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Shaping a Preferable Future: Children Reading, Thinking and Talking about Alternative Communities and Times

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ChildAct16 (Shaping a Preferable Future: Children Reading, Thinking and Talking aboutAlternative Communities and Times)

Reporting period: 2017-08-21 to 2018-08-20

Utopianism means being critical about one’s society, desiring alternatives to sociopolitical conditions one does not like, and expressing these alternatives. All this is often done in literature, including children’s books. The ability to understand literary images of alternative political and social orders plays a crucial role in effecting transformation both at individual and societal levels. Equally important is the ability to form and express one’s own ideas about the desired future, especially in the context of intergenerational solidarity and dialogue. However, the significance of children’s views about the growth of better societies is hardly ever acknowledged. Therefore, ChildAct: Shaping a Preferable Future: Children Reading, Thinking and Talking about Alternative Communities and Times has explored whether and how books make children think about their own role in shaping their future and the future of their communities in collaboration with adults. The project has proposed to achieve this aim through participatory research with children, that is, research with children as researchers working with adult researchers. This kind of research, still uncommon in children’s literature studies, is important because it acknowledges children’s impact on societies and produces knowledge that can only be made by children themselves, making academic research directly relevant to children’s lives as a cultural practice sustaining intergenerational dialogue. The final result of the grant is a new model of child-led children’s literature research based on connectivity, rooted in local communities, and addressing global issues.
The grant enabled me to conduct theoretical and applied research on children’s participation in utopianism in the context of children’s literature. On one hand, I focused on literary representations of intergenerational solidarity as a utopian outcome of cross-age bonds; on the other hand, I also put this idea into practice by facilitating two research projects involving children as researchers of literature addressed to them. The former line of research has expanded the received understanding of children’s literature as adult cultural production for children, focused predominantly on conflicts and power struggle between younger and older generations: texts for children in fact not only depict a continuum of child-adult relations, including cross-age collaboration, partnership and solidarity, but are also often created as a result of deliberate partner-like child-adult collaborations. My work with child researchers concerned child-led examination of the utopian contents of a critically acclaimed fantasy novel for young readers. The two teams of child scholars not only discussed the book, but also conducted their own research inspired by the story. Their projects resulted in a model of how this particular novel and other utopian and non-utopian texts could catalyze joint child-adult scholarly ventures.
These two lines of research resulted in the following outputs: publications (two articles – one accepted for publication, one submitted; one edited volume – contracted by an academic press), one special issue of a journal; organization of an international conference; presentations of my work, as well as of the joint work with the child researchers (in presentations co-authored by them), at national (one) and international conferences (five); three grant applications (one successful); teaching activities in the UK and abroad; networking and invited talks in the UK and abroad; participation in three science festivals; and organization of events for children (two). The article accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed international journal on children’s literature has been co-authored by a group of child-researchers and is the first article of this kind in the field if children’s literature studies.
Intergenerational solidarity is required in all societies as a vital element of intergenerational relationships. It connects age-others who share common values and interests, feelings of affection and affinity, mutual care, responsibility and protection, thereby fostering the transfer of cumulative knowledge, experience and culture essential to human development. As such, intergenerational solidarity is a vital mechanism ensuring survival of the human species. The intensification of effective intergenerational affiliations is increasingly urgent in the face of global aging, changes in family structure, transnational family separation, precariatism, and political trends pitting younger and older generations against each other. The publications generated by the grant break new ground by exploring approaches to texts, authors, readers and scholarship itself that examine the diversity of intergenerational connections represented in children’s literature as expanding the typical understanding of children’s texts as educational tools used to influence young generations. These publications provide evidence for the socio-cultural and political importance of children’s culture in the development of intergenerational solidarity and empathy towards age-others. Finally, they innovatively position the field of children’s literature studies as a site of cross-generational bonds, creating possibilities for a socially impactful inquiry into the culture of childhood. The opening of academia to children’s ideas concerning research process, achieved in the course of the projects co-conducted with child researchers, constitutes further evidence for the validity of children’s literature scholarship practised against the dominating binaries of childhood and adulthood. As both projects have shown, scholarship conducted through creating a community involving children and adults (researchers, educators, parents), through an engagement with this community and through collective action performed by its members, results in ontoepistemic equality contributing to intergenerational solidarity. Both lines of inquiry pursued in the grant have not only created an innovative academic approach to children’s literature studies, but have also shown how this dynamically developing field addresses the current need for stronger social cohesion across generations.