The new critical anthology launched Feb. 28. Photo: Dasser Kamran.
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Collection of essays edited by former U of O prof, features campus contributors

On Thursday, Feb. 28 the University of Ottawa’s Department of English celebrated the launch of a new critical anthology on the geography and places of children’s literature.

The collection of essays focuses on children’s literature, a major discipline in literature studies, and the places that authors create for their stories. As editor Aida Hudson, who lectured at the U of O for thirty-one years, put it, who can imagine Harry Potter without Hogwarts or Anne without Green Gables? The importance of place is hard to overstate.

“It’s a collection of essays and reflections on the ‘where’ in children’s literature,” said Hudson. “It’s about imaginative geography, how it’s imaged, how it defines character and action.”

“It’s about place in fiction. When you read you forget that you’re reading, you see where the characters are, the world they move in, the place they are at … the place actually affects them,” said Hudson. “I always thought that literature is another kind of painting, painting images, places … words are there to paint worlds for us.”  

In addition to being edited by a former U of O faculty member, one professor and a PhD candidate also contributed essays to the book. Alan West, a part-time English professor, wrote about the natural environment of The Wind in the Willows and PhD candidate Cory Sampson explored the quasi-British Empire undertones of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass along with parallels to Canada’s residential schools.  

Children’s literature may seem straightforward, being geared towards a young audience, but the subject is a large field with its own dedicated experts. For instance, Hudson said of West that nobody has figured out The Wind and the Willows as well as he has. The U of O offers several courses on children’s literature.

“(Children) are a harder audience to write for, because unless it’s really interesting they sign off,” said Hudson.

The book of essays has a Canadian perspective but features contributors from around the globe—an international book with a Canadian context, as Hudson called it. Some essays bring an Indigenous worldview to children’s science fiction or analyze nature through a very Canadian lens, like West’s piece about the woods in which the Wind in the Willows animals live. As Hudson explained it, the “wild wood” to a British audience is safe and tame by Canadian standards.

The collection of essays came out of a conference hosted by Hudson on the topic of imagined geographies. The conference papers were collected, edited, and compiled into the new book, published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

The U of O had been supportive from the beginning, said Hudson, which is why she chose to host the launch here.

“What I did in this book is really very new, doing imaginative geography in children’s literature, there’s never been a book about it … so (the department) put their necks out,” said Hudson. “I wanted the U of O people to celebrate it because if I didn’t have their support financially and creatively this book wouldn’t have happened.”