‘The Prize Treats Children’s Literature As The Equal Of Other Aspects Of Writing’
I am the second Professor of Children’s Literature in the United Kingdom, but since I was made a professor I think there have been three more. So, it’s a growing area and that reflects the fact that children’s literature has become a very established discipline in the U.K. and taken very seriously at the academic level, and the students like it. I think that’s one of the things that has been underestimated in the past. Students understand that when they are reading the books of childhood as undergraduates they are not reading them as they did when they were children. They are reading them as literature and as part of their culture, and they find it very illuminating.
You are a Senior Research Fellow at ARC (Australian Research Council) Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. What is this about?
That’s an Australian-funded research centre which looks at the history of emotions in the early modern period. Children’s literature begins in the early modern period, we often say, with the writing of the Puritans and their desire to save children’s souls. That’s my interest there and I did some work for them on emotions surrounding the death of children as it was written about in children’s literature and by parents about children. That’s how I am attached to that centre.
You founded both the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Roehampton University and Children’s Literature Unit at Newcastle University. What is the work of these centres? What was your experience like and how can that be appropriated for Nigeria?
When I set up the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature, we had no kind of organised body in the U.K. that was collecting children’s books and material about them, the criticism of them, the original manuscripts and art work, and so on. There were no serious debates. There was no forum where journalists could come or other people who had questions about children’s literature; there was no place where they could go; no obvious point of information. That’s what that centre was setup to do as well as to run courses and classes. We run undergraduate, masters and doctoral programmes in children’s literature.
That worked very well, and it worked so well, in fact, that the Arts Council of England helped grow from that a national museum and archive called Seven Stories, which is now a national depository documenting the creative process of children literature and I am a founding trustee of that body. I am still on its board and it is in Newcastle which is why the University of Newcastle decided that it needed to have a professor of children’s literature. Since I have been there, there are now about five of us who work in the area of children’s literature and most of the courses involve children’s literature in one way or another. So, I have had the chance to kind of infiltrate other disciplines and subjects. I would say that my work in Seven Stories is probably a legacy that will last for many generations because that museum is now very strong. It has hundreds of acquisitions and some wonderful primary material.
So Seven Stores is the equivalent—in children’s literature—of the Tate Museum?
It is. Absolutely. We work very closely with the British Museum and the Bodleian Library which are other places that hold some examples of children’s literature, but we are collecting everything from the 1930s; so, it’s modern and contemporary children’s literature.
Is it worldwide or just British children’s literature?
It’s just British because there are places in America, for instance, that collect American literature; places in Japan, in Scandinavia, in Germany that do something similar, although Seven Stories is uniquely focused on documenting the creative process.
One of your books is entitled Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations. What are these future visions and aesthetic transformations? Why radical children’s literature?
That’s such an interesting question because many people think of children’s literature is something you out grow but, to my mind, it’s the literature that helps you imagine yourself as an adult in the world. It introduces the world to you and if it’s nostalgic or backward looking, you will always be making the same mistakes and not progressing very much. And I think one important thing that children’s literature does is help children re-imagine the world and think about how it could be.
So, it is speculative; it is nurturing; it gives ideas that children can—kind of—take and run with themselves. So, those future visions are really about future worlds and children looking ahead to their own future as adults and the kind of adults they want to become and the kind of world they want to live in and help create.
Tell us about your concept of authentic transformative energies.
I guess I probably wrote that a few years ago. I think what I probably had in mind and maybe I will express a little differently today is that each generation of readers becomes the writers of the next generation. If you look at what somebody like Virginia Wolf was reading—she’s a generation that grew up having Alice in Wonderland and all the kinds of books that came after that—and so they were able to transform writing itself to play with language in ways that children’s and adult books hadn’t done before and I think that’s where the energy comes from; it comes with the permission to play and I think children’s literature tends to be more experimental and playful than adult literature because people associate play with children.
You also wrote that children’s literature is at the vanguard of radical experimentation in art. How is this so?
One of the things people often overlook when they are thinking about children’s literature is the extent to which it plays with the book as a medium itself. Every aspect of the book—the front cover, the back cover, the end papers, the paper itself often could be perforated, with holes cut in them, folded, with pop ups, moveable parts—and this all become part of the storytelling and that gives you a chance to do more with how you tell the story than you can do with words alone. Mostly, children’s books do use a certain degree of illustration and so you’ve got that kind of way of extending and experimenting the stories, and as we live in an increasingly visual age, writing that doesn’t take account of images is beginning to look a little bit old fashion and unadventurous.
What do the Internet and new technologies portend for children’s literature? How do they interact with and transform children’s literature?
Most children’s first experience of text is still in a picture book with their parents, but very quickly—may be not exactly the same time—they are also starting to play with iPads and with digital formats and this is creating all kinds of opportunities for what we think a book is and how a book works. I don’t think that the new technologies will ever replace the book because it’s a perfect technology in its own way, but you can add to and extend the kind of things that books can do.
Children begin to be a bit impatient sometimes with flat text and that’s one thing that does worry me. If they are always looking for something to click on that will make the noise, they won’t animate the books themselves. I think we have to be careful about that balance, that they remember that they are in control of the book—in a way. And if it’s a digital medium, often that’s programmed to do just a limited number of things, but if it’s your own brain, it is never, never, in search of ideas.
Thank you so much. What’s your impression of literature generally in Nigeria and of children’s literature more specifically?
I have been steeping myself in Nigerian literature for coming on this trip and I have to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed it, not just because the stories themselves are compelling and interesting but they are really beautifully crafted, well told. Obviously, there are very strong traditions of literary story telling that are coming out of this country and it’s interesting to me but not unusual that those are not finding their way into children’s literature yet. There’s often a stage where people do not think children’s literature is as important, or that you can make as good a living out of writing for children; so, you write for adults first. But what you have to hope for is that the kind of energy of the success of Nigeria writers—and they are successful, I mean there are some world class writers who are household names coming out of Nigeria—will begin to create a climate in which people want to write for children as well.
There is so much going on with children’s literature on the international front. Could you share some of this with us?
Well, it’s been very exciting. I have been involved with the international children’s book scene for about 20 years now, travelling to lots of different countries and seeing what is happening. What has been really pleasing is how quickly countries where there was hardly any indigenous children’s literature are beginning to produce really beautiful fantastically well-conceived and well told stories. It can happen very fast now because the cost of producing books has gone down and the technology for doing it has become so much more flexible.
I would say that in countries ranging from Iran to Greece and Bulgaria—these are places that had very weak children’s literature in the past and now are very vibrant—are really world leading in some areas of storytelling. And I think that partly does relate to something that you asked me at the beginning about the importance of research centres and so on, as people begin to focus on the writing and to look at it and analyse it and figure out how it works and what it’s doing and how it can be done better and why it’s important; that inspires people to take the genre seriously. And I think that a prize like The Nigeria Prize for Literature does exactly that. I will say it’s much more than financial incentive to win the prize. It gives you cultural status. It gives you recognition and it makes people think about why children’s literature is as important as novels, drama and poetry for adults.
You have answered to some degree my next question and that is: what is your impression of The Nigeria Prize for Literature? What has your experience of it been? Any suggestions for improvements?
When I was first introduced to The Nigeria Prize for literature which I confess I hadn’t heard of till I was approached to be consultant, I did my homework and I looked at what the prize was all about. One of the things that impressed me most was the way that it rotated between genres. That’s very unusual in a prize. It gives every genre a chance to have its moment in the sun and it treats children’s literature as the equal of other established aspects of writing in a way that’s very unusual.
Normally, we have to set up special prizes for children’s literature. And this is one that is part of a national prize. So, I was impressed by the conception and I have been very impressed by the professional way in which the prize is managed and the quality of the thinking that has gone into the judging, the awareness of the judges of where the strengths and weaknesses in the writing lie, their desire to make this a positive story—the fact that it is not good enough is going to be used as a spur to bring about change. I thought all of that was very good.
I have also enjoyed the two days of conversation we have had with the officials of Nigeria LNG Limited, the Advisory Board members and the judges who are really committed to this prize. It does take a lot of time to read and judge and you are holding peoples’ lives and reputations in your hands and nobody does it lightly. And as I said earlier you want to make a good news story with an event like this and people are therefore predisposed to choose a winner and I thought it was very heartening that they were more interested in quality than in making it a good media event.
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