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The future of children's Literature in Ireland



17-19 SEPTEMBER 2010

An international invitational symposium on the future of Irish children's literature was held recently in the Princess Grace Library, an important centre for Irish studies, in Monaco. Ten experts attended this international symposium, directed by Mary Shine Thompson (who until recently was Dean at St Patrick's College, a College of Dublin City University), namely Valerie Coghlan, Robert Dunbar, Anne-Marie Herron, Celia Keenan, Jane O'Hanlon, Emer O'Sullivan, Siobhán Parkinson, Alan Titley, and Mags Walsh. They represented various interests on the Irish children's literature scene: academics and scholars, doctoral students, critics, translators, commentators, reviewers, publishers, writers (in Irish and English), teachers, librarians, Children's Books Ireland (CBI) and the Writers-in-Schools scheme (Poetry Ireland).

In addition, the Ireland Fund of Monaco's writer in residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library, James Harpur, was present for all the deliberations.

The invitation to hold the symposium in so prestigious a venue from the point of view of Irish Studies as the Princess Grace Irish Library marked an important milestone in Children's Literature Studies in Ireland. Since 1984, biennial symposia have debated issues central to Irish Studies in Monaco at the Library's invitation and the deliberations have led to numerous publications. This was therefore an opportunity for the critics and scholars and writers of children's books to take stock and to have their voices heard in a prestigious international arena at a critical juncture in the development of the field as a fourth generation of critics is beginning to be heard. The first generation was foundational, and had to struggle to be heard beyond the Colleges of Education and the public libraries a mere four decades ago or so. Among its early promoters were Robert Dunbar, Celia Keenan and Valerie Coghlan. The next generation extended beyond these few central players, and formalized the field of study. They began to describe its parameters, and spoke not as individuals but as a recognizable group, albeit one that did not always speak with one voice. That second generation facilitated the roll out of undergraduate courses on Children's Literature in BA and BEd programmes in universities, and the establishment of graduate studies, in which Celia Keenan played a key role. The third generation of critics is firmly embedded in academe. If it struggles to be heard, it does so as one of competing voices within Humanities and Social Science programmes, not as a voice from the wilderness. One might even posit the existence of a fourth generation for whom the term 'e' - for electronic in all its manifestations including cinema, gaming, digital repositories and more - holds no fears; who embrace a digitized future and recognize the scholarly possibilities that it creates. These students and scholars have taken the baton from their elders and are refining and extending the parameters of the field of study rapidly.

The format of the discussion during the symposium was deliberately left relatively open. Since those present were experts in their field, it was not necessary to summarise extensively contextual information. Each of the sessions was introduced by two brief presentations, and a chair directed the discussion. The group's discussion centred on identifying some of the key achievements in the field of children's literature over recent decades. Inevitably it also evaluated the setbacks and obstacles encountered and likely to be met with in the coming times.

The delegates identified progress made in Children's Literature Studies in Ireland over the last twenty years or so in the following areas: first, in the development of critical idioms that are variously conceptual, theoretical, scholarly, and directed towards the wider community of readers, librarians, teachers, and publishers. There was a recognition of the achievements to date of Poetry Ireland's Writers-in-Schools Scheme and by Children's Books Ireland, and IBBY to support writers who wished to earn their living from writing. The burgeoning of children's literature studies in the universities together with the growth in the number of students undertaking PhD studies in the field were seen as an important milestone and Celia Keenan's role in developing the first MA in Children's Literature was acknowledged. In effect, this process has nurtured a new generation of critics. Also acknowledged was the work of the Irish Society for the Study of Children's Literature. The future of this area of study is now in the hands of a fourth generation of scholars.

The delegates noted the rich tradition of Irish-language literature with a long and respected tradition of publishing and of critical debate, especially of instrumentalist models of education; particularly noteworthy in this field is Patrick Pearse. The publisher An Gum's contribution in developing this area has played a crucial role. The Irish-language literary tradition exists within and engages with a broader pan-Celtic tradition of minority languages - in Scotland, Wales and Isle of Man and elsewhere - and is enriched by this.

Delegates put forward aspects of their vision of the future, their Irish Emerald City. It would include a wide spectrum of books for all ages, from pre-literature to sophisticated young adult texts, from light reading to challenging books. It would nourish a pluralistic and diverse literature which included Irish authors published in Ireland, as well as international authors; books that are about Ireland - including the new Irish - and some that aren't; and books not originally published in English. Translation would play a vital role in it. In short, quality, diversity and plurality were to be its hallmarks and it would be paralleled by a robust and diverse array of critical approaches. Such literature would raise questions about the nature of the national affiliation of children's literature in a country that plays a minor role in world politics, unlike Germany and France. In the past it was exciting enough that literature was based in Ireland - now this is no longer sufficient or indeed a novelty.

Delegates were acutely aware of the digital highway that beckons child readers and scholars, given that at least one generation has been born into a virtual world, and the major role that technology plays in the field of education.

Children's publishers now recognize that interactivity is a feature to which children respond. The entire Sesame Street Library for example may now be downloaded for a mere $40; the iphone apps cater for young children with reading material and games, and children are e-readers of Kindle and Concept.

Book formats may change but the tactile pleasure of a real book is likely to survive alongside more recent inventions. There are challenges to traditional modes of reading, but no sense of despair.

The role of reviewing came in for considerable discussion, which centred around issues such as the need for honest and open criticism in a small, intimate community where writers and reviewers were often on close terms.

While there was agreement that reviewers need to be unequivocal when assessing quality, questions were raised as to what might be gained from specifying names of writers who have not earned the critics' respect; or books that have been overrated in award ceremonies, for example. Should reviewers concentrate their energies on what they consider to be better books? Should reviewers see it as their remit to educate writers? (There was broad agreement that they should not.) There was consensus too that the national press was not the best vehicle for literary criticism.

Speakers noted that the reviewer does not speak directly to the reader in the case of children's reviewing, but to a mediator - teacher, parent etc.

This is not the case with adult reviewing. Furthermore, there is the question as to whether reviewers are competent to review all new forms of children's books. Children's literature often overlaps with popular culture and reviews must take into account new genres (picture books, including animé are examples) and their place in popular culture, and specific idioms and vocabularies are required. We are at a moment as dramatic as the moment when print was invented.

Among the critical positions cited in relation to the issues around reviewing are the following:

Almost up to the day I left Ireland in January 1990, prominent, intelligent, articulate Irish people, when hearing of my interest in Irish children's books, would ask, 'But are they any good?' This cultural cringe still astonishes me but now it also angers me. Have these same people ever asked the same question of the endless British and American published books they provide for their children? (The Irish Guide to Children's Books, edited by Lesley Reece, 1990)

When will children's literature be recognized as an integral part of Ireland's literary heritage? When will children's literature be viewed as a valuable contribution to children's culture? (Orla Melling, Children's Books in Ireland No. 9, December 1993)

Irish children's books do not receive respect because they have not yet earned it. Of all the hundreds of books for children published in Ireland in recent years, one would be hard pressed to find more than a handful which could stand alongside the best from elsewhere or which could withstand the most perfunctory literary analysis. (Michael Killey, Children's Books in Ireland No 10, May 1994)

Why this reticence in naming authors? To say these hard-hitting things without naming the offending books or authors seems to me cavalier. If critics are going to make severe judgments then the least we can expect of them, surely, is that they have the courage of their convictions. What about all those parents, teachers and children out there who could be enticed to read children's books, think about the issues surrounding children's literature and become involved in the debate, if only the debate took place in a public forum? Surely it is up to our newspapers and radio and television programmes to provide that forum? (Siobhan Parkinson, Children's Books in Ireland No 11, November 1994)

Where there are weaknesses in Irish writing and publishing for children, some of them may be attributed to the fact that there is little public critical debate or discussion in this area. Most sections of the media pay little attention to children's books. When books for young people are reviewed, frequently the discussion tends to take the form of a plot summary to which is added some bland comment. This is in part due to the slight allocation of space in some publications for reviews, which does not allow reviewers to extend their comments. The number of reviewers' voices is limited and at times those reviewing do not have a sufficient knowledge of what might be expected from a children's or a young adults' book. There is a particular lacuna in the area of picture book reviewing, where reviews frequently consist of a synopsis of the story and pay little attention to the visual qualities of the book. That the reviewer will often know the reviewer may at times impose restraints. Thus more constructively critical reviewing from outside Ireland would be healthy. (Editorial, The Big Guide 2 Irish Children's Books, ed Valerie Coghlan & Celia Keenan, 2000)

Awards tend to over-rate some books whose value is questionable and certainly in the past the Bisto awards have not always singled out the books that in retrospect might stand out. (Editorial, Irish Children's Writers and Illustrators, ed Valerie Coghlan & Siobhan Parkinson, 2007)

Another problem of a small market, or rather of a small national community and even smaller literary one, is that reviewing tends to be too kind. As editors of Inis, we found it difficult to get reviewers to be anything other than complimentary about Irish-produced books, or even about books published elsewhere by Irish authors and illustrators. While such an attitude might be thought admirably supportive, the lack of constructive criticism inevitably encourages the production of the mediocre and does nothing to educate authors, publishers and readers about how writing, illustrating and editorial and publishing standards might be improved or developed. Publication outside Ireland has a role to play in toughening up Irish authors, who cannot expect kid-glove treatment from Irish or American reviewers. Reviewing of children's books in mainstream Irish media has improved in small ways, with occasional reviews of particular titles in the newspapers, but as a rule children's books tend to be lumped together for mass treatment from time to time - a practice that forces reviewers to write brief notes about children's books rather than give a considered review. There seems to be a tendency to think that the function of reviewing of children's books is promotion of titles rather than provision of thoughtful accounts that might be of use to discriminating adults in choosing books for their children. (Editorial, Irish Children's Writers and Illustrators, ed Valerie Coghlan & Siobhan Parkinson, 2007)

There are problems. Negative reviews are one of them. I have always felt that The School Librarian's audience should not have to plough through pages of damning or indifferent reviews. If, however, the latest title of an author like, say, Shirley Hughes or Dick King-Smith (which librarians or teachers might buy automatically) is not up to scratch, I would probably include a review which said so. If there is space. (By Keith Barker, then Reviews editor of The School Librarian, Children's Books in Ireland No 15, December 1996, 'Reviewing Reviewing')

Delegates were acutely conscious of numerous danger black spots on the road to the Emerald City besides those associated with critical approaches. Chief among them were insularity, the problems of localized book production, the economics of a small market, and of homogenisation of content to suit international market trends. As Children's Literature Studies progresses, the international status of the literature and the criticism needs to be further developed.

Delegates recognized that the difficulties identified in relation to their field were not exclusive to Ireland, but have been documented in many other countries.

There has been a tendency to map out the difficulties encountered by children's literature studies as a series of binaries or opposites. The challenge now is to dismantle these binaries and combine their elements fruitfully: no longer is it constructive to pit literacy against literature, arts against education, policy against practice, artistic against commercial, value against cost, amateur against professional. The delegates were unanimous in their rejection of instrumentalist approaches to literature that saw its role solely in terms of aiding literacy. One delegate posed a question that might form the basis for meaningful engagement with some of these oppositions, namely what possible roles retellings of traditional stories might adopt. We are familiar with re-tellings as irony - Eddie Lenehan's scatalogical approach, for example, or Eoin Colfer's playful mischievous use of fairies and folklore in his futuristic fantasies. Are these the only ways in which traditional take should be tailored for contemporary readers and audiences? Where resources are limited, do we need more volume of myths, folks and legends?

There was agreement that there has been a remarkably consistent growth and development in writing and illustrating for children and teenagers among Irish writers and illustrators over the past twenty years and in the attention the field now receives in universities. This is potentially a hugely important field of study, because it is based on the principle that children are a well-defined group within society who are worthy of attention in their own right. However, progress has not been without problems, not least because of lack of funding in humanities programmes in universities and for libraries.

The academic field grapples with its own set of problems. Academics are prone to the same trends as other sectors and can be guilty of self-promotion at the expense of their chosen field of specialism. The phenomenon of scholars in areas outside of children's literature specialisms supervising doctorates without knowledge of broader critical environment of children's literature was noted. One delegate commented on the importance of encouraging prospective doctoral students to return to classic children's texts, both as a subject of literary study and of study in related (inter-)disciplines. Another issue for academics is the notion of academic freedom, and how that might be and has been interpreted and mediated for general public. The informed critical debate that the academic community can engender can be important to writers, even if it is sometimes not valued by them. At its best, academic milieux can foster collegial communities. It is widely acknowledged that constructive communities of enquiry can enrich rather than impede individuals' work.

Running counter to progress is also the marked decline in publishing in the English language for children in Ireland from a high point in the 1990s.

(It is interesting to note that the opposite is true of Irish-language publishing.) The group identified five main difficulties affecting publishing for children in English in Ireland: First, stiff competition from globalised British-based publishers both in the area of signing Irish authors and in the area of bookshop sales;
secondly, the abolition of the Net Book Agreement, which has led to homogenisation in the trade, much greater pressure on small publishers and a tendency for bookshops to stock primarily the most popular commercial titles - in contrast, for example, to a country like Germany, where the NBA is still in place, and where bookshops stock a much richer range of titles;
thirdly, the weak state support for indigenous publishing for children, by comparison with, for example, Spain (which publishes 12,000 children's titles a year and where children's publishing makes a significant contribution to GDP), Korea (where well-supported children's publishing is enormously successful) and the Scandinavian countries (where indigenously published books are purchased in bulk for the public libraries);
Fourthly, the lack of direct supports to authors who publish specifically in Ireland that would encourage them to publish with Irish publishers in preference to (or as well as) British or other publishing houses;
And finally, the absence of funding for school libraries at primary level and extremely restricted funding for libraries at second level, which has implications not only for schools, children, parents and literacy levels, but also for the book trade - wholesalers, library suppliers, bookshops and publishers - for whom school libraries used to represent an important market sector.

The academic field grapples with its own set of problems. Academics are prone to the same trends as other sectors and can be guilty of self-promotion at the expense of their chosen field of specialism. The phenomenon of scholars in areas outside of children's literature specialisms supervising doctorates without knowledge of broader critical environment of children's literature was noted. One delegate commented on the importance of encouraging prospective doctoral students to return to classic children's texts, both as a subject of literary study and of study in related (inter-)disciplines. Another issue for academics is the notion of academic freedom, and how that might be and has been interpreted and mediated for general public. The informed critical debate that the academic community can engender can be important to writers, even if it is sometimes not valued by them. At its best, academic milieux can foster collegial communities. It is widely acknowledged that constructive communities of enquiry can enrich rather than impede individuals' work.

One outcome of the symposium is that the group Siobhan Parkinson was deputed to write to the Arts Council (Ireland) on behalf of the group requesting it to consider the following recommendations:

The development of a national book policy that would include a comprehensive strategy for supporting Irish publishing for children and that would consider either the reinstatement of the Net Book Agreement or the development of an alternative strategy to counteract the dominance of small numbers of highly promoted commercial titles in the bookshops

Special supports to encourage authors for children to publish with Irish publishers, for example, a commissioning scheme for individual children's titles to be published in Ireland, on the model of the scheme currently employed in Irish-language publishing

Representations to the Department of Education requesting immediate reinstatement of the recently abolished grant to public authority libraries to stock primary school libraries and, in the longer term, development of a credible and comprehensive school library system that would not only serve the needs of the nation's children but would also help to support Irish publishers and authors by creating a market for their titles. We are aware that the problem identified here relates primarily to the Department of Education, but the non-funding of school libraries has very serious repercussions both for children's publishers and for the building of child audiences for literature, and so it is a matter that the Arts Council cannot ignore.

The delegates were warm in their praise of the Princess Grace Library - for hosting the symposium in the first instance, and thereby recognizing the importance of this field of study in an international context. Secondly, for the warmth of the welcome all the delegates received, which would be difficult to surpass, even in an Ireland that prides itself on warm welcomes. The hospitality was quite superb and encouraged an atmosphere in which ideas flowed.

Many people made the occasion memorable for all concerned, among them trustees Mrs Paul Gallico, Dame d'Honneur, Palace of Monaco and Mr Mark Armstrong, director, Sotheby's, Monaco; the permanent staff of the Irish Library, Géraldine Lance and Síle Jackson; and most particularly, Judith Gantley for her indefatigable energy, her meticulous attention to detail, for her unfailing generosity and her readiness to work all hours to facilitate the delegates.

The delegates also thank the Honorary Trustee, Paul Kavanagh, Ambassador of Ireland to Monaco, Embassy of Ireland, Paris; trustees His Excellency M. Philippe Blanchi, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Embassy of Monaco, Rome; Mrs Anne-Marie Boisbouvier, Technical Advisor, His Serene Highness The Sovereign Prince's Cabinet, Palace of Monaco; and Jean Claude Riey (Secretary-Treasurer, Fondation Princesse Grace).

When choosing participants difficult choices had to be made. Critical debate in Children's Studies in Ireland is by no means confined to the ten delegates who attended the symposium. Others who have made signal contributions to debate in the past and would have brought diverse and welcome perspectives had it been possible for the director to widen the doors include Carole Dunbar, Patricia Kennon; Ciara Ní Bhroin; and Amanda Piesse, among others. This alone underlines the need for future symposia that would offer an opportunity to shape changers to retreat and reflect on achievements. Delegates were agreed that they return to their desks invigorated by their discussion and committed to promoting the highest standards in their field.

Mary Shine Thompson, director