Silence and Silencing in Children’s Literature: Theoretical Perspectives, State of the Art and Future Goals
The opening talk of the conference offers a reflection on the key concepts of silence and silencing as two related, but also distinct ideas. The complex relationship between silence and silencing becomes evident when one considers how the two notions are central to a particularly varied range of theoretical approaches and how silences have been appreciated and criticized. In a state of the art that tries to do justice to the major developments in the field of children’s literature studies of the past three decades, I will first map out some important ways in which silence and silencing have been addressed within children’s books and in interpretations of those books. Here, I consider the prevalence of an aesthetics of silence on the one hand, and a concern with silenced topics and voices on the other hand. Not every silence sounds the same, after all: silences can be interpreted and valued in diverse and contradictory ways, and even the often condemned practice of silencing can be justified and lauded under some circumstances.
Debates about silence and silencing are often complex and sensitive, and they tease out fundamental beliefs that participants hold about childhood, child readers and children’s literature. Some books by recent winners of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award illustrate the widely shared appreciation for authors and works who can unite both ideals – maintaining an aesthetics of silence while also giving voice – whereas other books force us to take a stand.
I will then turn to consider how reflections on silence and silencing and the concomitant efforts to give voice have also transformed the field of children’s literature studies, broadening the scope of people contributing to research, diversifying the methods used for reflection, and opening up new discourses and media that we use to share our ideas. At a time in which silencing is a tangible practice in academia in many parts of the world – one that has also adopted a range of forms – the challenge lies in maintaining that diversity of views, methods and means that is vital to the survival of our ideas, even our field. Distinguishing between silence and silencing may once again prove crucial here.
Vanessa Joosen is Associate Professor of English literature and children’s literature at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. She is the author of, among others, Critical and Creative Perspectives on Fairy Tales: An Intertextual Dialogue Between Fairy-tale Scholarship and Postmodern Retellings (2011), which won an ALA Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Publication, and co-editor of Grimm’s Tales Around the Globe: The Dynamics of Their International Reception (2014), for which she and Gillian Lathey received the ChLA Honour Award for Edited Book. Vanessa Joosen’s most recent research focuses on the intersections between age studies and children’s literature, which has resulted in the edited volume Connecting Childhood and Old Age in Popular Media (2018) and the monograph Adulthood in Children’s Literature (2018). In 2018, she was awarded an ERC Starting Grant for the project Constructing Age for Young Readers (CAFYR), where she and her research team will use methods from genetic criticism, digital humanities, and reader response theory to study age in children’s books.