ChLA Conference 2021

14 of the 17 faculty, graduate students, and alumni who presented at the 2021 Children’s Literature Association (ChLA) Conference, 9-13 June 2021.

The Children’s Literature Association (ChLA) Conference looked a bit different for 2021, as Covid-19 continued to exercise its influence over professional events — and so did our annual group photo of faculty, students, and alumni who presented their research.

The familiar boxes of Zoom served as our virtual setting for the conference, allowing us to enjoy and contribute to five days of programming dedicated to literature and culture for young audiences.

This year’s K-State contingent to the annual conference totaled 17 in number — not quite our record (we had over 18 in 2018, with some smaller groups in 2019, 2017, and 2016, for instance), but a reflection of our program’s continuing contributions to the field.

For a glimpse into current research areas of children’s and young adult literature and culture, and into the scholarly work that K-State English supports and fosters, we offer below a brief description of the research presented at this year’s ChLA Conference by our faculty, students, and alumni.


Karin Westman, Department Head


Presentation Title: “The Kids Are All Right: Social Media as Therapeutic Space”

The key points of our presentation focus on both the increasing use of social media as a space for young people to express and work through trauma, and the larger consequence of this use as a mechanism for breaking down taboos around discussions of mental health. We focus on indigenous tiktok, specifically the missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, and two spirit individuals movement, to outline what these interventions look like. We discuss individual testimony, the stitching or dueting of videos to build community, and finally the globalization of the movement and moments in which MMIWG2P reaches out to other movements such as Black Lives Matter and queer equality movements.

Sara Austin (MA ’12), with co-author Hayley Stefan

Presentation Title: “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Narrative: Semiotic Scaffolding in Mo Willem’s Media”

As technology allows media corporations to push the boundaries of children’s narratives, so has technology pushed scholars to keep up with the multitude of mediums that carry these narratives. In the forefront of digital media scholarship in children’s literature, Helene Hoyrup theorizes a connective ethnography for scholarship that tracks the transference of narrative between each medium. For this analysis, I applied semiotic theory to the multimodal works of children’s author Mo Willems. His book Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus was published in 2003, and Willems has adapted the story into multiple different mediums, including a phone application, museum exhibit, website, and toys, all furthering the narrative and making it accessible to wide audiences. I focused on the original picture book as well as the app, Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App! (current iteration copyrighted in 2017). I am especially interested in the ways Hoyrup’s “interactive affordances” are created or hindered in each of these mediums. Ultimately, I argue that although the interactive app’s gameplay elements create an initial sense of active participation in the narrative, unless the user has an established system knowledge, the medium of the book provides more interactive affordances.

— Alexis (Lexi) Bedell (MA ’21)

From The 100 (S1, E1: “Pilot”)

Presentation Title:  “’This is how we survive get to peace’: Ecocriticism and Reparative Justice in The 100

In examining the CW show The 100 through an ecological justice lens, we argue that while the characters continually claim that peace is a prerequisite for restorative justice, the show points instead to restorative justice as the path to peace. We discuss the arcs of two female leaders, Clarke Griffin and Octavia Blake, to demonstrate how their attempts at restorative justice are framed as successes while their inevitable return to retribution and revenge are framed as failures. We also examine the final season’s introduction of “transcendence” as an unsatisfactory answer to the questions about justice, peace, and the ground posed by the series. Ultimately, we claim that the show does not live up to its potential or its own mandate to “do better” when it comes to crafting collaborative, ecologically-minded, and restorative justice.

Jamie Bienhoff (BA ’16, MA ’18) and Mandy Moore (MA ’18)

Presentation Title: “The Bigger Picture: The Representation of Female Characters in Jim Kay’s Illustrated Harry Potter Books”

The Harry Potter series has found massive commercial success and has gained the attention of scholars and critics in the fields of feminist studies, animal studies, trauma studies, children’s literature, queer studies, and, now, Scholastic has opened the series to a new field of study: illustrations. Using picturebook codes from scholars William Moebius and Molly Bang can help us recognize how illustrative choices can subconsciously attribute different characteristics to a character. While only the first 4 illustrated Harry Potter books have been published as of today, a pattern of “missing” or “diminished” women is already emerging in Kay’s work. Despite being part of Rowling’s “Golden Trio,” Hermione is featured in fewer illustrations than Harry or Ron, and there are other times when she is omitted completely, receiving only 16 illustrations to Ron’s 20 and Harry’s 53. In this presentation, I focus primarily on Jim Kay’s depiction of — and, sometimes, lack thereof — Hermione Granger in the recent illustrated Harry Potter books, arguing that Kay’s portrayal of Hermione diminishes or removes Hermione’s active role in the novels and reinvents her as a passive, codependent character.

Katie Cline (MA ’20)

Presentation Title: “Behind Blue Eyes:  How P. Craig Russell’s Graphic Narrative turns Lois Lowry’s The Giver into an Emotional Masterpiece”

As a recent MA graduate from Kansas State University, and a current middle school Language Arts teacher, I hope to inspire teachers to incorporate more graphic narratives into their curriculum.  In this essay, I provide a foundational framework for academics to use when considering graphic novel adaptations through a close reading of P. Craig Russell’s 2019 adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Newbery-winning novel The Giver. Using graphic narrative theories and picture book codes such as the effects of color, the use of cross-hatching, and an examination of the braiding technique, I examine the way that this graphic adaptation focuses on The Giver and Jonas’s relationship as the emotional heart of the text.

— Rachael Cox (MA ’21)

Presentation Title: “‘The Music and the Call Must Be for Us’: Wanderlust in The Wind in the Willows

I shared my theory of wanderlust as applied to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows–a condensed version of my master’s writing project. Wanderlust has been overlooked in scholarship surrounding Grahame’s text and deserves more attention. It is a type of longing rooted in pain that, when pursued may bring individuals to an encounter of the beautiful, the sublime, or the divine. I first provided the definition and philosophical roots of wanderlust and then discussed its presence or absence and overall influence in the lives of Mole, Rat, and Toad.

— Katherine Dubke (MA ’21)

Presentation Title: “Invincible Nina: Cornelia Meigs, Louisa May Alcott, and Depression-Era Feminism”

In our essay, which appears in the forthcoming volume about forgotten Newbery recipients, we trace the ways that Cornelia Meigs was poised to win the 1934 award for her biography of Louisa May Alcott. Offering close attention to Meigs’s position within the field and her connections to the leading “influencers” who served as the gatekeepers of American children’s literature, we also provide a close reading and analysis of the biography, Invincible Louisa.

Greg Eiselein, Professor, and Anne Phillips, Professor

Presentation Title: Panelist, “Disability Justice Roundtable”

M. Roxana Loza (MA ’17)

Presentation Title: “Public Spaces in Multicultural Picture Books”

In this paper, I focused on different representations of the setting in Last Stop on Market Street (2015) by Matt de la Peña and Milo Imagines the World (2021) by Christian Robinson and explored the portrayal of public places and in particular examples of habitus, in picture books.

Taraneh Matloob Haghanikar (MA ’11)

Presentation Title: “YA Fantasy and Rape Culture: The Case of Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road

In my presentation, I considered Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road (2018) as a case study in the opportunities (if also the limitations) presented by using young adult fantasy for depicting sexual assault and rape culture. Hartman uses the imagined spaces of an alternative world to: create a nuanced portrayal of a young woman’s sexual assault that subverts problematic rape scripts; critique the rape culture at play that allowed it to happen; and imagine a space in which Tess can both recover from the trauma of her assault and move beyond it. Ultimately, I argue that Tess of the Road demonstrates both the potential for complex engagement with rape and rape culture in YA fantasy and the genre’s investment in the issues #MeToo represents.

Corinne Matthews (MA ’17)

Presentation Title: “Queering Nature for Kids in The Tea Dragon Society by Kay O’Neill”

The Tea Dragon Society (2017) and The Tea Dragon Festival (2019) by Kay O’Neill introduce the reader to a whimsical cast of characters who care for small domestic dragons that grow magic tea when tended carefully and patiently. O’Neill’s website refers to their style as “gentle fantasy slice-of-life” and these stories are accordingly very peaceful with very little conflict. Unlike many traditional children’s books that feature quiet pastoral themes, relationships with animals, and so-called simpler times, The Tea Dragon Society and The Tea Dragon Festival are unapologetically queer from start to finish, both in the sense of sexuality and the queering of boundaries. As a result, O’Neill’s tea dragon books are unusual and refreshing manifestations of queer ecology. Instead of demonstrating the stagnation or danger of queerness, the association with animals and children and agricultural growth fixes these concepts as part of a traditional romantic landscape, and completely, beautifully natural.

Emily Midkiff (MA ’12)

Presentation Title: “An Adult in a Childlike Body: The Kidult in Detective Pikachu

In this paper, I demonstrate how Detective Pikachu (2019) reimagines Pokémon’s most iconic character—Pikachu—as a kidult hybrid who exhibits traits of both childhood and adulthood. The character of Detective Pikachu combines the consciousness of an adult human—Harry Goodman—with the body of a Pikachu, who other characters treat like a child (e.g., carrying him and talking down to him). Using Simon May’s theorization about the Uncanny Cute, I argue that Cuteness is not the way we can see the childlike nature of Pikachu but rather a part, a sign, maybe even a symptom of Detective Pikachu’s kidultness. After establishing the Uncanny Cute kidult character, Detective Pikachu demonstrates the cultural ramifications of being an uncanny Cute kidult through how characters react to Detective Pikachu and how he reacts in turn. The film ultimately suggests both that society attempts to denigrate any adult it views as Cute and that kidults can use their Cuteness to achieve their own ends.

Rebecca Rowe (MA ’16)

Presentation Title: “Go Play: Illustrating Imaginative Empathy in Trauma Recovery”

I suggest that by tracing imaginative empathy, a concept expanding on Suzanne Keen’s idea of narrative empathy, literary scholars can sidestep psychiatric debates on traumatic memory when interpreting representations of trauma recovery. To demonstrate what I mean when I talk about imaginative empathy, I analyze both the text and Shirley Hughes’ illustrations of The Secret Garden (1988), paying particular attention to how play helps develop Mary Lennox’s sense of imaginative empathy. I then turn to Good Night, Commander by Ahmad Akbarpour and Morteza Zahedi (translated 2010) to demonstrate what tracing imaginative empathy in a text can look like, utilizing Dr. Judith Herman’s three phases of recovery.

Mikayla Sharpless (MA ’20)

Images from the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender

Presentation Title: “Bending Expectations: Exceptional Representations in Avatar: The Last Airbender

My presentation, “Bending Expectations: Exceptional Representations in Avatar: The Last Airbender,” focused on the atypical portrayals of elderly characters in Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005). Children’s television shows often rely heavily on the same sets of stereotypical traits in character portrayals, ultimately shaping our expectations as viewers. For elderly characters, viewers have come to expect inactive, grumpy, senile, and insignificant representations. Avatar: The Last Airbender confronts its viewers’ limiting expectations of elderly characters by both intentionally subverting traditional character portrayals and directly criticizing and challenging industry stereotypes in its narrative storytelling.

— Morgan Shiver (MA ’22)

Presentation Title: “‘It’s Me!’: #Hamilkids and the Politics of Play”

The past year has only intensified the role of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical (2015) as a cultural script for young audiences who seek visibility, voice, and agency in their lives. Tagged in social media with the hashtag #Hamilkids, these young fans, ranging in age from a few years to teen, first gained attention during the 2017 Women’s March and 2018 March for Our Lives and grew in number following the musical’s debut on Disney+. Six years of social media show us how young fans continue to align themselves through cosplay, musical performance, quotation, and political protest with the musical’s characters and its themes. While acknowledging the critiques of the musical, I draw upon the work of Robin Bernstein (2011), Marah Gubar (2013), Lara Saguisag and Matthew Prickett (2016), Ebony Thomas (2019), and Henry Jenkins (2018) to explore the continuing appeal of Hamilton for children of minority and majority identity groups as well as the cultural implications of their play with the adult world of Hamilton. I argue that the musical’s attention to the rights of under-represented people, through its themes and its casting, provides a way for young fans, as a political minority, to empathize with the culturally disempowered adults of U.S. history and, in turn, to advocate for presence and participation of children – especially children of color – in contemporary U.S. culture and politics.

Karin Westman, Department Head

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