What’s So Childish about Children’s Stories? Exploring the Complex World of Literature for Young Readers
Dr. Elizabeth Galway, Department of English
“‘What is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’” So begins Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece about a young girl’s fantastical adventures in a strange land. Young Alice clearly has her own opinion on what makes a book “useful,” and when Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, he ushered in a new era of writing for children, aiming to entertain his readers in a way that aligned with Alice’s criteria. Carroll transformed the genre, but his book is more than a compilation of pretty pictures and amusing conversations, and there is nothing simple about it, as is indicated by the fact that it is perhaps the most quoted book in English after the Bible. In the course of her adventures, Alice becomes involved in games of logic, explores the limits and possibilities of language, and muses on some of the most profound existential questions. Despite the obvious complexity and important cultural status of children’s books such as Carroll’s, until fairly recently one would have been hard-pressed to find an undergraduate course on children’s literature offered by any respectable university English Department. Conventional wisdom held that there was no place for such childish things in academia, and that there could be little merit in studying literature written for young readers.
Such views were in keeping with the notion that the primary markers of children and childhood were simplicity and innocence. However, as research from such diverse disciplines as Neuroscience, History, Education, and Anthropology has shown, such views are woefully limited and inadequate. Children, childhood, and the cultures of young people are in fact highly multifaceted and diverse, and these are ever-shifting categories that change across time and vary between cultures. Once considered simplistic and unsophisticated entertainment for the young, children’s literature is in fact complex and deeply invested with the values of the adult societies that produce it. It does not just reflect societal values, it actively works to construct them, which includes playing a crucial role in how childhood and children themselves are understood.
This talk will go “down the rabbit hole” to explore some of the ways in which children’s texts engage with issues that are not just relevant to young people, but that are of key concern to the adults who influence all aspects of children’s literature, from writing, to illustrating, to publishing. Drawing on her research into themes of imperialism and nationalism in nineteenth-century British and Canadian children’s literature, as well as her research on material produced for young readers during the First World War, Galway will uncover some of the complexities within children’s literature and show that it is not time to “put away childish things” but to bring them back into the light and give them the second look they deserve.
Elizabeth A. Galway is an Associate Professor and former Chair of English at the University of Lethbridge. She is a co-founder of the Institute for Child and Youth Studies and has served as one of its Directors since 2018. Her research focuses on children’s literature from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and she is particularly interested in its role in shaping identity. She is the author of From Nursery Rhymes to Nationhood: Children’s Literature and the Construction of Canadian Identity (Routledge 2008) and is finishing a monograph on British, Canadian, and American children’s literature from the First World War. Her research has been supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and she is currently working on a co-authored, SSHRC-funded study of representations of the ancient Near East in children’s literature from the nineteenth century to the present.
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