More Than Meets the Eye: Studies in Children’s Literature

By: Molly Boylan

The Children’s Literature Association (ChLA)  is in its 40th year of promoting scholarship in children’s and young adult literature through its conferences.

ChLA provides a meeting point for scholars, critics, professors, librarians, teachers and institutions to discuss their academic studies in children’s literature. This non-profit association focuses on children’s literature which includes books, film, and media created for children and young adults all over the world.

The Association also rewards outstanding research and scholarship in the children’s literature field by giving scholarships and awards the undergraduates, graduates, and faculty.


Starting in 1973, ChLA has been sponsoring annual Conferences that have been held all over the United States, Canada, and France. This year, the 40th annual conference will commence in June 13-15, 2013 in Biloxi, Mississippi. The 2013 Conference is “Play and Risk in Children’s and Young Adult Literature” which addresses the way authors have included children at play in order to promote education. Also, the conference concentrates on risk in children’s and young adult literature and culture. The Associations website (ChLA)  argues that “Many classic and contemporary works for young people represent children or young adults entertaining themselves or taking chances,” such as Little Women, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.

The call for papers suggests members submit presentations and papers with topics such as: children’s games at text, how children’s and young adult (YA) literature or culture put children at risk, Linguistic, stylistic, or formal play in children’s and YA literature and much more.

The 39th conference in 2012 focused on the “Literary Slipstream.”  The Association used the term coined by Bruce Sterlings to mean “fiction of strangeness” and “a parody of mainstream.” Mainly the conference was interested in looking at the ways children’s and young adult literature has crossed, confused, and redefines the genre lines.

Underneath this umbrella of “slipstreams”, there were certain trends that stood out more than others. The overall theme scholars focused on was retellings, re-visioning, and adapting children’s and young adult literature today. However, the sub-trends that arose out of this conference dealt heavily with race and gender.

Numerous panels during the 2012 conference  dealt with race.

For example, the titles of some of the panels were: Slipstreams of Race: Whiteness and Children’s Literature, The African Diaspora as Literary Slipstreams: African and African American Children’s Literature, Retell Me a Story: Re-visionings in African American Children’s Picture Books. Furthermore, the topics of the papers are just as interesting as their panel titles: “Stranger Than Fiction: Depicting Trauma in African American Picture Books” by Zetta Elliott, Borough of Manhattan Community College, “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Color: Whitewashing, Race, and Resistance” by Philip Nel, Kansas State University, and “Hybridity of Form: Re-reading African American Realistic Young Adult Novels” by Amy E. Cherrix, Simmons College just to name a few. It is interesting that books that are commonly thought of as unintelligent or not at the same level as other literature by today’s society deal with some of the most difficult subjects that not even adults want to deal with. We are still struggling today to comprehend and control the stereotypes of certain races that are ingrained in our culture. However, children and young adult literature is now the vehicle to start these conversations with children and with people in general. From a young age we can learn from books the differences of race that promote successful relationships versus negativity. We no longer have to wait until we are older to confront the subject of race.

Another subtopic under the umbrella of slipstreams is gender. From different research that I have done it seems like this is a topic that is continually researched in children’s and YA literature. So is the case with the ChLA Conferece on “Literary Slipstreams”. However, I found that this conference has also included topics of female and male gender. From what I have noticed, the main topics are usually centered on girls in children’s literature; so it is intriguing to see papers dedicated to male gender.

For example, the panel titles consisted of: No Such Thing as Mainstream Girlhood: Girlish Childhoods in Children’s Literature, Stepping into the FairyTale Slipstream: Re-reading Mermaids, Monsters, and Beasts in Fairy Tales and Fairy Tale Revisions, and Child is Father of The Man. Along with these panels, the papers focused on various gender issues with titles like: “Slippery Heroines: The Backfisch and the Ideal(s) of Female Adolescence” by Julie Pfeiffer, Hollins University, “To Prepare or to Protect: Early 20th Century Girls’ Books and the Paradox of Childhood” by Laine Perez, University of Texas at Austin, “Slipstreams and Riptides: Souls and Soullessness in ‘Undine,’ ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘The Light Princess,’ and ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’” by Naomi Wood, Kansas State University, “Walt Disney’s Boyhood Responses to Stories: The Origins of Disney’s Narrative Playfulness” by Mark I. West, University of North Carolina at Charlotte and “Slipping through the Past to Find the Future: The Quest for Manhood in Stoneheart” by Tammy L. Gant, United States Air Force Academy. Many of these papers are taking a look at various ideals or lessons these books are teaching and where they came from. I do believe gender will always be a topic of study in literature in general, but in children’s and young adult literature as well.

By looking deeper into the topic of the conference I have learned that: children’s and young adult literature is more than what is on the surface. Not that I have been oblivious to this (I am taking a Young Adult Literature course this semester) however, it reinforces that what people (children and young adults) read affects their understanding of the world. In order for us to promote children to be accepting and tolerant of others, I find it fitting for scholars to look at the ways in which literature does the same things.  It is important for these topics to be explored in depth at conferences because it is important to understand what the children and young adults are reading and embracing in their literary choices. Also, it shows that the topics adults find important in politics and their own lives like race and gender also have an effect on children and young adults. So pretty much, what the kids are reading is bigger than them; what they are reading is part of a larger conversation that they and we might not know about.

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