What a fabulous venue we had for the 2019 IRSCL congress: an elegant conference centre (a neo-classical building that formerly housed an elite grammar school) centrally situated in the magical city of Stockholm! Yes, magical. Any city with a magnificent gold room in their water’s-edge city hall, where they do the Nobel prize ceremony, counts as magical in my book – and that is before we even mention Astrid Lindgren or indeed Tove Janson.
The theme of silence and silencing, proposed by Åsa Warnqvist of the Swedish institute for Children’s Books, was a rich and many-layered one, and it elicited a fascinating range of responses and interpretations. The keynote speakers were truly inspiring – and I must make particular mention here of the first keynote speaker, Vanessa Joosen of Antwerp University, who gave a comprehensive overview of the development of thinking in the area of children’s literature, laying particular emphasis on positionality and affect, which fed directly into the concerns of the second keynote speaker, Temi Odumosu, of Malmö University, recently a Swedish citizen, outlined in her considered and moving address on the experience of people of colour. The theme of silence filtered out into the papers given in the numerous parallel sessions, which considered, for example, the censorship and suppression of children’s literature; silence and secrets as a theme in fiction; silence as a provocative narrative strategy, inviting the reader to fill in the unspoken. And more, much more …
At a huge congress like this, all one can do is scratch the surface of the myriad presentations and discussions, but anyone I spoke to was enthusiastic about the quality of the papers they heard and the discussions they generated. Hats off to the committee that waded through all the abstracts submitted, made judicious selections and teamed presenters up to create panels that cohered. They managed to ensure that promising young scholars got the opportunity to present their research, as well as giving participants the opportunity to hear from expert presenters such as (our own) Emer O’Sullivan, Evelyn Arizpe, Maria Nikolayeva … Some extra-academic voices were also heard (artists, publishers, practitioners of various kinds in the field of children’s books), giving additional texture to the experience for audiences.
Panels varied in style and tone as well as in content, and this variety afforded listeners breathing spaces, as different types of paper required different kinds of attention. Some sessions presented insight into what is going on or has gone on in the past in various parts of the world, while other panels provided focused studies on individual authors or texts or made more theoretical or generalised arguments. Panels that were convened as such by their participants (for example the Irish and Brazilian panels, and I am sure there were others) had the advantage that the presenters knew each other and each other’s work, and there were cross-references and echoes in the content that gave these sessions a special coherence, but panels thoughtfully formed by the organisers also sparked off each other as discussions developed. At the end of every session the conversations continued informally and cards and email addresses were exchanged as participants found interests in common or recognised that a relationship might flourish beyond the congress itself.
The Irish panel on ‘Silence, Censorship and Gatekeeping in Irish Children’s Literature’, convened by Jane O’Hanlon of Poetry Ireland, represented a wide range of interests within the Irish children’s literature community. Jane’s own paper looked at gender, Patrick Ryan focused on storytelling in schools, Siobhán Parkinson spoke about the challenges facing children’s publishing in Ireland, and Ciara Ní Bhroin gave an insightful account of the fiction of Siobhán Dowd. There were Irish contributors to other panels also. Hot off the plane on the first day of the congress, Kate Harvey of NUIG raised interesting questions regarding child agency and suppression in theatre for young audiences by looking at the Abbey Theatre’s ‘Priming the Canon’ series. Under the intriguing title ‘Secrets and Lies’ Siobhán Callaghan, a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin, gave a paper on the work of the Australian Children’s Laureate Morrs Gleitzman’s Once series entitled ‘Deceit and the child’s narrative voice’.
It is, I suppose, too subjective a judgement to declare this the best congress ever, but it certainly took the prize for being the most amazingly well organised, starting with super-fast, super-smooth and super-pleasant registration on the first morning. With five hundred participants, it was the biggest IRSCL congress ever, and with dozens of parallel sessions each day, it was remarkable that they all started lickety-split on time and, even more remarkably, ended on the button. This was due largely to the vigilance of the various session chairs, who kept a watch on the time, as well as the co-operation of the speakers. Special thanks are due also to the corps of volunteer “angels” who answered questions, found lost things and provided a “room host” for each session, who supported the session chairs and made sure that the inevitable technological wobbles were quickly and calmly resolved. The congress was organised by the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books, in collaboration with the Department of Culture, Languages and Media at Malmö University, , Department of Culture and Aesthetics at Stockholm University, and Faculty of Arts, Psychology and Theology at Åbo Akademi University, Finland. Quite a line-up!
Having started with the venue, I will end with a note on the food. Simple but tasty sit-down lunches laid on by the conference centre sustained delegates, and 500 people got fed every mid-day with no fuss. Evening events also featured food, especially a most delicious buffet at the city hall. And of course the congress ended with a smashing and convivial grand banquet. Stockholm is a city to be revisited.