Lauren Christie began her PhD in English at the University of Dundee in January 2017 under the supervision of Dr Daniel Cook, an expert on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. Lauren recently received the Jacqueline M. Albers Guest Scholar in Children’s Literature Fellowship at Kent State University. Her research examines the relationship between the history of the Gothic novel and children’s literature.
Read Lauren’s report…
My time immersed in the rich and diverse collection at the Reinberger Children’s Library Centre was both enlightening and crucial to my research. My thesis, titled ‘Rewriting the Gothic tradition’, explores the evolution of the genre from the nineteenth century, with a specific focus on the more sinister elements in children’s and young adult literature. My research will, through a reassessment of early literary examples, argue that there has always been a prevalent collaboration between Gothic and children’s fiction, and that this exposure to fear is a healthy, natural stage in growing up. We currently live in an age that is consumed by technology, with children gravitating away from reading as a source of entertainment. In order to help boost collective literacy rates we need to be doing everything possible to ensure the publishing industry continues to attract or maintain this young readership. My time as an Alber’s fellow enabled me to further my exploration of this field by pinpointing literary examples from the early nineteenth century, which was heavily influenced by the Gothic genre. Tracking the traditional elements of this collaboration will allow us to consider what can be done in the future to maintain popularity, and whether or not this style of literature has changed.
The diverse collection within the Reinberger centre enabled me to focus on the evolution of the fairy tale, and how key texts have been modified over the centuries reflecting what different generations deem acceptable. I narrowed this focus to the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Exploring so many different versions of these tales enabled me to further appreciate how generations and societies evolve over time. One particular area of interest is the modern appreciation of fairy tales, and of the development of the genre as a whole. Virginia Haviland describes one of the primary distinctions to be made between tales of past and present: ‘We may create tales of imagination and fantasy, but they are not fairy tales. The fairy tale and the folk tale take place in the real world […] we who are manacled by a belief in progress […] prefer to escape into fantasy, into worlds that are safe because they never have existed and never will.’ Pinpointing the evolution and understanding of the fairy tale, this critic theorises the decline of this art. For as long as society continues to be ‘manacled’ by certainty and belief, it will never be able to recreate the enchantment of the fairy tale world.
Examining the illustrations present in each tale enabled me to broaden my research into the differing interpretations of original texts. Illustrations frame the tone of the story, and in the case of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, this tone varies tremendously. The ability to compare and contrast so many different versions of the same set of tales furthered my research into societal acceptance of literature that can be considered sinister. This scope varies from the abstract work of Sendak, the contemporary and sinister work of Gris Grimly, the child-friendly illustrations from Wanda Gag, and versions that host paintings from children all over the world. Every slight modification in the accompanying illustration makes a different statement about the fairy tale.
Having access to a wide collection of pop-up books enabled me to explore a format that is traditionally aimed at an early-years audience, despite the frequent inclusion of Gothic themes. I found this format particularly interesting due to the fact pop-up books normally appeal to a much younger audience through vibrant colours and text. It is evident that for generations society has been introducing children to monsters and other sinister creatures from an extremely young age. Certain books that adhere to this point were Goblins (Brian Froud) Monster Talk (Nicholas Tulloch) and the Horrible Book (Wayne Anderson). Each book introduces children to stereotypical monsters, but in a child-friendly text and format. Goblins focuses on a brother who is immersed in the imaginary world, and his scientific sister; this book pinpoints the fact that the sister is unable to witness any of the goblins which surround them due to the fact she is grounded by scientific reason. Meanwhile, the Horrible Book allows children to further their natural curiosity; it is not until the conclusion that the monster is finally revealed.
Furthering the consideration of target audience, I encountered pop-up versions of Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and a book of phobias. Due to the bibliotherapeutic nature of the book of phobias, and the translation of a mainstream horror writer into this format, this collection has heightened my interest. I am now considering the motivation for creating pop-up books for adults, the impact this has on the terror of the audience, and whether or not the text loses any meaning through the transition to pop-up.
The main question I intend to add to my argument – and that was not on my radar prior to this visit – is the reason behind the inclusion of Gothic themes in early-development literature. Why is it that we force books full of monsters and ghosts onto children during their younger years, yet take them away when they enter middle school and begin to independently choose their own literature? If a child is capable of independently choosing reading material at this age, surely they are more than qualified to voice their concerns if the subject matter is too traumatising.
In summary, I cannot emphasise enough the value of my time at the Reinberger centre both in terms of developing my research argument and furthering my knowledge in the subject. The warm reception received from staff, and the overwhelming nature of the collection, was not like anything I have previously experienced. It has been a vital part of my development as a scholar. I cannot wait to revisit the collection for further research.