When academics are born, a good fairy at the christening promises them that when they grow up they will be able to read and understand books. Hardly has she finished speaking, however, when a bad fairy interrupts to say, with a threatening gesture, ‘but you must never, never look out of the window’. Joan Rockwell (1974) Fact in Fiction, p.vii
We smile because we recognise the caricature. Academic work, with its requirement to stand at a bit of a distance, is always at risk of confining itself to the tower. But over the recent years spells have been broken and things are changing apace. Here at the University of Cambridge, the magic word, Outreach, has got everyone not only looking out of the window, but actually climbing down the ladder and wandering round amongst the townspeople. One result of this is that each autumn, we have a Festival of Ideas, displaying and sharing the fruits of all our recent academic labours – from our own patch and from those in other places.*
We in the Children’s Literature field are enthusiastically doing our bit. I don’t know whether it’s because we’re used to explaining ourselves and justifying our very existence to non-academics, or whether its something about the study of literature in which real readers cannot be completely ignored, but I think we do it rather well.
In last year’s crop, Louise Joy gave a superb lecture on the classics of children’s literature, exploring the nature of their interest for and influence on for adult readers. Lissa Paul and Philip Nel also celebrated the launch of their edited book of essays, Keywords for Children’s Literature with a fascinating talk about how it was all put together.
This year, Clementine Beauvais did us proud with a brilliant session on ‘Changing the World with Kid’s Books’, in which she talked about books for children with political agendas. Using all sorts of entertaining examples, she explained what these texts reveal about the highly contested adult–child relationship, gently challenging some of the prevailing discourses of oppression and colonisation as she went.
Here she is in full flow, and demonstrating the political potential of the potato.
And, in case you happen to be in Cambridge later this week, I’ll be doing one of the ‘dispatches’ in an event entitled ‘Dispatches from the Literacy Wars’ with Lissa Paul and Mick Gowar.
*Actually, this is just the Arts and Humanities section; the longer-established Festival of Science happens in the spring.