CFP Due 1 Mar 2020

The Ethical Turn in Children’s Literature and Childhood Studies (MLA 2021)

This non-guaranteed session sponsored by the Children’s Literature Association names and reflects on a recent shift in the fields of Children’s Literature and Childhood Studies toward questions of ethics regarding children and the effects of categories of age, both present and historical. At its heart, this is a shift away from the exclusive focus on cultural ideas about the child in the work of scholars like Jacqueline Rose and Karín Lesnik-Obserstein toward scholarly work that also considers the lives, texts, and matter of actual children. The turn toward ethics in the field does not represent a pre-Rose orientation toward texts and culture or a return to questions that reconstruct a passive child, like “Is this book good for children?” And yet, this session sees the ethical turn not as a departure from Rose so much as an elaboration of the stakes of deconstruction and critical analysis, work that fields like Critical Race Studies, Queer Theory, and Disability Studies bring to the center of their intellectual practices. After all, what is the purpose of rethinking the category child if not to imagine a better world, a better way of seeing and relating to the people who are called children? These questions are concerned not only with how adults might relate to children, but also with how theorizing ethical relationality through the figure of the child allows us to rethink the ethics of relationality with all human and non-human others. 

Speaking about the deconstructive trends of the 1990s and 2000s, Marah Gubar asks, “Why have so many of us working in childhood studies been content to dispose, not propose?” Noting many scholars like Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Robin Bernstein, and sociologist Alan Prout, who have implicit theories producing childhood in their work, she proposes an ethical “kinship-model approach” that stresses the similarities between adults and children and involves a “perspectival shift” in which adults are no longer assumed to represent the norm. Recent scholarship in the fields of Children’s Literature and Childhood Studies likewise illustrates the types of constructive, imaginative, and world-making work that comes after deconstruction. The essays collected in the 2013 The Children’s Table: Childhood Studies and the Humanities, along with the work in the recent special issues WSQ “Child” in 2015 and GLQ “The Child Now” in 2017 speak to the growing importance and recognition of this work. Likewise, the 2019 Children’s Literature Association Annual Conference theme “Activism and Empathy” featured many papers with explicitly ethical stakes and goals. In many ways, our field has never been far from ethical concerns in the first place.  

Papers submitted for this session might articulate critical methodologies in Childhood Studies or the field of Children’s Literature today, further historicize this key shift in the field toward questions of ethics and their stakes in the lives of actual children, theorize ethics of relationality in the present or historical context of categories of age more broadly, and/or examine children’s and adolescent literature and other cultural forms that deploy ethical (and unethical) practices and principles in the past or present. This list is not exhaustive, and any paper connected to questions of ethics in the fields of Children’s Literature or Childhood Studies will be considered.

Please submit a 500 word abstract and a 2-page CV to by March 1, 2020. 

Dr. Gabrielle (Brie) Owen
University of Nebraska-Lincoln