Thursday, 22 March 2012

A square peg in a round hole

I know I have blogged a lot about conferences, but it is indeed an eternal topic of academic life. I mostly go to conferences to which I am invited with all expenses paid. I can occasionally attend a conference I pay myself (or at least from my professional development allowance) but there must be a very good reason. For instance if it a very promising conference from a professional point of view. Or if there will be nice people there. Ideally, it should all concur: expenses paid, exciting topic and nice people. Good food is also a bonus. But you cannot have everything.

I accepted the invitation to this event for a couple of reasons (apart from all expenses paid). It was advertised as a workshop. For me, a workshop is a gathering of a maximum of 20 people who "work", as it were, talk, discuss, take scholarship further. I have attended several of these recently, and there is another one coming next month. But this one is not a workshop. It is a symposium. At a symposium, a small group of people talks to a large group of people. I assume the large group of people had to pay for listening to the small group of people. I must admit that time allocation is generous, and there is ample time for questions after the talks. But a Q&A session is not the same as a workshop discussion. So if I had hoped to get formative feedback on my talk - I haven't. Someone said they enjoyed it.

The reason I hoped to get formative feedback is that the workshop/symposium is interdisciplinary. Half of the people here, or maybe more than half, are developmental psychologists. I don't remember when I felt so much out of place. I once gave a keynote to a huge congress of psychoanalysts (on first-person narration in young adult fiction), but I didn't stay to hear their papers. I also gave a keynote to a huge congress on C S Lewis where the audience was amazed that someone could discuss the Narnia books as literature. For them, it was all holy scripture.

But here I am not giving a keynote and can disappear afterwards. And I am genuinely interested to learn what developmental psychologists know about books and children. They know a lot about children. They don't know much about books. They say "picturebook" and mean a scrapbook with images. They say "fantasy story" and mean anything that isn't fact or instruction. And I realise for umpteenth time that I am visually illiterate because I don't understand staple diagrams. I am also frustrated that someone is trying to present three different, unrelated projects in 45 minutes, reading carefully from their slides. This must be a different conference culture. I feel ignorant because I don't recognise one single reference. I don't know the terminology, although I am trying to guess, and to decipher the jungle of acronyms.I am uncomfortable with the wording "we used three conditions" meaning that children read three books. I don't see a book as a condition. But perhaps for a developmental psychologist, it is. Perhaps I am discipline-blind.

I cannot help asking myself: was my talk as incomprehensible to them as theirs are for me?

To be fair, I have learned a lot. Presumably more than I typically learn from a conference in my own area.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Doing it again

It has been a while, but I've done it again. Up to the day before yesterday I was secretly hoping that something would happen and I wouldn't have to do it. Tough luck!

So this morning I got up at five-thirty, Staffan took me to the railway station at six-thirty for the 7.15 London train (I always want to have a margin), 50 min to King's Cross, an hour to Heathrow, a cappucchino and a muffin, just over an hour flight to Hannover, waiting for the airport train - actually I thought I would miss it, but it was late. But I was so stressed by the queue behind me for the ticket machine that I bought a completely wrong ticket. After a long wait, twelve minutes, as promised, to the central station in Hannover, found the travel centre, bought a supplementary train ticket, had a sandwich and another capucchino, found the platform, another hour on the train, taxi to the hotel, at the hotel at 5, which is all in all almost eleven hours of travel. I had looked at options, including a flight to Amsterdam from Stansted as well as driving all the way. All options added up to about twelve hours, but of course driving twelve hours isn't too clever if you have to give a paper in the morning.

Why am I doing it again? Shouldn't I be beyond all ambitions, shouldn't I be wiser than be flattered by an invitation? It'd better be a very rewarding conference! If it's half as good as the dinner tonight I'll be satisfied.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Guus Kuijer 2012 ALMA winner

This is what I wrote about Kuijer in my book Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers (2010):

In Guus Kuljer’s The Book of Everything (2005) the protagonist’s father is a horrible tyrant who not only imposes strict rules in his wife and children, but does not stop at hitting them. The nine-year-old Thomas is mortally scared of his father, but gradually learns to interrogate his authority, and with some help from both adults and other children finally causes his total defeat. Significantly enough, there is a figure in the novel similar to Granny in Aldabra [by Silvana Gandolfi] in her role of the wise woman. She is in fact believed to be a witch, but both the character and the reader are left to make their own inferences whether the seven plagues she sends on the Thomas’s father are real witchcraft, a coincidence, or the product of wishful thinking. Thomas is, unlike Pippi Longstocking, not the strongest boy in the world, but his special gift is seeing things that aren’t there, that is, having powerful imagination. He also finds strength and inspiration in reading. Three other children’s books are mentioned in The Book of Everything – and one non-children’s book. The latter is the Bible, which the father states is the only true book, while all other books, including those children are assigned to read at school, are false. The children’s books, that the witch neighbor gives Thomas to read, are Emil and the Detectives, by Erich Kästner, and Sans Famille, or The Foundling, by Hector Malot. Neither the author nor the adult character comment on the choice, but the protagonist contemplates why he has been given the books. He realizes that both books are about lonely children, children that have to cope on their own; books that encourage him not to be afraid. The third book is a collection of nonsense verses by the Grand Old Lady of Dutch children’s literature, Annie M. G. Schmidt, that apart from their role in the narrative itself, also demonstrates the liberating effect of reading for pleasure as compared to the boring Bible recitations by the father. Kuijer thus depicts a competent child, whose moral and intellectual strength wins over the adult’s physical superiority. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Thomas says that he wants to be happy. In some way, this is a proper dialogical reply to the affirmative ending of Pippi Longstocking.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

I love my timeline

Facebook friends started complaining some months ago about the new timeline. They found it confusing. I have kept looking up what was happening on their walls (that apparently have simply been renames timelines), and apart from being indeed confusing with two columns rather than one, I still cannot see any radical difference. Maybe it will hit me when it comes.

Last week, FB finally informed me that my timeline will be activated on March 11. Since I cannot do much about it - as far as I understand, short of quitting FB which will be like cutting off all essential communication with friends and colleagues – I decided I'd better explore it and see whether it could be useful in some way.

As I have stated repeatedly, I mostly use FB for professional reasons. I like to know what books my colleagues read and what they think of them; what conferences they go to; what journals they contribute to; what topics their students write their theses on. My FB friends are a huge research team. (I hope I give something back too). If they happen to post pictures of their babies or cats, I can always skip them. And I post pictures of my cat occasionally.

I don't use games or apps (with very few exceptions, such as Where I Have Been). I have enough to keep me busy.

So what is the timeline good for? I checked what my friends, who already use it, have filled it in, retrospectively, after they have joined FB. “Graduated...”, “Started work...”, “Married...” - events that FB just has copied from your earlier profile. So I started tentatively to fill in events that weren't there already, and I got hooked. There are so many things that are not reflected in my official cv. Things that I almost forgot and that, by association, emerged as I was mentally turning the pages of my life. I remembered that on the way to a conference in Paris I attended a performance in Lund Cathedral, based on my short story. I remembered that I once interpreted a Baltic summit meeting. I remembered when and how I met some of my FB friends. I realised that I have been to London more often than I remembered. I realised that when I say that I wasn't allowed to travel before I moved to Sweden, it is not true. I travelled extensively within the Soviet Union that was one sixth of the world's area. I remembered, with the help of a photo album, that I once won the first prize for the best costume at the Swedish Children's Books Institute annual party. I had green spikes in my hair, black nails and fake piercing. The theme was “teenage culture”. I remembered all the fantastic people I had met, and all the truly historical events I had witnessed, including the fall of Communism. I realised that events that feel like yesterday actually happened twenty years ago.

I have now played with the timeline for a couple of days, adding travel, unusual tasks, exciting encounters, first article, book, translation, review, conference, driving licence, car, computer, online course. I plough my way through my official cvs, publication lists, archives and photos.

The new timeline is forced on me just as I am approaching my sixtieth. The right time to look back. My timeline looks so much more exciting than my academic cv.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Contemplating timeline

I've got it now. The new Facebook timeline that my virtual friends have been complaining about during the past weeks. I don't know whether Cambridge was the last stronghold or whether the transition happened by age groups and has now reached the dinosaurs like myself. Since I cannot do anything about it I'd better make the most of it. I have checked what some of my friends have put into their pre-Facebook timeline, and it's mostly graduation and employment dates that Facebook apparently has copied from the existing profile. I can think of lots of things to put in: conferences, publications, career turning points, epiphanies. Actually, it may be a good thing to look back at my life. I have my complete CV on academia, but how about adding some personal memories of conferences, or perhaps pictures?That's worth sharing.

I mostly use FB for professional purposes. The “Life Event” feature suggests adding your new hobbies, new languages (it has been a while since I learned a new language, unless you count Cantabrigean), travels, and tattoos. My first response is: who cares about tattoos? Then I remember how important it was to have my ears pierced when I was twenty. There must be people for whom tattoos and piercing are as important as degrees and grants for me and who would be puzzled about my enthusiasm for degrees and grants. There is a feature for “Other events”. I can add: “Three-year research grant from the Swedish Bank Tercentenary Foundation”. My pierced and tatooed Facebook friends will be awed.

In “Family and relationships” there is a feature for “First met...” I suppose it is meant for the first meeting with your only true love. But what if I start adding colleagues whom I met at various professional conventions? That would be an exciting timeline! Especially if their memories of our first encounter are different from mine.

I am not sure I want to fill in the “Health and well-being” section, even though “Overcome an illness” is something I have done a couple of times. I am definitely in two minds about “First word, kiss, other...” If other implies first intercourse with full penetration I am not sure I want to share it with the penetrator's wife. But if other implies the first review, the first translation, the first keynote talk – yes, I'll be proud to share it, and as I have noticed from responses to this blog, people are interested in these things.

The new timeline opens new unexpected vistas. There is room for imagination, as Anne Shirley would say.

Seven things that do not qualify you as a children's literature scholar

I am sure all my children's literature colleagues have heard silly questions and comments, such as: “You are doing children's literature – have you got kids yourself?” Isn't it a bit like asking a psychiatrist: “Are you mentally ill yourself?” What you do for a living has nothing to do with what or who you are. We have also heard aspiring students' explanations about why they want to study children's literature. For me, most of these are demeriting. So here are things that do not qualify you to be or become an expert in children's literature.
  1. I have children of my own.
To expand the argument, if you have children of your own, does it make you a paediatrician? Or a children's fashion designer? It may or may not give you some additional insights, but basically this is irrelevant.
  1. I have children of my own, and I love to read books to them.
Again, this is your private concern, and you won't be a good critic by simply reading for your children, even though it may give you some vague idea about what your particular kids like and dislike. All children are different, just as all adult readers are different, and your limited personal experience is of little help. I have children, and I used to read for them, but I carefully avoid using them as evidence in my research.
  1. I loved to read books as a child.
Maybe you loved animals, but it doesn't mean you are qualified to be a biologist or a veterinary. Every scholar of children's literature knows how vague, fragmentary and unreliable our memories of childhood reading are, and how as scholars we seek and find other qualities in books than we did as children. It is helpful if you have read a lot of children's books, but the first thing we tell our students is not to trust your memory and re-read them again and then read everything that has appeared since you were a child. This will provide a solid foundation for your studies, but simply reading books is not enough.
  1. I love Harry Potter/Beatrix Potter/Roald Dahl/Enid Blyton/Maurice Sendak/Animorphs (delete as appropriate)
Loving a particular children's author or book does not qualify you to discuss it professionally. Children's literature research is not fandom. You aren't qualified to be an art critic or a music critic simply because you like Renoir or Paganini. You need to train and learn a lot, and you may discover that it is not your cup of tea.
    5. I want to write for children
If you want to become a children's writer, taking an academic course in children's literature may save you a lot of beginner's mistakes because you will realise that all your brilliant and original ideas have been exploited scores of times and that scholars know more about plots and narration than you do. But your mere wish to write for children will not make a good scholar of you; if anything, it can be a hinder.
    6. I write for children
Creative writing and academic writing are two very different pursuits, and even the most brilliant writer may be a poor scholar. You need a lot of time and energy for both, and you cannot keep even pace. In fact, I cannot think of one single person who would be brilliant in both. If you write for children you may know a lot about the craft, but it does not automatically provide you with scholarly skills.
  1. My mother/father/grandmother/grandfather is a children's writer
This is marginal, but it happens. However, I have met children of famous children's writers who hadn't even read their famous parents' books and didn't care much. Even if your famous parent told you bedtime stories that were later hailed as best children's books ever, this does not instantly make you a children's literature scholar. But it was a good try.

So, you may ask at this point, what does qualify you as a children's literature scholar? The answer is quite straightforward: the same that qualifies anyone as a professional. Dedication to the field, profound knowledge, hard work, failures and disappointments and new efforts. You aren't born a children's literature scholar, you become one.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

What professors do when they are grandmothers

We always tell our children that they are welcome to visit us any time in any numbers, so there wasn't much I could say when Sergej announced that he was bringing four kids for half-term. I certainly prefer to meet them one at a time, not so much because I cannot cope with all of them (which I know I cannot, so there is no point worrying) but because I enjoy them more. Even a five-year-old can make a very interesting conversation when you have them on their own. But here they were, all of them, and here is how we spent the week.

They flew into Stansted on Saturday evening, but since they are too many to fit into a car, I instructed them to take the airport train to Cambridge and collected them at the station. Yes, they were still too many to fit into a car, but in the darkness we could hide one in the back seat. I thought they would be too tired to be hungry, but they weren't. They were hungry and too excited to be tired.

On Sunday I made a huge breakfast. Or so I thought. Two humongous cartons of juice were gone almost before we opened them. Since the boys didn't get up until noon, breakfast transformed into lunch, with a snack in between. Sergej and I sat outside and enjoyed the sun while the kids played croquet which the boys cleverly remembered that we had in the garage since their previous visit. Then we went for a walk in the park, fed the swans, explored the playground – I had had a vague feeling that there was a playground in the park, but I normally avoid it during my walks. We had ice cream in the park cafe – another place I normally avoid. Then we went home and did nothing special for a while until it was time to make dinner. After dinner we watched an old movie. The cat hid under my bed, but would emerge every now and then.

On Monday I took the kids to Linton Zoo while Sergej worked (he had no half-term! Neither had I, incidentally). The weather wasn't great, but we enjoyed it anyway. Lunch was unsatisfactory, but there were doughnuts waiting at home. The girls played with the dolls' house they were allowed to play with and were very good at seeing but not touching the ones they were not allowed to play with. The boys have their smartphones that keep them busy at any time. We watched another movie in the evening.

On Tuesday I dispatched them to Duxford Imperial War Museum while I had to go to work. I barely got back home to prepare dinner before it was time for me and Sergej to go to Homerton Formal Hall which just happened to be Harry Potter-themed. I wore a pointed hat, and like last year there we owls flying over the Hall. Between main course and dessert we were allowed to fondle the owls. It was another long-time dream come true, just in passing.

On Wednesday the boys went to London. On their previous visits I told them that there was no way I was going up on London Eye and they would have to do it another time with someone else. So now was the time. They took the train, and did London Eye, London Dungeons and what not, while I took the girls to town. Natalie had expressed a wish to ride a double-decker, and after three and a half years in Cambridge I finally took this ride which was the most boring sightseeing I'd ever done (you don't see anything from a double-decker squeezing through narrow streets). For the girls, however, the pleasure was in riding a double-decker, not in seeing sights, so they didn't mind the absence of sights. Then we went punting, and I enjoyed it thoroughly because it was the best punter ever, while the girls thought the swans and ducks on the river were fun, and a boat trip is a boat trip. Meanwhile they kept reminding me that the real reason we went to town was that I had promised them belated birthday presents, of the kind “you can choose anything you want”, knowing that at this age they would probably not want a diamond necklace. In fact, it was interesting to watch them go back and forth between kids' fashion and toys, as they realised that “anything you want” didn't necessarily have to be a toy. They have more toys they can ever play with. We left John Lewis with a box of kids' makeup and a pair of slippers, and I think they were perfectly happy. In addition, I discovered that the family toilet in Grand Arcade was very practical when you had two little girls who needed to pee. We watched The Dark Crystal in the evening, and they made some clever observations, especially given that they didn't understand the dialogue.

Thursday was my really busy day, starting with a studio interview for BBC and an afternoon meeting. In the morning, the girls wondered whether they absolutely had to go on another excursion or could possibly play at home, so their wish was granted, while I dropped the boys in town to wander on their own. It was fascinating to hear them report afterwards what they had seen and done, and why.

Viktor had a favourite Chinese restaurant in Cambridge where Staffan had taken him a couple of times. He had been looking forward to going there again and was very upset to hear that the place had closed down. To compensate, I had promised Chinese take-out, and that was our meal that day. The boys walked to the shop, with some cash and free hands to get whatever they wanted, and they made some very good choices. And guess what? We watched a movie.

During the whole week Sergej hadn't seen anything of Cambridge, and I thought he should at least see some landmarks, but he had more work to do, and the kids were playing happily in the garden, and finally we didn't go anywhere at all (except to Tesco to get more milk, but it doesn't qualify as a pastime since it was a routine). In the evening, Sergej went to see a schoolmate who just happens to live in Milton. I understand that they paid tribute to all local pubs, while we had ice cream and watched a movie.

This morning, they were exemplary in getting up at five to catch the train. They haven't left much behind: just a sock and a toothbrush. They are very nice kids. I wish they could be delivered with volume control.