Congress Report: 20th Biennial Congress

Fear and Safety in Children’s Literature

4-8 July, 2011
Brisbane, Australia

Congress logo designed by Kathryn James

Convenor: Kerry Mallan

Committee Members: Erica Hateley, Michael Dezuanni, Jo Lampert, Vivienne Muller, Cherie Allan, Anna Whateley, Amy Cross, Rachel Mortimer (QUT Events)

Keynote Speakers: Professor Gillian Whitlock, University of Queensland, Australia; Professor David Buckingham, University of London, UK; Professor Mavis Reimer, University of Winnipeg, Canada

Sponsors: Queensland University of Technology, Ian Potter Foundation, Walker Books

The Brisbane Congress

Congress Venue

The 20th IRSCL Congress was held at the Gardens Point Campus of Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia. The Brisbane Botanic Gardens adjoins the campus and many delegates took advantage of Brisbane's warm winter weather to stroll through the gardens. The central business district and Brisbane's South Bank are in close proximity to the campus and delegates explored the culinary and shopping venues in their spare time. The Congress was convened by Kerry Mallan who was assisted by a dedicated committee of children's literature scholars from QUT.

Entrance to Gardens Point Campus

Brisbane Botanic Gardens

Opening of the Congress

At the opening of the Congress a Welcome to Country was performed by the Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal Dancers. When people visit Australia and a particular area of the country, it is custom in Aboriginal culture to welcome people to be part of the tribal land. It is also part of the custom that this welcome be performed by elders or descendents from that part of the country.

Academic Program

Conference theme, Fear and Safety in Children’s Literature, was intended to encapsulate how children's literature responds to anxieties, fears, and desires of the past, present, and future. Since the earliest fairy tales, children's writers have given imaginative interpretation to the darker, riskier side of society, while also offering reassurance, hope, and celebration of the human spirit.

Three keynote speakers explored the theme from different perspectives and each gave outstanding papers which stimulated lively discussion and debate.

Professor Gillian Whitlock's paper entitled "The refugee child: From the archive to the page" drew on her research into the archives of asylum seeker letters, photographs, and artifacts sent from Nauru in the course of the Pacific Solution 2002-2007. Gillian considered the images, narratives, and traces of children in detention in Nauru and their ongoing dehumanisation as asylum seekers and objects of fear in the Australian mass media. She then considered how the presence of refugees and associated issues of immigration and displacement are taken up in contemporary Australian children's fiction.

Professor David Buckingham's paper, entitled "Purity and danger: Rethinking discourses of risk in children's media culture," interrogated the discourses of risk that increasingly characterise discussions of children's encounters with media. He argued that recent discourses have taken on a new urgency in relation to aspects such as obesity, sexualisation, and consumerism. He considered how in the current context, these discourses have also been aligned with a much broader view of childhood as somehow threatened or under attack, typified in the UK by the "toxic childhood" argument.

Professor Mavis Reimer's paper, "On location: the home and the street in recent films about street kids," argued that contemporary texts for and about young people challenge the widespread assumption that children belong at home. She suggested that these texts are creating new authorised sites and practices of childhood. The key texts included: Edet Belzberg’s 2001 documentary Children Underground, about a group of homeless children in Bucharest, Siddiq Barmak’s 2004 narrative film Osama, based on the true story of a young girl disguised as a boy who seeks to support her widowed mother and grandmother in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and Danny Boyle’s and Loveleen Tandan’s 2008 blockbuster hit Slumdog Millionaire, about a Mumbai street kid who becomes an unlikely game-show winner.

Mavis Reimer’s keynote address with 2011 IRSCL President Clare Bradford as chair (left)

Around 200 delegates from 23 countries: Australia, Canada, USA, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Sweden, UK, Taiwan, Finland, Japan, Ireland, France, Chile, South Africa, China, Italy, Netherlands, Indonesia, Denmark, Belgium, Philippines, India, and Poland. Delegates responded to the theme drawing on a diverse range of critical and creative approaches, which reflect the breadth and depth of scholarship in children's literature. Topics canvassed in delegates' papers included: the refugee child; safe spaces and national identity: war; parental fears; nostalgia, place and childhood; risk in media culture; surveillance and social control; death and nation; teenage sexuality; post-disaster; mental health and trauma; gay sexuality and safety; fear and abandonment.

The Congress also trialled the option of virtual presentations with 16 delegates participating as 'virtual' presenters. Congress committee member, Michael Dezuanni, was outstanding in his efforts to ensure that the whole process ran smoothly. Michael conducted practice runs with delegates prior to the congress and facilitated the virtual sessions. Virtual delegates were also given the option of being a part of the audience in the keynote sessions and several asked questions during question time via the live link. This innovative approach proved highly successful and feedback was extremely positive.

Social Program

The Vice Chancellor of QUT, Professor Peter Coaldrake, hosted the Welcome Reception, which was held in Old Government House. Old Government House is located on campus and is recognised as one of Queensland’s most important heritage sites.

Old Government House located on the QUT campus

In the tradition of past congresses, a 'cultural activities' day was held where delegates were given the opportunity to network while participating in a range of optional day tours: exploring Brisbane's cultural sites – Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), the Art Gallery and Museum, bookshops; or moving further afield where some delegates went on day tours to the south and north coasts beyond Brisbane.

The Congress Dinner was held at Rydges Hotel which offered spectacular views of Southbank. Flamenco guitarists added to the ambience, and Lies Wesseling (the 2013 IRSCL Convenor) added to the fun by leading the delegates through an old Dutch folksong.

Night-time view of South Bank as seen from Rydges Hotel Restaurant

Feedback

A survey was conducted soon after the congress finished and delegates gave very positive comments. A selection is included below:

Excellent keynotes, high-quality concurrent papers. Many opportunities for networking. I liked the variety of timetables over the week.

The ease of the venue was most conducive to networking. Adding a session particularly on helping novice scholars was a great idea. The tech support was excellent. The highlight was the warmth of the welcome.

Again the IRSCL congress comes out as the best recurring academic conference! For me the highlight is the relaxed, friendly atmosphere where one meets old friends as well as make new acquaintances.

The general quality of the papers was also high and the keynotes inspiring.

I had a fantastic time. It was well organized and everyone was really open and friendly. I would have no hesitation in submitting to the next conference. A wonderful and very thought provoking experience.

A memorable and highly positive experience. Brisbane was a stunning venue, the congress team were friendly, efficient and knowledgeable, and the congress was rich intellectually without being physically exhausting!

Highlights were the plenary speakers and all of the sessions I attended were very good – the problem was choosing!

Again, one of the very best conferences I have ever attended, in terms of intellectual interest and human interaction.

Prepared by Kerry Mallan