Barbara Burns interviews Professor Eugene Giddens of Anglia Ruskin University, General Editor of The Cambridge History of Children’s Literature in English, and Dr Sarah Pyke, the project's MHRA Research Associate this year.
BB. Eugene, turning to you first, what can you tell us about the emergence of Children’s Literature as a distinct academic field? What are its main achievements to date?
EG. Children’s Literature as a subject of research has its roots in a range of disciplines including Library Studies, Information Science, Education, Linguistics, and Literary Studies. It certainly has become a field in its own right, though Children’s Literature scholars and postgraduate degrees can be found across a variety of departments. Zoe Jaques, my fellow General Editor for the Cambridge History, for instance, works in the Education Faculty at the University of Cambridge, while I teach Literature and Drama at Anglia Ruskin University. One of the most exhilarating aspects of studying this subject is seeing the different disciplinary perspectives that come together, with some scholars interested in children’s own reader responses and learning, and others with cultural or literary approaches, for instance. Although our project concentrates on children’s literature in English, we also benefit from scholarship on translation and adaptation, and include a broad spectrum of works from board books for babies to young adult literature. The main achievement of the field has been bringing together these diverse perspectives in fruitful ways that are mutually informative and still subject to rigorous critique and debate.
BB. Is there a key challenge, either in the UK or further afield?
EG. The key challenge has always been the question ‘whose literature is children’s literature’? And that remains the case right now. Censorship of children’s texts, often for political reasons, is increasingly being imposed by governments and schools. There are recent examples in the US; see for example the current wave of attempts by right-wing activists in the South to exclude black authors from school libraries.
BB. Eugene, what is the context of your current project, and why is it needed?
EG. The Cambridge History of Children’s Literature in English offers an opportunity to identify and shape a field that has grown significantly in the past decade. Master’s degrees in Children’s Literature and related disciplines have been steadily increasing in the UK and beyond. In terms of our own institutions, Anglia Ruskin has taught the UK’s first MA in Children’s Book Illustration since 2001, and Cambridge founded its MPhil in Children’s Literature in 2010. Despite this increasing prominence at postgraduate level, however, Children’s Literature is by no means mainstream, with many UK universities having no scholars writing in the subject at all, and undergraduate exposure is patchy. The discipline lacks the editions, histories, and foundational texts that underpin other areas of research in English and American literature.
BB. How will the outcome of your work help to address this gap?
EG. With over 100 chapters across three volumes and nearly one million words, the Cambridge History will offer the scope needed by newer scholars or those who wish to discover the latest thinking on particular developments in the field. We are in the final year of the project, and the MHRA award enabling us to appoint Sarah has been a vital help in seeing the work to completion.
BB. Sarah, you were appointed in October 2021. Can you tell us a bit about your own educational and professional background and how that prepared you to take on this project?
SP. Children’s Literature is an area where the personal and professional are more than usually tangled, for me. Following an undergraduate degree in English Literature, I worked for a decade in various editorial, communications and campaigning roles in NGOs and human rights organisations. A few years out from my degree, I missed studying and writing in a scholarly community. For my own interest, rather than any more career-minded motivation, I started a part-time MA in Children’s Literature at the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature, based at Roehampton University. It’s a long-standing MA, which took Children’s Literature seriously as an object of study before many other institutions did so. I worked full time while studying, and over the years it took me to complete the degree, I realised that I had not only figured something out about my relationship to the books of my childhood and their continuing hold over me, but about reading as a practice and about books as material objects.
BB. What prompted you to continue your studies in this field?
SP. One module in particular inspired me to conduct an autoethnography of my childhood reading, and this became foundational for my doctoral project, an oral history of LGTBQ+ adults’ memories of reading in childhood and adolescence, which I undertook as part of an AHRC-funded project, Memories of Fiction, and completed in 2020. I came this way to research interests in the history of reading, book history, and queer print culture, and an awareness of disciplinary branches and offshoots that I’d previously been almost entirely unaware of. There’s something very inspiring about being part of a field which continually brings other perspectives to bear, and where some of the most vital conversations – about representation, sexualities, gender identities, subjectivity, to give just a few examples – are taking place.
BB. Sarah, what is your specific role on the project, and what have the pros and cons been so far?
SP. As an MHRA Research Associate, I support the General Editors of the Cambridge History to collate and edit contributions, and to finalise the manuscript for publication. My specific responsibilities include compiling the chronologies – timelines of key publications, authors, events, legislation, etc. – with which each volume begins, as well as editing work from the 100+ academics involved. I’m also writing a chapter myself, for Volume 3, which covers the period from 1914 to the present, on gendering the child in twentieth- and twenty-first century children’s literature. I think a large-scale publishing project such as this presents challenges in terms of collaborating with scholars based all over the world and ensuring a diversity and breadth of coverage, and the pandemic has meant that people have been juggling their workloads in difficult circumstances. But it’s a pleasure to be in dialogue with so many excellent writers and to help shape a project of this scale. It’s an exciting opportunity to be involved with something so ambitious at this stage in my career.
BB. Sarah, which aspects of being part of the broader academic community at Anglia Ruskin are most useful to you in terms of your career development?
SP. Both Anglia Ruskin as an institution and Eugene as my line manager have been hugely welcoming and supportive. As a somewhat precarious early career researcher, I feel sometimes it’s the small things departments do that make the most difference – a knock on an office door, an invitation to coffee. I was very struck, when applying for this role, by how carefully the job description considered the specific needs of the early career academic. I have a mentor for the first time, and I’m included in departmental funding calls. Even something as relatively minor as a funding pot for conference attendance can make an enormous difference.
BB. Do you have any opportunity to teach or get involved in other initiatives this year?
SP. This term I’m teaching the third-year undergraduate module, Theorising Children’s Literature. So far, it’s a delight. We have recently been exploring posthumanism, reading Jacques Derrida alongside Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. It’s a nice opportunity for me to gain teaching experience I’d otherwise find it very difficult to acquire. I’ve also been encouraged to apply for funding to support other strands of my research, and to develop a bigger postdoctoral funding proposal. It’s relatively rare, I think, to find such support in a fixed-term, fractional post, and I’d say that as well as reflecting well on the research culture at ARU, this is a direct result of the MHRA funding.
BB. Eugene, Sarah, how would each of you sum up the importance of this project?
EG: Literature in English has been subject to serious study in universities and beyond since the early nineteenth century. Children’s literature has been relatively neglected, even though it shapes the identities, emotional health, and aspirations of young people. Books for children are not only hugely financially successful – especially those famous bestsellers that become franchises in film and merchandise. They also instil culture, literacy, empathy, and understanding in ways that are crucial to the function of democratic society. The Cambridge History of Children’s Literature in English aims to be sensitive to the wonder, literary excellence, and historical developments of this crucial genre.
SP: I’d say that children’s literature is the (still) underexamined ground on which so many of our assumptions and most firmly held beliefs rest. Many people deeply committed to the future of the humanities would find, looking back, that their commitment was shaped, at least in part, through their childhood encounters with books. You can’t underestimate it, really. At the same time, childhood, or the figure of the child, continues to be pressed into service across the political spectrum, including or especially by those on the right, with real consequences for actual children and young people. An example is seen in the controversy over LGBT-inclusive teaching in Birmingham primary schools a few years ago. The Cambridge History sheds light on the various ways the child has been constructed over the past several hundred years and, I hope, will help us attend seriously both to children of today and of the future in terms of their needs, wants, and rights, and to the ongoing presence of our own child-selves.