precisely to support children’s literature scholars, who even today, when the subject is more established, often find themselves rather isolated in their own institutions and countries. It is a fine forum for discovering new kinds of primary materials, new methodologies, and potential collaborators.
For me some highlights this year included a plenary by Robin Bernstein, a cultural historian based at Harvard, who developed her work on the performative nature of children’s literature in the form of a lecture on ‘going-to-bed-books’. In a stylish and witty lecture she managed to convince me that books can be examples of ‘performative utterances’, meaning they don’t reflect existing reality but change it. In this case, the books change the moment from not time to go to sleep to one in which sleep is embraced.
Robin also works on race, and she was one of many voices who encouraged us to examine our default assumptions and understanding of what we mean by inclusivity. Although I have always found IRSCL to be very inclusive, it is true that the preponderance of participants come from Europe, North America and Asia, and so work remains to be done. Robin’s lecture was introduced by Philip Nel, whose new book Was the Cat in the Hat Black? addresses this issue in an engaging but challenging way.
I was also very taken with a highly unusual variation on the WWII prisoner of war story told by a young scholar from China who discovered in the stacks at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, London University) a magazine produced by children who were incarcerated in a school in occupied (by Japan) China. Although it was technically a prison camp, the missionaries who ran it managed not only to keep a semblance of normal life running for the international group of students held there but also to make it a happy and rewarding time in their lives. They played baseball, studied for their exams, attended meetings of Scouts and Guides – complete with uniforms – and launched a magazine which continues to this day. When the war was over and the children were dispersed, it provided a valuable social network. An equally fascinating though chilling paper looked at how the Turkish government has been rewriting traditional folk and fairy tales in the service of the current regime’s ideologies. Altogether, I came away intellectually recharged, more than ever aware of the political and cultural significance of children’s literature, and convinced yet again that these assemblies of scholars are a genuinely important part of international co-operation and intellectual development across countries.
Silence and Silencing in Children’s Literature, the 24th Biennial Congress, will be taking place in Stockholm, Sweden 14-18 August 2019. Information will be regularly updated on the IRSCL Congress 2019 website.