Thoughts on the 2010 Atwater Symposium in Children’s Literature

From “The Sun Egg” by Elsa Beskow

I had the pleasure of spending the earlier part of this weekend at the Atwater Symposium in Children’s Literature at the University of Toronto. Having attended the first conference two years ago, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to mix and mingle with various children’s lit lovers once again. The room was buzzing with librarians, teachers, booksellers, writers, academics, students, parents, and people from the publishing industry. In other words, a veritable stew of the people who make, disseminate, and love children’s books. In other words, my own personal heaven.

This year’s theme was the environmental imagination. Having incorporated ecocriticism and ecofeminism in my master’s thesis, I was in very familiar territory. There was much stimulating debate about the environment in children’s literature. M.T. Anderson was Friday night’s keynote speaker, and he got things rolling with a dynamic presentation on pastoral landscapes in American children’s literature. We talked about the importance of scale, and how children create their own scale and metric systems, often based in the physical, as Marguerite Holloway calls it, “body metrics.” The Good Doctor Seuss came up a few times, first when discussing Horton Hears a Who, a perfect example of effective use of scale in a book, and then in The Lorax, probably the most well known environmental cautionary tale.  Holloway talked about the magic of Horton, and how the book not only opens up new worlds and possibilities, but also teaches empathy. It occured to me that this book perfectly describes the awakening of a young scientific mind- now I must re-read it.

Is "The Lorax" too much for children?

There was much debate about The Lorax, and whether the book leaves too much onus on a young reader and therefore worries them into a state of anxious apathy. This of course lead to a more general debate. Should we be using scare tactics to instill stewardship in young readers? Is this effective in any way? How do we get children to connect to landscapes they have never seen, touched, ran, or played in? We talked about our culture of worry and how children, particularly in urban spaces, rarely play outside anymore. If the do, they are rarely unsupervised. If an entire generation has no personal connection or experience with a particular environment, will they feel the need to protect and preserve it? t seems to me, and other attendees, that imbuing wonder and empathy and beauty into our landscape writing is a more effective way of capturing the imagination and the heart of a child reader. This was the stance of Susan Cooper, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an author who writes more lovingly or beautifully about an environment.

Yes, you read that right- SUSAN. COOPER. Susan is probably on the top of the list of people I never thought I would meet. Previously, she existed in that realm of Authors Whose Books are Sacred and Classic, and therefore the author must exist in some magical place that lay people and fangirls like me could only dream of entering. A sort of Narnia for children’s authors, where the role of Aslan is played by Madeline L’Engle (may she R.I.P.). But Susan was there, in the flesh, and totally captivated the theatre with her conversation about her love of the English landscape. Susan talked of being haunted by place, which I thought was a beautiful phrase. She spoke of the layers of history that are palpable in certain parts of Wales and Cornwall, and how they have permeated her being and her writing. I still have goosebumps.

I also enjoyed Sarah Ellis’ talk, about the portrayal of forests in picture books. I have been lucky to see Sarah lecture four times now, and I always look forward to what she has to say. Sarah Ellis’ writing is clear, accutely observant, and full of round language; she is able to present academic findings in this same style, which is refreshing and effective. I would pay good money to see an entire day of Sarah Ellis lectures. She read to us from Wanda Gag’s beloved Millions of Cats, Golden McDonald (aka Margaret Wise Brown)’s quirky The Little Island, and Leo Yerxa’s meditation on winter, Last Leaf First Snowflake to Fall Sarah concluded her discussion with images of trees drawn by grade two students from an urban school, which was fascinating and thought provoking. 

Skellig is probably my favourite made-up word

David Almond was a pleasant surprise. His work is so critically acclaimed and varied and original that I had imagined him as a searing academic with a sharp tongue and disdain for autograph-seekers. I could not have been more wrong. He was a lovely man, a perfect gentleman, with a quiet, thoughtful demeanor. He spoke about the wildness of stories and the importance of coming home at the end of a story, back to a safe, civilized space. His observations about life and writing were profound and accessible. I especially liked how he described the telling of a tale as part of the process of healing. This suggests that we find comfort in the structure and familiarity of stories, which soothe us just as much as the content.

Tim Wynne-Jones was in fine form, discussing place and how it can be translated by the reader so that it transcends the author’s world and becomes something recognizable to the reader. Tim always brings together disparate and fascinating anecdotes and bits of academia to create unique lectures.

Deepest thanks to Deirdre Baker and Susan Perren for spearheading the organization of the conference. It was inspiring and thought provoking, just what one needs mid-winter to get the juices flowing again. And to the guardian angel of the Atwater Symposium, Carroll Bishop, whose generous support made everything possible. We are truly lucky in Canada to have such passionate and devoted advocates for children’s literature.

Also, for those interested in reading about children and the environment, one of my favourite books on this topic, which came up a few times this weekend, is Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. This book provides stimulating reading about the importance of interacting with nature as a child, and avoiding what Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” His website is pretty great, too.

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