Can or should authors only write books for children if they themselves are still young or childlike enough? And when is ‘old’ still considered ‘young enough’? In the book Hoe oud is jong? (How old is young?), Vanessa Joosen advocates for greater awareness of the concept of age as a social construct. She provides insight into important views and theories within age studies and how they interact with societal visions on age and ageing. In doing so, she uses and encourages an open view of age norms and encourages constructive dialogue between people of different ages and generations. For this book, she interviewed twelve British, Flemish, and Dutch authors who have written books for both young and old readers, and who moreover released their debuts at a very young age or have had long writing careers: David Almond, Aidan Chambers, Anne Fine, Ed Franck, Guus Kuijer, Bart Moeyaert, Aline Sax, Hilde Vandermeeren, Joke van Leeuwen, Edward van de Vendel, Jacqueline Wilson, and Anna Woltz. Based on these conversations, Vanessa Joosen tackles the question of how these authors manage or have managed to bridge that (perceived) distance between young and old.
Adult authors, young readers, and shared experiences.
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.
Dreams can function in children’s books as a means to connect young characters and older figures in the story. In this article, Vanessa Joosen presents three methods to study intergenerational encounters in and through dreams in a selection of contemporary Dutch children’s books. She does this by means of a digital analysis of a corpus of 81 books to shows that the older the characters are, the less they are described as dreaming. Next, a close reading of intergenerational dreams lays bare, amongst others, the associations of dreaming with healing and death. Finally, a reader response study reveals that young children already understand some dream mechanisms and that older readers sometimes may draw on Freudian theory to interpret dreams, but that some also resist that.
Joosen, Vanessa. ‘Encounters of a Dreamy Kind: Dreams as Spaces for Intergenerational Play and Healing in Dutch Children’s Literature’.
Traum und Träumen in Kinder- und Jugendmedien, edited by Iris Schäfer, Brill, 2023, pp. 35–49.
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.
With this essay, Vanessa Joosen wants to contribute to greater awareness regarding age. She argues for more openness about age norms and more dialogue between different generations. To this end, she focuses on people who engage in such a dialogue on a daily basis. For this book, she interviewed twelve British, Dutch and Flemish authors: David Almond, Aidan Chambers, Anne Fine, Ed Franck, Guus Kuijer, Bart Moeyaert, Aline Sax, Hilde Vandermeeren, Joke van Leeuwen, Edward van de Vendel, Jacqueline Wilson and Anna Woltz. Most of them wrote books for both children and adults. Joosen specifically went looking for authors who debuted at a very young age or who have a long writing career behind them. How do they manage to bridge that distance?