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30 November 2020

Covid Kids by Kiera Vaclavik

Kiera Vaclavik – Professor of Children’s Literature and Childhood Culture at Queen Mary, University of London – reflects on child-centred research during and post-pandemic and responds to Avni Doshi's 'Unfamiliar Creatures'—published as part of the Queen Mary Wasafiri Global Dispatches initiative, an essay series of exchanges and conversations between creative writers and academics.  As the Covid-19 pandemic ripped around the world, emptying schools and silencing playgrounds like a maleficent spell, it quickly became apparent that we were witnessing a widespread and abundant recourse to storytelling. Stories were being fashioned – often very rapidly and in response to a constantly changing situation – to help children fathom what was happening, to provide guidance and to reassure. This was occurring in the UK and beyond, in many different formats, and with varying levels of polish and professionalism. As the Centre for Childhood Culture’s discussion group went online, switching from monthly meetings in the noisy Senior Common Room at Queen Mary to fortnightly sessions in which we came together from the variable comforts of our own homes, one of our earliest endeavours was to gather instances of the multifarious materials being produced. Working online through the newly discovered MSTeams, we gained precious tools to share this material more easily with each other and keep a record of our discoveries. Another main focus was to attend to children’s responses to such materials and, more generally, to the opportunities children and young people themselves were getting to record their own experiences and emotions. It felt like we were researching together, live, in real time, and that our expertise could help fathom at least some of what was going on around us. This intellectual community and exchange was like a life-raft during a period when the usual patterns of research time shifted radically. Time sometimes felt suspended entirely, or dragged interminably, but in many ways everything suddenly speeded up: in a few short weeks a small team working in CCC – led by Rachel Bryant Davies – not only conceived a project to work on heroism and resilience in storytelling for young readers in the context of Covid-19, but wrote up and submitted funding applications, waited anxiously, got good news (and bad) and began delivery. One strand of the project is geared towards future research, making the documentation and sharing that had occurred within our group available to a wider audience. It is difficult to take the full measure of this ever-expanding corpus alongside its production, and when (if?) this is over, Lucie Glasheen’s work will mean that a resource is available which highlights what seem to be recurrent and important trends. Key themes currently include individual and collective heroism, time and temporality. This archive for future research is all the more important and urgent given that so much of the material has been self-published, and/or is circulating online for an amount of time impossible to predict. We are well attuned to the ephemerality of children’s literature and childhood culture more broadly, to the gaps where children’s voices and experiences once might have been, and so are acutely conscious that the traces of this important response to the pandemic are liable to otherwise evaporate. Alongside this strand of documentation and commentary is another research-based set of activities through which we too – in partnership with Storytime magazine – are producing new stories. Or, more accurately, we are repurposing very, very old stories so as to provide an oblique and thereby more effective way of addressing key aspects of the current situation. Stories from the past offer children a sense of continuity – of challenges overcome despite the odds – which can help them look more confidently ahead. Our mode of delivery is the already well established (but often overlooked) format of the magazine which, as Rachel Bryant Davies’ extensive research on Victorian works is revealing, can build communities, overcome isolation and make space for children’s voices. A series of magazine supplements under the banner ‘We Are Heroes’ being rolled out over the next six months combine richly illustrated bite-size retellings of classical myths alongside related educational, creative and playful activities. As well as embracing the possibilities of online presence and dissemination (so valuable for our research as outlined above), we have invested the lion’s share of our project budget in print distribution so as to reach children without ready access to the requisite equipment. The stories selected from classical myth are vehicles for exploring subjects ranging from experiences of lockdown and confinement to social reintegration, PPE, social distancing and infection control. Effective as they are in helping us make sense of our predicaments (as in the affectionate, knowing and nervous casting of one’s child as Mowgli), stories also have the power to unsettle and disturb. This is especially the case of the often highly sensitive and contentious material of classical myth. Fully cognisent of such risks, the material has been produced in consultation with a child psychologist, and the whole project subject to a thorough ethical review process. Anxiety – that other 21st century disease so effectively fed by Covid-19 – and so eloquently articulated by Avni Doshi in 'Unfamiliar Creatures', is, of course, not just the preserve of parents. Looking ahead to how we will conduct research in this area in the future, it’s clear that collaboration – bringing teams of scholars together, but also forging partnerships with companies, organisations and institutions beyond the academy – will both be key. Planned with care and delivered well, our research can be of real service to children as well as being about them. It can and should, moreover, be with them. The need to bring children themselves to the (research) table is much evoked and aspired to, but frequently – and reluctantly – passed over. Lengthy processes and red tape are often stymying in this field when time is so often of the essence. As Doshi reminds us, children’s shoes are quickly outgrown. The parental tightrope delineated by Doshi – the navigation of the fine line between excessive anxiety and proper attentiveness, of caring too much or not enough – is also something which researchers of children’s literature and childhood culture must confront. What are the risks of working with children, for them and us? Equally, what are the costs of non-involvement? Can we forge a shared research space which brings children and adults together without reproducing the claustrophobia, oppression and excesses of lockdown confinement? A space which recognises and absorbs not just what is said and done and offered up, but also the silences and non-responses… the casting off of shoes? If we can only find the energy through our fatigue and fugged-up brains, we might still radically reshape how we do things, might still bring good some of the many alternatives and possibilities that were glimpsed during lockdown. Kiera Vaclavik is Professor of Children’s Literature and Childhood Culture at Queen Mary, University of London and directs its interdisciplinary Centre for Childhood Cultures. Her work brings children’s literature studies into dialogue with other fields including classics and costume history, and regularly involves collaboration with high-profile organisations across the creative and cultural industries. Kiera’s research centres on children’s literature and childhood culture from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, with a particular focus on Victorian works and their afterlives. Her latest monograph, Fashioning Alice: The Career of Lewis Carroll’s Icon, 1860-1901, was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.  For further details on the research project, Childhood Heroes: storytelling survival strategies and role models of resilience to COVID-19, see here.
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