Friday, June 26, 2015

Romance at the Children's Literature Association 2015 Conference

My apologies for not posting last Friday. I was attending the Children's Literature Association's annual conference, which was held in Richmond VA this year, and there were so many interesting panels to attend that I didn't have a moment to blog. If you're interested in hearing about some of the presentations which touched upon issues of feminism and/or romance, here's a quick peek at some of the talks I had the chance to attend:

On Thursday, I attended a panel on "Female Authorship" in children's and young adult fiction. Megan Isaac of Elon University talked about the difference problems faced by girl authors in earlier fiction, (Jo March in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Cassandra Mortmain in Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle) and such authors in more recent books (Rainbow Rowell's Fan Girl and Scott Westerfield's Afterworlds). Material conditions were the biggest challenges to earlier girl writers, Isaac argued, while commercialism and celebrity prove the greatest threats to contemporary adolescent female authors. Jocelyn van Tuyl of the New College of Florida also spoke about Fan Girl and Little Women, suggesting that Rowell both replicates and reverses the themes around writing found in Alcott's classic work. Lots of interesting points in her talk, particularly about the ways that romances affect the writing lives of both characters.

Friday featured a cool panel on "Comics and Feminism." From Amanda Loeffert of the university of North Carolina at Charlotte, I learned about the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani-American teen named Kamala Kahn, who initially echoes stereotypes of sexualized female superheroes, but then subverts them when she realizes how they limit her abilities to fight the bad guys. Rachel Dean-Ruzicka from Georgia GWinnet College talked about a comic just started in 2014 called Lumberjanes, which features five friends attending Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types (say that five times fast!) who band together to fight supernatural strangeness. An understated romance is developing between two of the girls, which makes me eager to check this one out.

In a panel later on Friday, amusingly titled "Show Us Your Ankles," Deidre McMahon of Drexel University spoke about "Girls Who Kill in Victorian Books and Magazines for Boys." Not the most romantic of talks, for sure, but intriguing for forcing us to question the assumption that all girls in 19th century adventure stories played only passive roles. McMahon described several examples from the colonial novels of G. A. Henty in which daughters of English colonists killed belligerent natives to protect their brothers, or themselves, highlighting both Henty's racism and also his suggestion that when displaced from their native England, young women were forced into more active roles.

I remember owning and reading
 Janet Lambert's junior novel
as a teen
The panel which I spoke on, "What is YA," featured another talk with relevance to the study of romance. Amanda Allen of Eastern Michigan University spoke about the similarities and disagreements between librarians and academics between the 1920s and 1940s about what should count as "good" literature for adolescents. Though today most scholars point to the 60's as the origins of young adult literature, books for teens were being published and promoted far earlier, in a genre typically labeled the "junior novel." Junior novels have been described as "the story that records truthfully the modern girl's dream of life and romance and her way of adjusting to her school and family experiences" (quoted in Michael Cart's Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism), which sounds to me remarkably like the New Adult fiction that has taken the romance community by storm in the past five years. Critics today tend to ignore the junior novel genre, and Allen's examination of the debates between librarians and academics in the period in which they were published can help us understand why.

On Saturday, I attended "Happily Never After," which featured an intriguing talk by Vikki Terrile of Queens Library entitled "What's Your Price for Flight? Escape from Arranged and Forced Marriage in Young Adult Literature." Many of the YA books listed under the heading "arranged marriage" actually feature "forced marriage," Terrile argued after reading 17 such titles. Conflating the two terms is damaging to young readers who come from cultures in which arranged marriages are still the norm, Terrile suggested. The recurring plot in these books, which presents flight from the unwanted marriage as the only possible solution is also problematic, because said flight typically involves not only leaving behind an unwanted suitor, but also leaving behind family and culture.  Interestingly, the majority of the books she examined were fantasy novels, set in societies in which allowing girls to choose their own partners presented a threat to their social codes. During the Q & A session, we had a lively discussion about issues of culture and race, as well as about why such books, whose primary readers were presumably American girls who were not being raised  in a society where arranged marriages were the norm, would have such a recurring pattern of force and flight. What kind of fantasies was such a plot pattern fulfilling for such readers? Terrile was kind enough to send me a list of the 17 books in which she found this pattern, many of which were unfamiliar to me.

I always end up with long lists of books I want to read after attending ChLA conferences, as well as ones I want to scoop up to give to my daughter. So enough writing for today; I'm off to the bookstore in search of Ms. Marvel and some Lumberjanes...

No comments:

Post a Comment