Monday, June 22, 2015

"The High Stakes and Dark Sides of Children's Literature"

I'm back from four blissful days at the annual Children's Literature Association (ChLA) conference. ChLA is an 800-member organization of children's literature scholars, chiefly English professors who specialize in children's lit, or at least who teach it and write about it every chance they get. This year the conference was hosted by Longwood University and held in Richmond, VA. The theme was the site-appropriate rallying cry of Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty or give me death!", with the subtitle, "The High Stakes and Dark Sides of Children's Literature."

Last year I was president of the organization, which was thrilling but also stressful. This year I was past president, and now I'm not any kind of president at all, as the new ChLA administrative year begins at the conference. (Well, I'm still a past president, and always will be, but that is no longer my official title and slot on the board of directors). So I spent much of the conference reveling in how I was NOT running an all-day board meeting, or presiding over the general membership meeting, or delivering a presidential address, or serving as mistress of ceremonies for the awards banquet. I was just there as a happy, eager scholar in a world of other happy, eager scholars. 

My paper, fortunately, was in the second session of the first day (I love to go first and be done right away). This year my paper was called "The Dark Side of Goodness: The Woodbegoods, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to Be Bad." The three texts I look at, published over the span of a full century, all feature children who are trying very hard to be unusually good - and who as a result of their very efforts end up being unusually bad. My project was to try to figure out what it is about "aspirational goodness" that tends to backfire: what misunderstandings about the moral life do these three texts wryly expose?

My paper was paired on a panel with two others. Sometimes the conference organizers manage to achieve brilliance in their panel matchmaking; sometimes they end up with a few sessions that are a mixed-up mishmash. Ours was one of the brilliant ones. My paper resonated particularly well with the one immediately preceding it, by Prof. Sarah Winters of Nipissing University in Canada, who spoke on "The Dark Side of the Light: The Conflict between Love and Goodness in The Dark Is Rising and Harry Potter." I now have a new friend for life.

I came away from the conference wild to redesign the children's literature course I'm going to teach at DePauw next spring, wild to revise and publish my two most recent papers on Eleanor Estes (one on Pinky Pye and one on Rufus M.) following the archival research I'm going to do at the University of Connecticut this fall, wild to think of something stunning to offer at next year's conference (to be held in Columbia, hosted by Ohio State) where I've been invited to join in a panel on "the family story" in the 21st century, and wild to read the long list of books I discovered at the conference.

Give me children's literature, or give me death! Well, give me a few sweet days at this particular children's literature conference, and I will have little to complain about in my life for a long, long time.

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