Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Letting My Hair Down from the Ivory Tower - Cathy Butler



Like most children’s writers I have a day job. My job doesn’t take me away from children’s writing, though. On the contrary, as an academic who specializes in children’s literature I find myself looking at the world of children’s books all over again in the daylight hours – peering through the other end of the telescope, as it were. Next week, teaching resumes after the summer break, and I’ll be greeting almost a hundred students who have signed up for my course on “Children’s Fantasy Fiction Since 1900.”

The students I teach are sometimes surprised to find that children’s books can be studied at university at all. “Aren’t they too simple for that?” they ask.  “After all, even a child can read them!”

It’s a natural enough question – but they don’t ask twice. By the time they leave my course (gaunt, shuffling figures, trembly from too much late-night Derrida) they’ve learned that children’s literature can be just as challenging as the adult variety. There’s nothing simple about Peter and Wendy, or The Wind in the Willows, or Where the Wild Things Are, or The Owl Service, or Fire and Hemlock. These are all vastly sophisticated, not to say tricksy, texts, that can be interrogated with at least as much rigour as anything by Margaret Atwood or Ian McEwan – and it’s a pleasure (if at times a mildly sadistic one) to watch this realization dawn.

But even books that are, on the face of it, simpler, demand a different kind of reading from what most students are used to. They’re accustomed to seeing themselves as part of an audience of literate adults and understanding their own reaction to a book as that of a (if not the) typical reader. With children’s books, they discover they’re not part of the target audience at all – or not straightforwardly so – and they have to find a way of dealing with that. They may, for example, imagine how a child might react to a book, and place that reaction alongside their own. But which takes priority? And what is “a child reader” like, considering that there are billions of children alive today, each one different from the rest? Should children’s books be discussed using the same criteria as adult ones, even if children and adults want and need different things? Do children’s books have a special responsibility to teach their readers, or is that just a hangover from a more didactic age?

None of these questions has an easy answer, but by the end of the year I hope my students will at least be able to find their way around the territory. I hope even more that they’ll leave with an enhanced love of, and respect for, the work that children’s writers do.

There’s nothing simple about it.

13 comments:

Stroppy Author said...

SO true! All of it. And that reminds me I need to finish my Book Vivisection post on The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

Is it an optional course you teach, Cathy? Or do all students have to study children's literature? Would be no bad thing.

Catherine Butler said...

It's an option, but I'm glad to say it's a very popular one!

I didn't know about your Book Vivisection site - I shall go and check that out now.

Anny Choo said...
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JO said...

I was deeply envious of a daughter who did a literature degree with a module on children's books. She did let me look at her notes.

Ms. Yingling said...

What a wonderful course. The ones I took for my library science degree all focused on new books and disregarded the history. Do you have a recommended reading list that you would share?

John Dougherty said...

Do check out Book Vivisection, Cathy - Anne's dissection of Not Now Bernard has to be one of my favourite book reviews ever (I think your review of Dubliners in the style of the Telegraph review of one of Kath Langrish's Troll books comes second).

Have to say, I'd love to come to some of your lectures. (Ooh! Sudden idea!) Would you consider doing a talk for the Society of Authors some time?

adele said...

Very good post! I think this kind of course ought to be part of Teacher training too. Too many teachers have not had the time or opportunity to read children's books. It's a shame!

Catherine Butler said...

Ms Yingling, the texts vary from year to year, but this year we're studying the following (in chronological order):

J. M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
Alan Garner, The Owl Service
Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock
John Burningham, Time to Get out of the Bath, Shirley
Philip Pullman, Northern Lights
J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I may as well mention, since this has already assumed something of the look of an advertising pitch, that I work at the University of the West of England.

John, I'd love to give a talk at the SOA! You know where I am. ;)

sophs said...

I got to do a children's literature module last year and it was the best decision I ever made - it was such an awesome course, I loved studying it and I think it's fascinating. And definitely helped with my own writing too. x

John Dougherty said...

I'll put it to the committee at once!

And of course I meant to say that Stroppy Anne's look at Not Now Bernard is my absolute number one all-time favourite review, not just one of them.

Leila Rasheed said...

I did an MA in children's lit at Roehampton some years ago. It was a wonderful course. Lucky you teaching it!

C.J.Busby said...

I would love to hear your analysis of Fire and Hemlock. It's got to be one of the most meta-textual children's books I've ever read... Sounds like a great course.

Catherine Butler said...

I did publish an essay that was primarily on *Fire and Hemlock* a number of years ago, in a volume called Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom. But the best essay on that book, if you're interested in its intertextual aspects, is undoubtedly her own "The Heroic Ideal", recently republished in her posthumous book of essays, Reflections. It's fascinating.