Responding to the constructions of age in children’s literature : an intergenerational approach
Age is one of the most fundamental identity markers that humans use to categorize people. Yet, compared with other traits like race and gender, little attention is paid to the messages and prejudices about age that are present in fiction. In that respect, children’s literature is particularly interesting. It is one of the first forms of fiction that we are exposed to and tends to contain characters of a broad range of ages. These characters also often explicitly reflect about topics such as growing up, or what it means to be a child or adult. Additionally, reader response critics have long remarked that the age of the reader is an important determining factor in how a reader gives meaning to literature. This PhD-thesis combines these insights by empirically exploring how the age of the real reader affects the understanding of age in literature for young readers. To answer this research question, I conducted a series of individual interviews and focus group conversations with 51 readers between 9 and 79 years old. Each reader received and read a children’s book, and participated in an individual interview about that book. During this individual interview we discussed readers’ own age and their view on age in the children’s book they read. Some of these readers then joined a focus group conversation in which they discussed their view on age in the book with a group of readers of different ages. The analysis highlights – among other topics – how readers reflected about innocence, wisdom, fantasy, empathy, shame and childhood memories to give meaning to their own age and the age of characters. For instance, younger readers showed remarkable insight into adult perceptions of children, admitting that they sometimes act more innocent than they are, to escape punishment for bad behaviour. Additionally, some characters that were perceived as exceptionally wise by adult readers were deemed naïve by teenage and early-adult readers. Readers also shared complex childhood memories that sometimes engendered empathy with (child) characters, and sometimes hampered empathy. Finally, readers’ participation often took place in an intergenerational context that added further depth to the data. For instance, young readers always participated with their parents close by, while the oldest readers sometimes needed help from young relatives to be able to participate in the first place.
Antwerp : University of Antwerp, Faculty of Arts, Department of Literature , 2023
Supervisor: Joosen, Vanessa [Supervisor]
Supervisor: Simons, Mathea [Supervisor]
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Creation 10.01.2024
Last edited 20.01.2024
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