Meanwhile?

It’s been decidedly strange to watch these Banff Centre posts rolling out after the fact. The first week back to work went well; my cubicle rose up to meet me as I settled into it, and routine has firmly asserted itself. That’s how it goes.

Though I had an early taste of it in Banff, I haven’t missed fall in Calgary – it’s also asserting itself, and with a great deal of glory.

Fall has arrived.

Some end of season heat has made for some glorious days, and the leaves are wonderfully crunchy and dry. So is the grass.

Sigh.

I don’t know why they even bother to mow it at this time of the year.

I’m back to my lunchtime study parties, too – reading up on young adult literature and trying to work out what my research question (I do eventually need to make one) is. The research is going well. Now that I’ve broadened my database queries to include children’s literature, I’m managing to find more resources and more scholarly articles. There’s still some judicious filtering going on to sort out the ‘true’ children’s lit from what I’m searching for, but that’s just fine by me. I finished reading Alexei Panshin‘s Rite of Passage yesterday (it was a great book – wish I’d read it when I was a child)

I also finished reading through Zohar Shavit’s Poetics of Children’s Research earlier this week – an interesting book on the treatment of YA and children’s fiction. Shavit argues that YA (I’ll use the term YA broadly here, since she does include books for younger readers) suffers from an inferior status in the literary system – that it’s seen as having a status that is not equivalent to adult literature (ix). This is because, she says, YA tends to be regarded as “an important vehicle for achieving certain aims in the education of children” (ix). She argues that research on YA tends to ask what is a good book for a young reader, what the influence is on the young reader, and how it can contribute to that child’s development (x). Rather, she says, we should assume that YA is already a part of the “literary polysystem,” a stratified system “in which the position of each member is determined by socioliterary constraints” (x), and that any inquiry into the nature of YA should exclude normative and ideological questions about the so-called ‘educational’ aims of the text.

What should replace these normative and ideological questions, she argues, is the question of how childhood is perceived by society, “for it is society’s perceptions that determine to a large extent what actually lies between the covers” (31). This, I think, is something that can have interesting implications for my research on YA dystopias – Shavit notes that we should be asking who is culturally responsible for the literary production of YA, and how we understand the behaviour of YA lit as “an integral part of culture,” taking into account the notion that it is regarded as part of the educational system as well as part of a larger literary polysystem (177). To what extent, she asks, do notions of childhood determine the normative character of a text?

Take, for example, the frequent absence of adults in YA texts – it is a stereotypical presentation that removes adults or forces them to be absent in the child’s world – the “portrayal of a children’s world in which adults hardly exist at all” (95). This is certainly a theme that I’ve observed; The Hunger Games – one of the texts I’m reading for this course – makes the absence of adults conspicuous in the playing of the games – they are an external threat. Shavit suggests that YA lit tends to both ignore adults and to create deictic opposition, “suggesting an uncompromising boundary between children and adults” (95):

“The text offers a world that excludes adults; even if adults are present, they are subject to negative evaluation. Of course, the portrayal of a children’s world in which adults do not take part is also typical of canonized children’s literature. There are quite a few canonized texts for children where not only ‘orphaning’ of children occurs, but a complete separation between children and adults takes place” (95).

This is something that is a theme in Panshin’s Rite of Passage, too – the ship children, living aboard massive colony spacecraft, are often raised in dormitories with a series of house mothers rotating through. In Feintuch’s Seafort Saga (which could be loosely defined as YA), two young children speak of being raised in a community crèche (Midshipman’s Hope); the protagonist, Nick Seafort, speaks of his own isolation at the hands of his didactic and rigid father, and the separation from an adult world during his cadet and midshipman’s years in the navy, where adults do not intervene despite hazing and brutality in the barracks and, later, the wardroom. A similar absence of adults – a sharp criticism of those present in the narrative – is seen in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, where adults dispassionately observe Ender’s breakdown in order to create their ultimate military leader. In Life As We Knew It, adults are frequently seen to be unable to act (Miranda’s mother becomes a virtual shut-in by the middle of the series; the wider ‘adult’ world is unable to cope with natural disaster) and The Hunger Games describes a system of brutality which requires the sacrifice of children in order to maintain political and economic control.

Fall has arrived.

So while I haven’t worked out my research question, I’m intrigued by Shavit’s suggestion that YA literature might be a reflection of how childhood and children are viewed, culturally – especially since I’m looking at depictions of dystopia. There should be some interesting reading ahead…and at the very least, there will be a lot of reading ahead. I’ve been plumbing the depths of the journal databases, downloading articles, and I’ve got a good sixty-seven of them to read over the next couple of months.

Fall has arrived.

So things have returned to normal: lots of reading, lots of note-taking, and lots of wistful looks at vacation pictures. And lots of crunching through leaves on the way home from work.

2 thoughts on “Meanwhile?

  1. I saw a few people mowing grass here this weekend, too; of course, there’s still warm spells this time of year here (“Indian Summer”)…

  2. A lot of intriguing questions to consider. I’m probably not quite as well read in YA as you are — I have only my interest as a reader, not a graduate degree, to guide me — but the absence of parents is definitely something that turns up time and again. I think a large part of that is simply so that the children as characters can better serve as heroes for the children as readers, to give them someone roughly their own age (and therefore a stand-in for themselves) to relate to, and to make those characters believably self-sufficient. And some of it’s just the tradition or orphaning characters in stories meant ostensibly for children, going back at least as far as traditional fairy tales, where wicked stepmothers and children left alone in the woods abound.

    It’s funny, I’m going to a couple of events this month at the Centre for Fiction, one on YA fantasy, the other (tonight) on utopias/dystopias. Seems like they’d be right up your alley. I’ll try to make note of any interesting observations about either.

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