Seán Gerard Kavanagh is a Masters student studying Children’s Literature at the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at the University of Roehampton. This post was first published on his personal blog: Sean Gerard Kavanagh
On Thursday the 5th of July, 2018, I got up at 5am, hopped on a train from Tottenham Hale, and jetted off to Cambridge for the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature’s 4th Symposium on Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature.
And what a symposium it was.
Organised independently by PhD students Catherine Olver, Vera Veldhuizen, and Anna Purkiss, the symposium featured a range of talks that covered a variety of topics, all centred on different cognitive approaches. The speakers were expert and engaging. The audience questions were precise and stimulating. For a Masters student like myself, the conversations I had with academics and PhD students in the breaks were really inspiring.
The keynote speaker was Professor Lisa Zunshine (Bush-Holbrook Professor of English at the University of Kentucky). Professor Zunshine focuses on theory of mind and embedded mental states (such as “I know that you know that he knows”, a third-level embedment) and she spoke about the range and frequency of embedded mental states in literature aimed at different age groups in a speech entitled “Of Minds and Moomins”. Questions were raised on the implicit nature of mental state embedment in a text, requiring a child to independently understand the mental state that the author implies. Explicitly drawing attention to mental state embedment is counterproductive to children’s development, since it does the work for them. This places children in a difficult position: an example was raised by Catherine Olver where in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Ron is admonished by Hermione for having the emotional range of a teaspoon. Ron hasn’t learned how to pick up on other characters’ embedded mental states, yet there is no explicit support that will help a child develop this skill if they are having difficulty with it.
The keynote speech was followed by the first panel, Readerly Responses, chaired by Dr Debbie Pullinger and featuring Dr Malin Alkestrand (Linnaueus University, Sweden), Dr Natalia Kurcikova (UCL Institute of Education), and Sarah Mears MBE (EmpathyLab UK).
Dr Alkestrand spoke on aetonormativity in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the conflict between the “mighty child” (cf. Clementine Beauvais) script in the Harry Potter novels versus the “controlled cold” (cf. Maria Nikolajeva) script in the play. This was a really interesting look at child-adult power relations in Rowling’s work and I wonder if the shift from mighty to controlled child had anything to do with the change in Rowling’s lifestyle, following the success of the Harry Potter series. There was also a very interesting question regarding sexual normativity and Harry’s repression of his son Albus’s coded homosexuality and friendship with Scorpius. This chimes with Rowling’s revisionist statements regarding various character’s sexuality in her work.
Dr Kurcikova then spoke on the cognitive effects of personalised books for children, most notably Wonderbly’s I Lost My Name, in which the purchaser can choose the name that the child character seeks out in the book, tailoring it as a gift (like I did for my niece). Personalised books can reduce a reader’s “out group” empathy (i.e. empathy with people who are not like the reader )as they engage more with the personalised content and therefore don’t need to empathise as much with characters who are not like them. But personalised books can also help a child deal with trauma, if they can be encouraged to identify more closely with a character who surmounts a similar trauma, for example.
Following this, Sarah Mears spoke of her work with EmpathyLab UK, of which she is a founder and which aims to encourage empathy skills along children. This is such a key skill to develop as a young reader, and had been linked to better academic performance and a higher enjoyment of reading. However, not all children are equipped with the necessary skills to connect with what they area reading, and EmpathyLab aims to rectify this. There was a question on how it can be determined that it is indeed empathy, or the act of reading, that is the link to increased enjoyment of reading, and more empirical work is needed to confirm that this is the case.
After a break for lunch in the Faculty of Education’s park, we reconvened for the second panel, the Lens of Character, chaired by Dr Katy Day and featuring Professor Ben Morgan (University of Oxford), Dr Dr Marcello Giovanelli, Dr Chloe Harrison (Aston University), and Dr Jessica Mason (Sheffield Hallam University), and Dr Naomi Rokotnitz (University of Oxford).
Professor Morgan spoke on the first-person perspective in relation to the work of Hannah Arendt and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games books, and the risk of losing agency in present-tense first-person narration through a lack of contextualisation and relation both to others and to the context of action (i.e. its situation in time). Professor Morgan raised the question of whether reading can ever be a first-person activity, since it relies on relations to others to make sense.
Dr Giovanelli, Dr Harrison, and Dr Mason presented a paper on cognitive stylistics in Emily Barr’s 2017 novel The One Memory of Fiona Banks. The paper touched on mind-mapping, the stylistic representation of a character’s mind, and that mind’s distinctive style.
Dr Rokotniz presented a paper on relational authenticity, using JM Barrie’s Peter Pan to demonstrate how play and interaction with others can be used to determine one’s self, positing Peter as the embodiment of play and Wendy as an individual who self-actualises her identity by choosing to return to a world of human relationships rather than remain in Neverland, a world where the rules are fixed and potential for personal development is limited. According to Dr Rokotniz, in actively choosing to have a family, Wendy chooses social interchange over play.
The symposium was concluded by a roundtable discussion chaired by renowned academic Professor Maria Nikolajeva and featuring Dr Shalini Vohra(Sheffield Hallam University), Dr Joe Sutliff Sanders (Cambridge University), and an Italian professor whose name tag I was too far away to read but whose work on fractured fairy tales might be very relevant to me so I will endeavour to track this person’s name down as soon as possible (editorial note: this was Dr Laura Tosi of the University of Venice). The panel discussed the development in cognitive approaches to children’s literature and the adaptation of tools from the sciences – such as theory of mind from psychology – and the evolution of the Symposium since its inception, before opening up for a wider discussion.
I left the symposium feeling inspired and with a clearer idea of the direction my studies will take over the next year. I’m planning on looking at didacticism in fairy tales and the historical contexts that produced variations of tales and corresponding variations in desired socialised outcomes in children, particularly to do with gender expectations. Cognitive approaches would be an interesting avenue to explore in this respect, in relation to how a text elicits a response from a child reader or type of child reader, the cognitive skills a given child reader might need in order to fully immerse him or herself in the text, and the expectations an author, and by extension society, has of their readership. So many questions to look into.
Thank you to the wonderful organisers, speakers, and participants. See you next year, Cambridge!