Children’s literature is often marked by an imbalance in age, as adult authors write for young readers. For this article, Vanessa Joosen interviewed seven children’s and young adult authors – Aidan Chambers, Guus Kuijer, Jacqueline Wilson, Anne Fine, David Almond, Joke Van Leeuwen, and Bart Moeyaert – to investigate how they negotiate and reflect on the growing temporal gap between their present age, their own youth, and their young readership when writing children’s or young adult literature. Although literary scholars typically avoid drawing direct parallels between authors’ lives and their fictional works, it cannot be denied that writers do draw on real-life experiences for inspiration and context.
Vanessa Joosen explores how the authors’ internal interactions between childhood and adulthood can take different shapes. It can lead to an emotional reconnection and a revision of past experiences on the one hand, and to new insights and even healing in their adult lives on the other hand. For example, David Almond explains how writing about the traumatic experiences of losing his sister and father at a young age was a coping mechanism, where instead of confronting these sad experiences directly, he reimagined them and used them as a basis for his fiction. Moreover, in creating child characters as an adult, the author’s adult experience and writing practice can also add new perspectives to their own engagement with childhood in general: instead of seeing children as lacking knowledge and experience, children’s authors cultivate the feeling of kinship in their writing, as they look for common ground between generations. Children’s literature offers a space where adults and children can come together, in and through stories. And although those fictional stories cannot be assumed to reflect experiences from childhood or adulthood perfectly authentically, they can be a start of real conversations through which generations can gain more understanding of what divides them, but more importantly, of what connects them.
Joosen, Vanessa. ‘Children’s Literature: Young Readers, Older Authors’.
The Bloomsbury Handbook to Ageing in Contemporary Literature and Film, edited by Sarah Falcus, Heike Hartung, and Raquel Medina, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023, pp. 51–62.
In children’s literature, young readers come into contact with fictional representations of their own age, as well as other ages. How those age representations in literature are experienced by readers – both young and old – and how readers use those interpretations to shape and make sense of their own age and the age of characters are the key questions of Leander Duthoy’s article. Drawing on insights from age studies, gerontology (the study of ageing) and children’s literature studies, his research starts from the idea that age is not a mere biological factor, but is also shaped by social, historical and cultural values, structures and ideologies.
To investigate the impact of readers’ age on their understanding of age in children’s literature, Leander Duthoy conducted 40 individual interviews with nine- to 75-year-old readers about two books: Iep (Joke van Leeuwen, 1996) and Voor altijd samen, amen (Guus Kuijer, 2010). In addition, four group discussions were held, in which readers of different ages were able to respond to each other’s insights. All these conversations showed that both young and old readers hold stereotypical, negative views about ageing – so-called “decline narratives.” While the youngest readers used such decline narratives to form expectations about the older characters and about their own future, the responses of the older readers were more nuanced, as they mentioned both decline and the positive aspect of ageing – experience and wisdom. These reader responses teach us that decline narratives and perceptions of wisdom play a role in how readers of all ages understand their own age and the age of characters, but also that the very age of readers themselves influences their interpretation of decline and wisdom.
Duthoy, Leander. ‘Decline narratives en wijsheid: Hoe reflecteren lezers van alle leeftijden op de representatie van leeftijd in literatuur voor jonge lezers?’.
Cahier voor Literatuurwetenschap, vol. 14, 2023, pp. 141–155.
In recent decades, age studies has started to emerge as a new approach to study children’s literature. This book is co-authored by several members of the CAFYR team and builds on that scholarship but also significantly extends it by exploring age in various aspects of children’s literature: the age of the author, the characters, the writing style, the intended readership and the real reader. Moreover, the authors explore what different theories and methods can be used to study age in children’s literature, and what their affordances and limits are. The analyses combine age studies with life writing studies, cognitive narratology, digital humanities, comparative literary studies, reader-response research and media studies. To ensure coherence, the book offers an in-depth exploration of the oeuvre of a single author, David Almond. The aesthetic and thematic richness of Almond’s works has been widely recognised. This book adds to the understanding of his oeuvre by offering a multi-faceted analysis of age. In addition to discussing the film adaptation of his best-known novel Skellig, this book also offers analyses of works that have received less attention, such as Counting Stars, Clay and Bone Music. Readers will also get a fuller understanding of Almond as a crosswriter of literature for children, adolescents and adults.
Joosen, Vanessa, Michelle Anya Anjirbag, Leander Duthoy, Lindsey Geybels, Frauke Pauwels & Emma-Louise Silva. ‘Age in David Almond’s Oeuvre: A Multi-Method to Studying Age and the Life Course in Children’s Literature’.
Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock (1984) and Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016) are two British novels that evoke an intense friendship between a girl and an older man. In this article, Vanessa Joosen explores their experimental narrative forms which include a complex chronology, unreliable narrator, dream scenes, gaps, and a rich intertextual network to frame an intergenerational friendship that can be read as intergenerational desire. The experimental narratives and reflections on the fluidity of age enable Smith and Jones to evoke this controversial topic without fulling addressing it. A lot is at stake for Fire and Hemlock, given that it is addressed to young readers and there is concern that children’s books could be used for grooming. Controversially, both novels locate the desire in the young girl rather than the old man and explore the agency and moments of disempowerment that the female characters experience. However, an age gap between childhood and adulthood is crucial in qualifying a relationship as “intergenerational desire,” and here, the novels’ experimental structures and fuzzy chronologies create ambiguity. In addition, the books create confusion about the nature of the attraction between the characters. They exploit the ambiguity that incomplete memories, unreliable narration, narrative gaps, metaphors, and intertextual references leave when thematizing what could be defined as friendship, kinship, love, and/or sexual attraction.
Joosen, Vanessa. ‘Holding Hands: Intergenerational Desire in Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock and Ali Smith’s Autumn’.
Poetics Today, vol. 44, no. 1–2, 2023, pp. 131–156.
In this essay, Michelle Anya Anjirbag uses Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, The Sleeper and the Spindle, and ‘Chivalry’ to examine the intersection of age and gender in his fairy-tale appropriations to consider how fantasy can reiterate stereotypical representations of older women. By drawing on the age studies work of Sylvia Henneberg and Susan Pickard to consider ageism as a cross-section to gendered constructions in Gaiman’s works, she makes visible how age affects perception and construction of gender, which can lead to the intertwining of age stereotypes and gendered double standards.
Anjirbag, Michelle Anya. ‘No Country for Old Women: Age, Power, and Beauty in Neil Gaiman’s Fantasies’.
Marvels & Tales, vol. 37, no. 1, 2023, pp. 3–20.
In this article, Leander Duthoy discusses how child and adult readers of children’s literature use the concepts of innocence and wisdom as age norms to reflect both on their own age and the age of fictional characters. He gathered data through semi-structured interviews and focus-group discussions with readers aged nine to seventy-five. In these conversations, Leander and his readers reflected on two Dutch language children’s books: Iep! (1996), written by Joke van Leeuwen, and Voor altijd samen, amen(1999), written by Guus Kuijer. Younger readers demonstrated an awareness of adult discourse surrounding childhood innocence, which some adopted without criticism, while others admitted to ‘performing’ innocence to escape adult ire. Furthermore, these same young readers also used innocence to ‘age’ young characters. For late adolescent and early adult readers, both young and old characters were sometimes deemed innocent. In contrast, older readers emphasised their own wisdom and reflected on the age of characters through that lens. Wisdom therefore emerged as a key age norm older readers used not only to praise older characters, but also to give positive meaning to their own experience of older adulthood. Notably, some characters that were perceived as especially wise by older readers were thought of as naïve and innocent by younger readers. Thus, the complexity of the readers’ responses challenged straightforward age-bound generalisations of wisdom and innocence.
Duthoy, Leander. ‘“I Became Much Wiser over Time”: Readers’ Use of Innocence and Wisdom as Age Norms in Responses to Children’s Literature’.
International Research in Children’s Literature, vol. 15, no. 3, 2022, pp. 279–293.