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Children’s lit conference showcases the imaginative geography of kids’ books

Max Szyc | Fulcrum Staff

Photo by Mico Mazza

THE UNIVERSITY OF Ottawa hosted a variety of literary stars and international scholars at this year’s Children’s Literature Conference from Oct. 12–13.

The conference featured keynote speakers Kenneth Oppel, a Toronto-based author best known for his Silverwing and Airborn series of novels; Alan Cumyn, a regarded Ottawa author of adult and children’s novels; and Margot Hillel, a professor and historian at the Australian Catholic University who has done extensive research on children’s literature.

The conference was primarily focused on the discussion of the imaginative geography that plays a big role in young adult and children’s fiction.

“Canadian children’s literature is some of the best in the world, and the last people who recognize this are Canadians themselves,” said conference coordinator Aïda Hudson, a part-time professor in the department of English at the U of O. “These authors tend to sell more copies of their books in other countries.”

“In Canadian children’s literature, the landscape is often a character in itself, due to how vast and varied it is,” said Amy Einarsson, who was handpicked by Hudson to work at the conference. The two met when Einarsson was an undergrad in Hudson’s children’s literature class.

In his keynote presentation, Oppel discussed his love of creating fictional geographies for his novels and showed maps that he had designed in meticulous detail. He recounted one amusing story where he brought a video camera to High Park, near his home in Toronto, and videotaped the trees and grass for inspiration—much to the confusion of passersby.

Oppel also entertained the crowd with humorous recollections of his childhood obsessions that led to his love of fantasy and young adult fiction, which included the Space Invaders and Dungeons & Dragons video games as well as comic books—although the only comics he was able to get as a child were Archie Comics.

As for the present state of popular young adult and children’s literature, Oppel professed that the industry is different today than it was 10 years ago.

“Today’s popular young fiction is similar to the movie industry in that it follows trends, and books don’t get as much of a chance to gain an audience,” Oppel said. “There’s less of a place for less typical books.”

Regardless, this isn’t going to stop him from writing the type of fiction he adores.

Hudson and Einarsson hoped the conference would provide a networking opportunity for visiting authors and academics.

“Kids’ literature itself has been around for as long as there have been children,” said Einarsson. “As for academic studies, it’s relatively new. The conference gives an opportunity for scholars to network, as people are coming from all over the world, and this helps to lay the groundwork for where the studies are going.”