Sunday, 25 November 2012

Reference frames

I should perhaps write a post about our bilateral English-French symposium on children's literature last Friday - which by the way grew quickly from bilateral to multilateral as our visiting scholars from Australia, Brazil, Spain and Greece joined (and our group itself is international enough). However, I am sure that the students will cover it in their blog. Instead, I have some reflections on how different children's literature scholarship is in different countries. We may have the illusion that we are all doing more or less similar thing, that there is some kind of consensus, that we have the same points of departure; but in fact we all sit on our different islands and rarely know what is going on elsewhere. In natural sciences, if a major discovery is made it will be published in a journal within weeks, and the scholar will get the Nobel prize. In our area, we can be happily ignorant of groundbreaking work if it is done outside of our immediate sphere.

I have in many contexts emphasised that children's literature is a stepdaughter that takes refuge with whoever lets her in. In my old-old country, it was only possible to study children's literature within library and information science, and it's still the case in many places. Education is an obvious shelter, but some institutions are far too anchored in empirical research, which is fully legitimate but a bit limiting if you are interested in texts rather than readers. I remember when in the 1980s children's literature here and there in the world started moving from Education to English and Comparative Literature - and sometimes to cultural studies, childhood studies, gender studies, modern languages, folklore, media and communication, translation studies. In contrast, in some places it emerged within traditional philology and was therefore focused on historical approaches and canonical texts. Some places focus on national literature, some are more international or transnational. Someone in the department of Dutch in Norway may for some reason decide to do a PhD on Dutch children's literature and never discover that in the next corridor there is a whole bunch of children's literature scholars doing something else. People go to international conferences and meet people from that next corridor - that's a positive scenario, because some people don't go to conferences. A lot of very interesting research goes on in different countries that remains unknown because the scholars never go to international conferences or publish in international journals. When people do meet they discover that they lack reference frames; that thay call the same phenomenon by different names, or use the same term for completely different things.

Our field is growing exponentially so perhaps this is inevitable. yet I find it frustrating that so often when we meet we need to start with the same old basic question: What exactly do we mean by children's literature?

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