Top 10 Things We Learned at ICFA 2016

This week’s blog post is brought to you by TWO of our PhD students! The first (alphabetically) is Jen Aggleton, who is a first-year PhD student conducting empirical research examining children’s responses to illustrations in novels. The second is Siddharth Pandey, a second-year PhD student who is looking into the concept of craftsmanship and making within fantasy literature. Below, they tell you about their experience at ICFA, the annual conference hosted by the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts (IAFA) in Orlando, Florida.

For the first time in IAFA history, an entire Cambridge contingent of children’s literature scholars attended its conference! It included PhD students Katy Day, Meghanne Flynn, along with the two of us, as well as lecturer Zoe Jaques. To fully explain the magic of Orlando, we’ve decided to capitalize on the trend for internet ‘listicles.’ As such, we have channelled our inner Buzzfeed to bring you the top 10 things we learned from our trip.

1. We travelled from one Hogwarts to another

We definitely went to Orlando for an academic conference. Honest. The fact that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is also in Orlando was a complete and utter coincidence.

7- The contingent reaches Hogwarts!
The contingent reaches Hogwarts! From l-r: Katy, Siddharth, Jen, and Meghanne.

Living in Cambridge is very much like living in Hogsmeade, from the beautiful old buildings to the scholars walking around in robes. You can travel from King’s Cross station to arrive there. But even saying alohamora outside Homerton’s great hall and standing smugly whilst the huge wooden doors open (due to proximity sensors, rather than magic, but still) cannot compare to the immersive experience of Universal’s Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. We cowered beneath a fire-breathing dragon (pictured below),toured Hogwarts Castle, drank butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron, and careened through Gringotts.

3- Under the fire-spewing dragon just before it took   flight from Gringotts!
A dragon, not a gator.

At Ollivander’s, I (Jen) even had the magical experience of a wand choosing me (seeing as the wand chooses the wizard – or witch), and then spent the day casting spells around the park, making doors open, water shoot out of fountains, and skeletons dance.

5- The wand chooses Jen at Ollivanders
The wand chooses Jen!

Siddharth’s attempts to use my wand were less successful, proving the truth that he’s a muggle magic created with another wizard’s wand will never be as powerful. Never have children’s literature scholars been so happy.

6- Diagon Alley in full glory!
Diagon Alley in all its glory!

2. Everything in Florida is trying to kill you

As if it weren’t enough that we were staying in a house next to a lake full of gators, we decided to push the limits of sanity by walking straight into the jaws of the beast the very day after experiencing the magic of Harry Potter.

9- Walking into the jaws of gators
The aforementioned beast and jaws, bravely endured by Siddharth and Meghanne.

Hundreds of gators soaked themselves in the sun, even as some menacingly peered out of the water, baring their snouts and eyes.

11- The Menace Awakes

From gator jumping to gator wrestling, and from gator eating (YES! Gator meat is a thing!) to gator pendants (our host proudly sports one!), we were totally gatored.

3. Wondering about wonder is a wonderful thing

Gringotts and gators were wonderful, no doubt, but that was not the end of wonder. As we told our supervisors, we really were in Orlando to go to an academic conference.

16- The contingent eats its fill from the Wonder Tales   Menu
The Cambridge contingent at the conference venue! From l-r: Jen, Meghanne, Katy, and Siddharth.

The theme for ICFA this year was ‘Wonder Tales,’ meaning that many of the presentations revolved around the central question of wonder. The conference began with a panel of guest speakers and scholars discussing wonder’s potency in fantasy, but it was soon apparent that the concept was not a prerogative of speculative fiction, but instead straddled all genres of writing. Over the course of the conference a multitude of aspects of wonder were considered, from the perspectives of both authors and academics. All this wondering was most expertly summed up in the title of Zoe’s presentation: ‘You will see some wonders that will outwonder all the wonders that wonderful people have ever wondered’.

4. You never know how your presentation will go

When initially looking at the schedule, many of us felt that common concern amongst academics presenting papers: why did they put me on that panel? That’s not what I’m talking about! But the scheduling gods of ICFA were wiser than we knew (and privy to detailed abstracts). Despite the usual pre-presentation fears, all of our papers were well received, and the panels we were speaking on led to interesting discussions and the bringing together of different ideas, spurring much lively academic debate.

5. The differences between fairytales, fantasy, and everything in between

A key theme which emerged from several papers was that of the distinctions between fairytales and fantasy, and how these genres are created. Katy argued that Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine was a fantasy, not a fairytale, while Sarah Carpenter from Mason University discussed how stories can follow fairytale structures even when they don’t include recognizable tropes (such as stepmothers or magic). Alongside these distinctions, both fairytales and fantasy were examined in a myriad of other ways. Some of the most interesting perspectives included Rose Williamson from Chichester University, who discussed how fairytales rely on realistic, recognizable details in order to awaken the audience’s sensory imagination and make the fantastic believable; and Idaho State University’s Brian Attebery’s revisionist reading of traditional fairytales, which subverted popular notions of masculinity. I (Siddharth) argued for the importance of craftsmanship in generating and sustaining the experience of wonder in fantasy texts, whilst Meghanne talked about the importance of language in the construction of fantasy worlds, and how it can be used to defamiliarize or guide the reader. World building was an ever-present topic of discussion, with several panels examining it from a variety of theoretical perspectives.

6. The importance of discussing the fantastic in every form

Alongside issues of content and language, the importance of medium and form emerged as a key consideration in the discussion of texts. Eugene Giddens from Anglia Ruskin University (and also the husband of our very own Zoe) examined how illustrators created wonder (or lack thereof!) in 19th Century children’s books. I (Jen) discussed the affordances of anime in comparison to manga or novels, and how this might impact upon reader response, and Kacey Doran from Hollins University noted how the medium of the comic book affected the retelling of the story of Br’er Rabbit. Clearly, the fantastic is not reserved for fantasy literature alone.

7. It’s not just about the texts

One of the most stimulating panels focused less on the details of the fantasy texts and more on their readership, specifically examining the fandoms of Tolkien, Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Star Wars. It went over everything from the ethics of researching fandom to the social phenomenon of shipping[1], leading to a fascinating discussion of fan responses to these popular fantasy texts. Excellent moderating by Daryl Ritchot from the University of British Columbia led to a hilarious comparison of fandoms and fairytales, leaving everyone in the session with a new perspective on how these texts create impact in the lives of their readers.

8. It’s worth sticking around to the end

ICFA is a magical bizarre exhausting long conference. It is four days of multiple panels, running from 8.30 in the morning with events well into the night. Unsurprisingly, it was therefore extremely tempting to skip the last panel of the last day, but to do so would have robbed us of some of the most exciting academic discussions of the whole conference. One of the concluding panels of the conference featured the above mentioned Kacey Doran, Sarah Jackson from the Ohio State University, and Karin Kokoski from Osnabrueck University. Not only were all of their papers well structured, well argued, well presented, and extremely stimulating, but they drew on many of the conference’s multitude of ideas, thereby creating one of the most interesting discussions of the conference.

9. People come to ICFA to see their friends

Alongside all this stimulating academic debate, ICFA is one of the social events of the year for many people. Academics come from all over the world to meet old friends (and make new ones!). There are drinks receptions, dinners, and chances to hang out by the hotel pool and gossip. On the final day, the conference concludes with a dazzling award ceremony and banquet, recognizing merit in fantasy research and writing. A sense of fun pervades the whole conference, and newcomers are welcomed just as enthusiastically as those who have been attending for over twenty years.

18- ICFA socialising
ICFA socializing! From l-r: Jen, Eugene, Meghanne, Zoe, and Alice (Zoe and Euguene’s daughter, who clearly thought she really was in Wonderland…)

10. It’s all about who you travel with

Last but not least, we must say that despite all of the academic discussions, the dinners, and the trips to Hogwarts, the best part of the trip by far was spending time with friends. Whilst we work in the same department, our busy schedules mean that we don’t always get time to sit back and chew the fat. Going away on a trip like this gave us the opportunity to discuss everything from books to philosophy to vegetarianism, and we frequently sat up into the small hours talking away about everything and nothing. Studying for a PhD can easily become quite isolating, and taking time to connect with your colleagues and friends is both spiritually and emotionally refreshing. Everyone changes a bit in a new environment, and spending time together in Florida allowed us to see new sides of our friends and grow closer as a group. (Insert cheesy, smiling photograph here.)

Why yes, we did travel via the Hogwarts Express.

But the wonder had to end some time. Today we have returned to our own Hogwarts, back to our homes and our theses and our cats. And whilst the reality of our regular work is kicking in with force, hopefully we have brought some of the magic back with us. And we have the wands to prove it.

The wand may have chosen Jen, but it seems that her cat Mogget has claimed it as his own.




[1] Defined as the desire by fans for two or more people, either real-life or fictional characters, to be in a relationship, romantic or otherwise. When used in conversation, one would say “I ship Destiel” to refer to the desired romance between the characters Dean and Castiel from Supernatural. For all the information you could ever want about that, go here. 


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