A long time ago I was an exemplary (i.e. completely stressed-out) student at the prestigious Lycée Henri-IV in Paris, and I hated it. Desperate to escape the constant humiliations, threats, existential worries and intellectual rigidity imparted by the French university system, I ended up
setting up my own wicker-basket-business backpacking up Mount Annapurna becoming a horse-whisperer studying at Cambridge. Ironic, I know, but happiness levels rocketed.
Anyway, as a result of adolescent trauma, until very recently I’d never really tried to get in touch with French researchers in children’s literature, even though I use a ton of French philosophers in my own work. There’s so much research in English already, and so little time, and of course I suspected that it would be done quite differently across the Channel.
But last year, as I was browsing the Internet, I stumbled upon the blog of children’s literature lecturer and researcher Cécile Boulaire, from the University François-Rabelais of Tours. I left a comment, and got an email in return. Our correspondence resulted in my inviting her, and other French researchers, to a day symposium at our Research Centre in Cambridge. The symposium took place last week.
Our five guests were members of the Afreloce (French Association for Research on Books and Cultural Objects pertaining to Childhood): Cécile Boulaire, Laurence Chaffin, Matthieu Letourneux, Mathilde Lévêque and Christophe Meunier. They happened to be much less terrifying than my past teachers.
The main purpose of the symposium was to present and compare theoretical perspectives and methodologies in children’s literature research in France and in English-speaking countries. The programme was as follows:
Session 3. Reading Words and Pictures.
- Children’s literature research in English-speaking countries is much more driven by power theory. The children’s book is perceived as a space of adult (and sometimes child) powers – indeed it is the object of my thesis. In France, as Cécile and Matthieu confirmed, it isn’t a recurring question at all. Paradoxical, of course, since it’s a very Foucauldian analysis. Which brings me to my next point…
- The French don’t do ‘French Theory’. Foucault is apparently studied quite a bit still, but Deleuze, Derrida, Kristeva, Bourdieu and all the thinkers cheerfully grouped under the magic ‘French Theory’ umbrella by anglophone researchers seem to be much more rarely found in France than abroad.
- French researchers study children’s literature mostly ‘as literature.’ I know this may sound very strange, but it’s far from being always the case here. Personally, I don’t see myself as studying children’s literature as literature. The child in the book isn’t necessarily the focus for French researchers- aesthetic criticism of children’s books ‘as literature’, ‘as works of art’, regardless of the audience, seems to be prominent.
- The Anglo-Saxon approach seems currently more theoretical, the French one more aesthetic and historicist. Of course, this has to be nuanced to a great deal – a lot of UK/US researchers do historical criticism. But the theoretical effort which underscores current publications in English – definitions, axioms, ‘towards a theory of children’s literature’, etc – doesn’t seem to have a French equivalent. This is counterbalanced by a very high level of detail, in French research, of aesthetic analyses and of contextualisation.
- But we also have a lot in common. As one of the sessions (on geography/ecocriticism in children’s books) showed, emerging fields of research are concomitant in both ‘bubbles’. And we’re asking the same questions – how do picturebooks work? What’s a children’s series, and what can it tell us about the sociocultural contexts of its creation and distribution? And of course, what is children’s literature?
But a haunting question remains, one which Maria Nikolajeva develops on her blog: what can we do to develop research partnerships, to overcome the language barrier, to be aware of what other research centres abroad are doing? The Internet helps, but without regular and sustained interaction between different countries we might be condemned, in the Arts & Humanities, to reinventing the wheel terrifyingly often.
Note: I’m very grateful to the Research Centre and to Christ’s College for funding this event.