NEW SOCIETY'S FIRST CONFERENCE by Siobhán Parkinson
(Poetry Ireland News, July/August 2003)
Though I am 48 years old, I am often told, when I reveal that I write for children, that I am 'a great girl'. Sometimes the word 'lovely' is also used - not of me personally, I regret to say, but of the generalised idea of writing for children. From time to time, people add, 'I'd love to do that myself; I'm sure I could. My children love my bedtime stories. I suppose it is easy to get little stories for children published. Who do I send them to? You must make a packet, do you, like JK Rowling?' And very often the next conversational move is to ask whether I am going to write a 'real' book soon. Even a child asked me that once, though she phrased it a little more tactfully: 'As you get older, do you think you will write for your own age group?' Having been patronised in this way for much of my working life, I always find it extremely gratifying to come across little pockets of serious interest in children's literature. The inaugural conference of the newly formed Irish Society for the Study of Children's Literature (which took place at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, over a weekend in May) was such a pocket - a whole conference full of people who think children's books are worth considering as works of literature and products of their culture in the same way that 'real' books are - but much to my delight, it turned out not to be a little pocket after all, but a very large and deep one and, like the best pockets, it was full of thrilling and unexpected goodies.
St Patrick's is the home of the first MA programme in children's literature in the country - now in its third cycle - and several of the papers given at the conference were by the current cohort of graduate students and were drawn from work on their MA dissertations. The quality of the students' papers was extremely high, and included a very clear exposition on the gendered nature of children's fantasy, with particular reference to Le Guin & Pullman, by Jane O'Hanlon (of this parish) and an intriguing, controversial - even disturbing - consideration of the sexually ambiguous nature of adult/child relationships in the books of Frances Hodgson Burnett by Áine Nic Gabhainn (who lectures at Coláiste Mhuire, Marino).
A paper by Lindsay Myers (who took her PhD recently at UCD) on Italian political fantasy for children, complete with charming illustrations, not only provided an unusual insight into a literature that is not well known in the English-speaking world but was also most entertaining. An intriguing paper by Amanda Piesse (who lectures at Trinity) on the reading lists of Renaissance schools and universities made one feel that modern pupils have it far too easy.
Not unexpectedly, many of the papers by Irish contributors concerned themselves with Irish children's literature. Most of these took a historical view and almost inevitably a central concern in these papers was the question of national identity: Margaret Burke (a St Patrick's MA student), focused her presentation on her researches among the papers of Patricia Lynch, explicitly on national identity; Ciara Ní Bhroin (another St Pat's MA student and a lecturer at Coláiste Mhuire, Marino), gave a lively paper on Eilís Dillon which also alluded directly to national identity; and the presentation of Mary Flynn (another MA student) on the worthy publishing output of the Talbot Press in the middle part of the 20th century, reminded us starkly of the repressive literary atmosphere in which many of the audience grew up. Both Carol Dunbar (who teaches at St Pat's) and Robert Dunbar (who teaches at CICE) gave (separately) entertaining and thought-provoking disquisitions on Irish identity as presented in 19th-century novels. Carol's account of the 'Wild Irish Girl' stereotype had moments of hilarity, and Robert's reading of the neglected Castle Blair had delegates hurriedly noting internet bookshop addresses, determined to track down this lost gem and read it for themselves. Padraig Whyte (who is working for his PhD on Irish children's books and films at Trinity) presented a paper on historical novels in the other sense (meaning written today but about the past) by Siobhán Parkinson and Gerard Whelan, and made some interesting comments on how male and female writers approach historical events from different perspectives. Alongside all this wonderful work from Irish contributors, we had international presentations from some of the really big names in the study of children's literature. (The board of the International Research Society on Children's Literature was in Dublin for a meeting that same weekend, and several of the board members contributed papers; there were other visiting contributors too.) Kimberley Reynolds's paper on the depressing nature of much current teenage fiction was quite controversial, and David Rudd's apologia for the maligned golliwog was most unexpected in its appeal. Other papers from international contributors ranged in subject matter from 'fattism' in children's books, through children's stories by the poets Robert Frost & Edward Thomas, a paper on the 'liminal space' occupied by adolescent literature and a paper on the 'childist' theory of children's literature, to Sandra Beckett's look at some truly astonishing 'artists' books'. A multiple-media dramatic presentation on Max Velthuis's picture books by Victoria De Rijke & Howard Hollands stole the show - or it would have, but for Declan Kiberd's entertaining and erudite keynote paper on school stories, with particular reference to the Bunter series and the beloved (at least by me) and hilarious Jennings stories. This was a most engaging and enriching weekend, and I warmly recommend membership of ISSCL to anyone whose interest in children's literature is deep and scholarly. ISSCL's president is Celia Keenan, who can be contacted at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, Dublin 9.
Siobhán Parkinson's The Love Bean, for young teenage readers, was shortlisted for this year's Bisto Book of the Year awards; her first 'real' novel, The Thirteenth Room, will be published by Blackstaff in the autumn.