We asked Professor Vanessa Joosen about children’s and young adult literature and the importance of inclusion within those genres.
Vanessa Joosen is a professor at the University of Antwerp, where she teaches courses on English Literature and Children's Literature. She actively tries to address diversity and inclusion in her teaching and one way she does so is by making her mandatory reading lists diverse. Her research interests include the construction of childhood, adulthood, and old age in literature, postmodern fairy-tale rewritings, the international reception of fairy tales, and genetic criticism of children's books. Professor Joosen has been organizing the Children’s Literature Summer School since 2018. That same year, she was awarded an ERC Starting Grant for the project ‘Constructing Age for Young Readers’. She and her research team use methods from genetic criticism, digital humanities and reader-response theory to study the construction of age in children’s books.
Why is children's and young adult literature so fascinating to you?
I think it’s an exciting literary form that offers interesting stories as well as often beautiful language and illustrations. It’s also informative about the knowledge and values that people want to pass on to the next generation.
What evolutions in this genre have you noticed during your career and what do you think characterizes children's and young adult literature of the last five years?
There has been an evolution from an opposition between aesthetic and entertaining books to literature that tries to be both (and sometimes succeeds). We also see genuine attempts to make children’s literature (the books, the production and the readership) more diverse and inclusive. Also, concern about the decline of reading among young people is spurring attempts to draw them back in.
Diversity and inclusion are increasingly important themes in the book industry. Is this also the case with children's and young adult literature?
Yes, although children’s literature is slow when it comes to diversifying the field itself (many books about diversity are still made by people that belong to dominant groups).
Is there a certain kind of diversity or approach to the theme that you rarely see in children's literature? Is the range of 'diverse stories' itself sufficiently diverse?
Own voices still need to be boosted more. translations need to be further diversified to include more children’s books from non-anglophone countries.
You are a professor at the University of Antwerp where you teach, among other things, the subjects ‘Young Adult Literature’ and ‘Constructing Age in Modern Literature’. Is diversity and inclusion also a theme in those subjects? If so, why do you think it’s important?
Yes. I actively address the theme and try to make my reading lists diverse. That brings students in touch with good literature of the kind that has an important impact on society. It also makes students aware of the limitations of their own perspectives and how these can be broadened to include other experiences and views that are highly relevant to our world. It shows them the wide range of children and adolescents who deserve to be represented in literature and the wealth of voices that have interesting stories to tell.
How do you approach and discuss these topics?
I pay attention to content as well as politics and literary form, and I address topics such as positionality* and intersectionality*.
*Positionality: the notion that personal values, views, and location in time and space influence how we understand the world. In this context, gender, race, class and other aspects of identity are indicators of social and spatial positions rather than being fixed, given qualities. *Intersectionality: Intersectionality is the acknowledgment that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression, and we must consider everything and anything that can marginalize people: gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability etc.
Is there an inclusive children's book that you would absolutely recommend to us?
Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron . This is a feminist version of the classic story that takes place 200 years after Cinderella found her prince. Teenage girls in the kingdom are now required to appear at the Annual Ball, where they can be selected for marriage by the men in the kingdom. Sophia is sixteen years old and would much rather marry her childhood best friend, Erin. At the ball, she meets Constance, the last known descendant of Cinderella. Together they vow to bring down the king. This is not just a fairy-tale retelling, it breaks the story apart and rebuilds it into a wholly original and captivating story in which girls finally get to decide for themselves who lives happily ever after, shattering stereotypes of race, gender and sexuality in the process.