I had a fantastic time at this year’s IBBYuk/NCRCL conference, at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) near Waterloo station in London. As a first-year on the MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton, it was nothing short of inspiring to hear and see past and present students up on the stage in front of everyone, sharing fascinating insights into fairy tales both past and present.
The theme this year was Happily Ever After: The Evolution of Fairy Tales Across Time and Cultures. The conference was opened by Vanessa Joosen, a Roehampton alumnus and now Associate Professor at the University of Antwerp. Professor Joosen spoke about her interest in fairy tales and age studies, focusing on the role of women in past and more modern tales in her talk titled “Revising fairy tales, revising age? Matching fairy-tale studies with age studies”. Her thesis was that although we have broached the gender gap in many modern rewritings of tales, the age gap remains, particularly in terms of women’s roles with most women still cast as either jealous witches or demented hags. Joosen pointed out that aging is still seen as particularly bad in women, using Tangled‘s Mother Gothel as an example of someone who meets her demise in the pursuit of youth.
This was followed by a discussion with Hilary McKay and Deirdre Sullivan on their recently published books, Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales and Tangleweed and Brine respectively. These are tales rewritten from a feminist perspective and I am anxious to get stuck in to my (signed!) copies! This discussion cemented my academic interest in fairy tales and rewritten fairy tales, so I’m grateful to these two wonderful authors for the inspiration they have given me. Much of the discussion centred on the augmented levels of psychological complexity to be found in modern fairy tales, versus the fairly flat “originals”. I’m very keen on exploring whose psychologies are developed and why, and these books seem like a fantastic way into this expansive subject.
A particularly interesting (and loaded!) question came from the audience on male characters in modern rewritings – this is of real interest to me in the light of female-focussed tales, of which there seem recently to be many. I in no way wish to detract from the importance of women’s perspectives and representation in fairy tales, and the increased agency and independence that women need and are due – but I do think that failing to update male roles in tales is a potentially fatal mistake. I’m not saying Sullivan and McKay need to be doing this as it’s not a single author’s responsibility. But the negative impact of sexism on men, and how addressing sexism benefits not only women but men too, is a neglected area that someone should be looking into; and if no one else is, I will!
After a lunch laid on by the CLPE, Lisa Sainsbury of the NCRCL, ever full of vigour, and Pam Dix of IBBYuk updated us on the work that has been going on in their institutions, and I then attended one of three parallel sessions. I was sad to miss Kirsten Nott’s (also of Roehampton uni) talk on CGI in fairy tales, discussing modern film versions including Disney’s live-action Cinderella and, a personal favourite, Maleficent. Instead, I opted for Jennifer Duffy’s talk on Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine and Elizabeth Jacklin of the V&A, who talked us through possible fairy tale influences on Beatrix Potter’s work. I had no idea there was a Beatrix Potter collection at the V&A so, life permitting, I will be calling on Elizabeth shortly for an appointment (Squirrel Nutkin was my childhood spirit animal).
Jackie Morris then took us through the genesis of some of her work, and the importance to her of stories from other cultures such as the First People of America and the Inuit. This broached the tricky topic of cultural appropriation, as did the panel after Jackie’s talk, comprising of Beverly Naidoo, Jamila Gavin, Delaram Ghanimifard, and Sally Pomme Clayton.
Sally Pomme Clayton then closed the conference by telling us a Russian-inspired folk tale. I say ‘tell’ but perhaps ‘perform’ is better – Sally’s voice resonated throughout the dimly-lit hall as she channeled Vassili and Vassilisa, royal brother and sister caught up in a tale of love and desire, as well as the indomitable, green-skinned, tattooed, iron-fingernailed Baba Yaga, to the tune of cowbells and rattles. It was altogether an impressive and rousing end to a fantastic day.
As someone hopefully starting out on their academic career (two months into a three-year MA, so early days!) I was so happy to be surrounded by people who live and breathe literature and fairy tales, who have made it their life’s work to understand where these stories come from and were they are going. I didn’t quite know what to expect from the conference but I was overwhelmed by the energy of all involved and inspired by the many fellow Roehampton students I met, both past and present. I was especially impressed by Kirsten Notts, still studying towards her MA but up there presenting at a national conference – inspiration to all of us!
I’m already looking forward to next year’s event!