Insulting the Child

From the academic-reading cave, here’s a little 1923 clipping from The Argonaut, a Californian journal that ran from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. I wasn’t even looking for anything children’s-literature related, but those things have a tendency to find me…

I’m sure anyone familiar with contemporary children’s literature debates will appreciate the lovely pluçachangeness of this opinion piece.


insulting2 insulting3 insulting4

Childfree adults in children’s literature

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, January 2016]

Recently, I’ve started paying attention, when reading children’s literature, to adult characters who don’t have children. This started as I was rereading Matilda last year to write an article on it; it struck me that the Trunchbull and Miss Honey shared one characteristic: their childlessness. But while the formidable headteacher hates children, Miss Honey’s own narrative arc in the story sees her eventually adopting Matilda (spoiler alert) (oops, too late). While Miss Trunchbull is quite clearly childfree (childless by choice), Miss Honey’s happy resolution seemed to entail being finally ‘completed’ by a child.

‘Childfree’ adults denounce the degree to which adults, in society, are seen as incomplete when they don’t have children; to them, it isn’t the case that any adult in possession of a good mortgage must be in want of a child. Children’s books, in this respect, seem to me in general to perpetuate the idea that adults need children. Worse, they often appear to imply that childless adults have a problem that needs to be rectified (= they need a child), and childfree adults, meanwhile, should be either completely in the service of children, or suspicious, monstrous, or dangerous.

Here’s a vague taxonomy of childless and childfree adults I’ve been playing around with in my head. Feel free to add, criticise and nuance! Children’s literature seems to me to categorise childless and childfree adults broadly according to those lines:

The childfree (childless by choice):

– The monstrous and the murderous: Dahl’s Witches, Carroll’s Red Queen, Barrie’s Captain Hook. Ogres and giants. They hate children. But they are also clearly obsessed with children. Their whole raison d’être is to kill a lot of them.

– Cool uncles and aunts, nice godmothers: Those childfree adults are equally obsessed with children, but devote so much time to children who are not their own that presumably they don’t need their own; in fact, that would probably come in the way of the affection that the protagonist needs exclusively. Basically, they’re surrogate parents, but allow for the necessary fifty shades of authority that are germane to children’s books. Godmothers in fairy tales, Rowling’s Sirius Black, Dahl’s BFG, Jules Verne’s many travelling uncles, and my own Sesame Seade’s lazy student boss Jeremy.

– Anthropomorphic animals and picturebook adults: This category of adults who are basically children doing adult jobs, and who mostly appear as protagonists in literature for the very young. Those adults by definition cannot have children, since they are essentially placeholders for children themselves.

The childless: (not by choice)

– Those who are mourning a child, or mourning never having had a child: melancholy figures who, explicitly or implicitly, appear sad to not be parents; or have lost their child, or a child very close to them, and are generally on their own path of mourning and grief. Often, this translates as some emotional investment in the child protagonist of the story. E.g. Lois Lowry’s Giver, Ma Costa in His Dark Materials, and even Dumbledore who lost his younger sister. They are, I think, a sad or more profound variation on the childfree ‘in loco parentis’ adult described above.

– Those for whom being childless is fairly unproblematic, but who end up looking for a child for various reasons: E.g. Miss Honey, as mentioned earlier, but also for instance the bizarre Willy Wonka, whose name implies that there might be something wonky with his reproductive organ, leading him, at the age of I have no idea how many years, to have to look for an heir.

Blurry zone: Teachers

Teachers are an interesting, huge category of childfree/ childless adults in children’s literature. To my knowledge, no Hogwarts teacher has children. In fact, many teachers in children’s literature seem mysteriously to have no kids at all. Whether it’s by choice or not, teachers seem to devote their whole time to other people’s children. I wonder if it’s because teachers’ children (who do exist in children’s books, but not that many) would distract from the total absorption that child protagonists require from their teachers. It mirrors the narcissistic impossibility, as a young child, to imagine that one’s teacher might have a private life, or – horror!- other children than us to look after.

It seems to me that children’s literature shows a lot more empathy for the childless than for the childfree; and presents the childfree as being still very invested in children, whether nefariously or positively. In other words, children’s literature doesn’t really let adults, at least in leading or secondary roles, be indifferent to children.

Of course, indifference towards children couldn’t be very frequent among adults in children’s literature, because of clear narrative and generic reasons: this type of text, obviously, is rather centred on children, so adults in children’s literature need to work within that narrative. But as a result, of course, we grow up thinking that adults must be interested in children, by nature and by necessity; and if not, it makes them suspicious.

Please add your own thoughts! This is a very quick and not very deeply thought-out taxonomy, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten lots.

Adapt at your own risk

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure]

This is one of my French books, La louve, fabulously illustrated by Antoine Déprez:

When I say ‘fabulously’, I mean it in both senses of the term: they’re brilliant illustrations, but they also reproduce very well the fable-like feel and texture of the story. La louve is an original story, but it is what is generally called a literary fairy tale – a new story made to feel like it’s a classic folk or fairy tale.

This might be why, when La louve recently appeared in the White Ravens list at the Munich International Youth Library, it was described as ‘a retelling of a Russian folkale’. To my knowledge (and that of my Russian friends), it isn’t. There are many folk and fairy tales around the world that involve transformation, wolves and curses, but this one isn’t a retelling of any one in particular.

After La louve, however, the publisher, Alice Editions, has asked us to work on a second opus which would be an adaptation or reinterpretation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I immediately agreed, because I’ve been fascinated by that weird tale for a long time. So I started to think about how to do it. The idea was not to retell the tale, but rather to write an original story inspired from, or reactivating or reimagining, the tale.

I soon realised it was an enterprise fraught with interesting peril. First I thought I’d focus on the rats, perhaps make the main character one of the rats. But immediately, a problem emerged: the glacial contemporary political and ideological connotations of a narrative that involves hordes (“swarms”?) of rats “invading” a village, spreading an illness, being thrown out, and drowning. The portrayal of a population identified as parasitic, swarming the streets of a nice little traditional village and taken away to die – in the water – in exchange for money, has a very unpleasant ring to it; or at least, it should, to anyone who’s even vaguely concerned with what’s happening in the world today. You’d have to be the most candid person on Earth not to realise.

A simple retelling of the story just about gets away with those connotations, because the literal explanation proposed by the story – the plague – works sort of fine, and you can sort of turn off the metaphorical reading. But with an entirely new story, you can’t claim innocently that you don’t mind that extra layer of meaning. It just invites itself, whatever you do.

So of course you can play with these political connotations, and turn the story on its head, getting the rats to be the good guys in the story; the misunderstood, the oppressed and the silenced. You can even write an interesting story where the plague is an invention of the humans to create suspicion against the rats. You’d turn the story into a politically committed tale, preaching compassion towards a marginalised group.

Yeah. But it’s a really tricky thing to pull off, because in this roman à clefs you’re still identifying a group of people as rats – whether or not you’re arguing that it’s someone else’s vision, that’s pretty dangerous.

I know Art Spiegelman’s done it. I’m not Art Spiegelman though.

In other words, I couldn’t see a way of adapting the Pied Piper of Hamelin story without grappling with the metaphorical political implications. And while I’d be happy to do that in another context, it absolutely wasn’t what I wanted this particular book to be. It was supposed to be like La louve: intemporal, slightly frightening, low-key and poetic. Not political.

So I took the story differently. I decided to get rid, so to speak, of the original tale, by putting it in its entirety on the first page. The story begins with a young girl whose grandfather tells her the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. And then the story starts, seemingly unconnected to the tale. But it loops back onto itself… and connects, at the very, very end, with the very, very first page.

Dealing with this adaptation, I felt like I’d spent quite a while, at least a month or two, thinking about how to catch it, a bit like you would observe a scorpion thinking of the best way to pick it up without getting stung, and getting it to do what you want it to do. Coincidentally, the YA book in French I’m currently working on is also an adaptation. And there again, I spent many train rides looking out of the window, thinking of how to catch that particular scorpion.

I’d be curious to hear your stories of adaptations, retellings or reimaginings of classical tales or novels – I’m sure there are many around, as it’s quite a common thing to do.

News and Mayhem

It’s been a very long while since I last wrote anything here; Russian and Spanish (see post below) have enjoyed a very durable top spot on this blog. Most of the action has been happening over there on my French blog, which I keep up much more diligently than this one. But a lot of things have been happening since this summer, bookwise (academia-wise too, but I’d better talk about it separately).

Firstly, The Royal Babysitters, or rather Les royales babysitters, came out in French in August. This was the very first time ever that I ever had a book translated from English to French – and it wasn’t by me, but by the very talented Amélie Sarn. She did it so amazingly that I actually laughed when reading it, which is no small feat since I’ve read the damn book something 24540536 times in English.

royalesfrancaisesThen The Royal Bake-Off came out in September. In that third book in the Anna, Holly and Pepino tetralogy (that’s four books), the three aspiring holy-moly-holidayers go to Americanada (on an uncomfortable Kryin’Air flight), where the Emperor, Sam – who is also King Steve’s brother – has organised a huge baking competition between various royals around the world. The tasks take place in the Grand Yeswecanyon, the N.H.E.A.G.A.R.A falls (the Nobody Has Ever A’crossed the Gigantic Awful River Alive Falls), and a spaceship. Many invasions are repelled and enemies puréed.

Don't they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

Don’t they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

I also finished A Very Royal Holiday, which is the last book in the series – scheduled to come out next April – and which turned out to be my personal favourite, so I’m particularly looking forward to seeing that one in print.

French-book-wise, this summer has been a busy one for my latest YA novel Les petites reines. We sold the full rights to the cinema in September, and a film script is currently being written, which is an exciting and weird thing to happen. It’s been nominated for lots of awards, and the book will also represent France for ‘Writing’ on the IBBY international honour list, nominated by the children’s literature people at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, whom I feel very grateful to for chosing it.

It's about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

It’s about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

Meanwhile, my and Antoine Déprez’s picturebook La louve, which had slipped by unnoticed when it first came out at the same time as Les petites reines, has gathered steam. It’s been nominated for one of the top children’s book awards, the Prix des Incorruptibles, and recently I saw that it’s in the White Ravens list of remarkable international children’s books at the Munich Youth Library. I’m delighted about that, because it’s a book I’m particularly fond of and which works very well with children. I love reading it to whole classes when I do school visits. Antoine and I are currently preparing another one together.

couvIMG_20140204_142431Last but, proverbially, not least, and leaping back to the English side, I can announce the release in May 2016 of a book of detective short stories in which I have a story myself – it’s with Egmont, it’s edited by the astonishingly talented and murderously imaginative Robin Stevens, and it looks fantastic, look:

Mystery and Mayhem front coverGorgeous gorgeous cover, amazing all-female crime club, and deliciously murderous stories – not all murders, also thefts and other kinds of crimes. Mine is very definitely a murder though. Or is it? Look out for Mystery and Mayhem when it comes out next year and you’ll know all about it.


The Royal Wedding Crashers

The Royal Wedding Crashers is out!

look how nice they look together!

and it’s bigger than its older brother

I celebrated by writing a blog post for LoveReading 4 Kids about Ten French Children’s Books that are Available in English!

But don’t buy all those French books just yet or else you’ll have no time to read the most excellent second instalment in the adventures of Holly, Anna and Prince Pepino, illustrated as always by the royally energetic Becka Moor.

The Royal Wedding Crashers takes our three jobseekers all the way to Parii, in Francia, to help organise the wedding of Princess Violette to the mysterious King Dentu of Romany. Any resemblance to real people or places is of course purely coincidental.

P1060888Mademoiselle Malypense and her poodle Kiki-Bisou are the new employers of Holly, Anna and Pepino, and they occasionally protect the little prince against the beheading tendencies of the vicious Pariisians:

P1060820Parii is the favourite city of Tourists; Holly, Anna and Pepino will encounter one or more flocks of this strange tribe:

TouristsWill the three children figure out what Mademoiselle Malypense’s true intentions are in organising this wedding?

Will Pepino survive being trapped in Catacombs for several hours without ice-cream?

Will they manage to avoid the mobs of angry Francians who demand their daily bread?

Will they finally get paid?

To know all this and much more (such as how to steer a rooster-drawn carriage through the skies), there’s only one solution, and you know what it is…

And if you like posters and colouring packs, head right there on Bloomsbury’s website, where you can download those things, and also read the first chapter of the book…

And if you’d like to know a bit more about the French translation of the books, I wrote a blog post about it a little while ago. I’m sure the French will be delighted to translate the second one as well. I’m sure they won’t expel me from the country forever. I’m sure they won’t try to behead me. I’m sure they’ll let me eat cake.

A bientôt!


‘Open Access’, 1. The Problem of ‘Power’.

Outreach, impact, open access – as academics, we’re constantly asked to make our research accessible to the general public, sometimes at great cost to us, whether in terms of time or of money. The latest obsession is with articles in open access. But I doubt many people who aren’t academics in the fields (and, to be frank, few people who are) would actually plough through many jargonny articles in their published form. Academic writing is hard; it makes assumptions about things you’re already supposed to know, because it mostly addresses people in the discipline.

So ‘opening them’ to everyone may be a start, but if few people can understand what’s in them and why it’s valuable without having at least done an undergraduate module on the subject, what’s the point? I’ve got absolutely nothing against jargon – people who are always complaining about academic jargon don’t realise that they all have jargon too in their own professional lives, which simply becomes transparent because they’re familiar with it. Jargon is just a battery of terms that make sense to people who know them. It’s not evil, it’s useful. But it is exclusive, by definition, and to make something ‘accessible’ you need to strip it of jargon – which means going through everything that lies underneath those terms again.

A nice solution to ‘open access’ that would actually make articles accessible – not just downloadable to your computer, but actually understandablewould be for academics to produce, every time they publish an article or a book, a jargon-free, simple summary of what it’s ‘about’, which readers could read to whether or not the article itself is accessible. Interesting exercise, too… I’ll try to do it here.


I’ll start with an old-ish article of mine, ‘The Problem of ‘Power’: Metacritical Implications of Aetonormativity for Children’s Literature Research’, which was published in Children’s Literature in Education in 2012. (The link goes to the journal website, which won’t help you if you don’t have access, I know.)

Let’s begin with…

1. The Title

(Yes, Massive Jargon Alert.)

‘The problem of power’: whatever comes before the colon can generally be ignored. It’s here for decoration, and will all make sense later.

‘Metacritical’: this is a term we use to mean that we’re being critical about our own critical practice. E.g: if I study a Jane Austen text, I’m doing criticism. If I study a whole body of critical texts about Jane Austen, I’m doing metacriticism. Yes, it may sound crazy to study ‘what other people have said about Jane Austen’, but it’s a major way of progressing as a discipline.

So here when I’m talking about ‘metacritical implications’, it means things we need to take into account when doing further criticism.

‘Aetonormativity’: This is children’s literature-specific jargon. I’ll get back to it soon.

‘Children’s literature research’: referring here to the literary study of texts written for children.

So the title means that there’s something about the concept of ‘aetonormativity’ – which I explain below – which should make us cautious when we analyse children’s books.

2. What’s the situation?

The article revolves around the concept of ‘aetonormativity’. Aetonormativity is a term invented by major children’s literature scholar Maria Nikolajeva and developed in her book Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers (2010). She’s written about it on her blog here, but I’ll sum it up here too:

Aetonormativity means the existence of an age-related norm: in this case, the norm of adulthood. In the Western world, when I say ‘a person’, this person will probably spring to your mind as an adult. Our society is organised with a vision of the ‘normal’ individual as an adult – from sizes of bus seats to the provision of special ‘child-friendly’ spaces (no one needs to tell you that the street is ‘adult-friendly’). Children, who are not yet adults – not yet ‘normal’ – cannot work, drive or vote, and they get special rights too and special protection. Children are the ‘other’ – here ‘other’ is academic jargon to mean a deviation from the norm.

Nikolajeva’s invention of the term is specifically in relation to children’s literature. In texts for children, she says, there is always an assumption that adulthood is the norm and that the child is ‘other’. Children are portrayed as lacking, as not-adults: not-working, not-sexual, not-mature, etc. Children’s texts are thus, most of the time, aetonormative.

Two important things here:

1) This term is inspired from other theories, in particular queer theory, which says that, in our society, heterosexuality is seen as the norm and homosexuality as the ‘other’ sexuality. It comes from a long history of research in other fields trying to highlight problematic power positions: Marxism, feminism to name only a couple.

2) Nikolajeva isn’t the only scholar to think that children’s literature is almost always aetonormative (= presents adulthood as ‘norm’ and childhood as ‘other’). This idea had been steadily growing in children’s literature research since the 1980s.

3. What’s the ‘problem’?

The ‘problem’ comes from the fact, as I see it, that many pieces of research which focus on the aetonormativity of children’s literature (= on the fact that it presents adulthood as a norm) tend to conclude that it means that children’s literature reinforces adult power. What I argue in the article is that we can (and indeed should) accept the general aetonormativity of children’s literature, but not conclude that it systematically disempowers the child.

This needs to be unpacked a little bit. Outside of the adult-child relationship, in most cases, the link between power and norm is quite logical. Being the ‘other’, the ‘different’, the ‘not-normal’, puts you in an underprivileged position. If you’re still surprised when you hear of a female CEO, it’s because you don’t take it fully for granted that women should be CEOs; because the ‘normal’ CEO implicitly comes to your mind as a man. Women need to overcome greater obstacles than most men in order to become CEOs, from individual to institutional prejudice.

However, what I argue in the article is that the child-adult relationship is not the same as the relationship between adult women and adult men, or between able and disabled adults, or between adults of different ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds. They certainly have features in common, but also central differences.

4. What makes it specific?

As I argue in the article, adults and children have different time frames, different temporalities, associated to them by culture, language, representations.

In brief: adults are of course powerful in some sense because they have a lot of ways of controlling children, and their power stems greatly from the fact that they’ve been alive for longer: they’re said to have ‘experience’, ‘authority’, ‘responsibility’, etc. However, and this is what I’m arguing, children are also perceived as powerful by adults – even though we may not want to recognise it – because they have a longer time left to them to act.

So perceptions of children by adults are associated with a vocabulary, metaphorical or not, which does express a specific kind of power: ‘potential’, ‘hope’, ‘promise’, etc. That power is future-bound, turned towards ‘tomorrow’, while adults draw their specific symbolic force from the fact that their time past is longer.

And too often, in research, the term ‘power’ is used to encompass everything – as if adults had all the dominance and children had nothing. Hence ‘the problem of power’. By using the term ‘power’ without defining it (and I say in the article that it’s rarely defined), we obscure forms of child power.

There are other differences between adult and child powers, I’m sure, but from my perspective this is the one that interests me: the difference in temporality which leads to different kinds of power.

I call adult power ‘authority’ and child power ‘might’, or potential – a power for the future, in opposition to the adult power which comes from the past.

I should say that this difference is to a great extent socially constructed, which means that there’s little about it that’s ‘natural’. Instead, this difference is mostly symbolic, having been fabricated, so to speak, by culture and society. Sure, children are factually younger than adults, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be perceived as having more potential. For instance, at a time when children often died before their twelfth birthday, it might not have been as prominent to think of them as full of potential.

5. OK, so children will (probably) live longer than adults and therefore are seen as having more potential; so what?

Well, firstly, it’s important to say that this difference – however basic it may sound – is actually not articulated that often in research, at least not to the extent that we can truly see that it’s a kind of power that the child has. Maybe because it’s seen as self-evident, but perhaps also because – as I argue in the article – well… maybe because we quite like, in fact, to think of us adults as more powerful.

Here’s the contradiction: the more we deplore that children’s literature is oppressive for the child and shows adult power over children, the more we manage to convince ourselves that it’s true – and the less we’re able to see child-specific forms of power.

Our positions as researchers are important here: we’re all adults. And we need to be conscious that it’s seductive for us adult researchers to keep repeating that adults are in power and children aren’t. Maybe we’re trying to avoid saying that actually, like most adults, we are a bit in awe of what children can do in the future and we can’t (because, to be brutal, we’ll be dead while they’re still alive).


So, in short, what I’m saying in the article is that aetonormativity (= the norm of adulthood) doesn’t lead necessarily to an excess of adult power, because there may be an ‘other’ power, that of the child (‘might’, ‘potential’). So when we talk of children’s literature as aetonormative, we must be careful not to obscure the child’s share of power; because, in the case of the adult-child relationship, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the ‘other’ is also ‘disempowered’.


This is where the article stops, but it’s a statement piece which accompanies all my later work, in particular in my academic book, which is coming out in January. In that book, I build up on the distinction between ‘might’ and ‘authority’ and I show how children’s books which apparently express adult ‘power’ actually make space for the child’s unpredictable action, his or her ‘potential’, in the future.



Phew! That was much harder than I thought it would be. It’s interesting because I thought that, since the idea at the centre of the article is quite simple – ‘children also have power, you know! They will be alive when you’re dead!’ – it would be the easiest of my articles to summarise. But no – it’s difficult to get there without having to go through everything in literary and cultural theory since the 1960s… and also without talking about children’s literature theory and criticism since the 1980s. I probably also made assumptions about a number of things – childhood and adulthood as constructed categories, for instance – which I shouldn’t have.

I might do a few more of those and see how it goes.

The quality of silence

School visits in primary school are nothing like school visits in high school. Primary school is Care Bear land: children are enthusiastic, chatty, unhibited, fun, on the edge of their seats. You leave feeling exhausted and deliriously happy, with tripled self-esteem. Especially when they’ve made you a book-shaped cake and cupcakes with your initials.

Yes, I'm showing off.

Yeah I’m showing off.

High school is resolutely different. Something happens in the first few weeks of Year Seven – you can spot it as soon as you come through the door. Pupils look distrustful, sarcastic – they stare at you, and then at one another, exchanging funny little smiles. Some of their questions and comments are unsettling, if not downright offensive. Evidently on purpose. All the more so if you’re young, female and blonde.

But after a few minutes, if you show them that you’re on their side, you gain their trust and the atmosphere gets more relaxes. And then you can talk about really interesting things, and have fun, and tackle serious topics, and let them speak about themselves, and listen to them.

So it’s not the same dynamic at all in a primary school visit and a secondary school visit. In particular, though I often conclude my primary school visits with a reading, it had never come to my mind to do a reading for high school students.

Well, I was having lunch last year during a literary festival in France and talking to another author who suggested I should. He said teenagers loved being read to. I didn’t believe him for a second; I put on my best polite face (“Really? How interesting!”) while secretly thinking “The poor man is completely disconnected from the real world – the teenagers he read his books to must feel terribly offended to be treated like babies.”

Not a teenager.

Not a teenager.

Coincidentally, though, that very same afternoon I did a school visit in a Year Nine class where the teacher said to me in front of everyone: “The students would very much like you to read an extract from your book to them”. They’d already all read that book (La pouilleuse), or were supposed to (in France, you do school visits only when schools have studied your books).

Since a teacher had asked, I wasn’t going to say no – like most academics, I’ve always scrupulously followed teachers’ orders – but I thought, once again, that the poor adult was completely deluded: teenagers, I firmly believed, don’t like being read to.

Of course I was completely wrong. Hardly had I begun to read that I noticed the extraordinary quality of the silence that had fallen on the room. The students were staring into emptiness, or at their hands or feet. They didn’t look enraptured, hypnotised or stunned – simply silent, and listening.

What struck me was how different that silence was from the silence you get when you read something to primary school children. Primary school children fidget, giggle, whisper. They’re so used to being read to, it’s just normal to them.

Not to those teenagers. They’d lost the habit – the habit of finding themselves in a situation where there’s nothing else to do than to listen to a word after another, to each sentence with its rhythm and musicality. For them, I could tell, it felt new.

(And no, I’m not subtly bragging about the rhythm and musicality of my book; I’m pretty sure I could have read them anything. It was all about the situation, not the text.)

(And no, I don't have his voice.)

(And no, I don’t have his voice.)

When I finally found a place to stop, there were a few more seconds of that silence. Then they started moving again, and some of them said, “Just a few more pages…”

Since then, I always try to take time at the end of my high school visits to read extracts from the book. Something always happens. I know, now, that literature teachers know it – and sometimes take advantage of this amazing quality of their listening, to read them texts that they wouldn’t read themselves with the same focus, the same attention.

At the risk, of course, of gradually breaking the spell…

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On voyeurism in children’s and YA literature

junkBreaking news: children’s and YA literature, especially the latter, can be pretty racy. From Tabitha Suzuma’s tale of an incestuous relationship between brother and sister (Forbidden) to The Hunger Games‘s murderous children, through to that scene in Melvin Burgess’s Junk where the heroin-addict mother punches a needle into her breastfeeding breast in search of a workable vein…

These are just three of dozens of texts where teenagers are raped, killed, torture, or do that unto others; or simply where sex scenes, even consenting and loving, are frankly explicit. Personally, I’ve got a horse in the racy race, or rather two, since my French YA books are so shocking than no UK publisher will publish them as YA. La pouilleuse narrates a day of psychological and physical torture perpetrated by a group of idle teenagers on a six-year-old girl. Comme des images goes through what happens after a video of a sixteen-year-old girl masturbating is leaked to the whole school. So no, I don’t have anything against racy YA. 

There will always be people who say that it’s voyeurism. But this frequently-used term is often left undefined. As a result, it’s easy to retort that the person is just a prude, as if an accusation of ‘voyeurism’ was simply a glorified translation of ‘I’m shocked’, or ‘I can’t stomach this’. And it’s often the case, as there are indeed many watchful prudes in the children’s and Young Adult literature world.


Oh my goodness, the F-word!

But sometimes it’s a perfectly justified criticism. And the ‘other side’, the very vocal and active community of Young Adult writers and bloggers, too swiftly responds in terrifying torrents of Tweets to anyone who dares to criticise the work of one of their own.

And yet accusations of voyeurism, in the strictest sense of the word, aren’t necessarily idiotic or prudish or moralistic. They can be perfectly valid, and even important. But what does voyeurism actually mean?

Voyeurism doesn’t just mean ‘something shocking’, or ‘something with which some people might ideologically disagree’. Shocking the reader is good. Shocking the reader is a perfectly valid endeavour. What’s problematic about voyeuristic texts, from both an ideological and an aesthetic viewpoint, isn’t that they shock the reader, it’s that they trap the reader in a position from which s/he can’t escape; a position which forces him/her to feel pleasure, disgust, excitement, etc., when reading a specific scene.

This happens, for instance, in the case of:

  • Gratuitous episodes of sex, of psychological or physical violence, etc., which don’t add anything to the plot or characterisation but are there principally out of complacency, to elicit strong sensations in the reader.
  • Explicit descriptions that leave the reader no space to imagine what happens. Everything is said.
  • The (conscious or unconscious) desire to trigger sexual excitement in the reader, or a fascination for violence.
  • A lack of narrative distance towards what is represented, translated for instance as a unicity of narrative focalisation, or a narrative voice from which the reader has no way of detaching her/himself.
  • The choice of particularly ‘hot’ themes, such as child prostitution, forced marriages, teenage pregnancy, etc., mostly for their narrative potential, that is to say without taking into account the fact that real people experience these situations.
  • A lack of critical distance towards the ideological implications of the represented scenes or their symbolic meaning(s), or a representation which eludes unpleasant or questionable aspects to focus only on their sensationalism.
  • A lack of awareness of the generational gap between implied readers and implied author, and therefore a lack of awareness of the particular ethical and ideological issues linked to the representation, for instance, of extreme violence or of sex scenes; especially when those are ventriloquised by young characters behind which lurks, of course, an adult author.

Obviously, none of these elements is either sufficient or necessary to make a text voyeuristic, but it makes it more likely to fall into voyeurism.

The solution, of course, isn’t to eliminate controversial themes from Young Adult literature. I’d have to burn my own books. In fact I think that YA often doesn’t go far enough, in the sense that, even when it superficially engages with super-hot-themes, it often remains moralistic and conservative. Twilight is fairly racy, but it’s also, of course, hugely conservative. We need some more radical YA, and this radical YA must of course represent sex, violence, drugs. Those themes are not only attractive, they’re crucial to one’s understanding of existence, and literature can present and analyse them in different ways to our biggest ‘competitors’, film and video games.

So how can we write racy or violent scenes without falling into voyeurism? I’m not saying I’ve got an answer (I wish), but here are some thoughts:

  • Weakening the narrative voice. Voyeurism first and foremost establishes a relation of power between narratee and narrator. The reader must be able to rebel against what we’re forcing him/her to see: it’s only fair. On a narrative level, that means a narrator who isn’t omnipotent anymore. That means a voice that, even seemingly strong and assertive, reveals fault lines and hollow spaces. A narrative voice from which the reader can detach himself or herself, and actively seek a different vision of the scene.
  •   Creating discomfort and unease. When we’re uneasy, it means we can’t fully be voyeurs. Voyeurism implies being mesmerised, adhering totally to what we see. Uneasiness, discomfort indicate that we are aware that, for some reason, we shouldn’t see what we’re seeing – and therefore we’re already judging what we’re seeing. An uneasy reader is a cleft reader, a divided reader, and therefore a questioning reader. Why am I feeling uncomfortable reading this? What isn’t right about this representation? You can’t fall into the trap of voyeurism when the text allows you to question what it’s giving you to see.
  • Being so outrageous the reader can’t see clearly anymore. Let’s be hyperbolic, lyrical, grandiose, excessive, disgusting, crude. If we’re going to shock the reader, let’s do it so it creates a screen so thick that the reader, try as they may, can’t even see what’s behind it. Nabokov lets Humbert Humbert say he wants to “turn [his] Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys”. This is the twelve-year-old girl he rapes “every night, every night”. Lolita is the story of an obsession for Lolita in which we can’t see Lolita anymore from the moment Humbert Humbert sets eyes on Lolita. Look as much as you want, you’ll never see her through the haze of that language. As a reader, you can’t enjoy her, you can’t delight in her; there’s nothing to see.
  • Not showing enough. This is the opposite strategy, of course: not giving enough to see. Punching holes through the text, disappointing the reader, not finishing what we started, forbidding climaxes. We can surprise the reader with a shocking paucity of details, insert endless, frustrating ellipses. And thus force the reader to become responsible for the text: to become responsible for his or her vision of things. Force the reader, therefore, to become empowered, active, inventive, and accountable.

Any other ideas? Thoughts? Disagreements?

If not, until next Wednesday, au revoir…


EDIT: This article was inspired to me by an interview in French where I was asked to respond to accusations of ‘voyeurism’ in my own works, so I wrote it mostly under my ‘creative writing hat’.

However, my ex-supervisor having noted that I tacitly appeared to refer to her own works in this article, I hasten to refer readers interested in the ramifications of this question for children’s literature criticism to the following:

  • The question of identification and of the importance of narrative voice in ‘trapping’ the young reader is tackled notably by Maria Nikolajeva in, among others, Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers (2010), and also by Maria Tatar in Enchanted Hunters, The Power of Stories in Childhood (2009).
  • Maria recently published an article on guilt in Forbidden and His Dark Materials which tackles the question of the overpowering narrative voice and the ethical problems it leads to in the adult-child relationship.

Should children’s writers like children?


That author

Every time I do school visits or go to a book fair, there’s always a grumpy paedophobic author somewhere. S/he’s been writing for longer that I’ve been alive and s/he’s seen it all. S/he’s sipping coffee in the teachers’ common room and ranting about those damned kids and their unimaginative questions. S/he’s in here for the €€, not the experience. S/he’s going on and on and on about ‘that annoying kid who always asks how long it takes to write a book and where I get my ideas from.’

And me, meanwhile, young, enthusiastic and naive and rather a fan of younger humans, I’m all like ‘Oh my! Goodness me! How can you possibly say that, you monster, you ogre ? Surely it is the greatest happiness in the world to talk to little readers, however dumb the questions! Surely the marvelous feeling of profound and inexplicable bliss that fills one when one is faced with children is universally shared!’ and I put my hand on my heart and I think of the cute freckles, dimples and missing teeth, and I swallow back tears of shock and fear and I wonder if this clearly deranged author should really be allowed to roam the school premises.

Slight exaggerations may have found their way into the previous two paragraphs, but the question’s not a stupid one. Should children’s authors actually like children? I don’t mean just tolerate, but actually like them? Should they feel increased levels of happiness, a certain special sense of connection, when in the presence of the kawaii beings? After all, there are dozens of misanthropic adult authors who don’t give a damn about their readers. And no adult author will ever be asked to confirm that they like adults.

Things Camus didn't say

Things Camus didn’t say

‘Oh yes, I love adults – I just love them. I love their happy faces when I sign their books, and they always come up with things that I find just wonderfully unexpected and marvelous… how can I explain it? It’s so mysterious. I can’t say why, but I’ve always been at ease with adults. Maybe it’s because I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to be an adult. I get on with them really well. They’re great, basically, and that’s why I write for them.’

We’d think they were bloody mental. What if some authors actually like writing for children because – like Philip Pullman – they think it’s a great experimental platform – which it is – but don’t really have anything to say to real kids outside of what they tell them through their art? How much of it is about the idea of childness, the ability to play with concepts, art forms, narratives that are particular to children’s literature – and how much of it actually has to be about real children?

That’s the crux of the matter, really. You can love the idea of children just as you love the idea of backpacking up and down the Andes, but you might suddenly find yourself a little bit less keen if you actually ended up parachuted into the montainous jungle. I think I love real children. I think I love talking to them, I think they make me laugh, surprise me and amaze me, and I think being around them makes me happy, but rationally, there’s no way this sweeping generalisation is possible without a preexisting idea of kids as a cool bunch of people, without a preexisting idea of childness as a special property for a human to have.


I like her

Because it’s a bit like saying ‘I love cats’. I do love cats. But in fact I don’t. I don’t love all cats. I don’t like the ones that scratch and bite, bizarrely enough; I prefer the cuddly ones that purr, thank you very much. And yeah, when I go into a primary classroom, I tend to prefer the enthusiastic little Hermione whose hand shoots up into the air all the time to the sexually precocious duo of boys who ogle me and snigger and scribble down things to each other on a piece of paper.

So we have to grant one thing to the paedophobic writer: at least they’re seeing the kids as humans. As fallible, annoying, boring and silly, but as humans. The blissful, all-loving writer who ‘just adores kids in general’ might as well be saying that they love cats. Or old people. Or gays. Or Tories. Or dyslexics. You get the idea.

There are people who just love writing and for them, going into schools to talk to real kids is one of those things you have to do in your day job but that you don’t particularly like, such as brainstorming the name of a new guava-and-tapioca shampoo or filling in an Excel spreadsheet with the office’s stationary budget for the year or whatever people who have real jobs do.

And then there’s the rest of us, bumbling around like a flotilla of fairy godmothers, hopelessly endeared to the little readers, envisaging our work as a sort of whole project of life and mission for and with children, and unable to understand that yeah, some writers may tailor every single one of their books for people whom, in reality, they don’t really care about very much.

Towards Frenglish Research in Children’s Literature?

A long time ago I was an exemplary (i.e. completely stressed-out) student at the prestigious Lycée Henri-IV in Paris, and I hated it. Desperate to escape the constant humiliations, threats, existential worries and intellectual rigidity imparted by the French university system, I ended up setting up my own wicker-basket-business backpacking up Mount Annapurna becoming a horse-whisperer studying at Cambridge. Ironic, I know, but happiness levels rocketed.

Me, before moving to the UK.

Anyway, as a result of adolescent trauma, until very recently I’d never really tried to get in touch with French researchers in children’s literature, even though I use a ton of French philosophers in my own work. There’s so much research in English already, and so little time, and of course I suspected that it would be done quite differently across the Channel.

But last year, as I was browsing the Internet, I stumbled upon the blog of children’s literature lecturer and researcher Cécile Boulaire, from the University François-Rabelais of Tours. I left a comment, and got an email in return. Our correspondence resulted in my inviting her, and other French researchers, to a day symposium at our Research Centre in Cambridge. The symposium took place last week.

Our five guests were members of the Afreloce (French Association for Research on Books and Cultural Objects pertaining to Childhood): Cécile Boulaire, Laurence Chaffin, Matthieu Letourneux, Mathilde Lévêque and Christophe Meunier. They happened to be much less terrifying than my past teachers.

Me, not terrified.


The main purpose of the symposium was to present and compare theoretical perspectives and methodologies in children’s literature research in France and in English-speaking countries. The programme was as follows:

Current Francophone and Anglo-American Research

in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Session 1.              History and the Children’s Book.

9.30-10.00. Kate Wakely-Mulroney (University of Cambridge)

·        The conventions of nonsense in Charles Dodgson’s correspondence.

10.00-10.30. Laurence Chaffin (University of Caen)

·        Literature for girls in the 19th century.

Session 2.              Geographies of Childhood and Adolescence.

11.00-11.30. Erin Spring (University of Cambridge)

·        Answering ‘Who am I?’ by asking ‘Where am I from?’: Constructions of place-based identity through young adult fiction.

11.30-12.00. Christophe Meunier (Ecole Normale Supérieure, Lyon)

·        Children’s picturebooks : actors of spatiality, generators of spaces.

Session 3.              Reading Words and Pictures.

13.30-14.00.Cécile Boulaire (University François Rabelais, Tours)

·        Poetics of picturebooks.

14.00-14.30. Yi-Shan Tsai (University of Cambridge)

·        Young readers’ critical responses to manga.

Session 4.             New Theoretical Perspectives and Territories of Research

14.30-15.00. Professor Maria Nikolajeva (University of Cambridge)

·        Memory of the present: empathy and identity in young adult fiction.

15.00-15.30. Matthieu Letourneux (University Paris Ouest/ Nanterre)

·        Youth literature: series logic and cultural series.

15.30-16.00. Clémentine Beauvais (University of Cambridge)

·        Desire and didacticism in the children’s book.

16.30-17.30. Round Table. Chair: Clémentine Beauvais.

·        National and International Trends in Children’s Literature Research.

The day, and especially the round table at the end (which was square, as an unplanned tribute to Descartes) confirmed some of my assumptions and invalidated others concerning the differences between children’s literature studies in France and in the UK/US. Here’s a quick overview:

  1. Children’s literature research in English-speaking countries is much more driven by power theory. The children’s book is perceived as a space of adult (and sometimes child) powers – indeed it is the object of my thesis. In France, as Cécile and Matthieu confirmed, it isn’t a recurring question at all. Paradoxical, of course, since it’s a very Foucauldian analysis. Which brings me to my next point…
  2. The French don’t do ‘French Theory’. Foucault is apparently studied quite a bit still, but Deleuze, Derrida, Kristeva, Bourdieu and all the thinkers cheerfully grouped under the magic ‘French Theory’ umbrella by anglophone researchers seem to be much more rarely found in France than abroad.
  3. French researchers study children’s literature mostly ‘as literature.’ I know this may sound very strange, but it’s far from being always the case here. Personally, I don’t see myself as studying children’s literature as literature. The child in the book isn’t necessarily the focus for French researchers- aesthetic criticism of children’s books ‘as literature’, ‘as works of art’, regardless of the audience, seems to be prominent.
  4. The Anglo-Saxon approach seems currently more theoretical, the French one more aesthetic and historicist. Of course, this has to be nuanced to a great deal – a lot of UK/US researchers do historical criticism. But the theoretical effort which underscores current publications in English – definitions, axioms, ‘towards a theory of children’s literature’, etc – doesn’t seem to have a French equivalent. This is counterbalanced by a very high level of detail, in French research, of aesthetic analyses and of contextualisation.
  5. But we also have a lot in common. As one of the sessions (on geography/ecocriticism in children’s books) showed, emerging fields of research are concomitant in both ‘bubbles’. And we’re asking the same questions – how do picturebooks work? What’s a children’s series, and what can it tell us about the sociocultural contexts of its creation and distribution? And of course, what is children’s literature?

But a haunting question remains, one which Maria Nikolajeva develops on her blog: what can we do to develop research partnerships, to overcome the language barrier, to be aware of what other research centres abroad are doing? The Internet helps, but without regular and sustained interaction between different countries we might be condemned, in the Arts & Humanities, to reinventing the wheel terrifyingly often.

For French-speakers: Mathilde Lévêque wrote a blog post on this symposium, and so did Cécile Boulaire.

Note: I am very grateful to the Research Centre and to Christ’s College for funding this event.