Our academic keynote speaker Dr. Elaine Ostry is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York Plassburgh. She teaches children’s, young adult, and nineteenth-century literature.
What drove you to study Children’s and YA Literature? Did you always have a love for reading and was there a particular book you loved?
I have always loved to read, and I didn’t stop reading children’s books when I grew up. I always loved the imagination of Children’s Literature and was particularly drawn to fantasy. As I started studying English lit, I saw fairy tale motifs everywhere and I realized that childhood reading had influenced great writers like Shakespeare and Dickens. I wrote my dissertation on Dickens and the fairy tale, and through this experience was able to get positions teaching children’s and young adult literature. When I think of books that really hooked me as a child, the Narnia series is the first that comes to mind. I still remember how my heart beat when I recognized the Christian allegory. It was the first time I saw different levels in a text, and I still revel in this phenomenon. As far as pursuing it as a career choice, it was a combination of wanting to study what delighted me and what would get me a job.
YA literature wasn’t great when I was a teenager in the 1980s, so I was not interested in it aside from reading it out of a kind of voyeuristic desire to know what being a teenage runaway or drug addict was like, etc. Even when I started teaching, it wasn’t a particularly rich genre. In the last 20 years of teaching YA fiction, though, it’s been wonderful to see how it’s blossomed. It’s a very creative field right now and it’s hard to choose which books to teach each year.
Two of your areas of expertise are the Nineteenth Century and Posthumanism. What do you find most attractive about these subjects?
When I think of it, my interest in both subjects stems from the same concept: the idea of transgressing boundaries. I first became interested in the nineteenth century after reading Nina Auerbach’s Woman and the Demon, about the fallen woman. I wrote my master’s thesis on the topic. The strict social codes and the challenges put to them are fascinating to me, although I am not sure why. Perhaps it’s the rebel in me. As for posthumanism, I don’t consider myself an expert. I am still learning quite a bit about it to add to what knowledge I have. Posthumanism confronts the grand social order of the Great Chain of Being, a remarkably tenacious worldview that separates humans from animals. This is the part of posthumanism that I am working on now. It suggests that these boundaries are false and harmful. Posthumanism is broader than that, of course, including melting the boundary between human and machine. Both the nineteenth century and posthumanism contain a challenge to hierarchies, and at times of great social and technological change. We are at the point when we should be realizing that our hierarchical relationship to nature is going to kill us if we don’t change our ways, as we’re degrading the environment that nurtures us.
What do you think the balance should be between teaching and entertaining in Children’s Literature?
I think that if people think too much about the teaching aspect of Children’s Literature, they kill its entertainment value. Children’s Literature should delight the child, even when talking about serious subjects. I think that people naturally teach when they write for children, because the literature will reflect their point of view, which includes morality. When writers have characters like Ramona, the rich characterization will make people care about what she learns. When writers have fantastical settings like Hogwarts or Narnia, the delight in magic will be the sugar that helps the medicine of morality go down. But if the writer is too intent on the lesson, the reader will be usually be turned off. The same goes with teaching Children’s Literature. I always pay attention to the beauty, humour, and creativity of the writing, not just the writer’s agenda. I think that in schools, the emphasis on character education can give children the impression that instruction is the point of fiction. Perhaps this emphasis is why college students often can be conservative in their tastes. For example, every time I teach Pippi Longstocking, I have students condemning her for rudeness and disobedience. I like to point out that her bravery, independence, and intolerance of bullying are positive moral values, as well as being fun to read about. And, of course, sometimes authority figures deserve a little pushback.
In many YA novels that explore a Posthuman Age, protagonists have a negative relationship with their parents, but that helps them question and eventually find their own identity. Do you think the same could be achieved in a setting where the family relationships are positive?
In general, parent-child relationships are expressed negatively in YA literature. This adds drama, and helps with the theme of individuation. However, there’s no reason why parents cannot have a more positive role in guiding teenagers to adulthood, in a way that allows them their own identity, as they do in real life. After all, there is research out there that suggests that teenagers do not reject parents as much as we assume, and historically, adults have been strong guides. Speaking as a parent, it’s nice to see some more positive images of parenting as in Fault in Our Stars, and this could certainly be part of a posthuman novel. I think it’s most interesting when parents are real people with both good and bad in them, resulting in complex relationship, as in Peter Dickinson’s Eva, which I argue is a posthuman novel.
Finally, can you give us a hint to what you’ll be speaking about at the conference?
I am really looking forward to meeting people at this conference; I’m honoured to be invited to speak at it. I am still working it out. I am currently writing a book on metamorphosis texts in which children and young adults turn into animals. Metamorphosis is a handy metaphor for all kinds of things, and I plan to use it to talk about how one grows as a critic, how a book grows, and how we can embrace these changes. I plan to talk about a bit about one or two of the texts I am using, and how they show the change in how we view animals and ourselves, which will reflect back on the theme of the conference, monsters. Chimps will come into play.
Dr. Elaine Ostry will present on May 11th and from 4:00-5:00 PM. Full details can be found in the conference schedule.