Monday, 16 September 2013

IRSCL 2013 – Take Two


In her welcome note to delegates Lies Wesseling, conference convenor, draws the attention to the main focus of the event: ‘children’s literature within the dynamic ‘ecology’ of its adjacent media’ and states that its aim is to ‘illuminate not only the form and content of the artefacts under study, but also the behaviours of their producers and consumers, roles that are being radically redefined’.
And indeed, many studies referred to Jenkins’ seminal concept of a participatory culture, where producers’ and consumers’ roles are increasingly blurred and where the production and consumption of literature in its many forms influence each other. However, it was interesting to see in the debates that there is an increasing awareness of producers and consumers being lured and at the same time dominated by the affordances of the new media. Many delegates described how we at times lose sight of a main concern, which ‘isn’t what the media are doing to our children but rather what our children are doing with the media’ (Jenkins).
That is why many stimulating analyses of children’s book apps or e-books highlighted a contradiction: the majority of such digital forms of storytelling lags behind the experience a young reader might have when reading  a ‘traditional’ (picture)book, as was proven convincingly by Kristin Ørjasæter in the case of the Norwegian Stian Hole’s Gramann picturebook trilogy. Ørjasæter reported the fascinating story how the author/graphic designer/illustrator Hole actually gave up on the project of remediating his own picturebook series into apps, because he realized that these limit rather than enhance his reader’s understanding of his stories. Ørjasæter demonstrated how technology, as it is largely used to date, often pre-determines where the reader might ‘venture’. The conference underlined many “wreaders’” calls for apps of the 3.0 generation, which avoid exactly that and open up the reading experience by  creating reading paths  based on the concept of the semantic web. The semantic web here understood as providing ‘a more productive and intuitive user experience’. In close connection with such pleas were the concerns expressed by delegates that much of what children nowadays access as ‘new digital forms of storytelling’ are commercially produced and marketed outputs of globalized mass-media corporations that offer bland  and uniform rather than stimulating and individualised reading experiences.
Regarding trends in the field of children’s literature within ‘the dynamic ‘ecology’ of its adjacent media’, the conference offered more questions than answers. In my view it could only draw attention to the next big task of children’s literature research, which is to investigate how we tell stories and make meaning in the 21st century and which effect this has on the readers and producers of these stories. It was interesting to see that research today has not yet developed a terminology that captures what we can observe happening in cyberspace. To me this emphasizes that research is at a crossroads. Annette Wannamaker’s paper on born digital narratives (something more inventive and progressive than fan fiction) was a perfect example of cutting edge research that investigates e-literature for children created with multi-media platforms. Her presentation of the inanimate alice project as one of the few genuinely born digital participatory narratives for children was a plea for careful critical attention to such new forms. Wannamaker’s study pointed out the current paradigm shift that is leaving a number of scholars and educators behind due to the fact that such texts ‘little resemble the texts we are used to studying  – they are experimental, avant-garde, creative, postmodern […] works’.
This suggests that we have to look beyond the affordances of fast-changing media and search for common threads, recurring themes, and returning patterns but also develop an understanding of radical forms of expression in what constitutes the stories of our time, told with the media of our time. A large part of this new task of research is awareness-raising – also for the power of adaptation. As Jean Webb confirms, the focus on (emergent) literacies and the close links between children’s literature research, cultural and media studies as well as education has to be strengthened in order to stay in tune with what is happening with the objects of their research.

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