Born Happy: Happiness, Childhood and Children’s Literature
16 November 2013, St Hilda’s College, Oxford
‘Novels, like paintings or music or sport, should hold out to children the promise of happiness, and the certainty of laughter.’ (Fred Inglis)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims that children are born innocent and happy: all their educators need to do is protect this natural state of childhood from being contaminated by society. In the last few years, however, a radical reassessment of happiness has taken place in critical theory, through thinkers such as Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant. They point to the social construction of the idea of happiness, how it varies over history and geography, and is based on predominating social values. As such, “happiness” can work as an ideology that welcomes some kinds of lifestyles and excludes others. In particular, they emphasise the difference that gender and sexuality makes to conventional models of a “happy” life. Their resituating of happiness as a normative and often oppressive ideology brings us the opportunity to reassess the place of happiness in children’s literature.
No sustained study of happiness in children’s literature has taken place since Fred Inglis’ The Promise of Happiness: Values and Meaning in Children’s Fiction was published in 1981. Inglis suggests that children’s literature is exempt from the critique of happiness: ‘Whatever has happened to the idea of beauty and happiness in adult art, our children must keep faith with their radical innocence.’ However, such children’s books as John Burningham’s Granpa, Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls and Michael Rosen’s Sad Book deal with the loss of loved ones and of home. Such texts reject happy endings, and implicitly or explicitly, see and value more negative emotions such as mourning, fear and depression, in children. These texts raise the issue of the purpose of children’s literature: should it prepare children for sad truths, or shield children from them? In this way, such works move to redefine the ‘happy ending’.
A recent article by Jenny Colgan in the Guardian talks of French children’s literature as replete with such unhappy material: ‘My seven-year-old […] came over when I was taking a picture of this and said “why are you taking pictures of something so sad?” I didn’t say, “because suffering is part of your lot in life, my innocent child.” But if I’d been French, I might have done.’ Here again, the supposed innocence of childhood is invoked as cause to protect children from such facets of life, but at the same time, cultural differences are raised, and Colgan suggests that France approaches childhood and happiness differently. Should children’s literature play a role towards encouraging or defining happiness? How do cultural differences inflect on children’s happiness? This conference invites papers on happiness in English and French children’s literature or theorisations of childhood.
Topics may include, but are not limited to:
- childhood “innocence”; criminal children; angelic children
- adult nostalgia; childhood idylls
- humour; play; fantasy; utopia
- unconventional modes of happiness; non-normative families; gender and sexuality
- dealing with death, tragedy and war
- representations of depression; angst; suicide
- Rousseau; Winnicott; Klein; childhood and affect
- cultural differences and happiness; post-colonial children’s literature
- adaptation, translation and changing values of happiness
Abstracts of no more than 300 words should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org by no later than 21 September 2013.
This one-day conference on Saturday, 16 November 2013 at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, is organised by Queen Mary, University of London. We welcome academics, publishers, teachers and people involved in children’s literature and culture to an interdisciplinary day on both abstract and practical aspects of these issues. We are fortunate to welcome keynotes on French and English children’s literature, highly successful children’s authors, and the renowned producer Martin Pope (The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child) for what promises to be an exciting day.