Pretty girls & brave boys. Fiction and the real world in children's literature

Main Lecture Theatre - Arts Building - University of Birmingham
Friday 5 April 2019 (09:00-17:00)

GLARE Symposium on April 5, 2019

The aim of GLARE is to investigate to relationship between the representation of gender in fiction and the real world. This requires an interdisciplinary approach, so our symposium features talks by distinguished speakers from a range of disciplines.


  • 09.00 – 09.15 Welcome
  • 09.15 – 10.15 Professor Maria Nikolajeva (University of Cambridge) Embodiment, emplacement and empathy in children’s literature
  • 10.15 – 10.45 Coffee break
  • 10.45 – 11.45 Professor Wolfgang Teubert (University of Birmingham) Learning when to cry: the construction of emotion in children’s literature
  • 11.45 – 12.45 Professor Heather Widdows (University of Birmingham) Beautiful Girls are Good Girls
  • Lunch 
  • 13.45 – 14.45 Professor Peter Stockwell (University of Nottingham) Can children read irony? A cautionary tale
  • 14.45 – 15.45 Professor Kiera Vaclavik (Queen Mary University) Alice is a Boy
  • 15.45 – 16.15 Coffee break
  • 16.15 – 17.15 Dr Anna Cermakova  and Professor Michaela Mahlberg (University of Birmingham) GLARE – taking a look at ‘wicked witches’ and ‘wise wizards’ and the company they keep

Evening programme

After a full day of food for thought, there will be a glass of wine and an opportunity to discuss the topics further. The evening will end with a literary  reading which will be performed by Dr Caroline Radcliffe, Scarlett Warrington and Patrick Hannawin. The evening programme will be held at Westmere (G15 on the campus map).

  • 17.30 – 19.00 Reading & wine reception


Please register at:

Speaker biographies

Professor Nikolajeva and Professor Vaclavik are both experts in children’s literature. Professor Nikolajeva’s research interest currently lies in cognitive poetics and its integration with the field of children’s literature - a research theme that is of particular interest to the GLARE project. Professor Vaclavik, who is also on the GLARE Advisory Board, is interested in children’s literature and culture in a wider sense with the aim of creating a dialogue between these fields and other areas, including the creative industries.

Professor Peter Stockwell is a world-leading researcher in cognitive poetics, literary linguistics and stylistics. Professor Teubert, who is also on the GLARE Advisory Board, will approach the topic from the perspective of a corpus linguist and discourse analyst.

Finally, Professor Heather Widdows, Professor of Global Ethics and a member of the GLARE Advisory Board, addresses beauty as an ethical question. She is also coordinating a very wide network of researchers who focus on ‘beauty’, with a very active blog, to which GLARE contributed in December 2017. 


Professor Maria Nikolajeva

Embodiment, emplacement and empathy in children’s literature

Mikhail Bakhtin's comprehensive theory of the novel repeatedly emphasises that fictional characters inescapably exist within fictional space and time, or the chronotope. The rapidly expanding field of cognitive literary studies has recently paid particular attention to embodied cognition, that is, the ways fiction stimulates readers' cognitive-affective responses to fictional characters’ subjective perception of their physical experience, including their sense of spatiality. In my talk I will use short passages from children’s novels to demonstrate how representations of characters' sensory perception of space and place potentially impact readers’ engagement with the character, taking into consideration young people's limited experience of the real world. This close-reading method goes beyond mind-modelling, since the focus is less on interiority and more on the tokens of characters’ physical interaction with space. In the analysis, I will pay attention to the characters' gender to explore whether male and female characters' emplacement is conveyed differently and by different narrative means. 

Professor Wolfgang Teubert

Learning when to cry: the construction of emotion in children's literature

On March 13, 2017, the Washington Post featured an article by Sarah Hamaker: “How to help your child cope with tears that come too easily.” Crying may be natural for toddlers, but once a child is ready for kindergarten, it becomes a cultural issue. The child will have to learn the rules. The GLARE project gives us the unique opportunity to discover them. When is it appropriate to cry? There is a long list of parameters, including age, gender, class, cause, private/public. Parents will, of course, pass on to their offspring the cultural norms they themselves have inculcated. But children are not stupid. They will compare what their parents say to what their peers do, and they will see that these norms are not at all as generally accepted as their parents want to make them believe.

In our western cultures, we find everywhere a strong conviction that something must be true if it is written. So children will pick up consciously or subconsciously what is said about shedding tears in the stories they read or that are read to them. There they will find their heroes or heroines, and they will want to emulate their behaviour. Authors of children’s literature in the Victorian Age were, I believe, more aware of the educational role they thought they had to play than authors today. So if we want to find out how children learned when to cry and when to suppress the urge, we have to look at the ChiLit corpus. I will present some findings from a very small variety of books.

Crying can be an expression of a range of emotions. But what are our emotions? To which extent are they natural, as many of us believe, and to which extent are they constructs of the discourse community to which we belong? How does our culture of shedding tears in specified circumstances evolve? Where have the authors of children’s books found the norms they describe? Did they learn them from their parents, from the novels they have read, or from the way they have experienced how people behave?  We first have to analyse the textual evidence we find in the children’s stories, before we can discuss what they tell us in response to our wider questions.

Professor Kiera Vaclavik

Alice is a Boy

Just over a century and a half after her first appearance in print, Carroll’s Alice is today widely regarded as an icon of femininity. Yet attendance to Alice’s visual identity and performance history via a range of source materials, from memoirs and magazines to photographs and periodicals, reveals the key elements of gender neutrality at the heart of her portrayal, as well as the widespread occupation of the role by members of both sexes, young and old, in both public and private spheres. The casting of men and boys as Alice was frequently undertaken for the purposes of satire and ridicule. Yet well into the twentieth century, it was also undertaken ‘straight’- i.e. in a spirit of faithful reproduction. This paper looks at some of the many instances of gender instability within the Alice texts, before examining a selection of examples of the boy Alice phenomenon in order to reflect upon issues of universality and freedom, one-to-one correspondence and constraint. I will argue that tracing role reversal in the context of Alice’s afterlife effectively challenges grand narratives of progress and turns standard conceptions of present and past on their head.

Dr Anna Cermakova and Professor Michaela Mahlberg

GLARE – wicked witches, wise wizards and the company they keep

Fiction and the real world are linked in many ways. In children’s books, fictional worlds are not just aimed at young audiences, children’s books are an important formative resource. Reading fiction is a good way to practice literacy skills, fiction provides children with role models and has the potential to improve wellbeing. With the GLARE project, we have been approaching fictional worlds in children’s books through the lens of gender. In this talk we will show how children’s literature presents a gendered picture of the social structures that are inhabited by fictional characters. Fictional worlds are social spaces that create norms against which readers will assess individual characters. To identify such norms, a range of factors has to be taken into account, e.g. repeated linguistic patterns, meaningful absences, the status of texts as part of the canon. Our methodological framework is based on corpus linguistics, but situated within the wider context of the digital humanities.  We will present a range of examples from the cast in children’s literature including witches and wizards as well as mothers and fathers. We will show how both distant and close reading is crucial to identify the different gendered layers of society that ultimately link up with our real world experiences.

Professor Michaela Mahlberg and Dr Anna Cermakova are looking forward to welcoming you to the event.