American Symposium Recap (ft. Jerry Griswold)

This week’s post is brought to you by Dawn Sardella-Ayres, who is calmly and un-stressingly finishing up her PhD this year. Check out her post on what it means to study children’s literature here!

Believe me, we already know how lucky we are to be studying children’s lit where we are, with this community of people, and the opportunities that affords. But when one of those opportunities is a specialized all-day symposium with visiting scholar Jerry Griswold?

Our own academic pot o’ gold! But we’ll get to the economics soon enough…

Jerry was visiting Ireland for a series of lectures, and Maria convinced him to pop over to Cambridge. Suddenly, an idea that a few of us had been bouncing around for a few months — let’s get together and talk about issues of female and/or American identity in our texts — blossomed into a full-fledged mini-conference. Maria suggested a format that was new to most of us, but intriguing: a 10-minute Q&A to each paper given by a single respondent. So Sarah presented, and then I asked her questions and made observations, Meghanne presented and Sarah asked her questions and made observations, and so on. It was beneficial from a practical standpoint (we all had to have things written and turned in with enough advance time to read and prepare our responses, so no last minute paper writing) and from an academic one as well. The opportunity to really critically engage with each other’s work is one of the most valuable elements of our program and, when we all get swamped with our own work, it is even more valuable to have formal, moderated time carved out for us to listen to others’ presentations, ask tough questions, and pose our own theoretical perspectives. Especially, since all of us are working with American texts, this was a chance to push specific issues from a focused, national perspective … and with the man who literally wrote the book on it.

In case you didn’t know. Because you should know.

So on April 26, a bunch of us gathered for Cambridge’s first American symposium on children’s literature. Before we presented our papers, Jerry delivered a talk of his own: History Wars: Politics in American Children’s Books, a simultaneously fascinating and depressing topic. He has been exploring the reappropriation of certain American iconography and how they are incorporated into not just contemporary political ideology, but in texts for children. Using history and reinterpreting it to a child audience to promote ideology is hardly a new thing. As Jerry pointed out, the Civil Rights movement was reinterpreted historically as a children’s issue when it focused on school segregation. Lately, though, it is the Revolutionary War and Founding Fathers that have been a popular locus of reinterpretation. (Even non-Americans know about the whole Tea Party political movement, with ultra-Conservative citizens protesting the “tyranny” of, well, everything by recycling tri-corner hats and “Don’t Tread On Me” flags as part of their visible iconography.) Despite having first-hand accounts from historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington  vehemently saying the opposite, the Revolution has been re-framed to promote contemporary ideas of “American Exceptionalism” and Conservative Christian “family values,” to use a few of their popular phrases. The effects are that partisan politicians and media figures like Lynne Cheney and Rush Limbaugh produce children’s books that, yes, literally re-write history for political purposes. Thanks to their abilities to market their books via high-profile platforms, these people can and do change American school’s curriculum, and, accordingly, Americans’ understanding of our own history. (And to think, the non-Americans in our program used to think I was exaggerating about things like the Texas board of education’s influence on history textbook production, or racist Lost Cause of the Confederacy ideology being brought back under the guise of “heritage, not hate.”)


Facts matter not! Especially if you frame it as a ‘time-travel’ adventure for children.


There has been re-framing pushback from the political left in America as well, particularly in the recent multicultural musical adaptation about an American Founding Father (but NOT president) that, oh, you might have heard of: Hamilton.

But we did not focus on depressing American politics for long, and instead had the springboard of marketing issues and the American publishing industry to launch us into talk of popular genres, institutional effects, and social history as reflected in American children’s texts.

For the first student presentation, Katy Day spoke about her research on girls in adolescent fantasy fiction, framed in second- and third wave feminism. She noted differences in texts’ protagonists* from the 60s-80s, compared to the 90s-2000s. Second-wave feminism was generally focused on institutional changes, like challenging sexist laws and the idea that middle-class women should be SAHMs instead of pursuing careers. Third-wave feminism was concerned with individual rights and personal identities, emphasizing expression and individuality. Accordingly, in earlier adolescent fantasies with girl protagonists, like Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, Katy argued that the girl’s behavior is prompted by something outside of herself, like destiny, rather than personal choice; she reacts, instead of acting. But in fantasies informed by third-wave feminism, such as Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small quartet, protagonists find equality on a personal level, through inner drive or a desire to right social injustice.

In her response, Meghanne Flynn compared the protagonists’ in Katy’s corpus of texts thematically to women in Romance novels, and noted how the ideas of agency and choice for women are often downplayed at first when a social norm is challenged. Initially giving women permission to act outside traditional gender roles is tolerable as long as it is framed as “not their choice,” but something forced upon them. You never thought you’d heard about “rapey pirate” Romance novels in a children’s lit symposium, did you? But that is not uncommon when we put our collective, feminist, marginalized-genre-focused heads together, friends!

*Also, terms like “protagonist” v. “female main character” v. “heroine” v. “hero” are important. Stay tuned!

Sarah Hardstaff presented next, and I was lucky enough to get to respond to her paper. Sarah’s presentation was on the symbolic language of economic transaction regarding war in two of her thesis’s texts, The Road to Memphis by Mildred Taylor and The Runner by Cynthia Voigt. By exploring how race impacts discussions of war in the texts — whose war it is, who benefits, who makes what sacrifices — it is possible to see American power dynamics, as well as to question issues of social progress in America. Sarah’s presentation fit with Jerry’s in many ways, especially with the idea of a historical time used to present ideology and American identity in children’s texts. How are the texts products of the times they were written, compared to the times they portray?

Sarah and I tend to overlap in texts and themes, but approach subjects from vastly different angles, so discussion with her is always challenging, dynamic, and enlightening. In my response, I, like always, threw feminist critical theory at Sarah, and we had a revealing discussion of how value is determined, who benefits, and what other transactions occur in the Tillerman and Logan family cycles. The power shifts during these “verbal transaction” show personal as well as national ideologies, especially from an intersectional perspective. As Sarah’s work makes clear, these intertwining issues of race, class, history, and economy are still profoundly relevant in America today.

This is your unironic, non-economic reminder that Sarah and I are in charge of the Mildred Taylor conference here next September. Book now!

After lunch, Meghanne presented on American gothic rhetoric in contemporary supernatural romance, showing how presentation and perception of the “monster” — and that which is monstrous — in American society shifts in waves during times of war, revolution, and rapid change. Where in earlier (and British) gothic stories, the monster was fascinating but ultimately detrimental, Meghanne pinpoints a shift in American contemporary YA supernatural romance, and its All-American girl heroine. These teen protagonists are usually white, middle-class, suburban, live in single-parent households, are honor students, often described as “angelic” or “innocent” by others. But instead of being destroyed by the monster, these new heroines race towards it, seeking to not only understand it, but even integrate with it. The monster, a cultural product of the marginalized, is not just a threat to the heroine, but to the national identity embodied by her. In light of contemporary militant patriotism post-September 11th, and the current social, political, and gender issues in America, rejecting the good/evil binary of old gothic tropes is a way of exploring uneasy margins in society.

Sarah responded, comparing commonalities with YA dystopias, which, along with supernatural romance, have dominated the teen market for a decade. Both, Sarah pointed out, are preoccupied with the changes in society, exploring new risks and dangers. But dystopias maintain rejection of the monstrous, and emphasize the dangers of identifying with it; the risk is becoming the monster. In supernatural romance though, the emphasis is on healing via that same identification.

And, especially, where is the heroine’s agency in these scenarios?

This question of agency that continues to drive us kept popping up over the course of the symposium as well. We all know the buzzwords. “Strong female characters,” “girls kicking ass,” “female agency,” “active v. passive” etc. These are things we’ve been wrestling with both as scholars and, for some of us, as fiction writers as well.

Sorry, gurl. I will always question your agency.

Something Roberta Seelinger Trites said at the ChLA conference in 2014 keeps coming back to me, and has informed my own interrogations, and I brought it up yet again (and include it here for discussion): Is “agency” even the right word to use anymore?

That question has informed my thesis, and I presented a genre theory section of it: namely, my observation that there does not exist a genre-based, fully formed definition of girl’s literature, or, specifically, the American (or North American) girls’ bildungsroman. For years now, scholars have been discussing “girls’ literature” and “girls’ books” and “classic girls’ stories,” but there is not a systematic approach to identifying, much less exploring, “girls’ literature” as a genre. Maria and I have had lively discussions about this in the past, and it finally took going through kiddielit encyclopedia entries and book indexes to clarify the marked absence. One of Maria’s texts (Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature) touches on the issue when she suggests genre categories for “the adventure story” and “the domestic story,” but I insist on the importance of gender, as well as considering regional and national elements. Jerry’s Audacious Kids has played a huge role in my work not only on the girls’ Kunstlerroman, but on The Little Colonel specifically, and he breaks down an American coming-of-age story pattern that he calls the Ur-Story. But he, too, does not take gender into account. So I did, building my own definition of the North American girls’ bildungsroman as a genre, clarifying terminology, and suggesting a corpus. Here’s a link to my presentation, if you want to see for yourself what it looks like when you’re presenting to two major scholars on…well, how you think their work is missing something.

Anna Savoie responded to my presentation, and questioned how I had defined some of my terms, and how they might change depending on context. It turned into a spirited (and helpful) debate between me and Katy Day about “protagonist” versus “heroine” (and how she hates that word because she doesn’t think there needs to be a ‘separate but equal’ word just for girls), and variations in domestic stories compared to fantasy. All this led to the surprising realization that there really isn’t the same kind of “girl’s bildungsroman” in British children’s literature, but rather, there is the family story. In American girl’s lit, even if a text can also be framed as a family story — Little Women, the Little House books, Emily of New Moon, and yes, even the Little Colonel series — the heroine’s development is the main story arc. Based on this, I suggested that the North American boys’ bildungsroman stories are about individual growth, whereas the girls’ bildungsroman stories are about community/family integration.

Anna gave the final presentation of the afternoon, on a semi-autobiographical YA novel called Good Enough (2008) by second-generation Korean immigrant, Paula Yoo. Anna’s critical work focuses on cognitive criticism, and she framed her discussion of the novel psychologically by exploring it in terms of “group theory” or “identity categorizations.” Anna showed us how the protagonist, Patti, uses grouping techniques to cope with issues of national identity, race, culture, and religion in her own life. She also showed how the reader can be included or excluded from these groups, with varying effects.

Katy’s response to Anna’s presentation was grounded in issues of agency as well, especially the question “What does Patti actually want?” It was something the text didn’t answer satisfactorily, and its unresolved mixed message raised more questions about competing national ideologies, and how messages have changed in the last decade. Is it positive or detrimental to bombard adolescents with messages like “You can do anything!” and “Take risks!” and to prioritize artistic dreams over practicalities? Is that a mark of American privilege? What does SPAM really stand for, and why is the largest percentage of it consumed by Koreans nowadays??

New eras always bring up new questions.

Wrap-up discussion at this point was hard-and-fast debate of American identity and girls’ agency, American-ness, and individual versus collective action. Even after the symposium officially ended, we hung around for almost an hour, still talking over things, playing with ideas, demanding answers from each other, and trading books and titles. Before he went off to get ready for that night’s Formal Hall, Jerry mentioned that it was great that we are this active in talking with each other, and it’s true. I know from experience that this doesn’t always happen in other programs, and we never take for granted the people — and special guests! — with whom we get to have these debates.

Academic conversations like these are not only the best part of our department, but are the cornerstone of overall discourse in the field.

That observation makes a fitting conclusion to a day of discussing female agency, too, doesn’t it?


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