Literary Studies, Cultural Studies, Children’s Literature, and the Case of Jeff Smith

Authored by: Roderick McGillis

Handbook of Research on Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Print publication date:  October  2010
Online publication date:  April  2011

Print ISBN: 9780415965057
eBook ISBN: 9780203843543
Adobe ISBN: 9781136913570


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It has been nearly 40 years since children’s literature courses began appearing as regular offerings in English departments, but their status there is not unchallenged. Noted Canadian literary scholar Roderick McGillis situates the development of children’s literature studies within the changing landscape of cultural studies that has redefined the missions of many English departments. He argues that children’s literature’s challenge to the academic orthodoxy of what constitutes literary art participates in the reinvigoration of the discipline through expanding notions of textuality. In particular, he focuses on Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Jeff Smith’s Bone, both groundbreaking graphic novels, as exemplars of “cultural studies at work.” This discussion is aptly followed with commentary by Smith himself and his curators, David Filipi and Lucy Shelton Caswell, who demonstrate some of the innovative ways this cultural work becomes available for study.

a vague and baggy monster, Cultural Studies…

(Williams, 1989, p. 158)
I have thought for a long time now that English departments were about to go the way of departments of Classics; they will not disappear, but they will shrink and move to the periphery of important scholarly activity (Deresiewicz, 2008). I see the beginnings in my own university where retention rates for first year students are worst in the Faculty of Humanities, while another faculty, Communication and Culture, grows yearly. Traditional literary studies began to look quaint and rarified at least 20 years ago, although the signs of its fading prestige were apparent in the 1960s. One obvious indication of things to come was Leslie Fielder’s Playboy article in December 1969, “Crossing the Border, Closing the Gap,” and the creation of the Popular Culture Association in the 1970s. By the time the 1980s rolled in, we were on the verge of the so-called “canon wars,” and English departments felt compelled to offer courses in a variety of non-canonical subjects such as fantasy and science fiction, detective fiction, and children’s literature.

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