(Re)Presenting Children’s Literature at General Literature Conferences

Vera Veldhuizen is a second year PhD (which terrifyingly means that she should know what she’s doing by now). Her research is on cognitive approaches to children’s war literature.

Last week I went to San Francisco to present a paper at ALA, a massive yearly conference by the American Literature Association. Although my work is not on American literature specifically, I do draw from it and I figured it would be a good idea to a) gather more knowledge on the American side of my research, and b) get to know new people from the other side of the pond. Also if I’m honest, c) I am constantly worried (a defining feature of mine which my supervisor both finds amusing and concerning) that I am not doing enough, and I grasp any opportunity to present a paper with both hands. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a wasted presentation: even if the talk is absolutely horrible and nobody understands what you are saying, it’s all practice – and in academia practice makes, well, not perfect but at least better.

I must admit I did not know anything about ALA, and the final programme was only made available shortly before. It was then, dear reader, that I found out that not only was this a general (American) literature conference – my panel was the only one on children’s literature (and affect)! This meant that through this experience, I was able to learn a couple of things about both general literature conferences – as I have only ever been to children’s literature ones – and the place of children’s literature presentations in these general literature conferences.

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I felt quite outclassed in this massive, posh hotel.

The thing I love most about the children’s literature community is the friendliness. True, not everyone is wonderful, and yes, conferences are tiring, so towards the end we’re all more or less running on empty. It’s not that people were unfriendly at ALA at allHowever, a major difference between previous conferences I’ve attended and this one that I noticed immediately upon reading the programme, and with some shock, was that it was back to back parallel panel sessions, with no breaks planned in between. Not for refreshments. Not for networking. Not for lunch. This may very well only be the case for this conference, I cannot know, but it seems unthinkable for children’s literature scholars to be willing to go through with that kind of Spartan scheduling.
And then I noticed that, and this is something that my supervisor would absolutely love, Powerpoint presentations were very rare. Where Powerpoints, be they long or short, are definitely the norm at children’s lit events I have been to, this event featured close to none, which really forced and challenged concentration during presentations.

My panel was planned in one of the largest rooms, at 4pm on a Friday, with 10 other panels on at the same time. There were not many people there. That said, my fellow presenters were classically lovely, had interesting insights into narrative empathy, of course knew the same people as I did, and our talks were well received by those who were there. There were some talks on other panels that drew from children’s literature also, but interestingly did not put them in the context of children’s literature. Instead, they analysed and placed them in the context of American “adult” literature. This was bemusing to me. It was also interesting to see such children’s literature papers presented as a part of general literature panels, when the opposite is difficult to imagine. This is not to say that I have a hands-off attitude towards “adult” literature scholars who have an interest in children’s literature – far from it! I firmly believe that although children’s literature is a field on its own rights, it is also a definite part of literary studies in general. There are most definitely transferable skills in this regard, and mixing the fields can give rise to fruitful and challenging debates. But just imagine how wonderful it would be to see more children’s literature panels at such conferences, or to see “adult” literature scholars discussing children’s texts draw from children’s literature scholarship (which is so plentiful and vibrant)!

From this trip I have gathered (besides jetlag) an insight into the place children’s literature scholarship can have at a general literature conference, or did at least in this one. There seems to be a divide between general and children’s literature, and I think crossing it would prove to be inspiring for both sides.

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