Beyond “The Monolith”: Looking back on a year of CACL

Mariam Helmy just finished her MPhil in Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature and is now in the grueling but exciting process of applying for her PhD. In her spare time between applications and real-world work, she has been bending over backwards (quite literally) at yoga and rereading her favorite children’s books. She lives in California with her cat and little sister, who are much the same.

The most fundamental beliefs I hold now about women’s rights, intersectionality, racial conflicts, and so much more, come from the children’s literature I read in my youth. The decisions I have made regarding my capabilities as an immigrant, Arab, female have been heavily influenced by books like Alanna: The First Adventure, series like The Arabian Nights, and TV shows like HBO Kids’ The Worst Witch. Therefore, coming into the Cambridge Faculty of Education’s MPhil in Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature, I wholeheartedly believed I would be studying to change the world the way the literature of my youth had changed me. Of course, as most good stories tend to suggest, my expectations were thoroughly overwhelmed, overridden, and overwritten. I arrived naively expecting to be the one to change the world; instead, children’s literature, again, changed my own world.

That being said, children’s literature is not something most people think to study. When I applied to the MPhil and was reaching out to former professors for recommendations, one of the responses I received (who did, ultimately, recommend me for the program), was a slightly baffled, asking: “why do you want to go into Cambridge’s ‘Kiddy Lit’ program?” The underlying question, of course, was “Why don’t you want to study real literature?” With that in mind, therefore, I came in to the course with few expectations. All I thought was that I’d be rereading some of my favorite novels and writing essays about how they made their readers think. I wasn’t exactly wrong. But that self-same expectation was such a minute part of the larger scope of my MPhil year in Cambridge. Even now, a month after I’ve turned in my dissertation, I cannot begin to grasp how I blinked and the year went by.

The coursework is designed to give its students a taste of every aspect of the study of children’s literature. The first term’s assignment is a literary analysis essay that examines the MPhil candidate’s childhood readings, and the impact they had on them. The essay, “A Critical Reading Memoire,” forces students to take a long, hard, look at the children’s media they interacted with as children – in my case, Tamora Pierce’s entire body of work – and prompts them to both praise and criticize these stories to the best of their abilities. The assignment didn’t exactly ruin my childhood, but I learned early on that I wasn’t the biggest fan of literary analysis, which also influenced my choice to not immediately apply for a PhD.

However, Essay 2 had us completely switch gears. Where we began the year reading a wide variety of both children’s and young adult narratives, our second term saw the CACL MPhil cohort peering rightside up, upside down, and sideways at picture books. The object of our research that term was to analyze how children reacted to illustrated texts, through a study that involved actual children. Our Facebook group was suddenly awash with posts that read along the lines of “Does anyone know what we are actually doing?” The strike took place, and many of us were left without guidance. Lent term was an awakening for many of us who thought we had comfortably entered the realm of adulthood during the writing of Essay 1 (we’d had to reflect on our childhoods after all, the implication being that we were no longer children), only to realize that we had, in fact, come nowhere near fulfilling the necessary criteria. I fondly recall an acquaintance describing her move to Cambridge as the realization that she was an infant – unable to find her classes, remembering how to ride a bike, and learning to read all over again.

Lent term opened my eyes to an enormous possibility: if I wanted to know how children felt about a novel, I could, in fact, simply ask them. It was an enormous realization–suddenly my research became in part psychological, in part literary, and in part a series of somewhat sensical conversations with miniature human beings. Despite the strikes and the blizzards, Essay 2 taught me about the infinite satisfaction that could be found in the world of research and academia. In discovering empirical research in children’s literature, it felt as though I had found my superpower.

Graduate formal with the best of people 😍 #friends #formal #medwards #graduateformal #cambridge #murrayedwards #lastsupperbutnotreally. Photo credit Freyja Yeatman

It made sense then, that my dissertation would comprise of empirical work. Easter term, nevertheless, brought its own set of challenges. Classes ended, and suddenly the incentive to leave my room and cycle all the way to the EdFac library waned thinner and thinner, especially with the changing weather. A seemingly serious relationship was quickly beginning to decline. While I had some vague idea that I wanted to work with children for my thesis, I had no idea how, exactly, I wanted to do it – or for that matter, what I actually wanted to do at all. I started to experience the first wave of major anxiety I’d felt in a while, and between the excessive freedom I’d been given in my schoolwork and the strain of my personal life, I ended up crying in front of the faculty library, falling into yet another quarter life crisis, in the arms of a kind and unsuspecting PhD student.

I’ve often been told that everything we go through is, in some way, designed to move us forward. In that moment at the library, I came to realize that even if I did feel as though I was falling apart, the community I had built at Cambridge, through the faculty and my college, did not think so. They had an unshakeable and unwavering belief in me and my abilities. I was not an imposter. I was valued, cared for, and encouraged to work and think and invent. Best of all, I was often told and reminded that I deserved all of those things. Slowly but surely, I stopped crying and started working. With endless patience, my supervisor worked her way through every word of each chapter I presented her with, averaging approximately 300 comments per draft. My peers sat with me in various libraries and provided unlimited playtime with pet hamsters. The months went by, and the number of participants in the online-survey portion of my dissertation grew from ten children to fifty to two hundred. I sorted through a myriad of short-answer responses, racist passages from various novels, and supervisor comments. It was spectacular, so spectacular that I was afraid that the minute it ended, the curtains would drop, and life as I knew it – fulfilling, intellectually stimulating, and exciting as all hell –would come to sad, applause-less halt.

One can’t help but go to sleep with a smile on after partying the night away with these beautiful faces! #friends #mayball #muchtiredness #muchfun #eddiesdarwin #madeitto5am #survivors — with Alexis Opferman and Mariam Helmy at St Edmund’s College Cambridge. Photo credit Freyja Yeatman

It has now been a month since I submitted my dissertation, which I have affectionately nicknamed “The Monolith.” Life outside of Cambridge – outside of academia – has been slightly difficult to adjust to. I’ve almost come to think of my year at Cambridge as Narnia: a place of snow and dreams and talking animals. I’m about to begin the walk through the wardrobe again, drafting my PhD proposal and starting the endless query for funding. But perhaps the world outside will prove to be just as colorful of a place – and with my newly acquired superpowers, I hope to be able to pick out and analyze every individual hue.

One comment

  1. I’m (Leah Phillips) so glad you found your place! And I’m thrilled to find another Tamora Pierce fan/children’s and YA scholar. If you haven’t already found YALMCa, look us up! There’s a great network of YA scholars, authors, and other interested parties. And best of luck with your PhD proposing!


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