This last week I had the great pleasure of attending the ChLA (Children's Literature Association) 45th Annual Conference, in San Antonio, Texas. It was a wonderful experience, and I feel very privileged to have attended excellent papers, met some wonderful, friendly and supportive colleagues, and made many new friends. I was overjoyed by the friendliness and welcoming attitude of just about everyone I encountered at the conference, and by the diversity and depth of the research being conducted in our field. The conference also raised many serious questions and has left me - and, I am sure, many others - with much to think about.
Spanning three days, and sixteen different panels, the conference was too extensive to cover comprehensively, so I will not try. Instead, I will share just a few insights and observations.
In the first place, it was striking just how many panels focused on issues of diversity and inclusion. To name just a few, there were panels on "Migration and Latinex Identity", "Exploring Abilities", and "Queer Identities". On the "Beyond the 'Ethnic Aisle': Decentering Whiteness in Children's Literature" panel, Cristina Rhodes riffed on the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement to discuss the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseScholars - a theme that would come up more than once in the conference. At the Editor's Roundtable, Gabrielle Atwood Halko discussed the new journal, Research on Diversity in Youth Literature, and on the "Rebel Recordings" panel, previous contributor to this blog, Karen Sands-O'Connor discussed the influence of punk and reggae. Over all, the wide range and diversity of papers which addressed questions about race, identity, and inclusion for children testified to the important and extensive scholarship being done in this area - scholarship which becomes more and more essential as the political climate in many Western nations worsens. More on this later in the post.
Another exciting - for me - observation is the number of papers which turned a critical lens beyond straight fiction and literature, to examine the other influences to which children are exposed. Although the bulk of research presented dealt with works of fictional literature, there were a fair number of exceptions: the "Rebel Recordings" panel, for example, explored the influence of music, several papers explored film (such as Mary Stephens' exploration of Stephen King's IT), Mickenzie Fasteland discussed the New York Public Library, Lisa Dusenberry discussed web games, and Naomi Hamer explored everything from blankets to bath toys in her analysis of mermaids in child culture. Perhaps the most exciting paper for me personally, however, was Robin Calland's "Reflections of Water", which turned the lens of critical narrative theory on a work of scientific non-fiction for children. Such papers revealed just how much the discipline of children's literature criticism has to offer beyond the analysis of fiction, and this is fundamentally important in an information culture in which children's fiction books compete with an endless array of alternative media and materials for attention.
Of course, the highlight of any conference is usually the keynote speech, and Debbie Reese's was no exception to this rule. Dr. Reese turned her extremely sharp critical focus this time not on children's fiction, but on the ChLA itself. I recommend listening to the speech in full, because it contained a lot that there simply isn't room to discuss here; follow these links to view Part 1 and Part 2. The talk highlighted a sad truth of academia: it is simply to easy for many of us to distance ourselves from what we study, and to forget that what gives meaning to our scholarly insights is the direct impact (or lack thereof) on real children, real readers, real parents, real educators - on the world in which we live and work. She also made a strong argument for less compartmentalization of diversity and inclusion issues. After all, what should we make of a presentation which supports the inclusion of people of one color while ignoring the plight of others? Or of one which celebrates diversity, but fails to deliver in an accessible manner? Are we really all as sensitive to diversity and inclusion as we should be across the board? I know I am not - there is more I can and should (and will) be doing.
While not everyone may agree with some of the hard truths Dr. Reese expressed, her underlying message is unambiguous and important: it is that whatever our discipline and whatever our field of specialty, diversity and inclusion are EVERYONE'S responsibility. She asked us to think critically and with self-awareness about not just the works we critique, but ourselves, our scholarship, our actions. A lot of very good work is being done on diversity at the moment, but as Dr. Reese pointed out, there is more that all of us can do to make inclusion a reality for more children. While many of her "call outs" made me squirm, uncomfortable with myself, I feel strongly that her plea for immediacy and critical thought is one that no serious scholar should or would ignore. After all, it's what we do.
In Spring 2018, I taught a world literature class. In it, we looked briefly at the creation myths of the Cherokee Nation, comparing the tales as presented on the Cherokee Nation's official web-page with those in the textbook taken from a compilation by the early twentieth-century European ethnographer, James Moony. I was surprised at just how revelatory my students found this section of the course. They were surprised at how different the two versions were. They were astonished at how different the world-views expressed in the tales were from other creation myths, which for many of them seemed universal. Most of all, they were surprised by what they learned of the context of the act of compilation, and the intersection of science with normalized racism and erasure in fields such as ethnography and archeology. A graduate student teacher in the room shared, with disgust, the fact that in primary schools she had experienced, the myth of the Pilgrims and the "Indians" sharing a happy thanksgiving feast and living happily ever after was still taught as fact and celebrated. For many of the (undergraduate) students in the room, the idea that this was myth was revelatory. It was a sobering experience. Such insights are easy to isolate and explore in the classroom, much more difficult to isolate and examine in our own lives and practices. ChLA 2018, one way or another, brought this difficulty to the forefront, and I hope has gifted us with greater insight and a renewed passion for taking on what has perhaps become the most far-reaching issue in children's culture today.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.