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Constructing Age for Young Readers

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - CAFYR (Constructing Age for Young Readers)

Reporting period: 2020-08-01 to 2022-01-31

Constructing Age for Young Readers, or CAFYR, aims at developing pioneering research for understanding how age is constructed. Researchers in the project use a combination of methods to do accomplish this. They study a corpus of 800 contemporary children’s books published in Flanders, the UK and the Netherlands in the period 1970-2020 as well adaptations of some of these titles in other media (film, television, games). CAFYR focuses on fiction for young readers as a discourse that often naturalizes age norms as part of an engaging story and that is endorsed in educational contexts for contributing to children’s literacy, social and cultural development. Five factors in the construction of age in children’s books are studied: the content of the books (style, characterization, plot development), the age of the author, the age of the intended reader, the age of the real reader and the construction of age in children’s books that are adapted to other media. CAFYR investigates how the age and aging process of children’s authors affect their construction of the life stages in their works. It shows how various crosswriters adapt the style and content of their books when they address readers of different ages. It considers the age of young readers as varied in its own right, and investigates how age is constructed differently for children of different ages, from preschoolers to adolescents. It brings together readers of various stages in the life course in a reception study that helps understand how real readers construct age, during the reading process and in dialogue with each other. Finally, it looks at what happens to constructions of age when children’s books are adapted to other media. CAFYR adopts an interdisciplinary approach that enriches children’s literature research with concepts and theories from age studies. It combines close reading strategies with distant reading and tools developed for digital text analysis, and has digitized 750 books and annotated 200 books to this aim. It provides a platform to people of different stages in life, contributing to their awareness about age, and facilitating and investigating dialogues about age, with the aim of ultimately fostering them more.
CAFYR has taken significant steps in developing an interdisciplinary approach that enriches children’s literature research with concepts and theories from age studies, digital humanities, reader response research, genetic criticism, cognitive literary studies, and media studies. We have first invested in developing a digital method for analysing age in children’s books on various levels. We have digitized 750 children’s books and annotated 200 of these. The digital analysis produced new insights into the construction of age in characterisation, plot and style. It revealed innovative results especially with regard to the age of the intended reader. We found that several authors adapt their style to the age of their readership. Preliminary analyses transcending the works of one author show that literature for middle child readers has distinct stylistic features, while the style of the Young Adult books is closer to adult literature than to books for younger children. For the age of the author, the digital methods show a development of style that runs parallel to the author’s age for various writers. For example, Guus Kuijer’s works are stylistically related when they are close in age range and publication date, with some interesting outliers. Topic modelling revealed topical similarity and linguistic differences in his construction of childhood and adulthood. This means that some topics stretch over several of his works, but the words used to describe them differ.
In addition, we invested in qualitative research to supplement the digital analysis, combining various frameworks. We studied the construction of adolescence through the framework of intertextuality, developed an age-focused intertextual study of a fairy-tale rewriting and are developing a framework based on cognitive studies to examine age in the construction of fictional minds and their interaction with storyworlds. To get a better understanding of how the authors’ age plays a part in their writing processes, we compiled, annotated and analysed a database of all the interviews Bart Moeyaert has given in his career. This revealed a shift in his thinking about age from a difference model to a kinship model that stresses the affinities between childhood and adulthood. We conducted 12 interviews with authors for a mini monograph that produced new findings on the professionalism of child authors, the impact of the author’s ageing on their writing process and their views on child readers.
CAFYR made significant progress with the empirical research on the age of the real reader. 40 long interviews with readers from 9 to 75 years old, 4 focus group discussions, and 17 follow-up interviews were conducted and analyzed with an annotation tree in Nvivo. Interesting differences could be noted in readers’ ideas on age and innocence and wisdom, as well as the imagination. The interviews both reinforced and challenged various age norms. For example, children showed remarkably nuanced views on characters that had been dismissed by older readers and were able to change the other participants’ views.
The CAFYR team also invested in disseminating results to a wider audience. We designed a quiz called “Who knows Harry Potter best? The computer or you?” for children aged 8-14 to explain the analysis of children’s books with DH tools. It was presented at the Kinderuniversiteit (2019, 2021). To reach the age 14-18, we presented a hands-on workshop for secondary-school teachers on age studies and digital tools for literary analysis. We developed a website to share methods, results and author interviews with a wider audience, including sections accessible for children (launched in Autumn 2021). Vanesa Joosen gave a TED talk at the University of Flanders on why adults should continue to read children’s literature.
One of CAFYR’s aims is to implement tools from digital humanities to children’s literature studies and vice versa, to raise an interest in DH scholars in children’s books. We developed Python code for various types of rough and fine-grained digital analyses: topic modelling, stylometry, linguistic parsing, the automatic extraction and categorisation of metareflections on age, fine-grained lexical analysis, measuring lexical richness, linguistic diversity and the calculation of readability scores. By focusing on the oeuvres of selected authors, we have already booked significant results that led to several publications and were lauded as particularly innovative by peer reviewers. In the second phase, we extend some of these analyses to the corpus as a whole (e.g. stylometry, rougher forms of topic modelling). Preliminary results show that a combination of our annotation process with topic modelling and parsing produces more accurate results than rough analyses with words embeddings. However, annotations can only partly be done automatically; they require training and are time-consuming, so it is not possible to process the entire corpus in this way. We are systematically annotating the oeuvres of individual authors.
The project has managed to significantly boost the visibility of DH in children’s literature studies. This was enabled by academic and other public presentations and by publications in key journals such as The Lion and the Unicorn and International Research in Children’s Literature. Vice versa, we have been able to raise more interest in the field of children’s literature by addressing DH scholars through our publication in Cultural Analytics, amongst others. CAFYR also took up a leading role in establishing a network of scholars who unite interests in children’s literature and DH. We organised a two-day conference on Digital Humanities and children’s literature in the Fall of 2020, and in the slipstream of this, set up a community on Humanities Commons. Within the project we have built interdisciplinary synergies by using outliers of the distant reading analyses as input for close reading.
In the second phase of the project, the number of analyses through close reading and cognitive narratology will be extended, as well as the research on the age of the real reader and the adaptation to other media. We will write a joint monograph where we approach David Almond’s oeuvre with all the analytical methods used in CAFYR to assess what their limits and potential are in contributing to a fuller understanding of age in children’s literature.