Symposium abstracts for Day 2

Friday 7 December

Panel 4: Reading and readership

Dr Rebecca Lucas – The ethical responsibility of primary teachers to read children’s books

Current research challenging culture, gender and class prejudice includes awareness of our need for authentic representations of experiences in children’s literature. Twitter hashtags such as #ownvoices, #reflectingrealities and #weneediversebooks reflect global argument and activism to recognise gaps and misrepresentations, and to establish new spaces for all communities’ stories rather than a few.

Primary teachers have a crucial role in supporting children to become ethical and empowered readers, critics and citizens. Arguably, a professional responsibility of primary teaching should be to read and keep up-to-date with children’s books, and then make good books accessible to young readers.

However there are many reasons why most primary teachers don’t read children’s books, let alone books with authentic representations of diverse identities. Obstacles include cost of books, time to read, unexamined personal and inherited biases, shortfalls in teacher training, relying on nostalgic childhood reading that upholds harmful stereotypes, lack of relevant PD, and education research not being freely accessible to teachers.

Through an examination of middle-grade literature (novels and graphic novels) this paper draws attention to why being a primary teacher who reads and promotes authentic children’s books should be a key priority for teacher training and ongoing teacher PD, as well as a clear expectation related to the Australian Teacher Standards, and considers how primary teachers can get

Dr Kristine Moruzi & Dr Michelle J. Smith – Young Adult literature for girls: reading, writing, and publishing

While adult book sales have declined, young adult books—aimed at children aged between 12 and 18 — has risen to prominence since the turn of the twenty-first century. Simultaneously, ideas about gender and sexuality have also undergone significant shifts. This paper seizes on the critical nature of these intersections to consider how gender is conceived and deployed, marrying it with the contemporaneous flourishing of youth literature. The paper seeks to understand how the YA publishing industry and girl readers themselves are grappling with transformations in the very ideas of who girls are and what kinds of women they should become.

This paper employs and updates Bourdieu’s field of cultural production, in which artefacts like young adult literature for girls are situated within the social conditions of their production, circulation, and consumption. The circumstances surrounding the publication and consumption of young adult literature for girls have shifted in the twenty-first century. Unlike children’s texts, young adult texts are organised around tensions “between growth and stasis, … between ordinary bodies and monstrous ones, and…between an impulsive individualism and a generative ethics of interconnectedness” (Coats 2011). However, any notion of growth in adolescent fiction is intricately entwined with “what the adolescent has learned about power” and “their place in the power structure” (Trites 2000: x). The ways in which girl protagonists negotiate gendered tensions and power structures in fiction will help to reconceptualise our understanding of young adult texts, their readers, and the publishing industry in the digital age.

Panel 5: Performing the heroine

Dr Jodi McAlister – Heroine chic: making over the heroine of young adult fantasy fiction

Fantasy has played an important generic role in children’s literature. Works by authors like CS Lewis, Susan Cooper,and Ursula K. Le Guin are among foundational twentieth century texts, and with the emergence of middle grade and young adult blockbusters like the Harry Potter series (1997-2007) and the Twilight saga (2005-2008) saw fantastical fiction for young people become a global, boundary-crossing phenomenon.

This paper will trace the history of one particular figure in fantasy fiction for young people in the twenty-first century: the heroine. After widespread criticism of heroine Bella in the Twilight saga, I argue that the young adult fantasy heroine has undergone something of an identity crisis, and is constantly in the process of being made over. Examining works by Richelle Mead, Sarah J. Maas, and Holly Black (among others), I will identify key textual and paratextual trends in the representation of the fantasy heroine, as well as examining how her representation changes depending on the type of fantasy fiction she appears in(drawing on work by Farah Mendlesohn). I will also reflect on the thought processes behind and the creative decisions I made in representing my own fantastical heroine: Pearl Linford in the Valentine series (2017-).

Erina Reddan – Blood and Ball Gowns: The girl warrior and the problem of femininity in recent young adult literature

Blood and Ball Gowns focuses on the signifiers of ball gowns and other feminising tropes as significant boundaries to be negotiated by girl warriors in recent young adult literature. The girl warrior appears to capitalise on, and embody female empowerment, occupying the agentic protagonist role, but at the same time must navigate significant constraints on that agency.

My paper examines transformational narrative moments in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy and other series for the limitations and opportunities they offer girl warriors in conforming to or resisting gender expectations, and how this informs a response to power and authority.

Elspeth La Morte – Weaponizing feminine performance in genre YA

In Gender Trouble (1989), Butler observes that “the female body that [Kristeva] seeks to express [is] a construct produced by the very law it is supposed to undermine,” positioning the role of feminine performance as a product of a patriarchal system. The role of women in fiction has frequently been defined by individual success or failure at committing to the feminine role. This pattern shows prevalence in the fairy tale ‘Snow White’, in which ‘beauty’ and femininity are alternatively framed as virtuous or evil, as well as continuing to appear in recent fiction.Though popular YA fiction centre trends of more active and aggressive heroines– in the vein of Katniss Everdeen – some examples of recent texts use feminine performance as a tool that either submits to or attempts to undermine the structures to which women often belong. This paper will examine the use of weaponised femininity in two recent young adult fantasy novels: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C Dao, and The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, with acknowledgement of previous works such as Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, and Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy. It will explore the connection between feminine performance as both defiance and product of patriarchal systems, as well as how these texts use feminine beauty to further their narrative goals.

Panel 6: Identities in fractured worlds

Emma Whatman – Understanding postfeminist girlhood through Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles

In the twenty-first century girlhood is firmly situated in a postfeminist era. This is particularly prevalent in Western society and signals a shift in how femininity is understood and represented. Discourses of postfeminism can be both problematic and productive, and a key site where they are produced is in popular media for young women. To elucidate how different elements of postfeminism are conveyed to young women, I analyse the fairy-tale young adult novel series The Lunar Chronicles (Meyer 2012-2015).

Through positive elements of postfeminism, such as agency, posthumanism, and homosocial bonds, this paper highlights how The Lunar Chronicles offers young female readers the opportunity to see female protagonists who are active, powerful and in control, especially in contrast to the passive damsels of many earlier representations of femininity in young adult literature. However, my analysis demonstrates that despite this focus on active girl agency and progressive posthumanist themes,the series promotes problematic postfeminist discourses that emphasise patriarchal notions of the female body where it must be desired, scrutinised and policed; and links between beauty and power. In conjunction with such representations, intertextual references to traditional versions of Cinderella leave implied girl readers with problematic representations of feminine identity that require female agency to be forfeited so that patriarchal institutions such as heteronormativity and marriage can be achieved.

Through analysing The Lunar Chronicles,this paper highlights the tensions of postfeminist girlhood, and how female teen readers are positioned in relation to it.

SamanthaPoulos – “Choose wisely, little girl” – Divergent and choice feminism

Choice feminism, a term coined by Linda Hirshman, is a mode of feminism that is centred on women’s individual choices. It centres the very act of choice, rather than the content of the choice, as an autonomously feminist and rebellious act. However, we cannot uncritically accept the language of choice and autonomy as fundamentals of contemporary feminism; these notions are tied to an inherently postfeminist and neoliberal position. Choice feminism individualises and personalises feminist acts and in focussing on the individual there is no space for criticism or for generating greater social change.

This paper will seek to understand the relationship between gender, identity, and choice feminism as they play out in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. The world of the Divergent series prioritises the language and idea of choice as essential to the construction of identity and autonomy. Tris’ journey as a rebel is tied to her choices to form a rebellious dauntless identity, and later embrace her divergent identity. By problematising “choice” feminist rhetoric and questioning the nature of choice as presented in popular young adult fiction the way identity is being constructed and performed can be critiqued and understood.

Ally Wolfe – Misbegotten youth: YA dystopias and Queer theory 

Young Adult fiction is having a dystopian moment: exploring a future that faces destruction. Dystopian literature explores a time where hard choices must be made. YA dystopian literature does so with teenagers at the fore, serving on the front lines of these futures, preoccupied with solving the problems of their harsh societies, with limited options. Queer theory’s interest in fictional children, applied to these protagonists, complicates matters further. By reading it through a queer theory lens we gain an understanding of the futures we expect young adults to believe in. Children are yet to bridge the gap from a growing youth to a more rigid adulthood. This interface between YA dystopian works and Queer Theory allows us to examine Young Adult protagonists that disrupt the future as it is “meant” to play out. This paper will discuss works in which children are compelled to fight other children and adults in order to achieve the goals of adults and explore two different understandings of the future.

The Hunger Games trilogy (2008- 2010) by Suzanne Collins has Katniss fulfil the cycle of reproduction in her epilogue, continuing a reproductive future in which our protagonist has had children in a better future. On the other hand, Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles(1987-2015), does not so closely follow this pattern of reward and continuation of the future through procreation. By considering child protagonists in dystopian societies, we trouble the idea of the innocent child and bring the legal strangeness of this category to trial. This paper will look at the endings of these works, and see how they trouble or bring about a recursive, unending future.

Panel 7: Queer kids

Nicole Field – Intersex and identity in teen novels

This paper will focus on the problems of gender and identity facing intersex teens and, less directly, their families. Young adult novels Golden Boy, Alex as Well and None of the Above (all published between 2013 and 2015 in America, Australia and England) intuit important narratives on the psychological ramifications of gender assignment in the relative absence of informed research and accounts. My interests are in both the similarities in which all three address the subject of intersex teens in fiction. Golden Boy addresses gender and identity from the points of view of a teenage boy also assigned male at birth, who is the stereotypical star of a school sports team. Alex as Well has a main character who is first introduced as a teenage girl and we only realise later that she was assigned male at birth. Finally, None of the Above, shows Kristen as the popular girl on an athletics scholarship who’s assigned female at birth and has the information that she’s intersex leaked to her school. This leads to questions from the wider community as to which parts of her gender and identity matter when it comes to continuing to compete in sports.

Dr Kelly Gardiner – Tomboys: Performing gender in popular fiction

In the nineteenth century, new characters exploded onto the pages of popular novels: forthright, self-reliant and self-awareg irls, who became known as tomboys. Like Jo March storming through the pages of Little Women, these brave and boisterous young women charmed and astonished readers, and profoundly influenced generations of girls.

This paper examines the impact of the tomboy in literature; its confluence with other, older, archetypes such as the cross-dressing warrior maid; and its development alongside other proto-feminist heroines of the nineteenth century – the Female Gentleman and the Plucky Girl.

The paper interrogates not only the character traits of fictional tomboys, but also the narrative arcs and tropes with which they were often associated, such as the Tamed Tomboy who, like Jo March, comes to learn the real meaning of womanhood as defined through her mother and sisters, in marriage; and the Incorrigible Tomboy, like George in The Famous Five books, who resists all efforts to treat her ‘like a girl’.

It explores the continued relevance of these famous nineteenth and twentieth century tomboys, whose performances of gender and sexuality echo in recent fiction for children and young adults through new tomboys, but also characters such as the genderfluid Micah in Justine Larbelestier’s Liar, or overtly queer heroines like Kaede in Malinda Lo’s Huntress.

What has the tomboy in literature meant to 21st century understandings of gender performativity? And, importantly, what stories about gender – what possible lives – do these characters construct for the young women who read them?

See abstracts for Day One: 6 December 2018.

Read the full programme.