Powerful at all ages

The link between age and power has been studied from various perspectives in children’s literature. While some scholars mainly focus on the adult’s power, others discuss power on the child’s part, like Clémentine Beauvais, who argues that a child’s ‘might’ lies in the future that lies ahead of them. In his broader research project, Leander Duthoy explores how the reader’s age affects their understanding of age in children’s literature. With this chapter in Children’s Cultures after Childhood, he adds to the age-power debate by analysing readers’ reflections on age in the Dutch children’s book Iep! (Eep!; Joke van Leeuwen, 1996), which he gathered through 29 individual interviews and two focus-group conversations with twenty participants aged 9 to 75. In addition, Leander moves away from a strictly age-based analysis and considers some of the different ways in which the discussion of power – the ability to bring about or prevent change – involves a more dynamic and interconnected understanding of people’s individual experiences.

The interviews took place online during the COVID-19 lockdown, resulting in disempowerment on the part of some of the older participants, who needed help with the technology used. The child participants were dependent on their parents, who corresponded with Leander in their child’s name to arrange the interview. Some parents impacted the situation by attending their child’s interview. In turn, a few young participants also exerted a form of power in showing resistance, saying they only partook in the study because their parents obligated them or because they had to read a book for school anyway. In all cases, instead of looking at someone receiving help as ‘powerlessness’, it could be seen as an intergenerational entanglement that is both empowering and an inherent part of how age is constructed in a broader social and material context. In short, Leander explores how the participants’ individual experiences of Iep! are influenced by many different factors other than age alone. In other words, power is something both adults and children possess and often (re)negotiate together, as power is relational; power is influenced by the connections between different people, things, ideas and situations. 

Duthoy, Leander. ‘Chapter 7: The Dynamics of Age and Power in a Children’s Literature Research Assemblage’.

Children’s Cultures after Childhood, edited by Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak and Macarena García-González, John Benjamins, 2023, pp. 102–121.

doi: 10.1075/clcc.16.07dut

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Also appropriate for adults

When Joke Van Leeuwen states that her books are for “starting and other humans”, she means that she writes her books with the belief that both children and adults can enjoy them. Rather than seeing children as “less developed” or “radically different”, the children’s book author believes in the kinship model (Gubar) – the idea that children and adults are fundamentally related or similar. Because “being a child” as well as “being an adult” play a key role in children’s literature and their adaptations, Frauke Pauwels explores in this article whether children’s books and their adaptations can be used as intergenerational communication tools to improve understanding between young and old. Drawing on insights from children’s literature studies, age studies and adaptation studies, two books by Joke Van Leeuwen and their film adaptations are examined: Iep! (Eep!, 1996) and Toen mijn vader een struik werd (When my father became a bush, 2010).

Frauke Pauwels examines whether and how these works succeed in interpreting or conveying the kinship model or invite audiences to question age norms. This analysis yields the insight that both the two books and their adaptations address and expose the taken-for-grantedness of certain ideas about age, and that children’s literature can certainly be a playing field on which diverse interpretations of age expectations can challenge and enrich each other. However, it appears that most adults still judge the film adaptations predominantly from their beliefs about what children are able to understand and like – based on their own adult interpretation of the concept of childness (Hollindale). In short, cultural and personal visions of what it means to be a child may (still) limit the intergenerational understanding that children’s and adolescent literature and their film adaptations could foster.

Pauwels, Frauke. ‘Ook geschikt voor volwassenen: Twee jeugdromans van Joke van Leeuwen en hun adaptaties als stapsteen naar intergenerationeel begrip’.

Cahier voor Literatuurwetenschap, vol. 14, 2023, pp. 157–168.

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Perfectly imperfect mothers: breaking the “Good Mom Myth”

In western, contemporary societies, a woman is considered a “good mother” when she is at all times emotionally present and selfless, placing her children’s desires and needs before her own. Although this image of “good mothering” is often reproduced and thereby affirmed in children’s literature, so-called “alter-tales” – counterstories that voice different experiences of motherhood and alternative perspectives on what being a mother means – are becoming more popular. In this article, Frauke Pauwels examines how picturebooks can help in addressing the societal desire to dispel the “Good Mom Myth” and share genuine experiences of motherhood. By presenting the reality of being a mother in a format that is intended for children and adults, picturebooks showing alternative ways of being a mother can help tell stories of simple ways of resistance against the myth.

The Swedish picturebook Samtidigt i min låtsasvärld (Meanwhile in My Imaginary World, 2018) by author Lisa Bjärbo and illustrator Emma AdBåge depicts a mother’s daydreaming while sitting at the messy kitchen table with her two children, disrupting the expectation of the perfect mother through the usage of “childness” or “the quality of being a child” (Peter Hollindale). In her textual and visual analysis of Samtidigt i min låtsasvärld, Frauke Pauwels uses ideas from sociology, age studies and children’s literature studies, reflecting on how picturebooks can help to create an intergenerational understanding of real-life daily situations. Consequently, picturebooks that show the disparities between how motherhood is personally experienced and socially represented can play an important part in doing away with the idea that there is only one way of being a good mother.

Pauwels, Frauke. ‘Sharing Maternal Fantasies: Reading Samtidigt i min låtsasvärld as an Alter-Tale to the Good Mom Myth.’.

Barnboken – Journal of Children’s Literature Research, vol. 46, 2023, pp. 1–21.

doi: 10.14811/clr.v46.825

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Intergenerational friendship or desire?

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.

doi: 10.1215/03335372-10342127

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Encounters of a dreamy kind

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.

doi: 10.30965/9783846767481_003

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Connecting research regarding age

Despite their shared interest in questions of age, prejudice and agency, the fields of childhood studies, age studies and children’s literature studies remain relatively separate. This is clear from their diverging definitions and uses of terms such as ‘ageism’, ‘aetonormativity’, ‘adultism’ and ‘childism’. In this article, Vanessa Joosen employs the concept of ‘childism’ (John Wall) to point out the benefits that a collaboration between these fields would bring, mainly in terms of researching intergenerational relationships. Drawing on Anne Fine’s The Granny Project (1983), she further shows that children’s books themselves can contribute to the paradigm shift envisioned by Wall. Fine’s novel about four children’s resistance to their parents’ plans to take their grandmother to a retirement home demonstrates a belief in the agency of young readers. The potential for intergenerational understanding that Wall puts at the heart of his concept of ‘childism’ also comes strongly to the fore.

Joosen, Vanessa. Connecting Childhood Studies, Age Studies and Children’s Literature Studies: John Wall’s Concept of Childism and Anne Fine’s The Granny Project.

Barnboken, vol. 45, 2022.

doi: 10.14811/clr.v45.745

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