An English Major Talks to Children (About Picturebooks)

This week's blog post is brought to you by Maya Zakrzewska-Pim, an MPhil student with an English literature background from Trinity College in Dublin.

When I told my extended family that I had a place at Cambridge to do an MPhil in Childrens Literature, the general reaction was bafflement, followed by slightly confused congratulations. My aunts comment of You know youll have to grow up someday! (I was also wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh T-shirt at the time, which might have been a contributing factor to her reaction) was swiftly followed by enquiries into what my course would actually consist of.

So, what does an MPhil in Childrens Literature at Cambridge consist of? For one thing, its in the education faculty, which already sets it apart from many other similar courses, which you would expect to be in the English department. For another, it offers the opportunity to conduct your own empirical research into how children respond to picturebooks, which is what I want to focus on for this post.

When I applied, knowing Id get to interview children was a huge cause for excitement, because it was so different. The closer the date of the interviewing drew, though, the more this excitement was matched by apprehension. I have a background in English literature, after all, and my experience of children extends to entertaining my cousins infants at family get-togethers (under the constant supervision of other adults better versed in childcare than I am). What if they didnt want to talk? Or happened to be having a bad day? What if they cried

Of course, at the end of the day, it turned out all my fears were unfounded; the interview was profoundly enjoyable, and the children neither cried nor restricted themselves to monosyllabic answers. I left thinking it would be so much fun to do it again. This is what I was told would happen, by all our lecturers and classmates who actually had some experience working with children, but knowing something in theory and actually experiencing it are two very different things.

Its very easy to find something you enjoy doing and stick to it. Whats difficult is to keep an open mind and to keep trying out new things. Coming here, I knew I wanted to study childrens literature - verbal narratives written for children. I knew I would also study picturebooks and do an empirical study, but that seemed to be extra, and separate from my main interests. Now, though, when I think of childrens literature, I think of texts as well as the children who read them, as well as picturebooks and movies along with verbal narratives.

Doing an empirical study is not a separate experience, but something that Im sure will influence my approaches to studying childrens texts on a purely theoretical level. Discussing childrens literature with people coming from literature backgrounds as well as educational ones throws hugely diverse perspectives into the mix. Its a great chance to find out just how multidisciplinary this field is.

So, whats it like doing an MPhil in Childrens Literature at Cambridge? It isnt studying just childrens literature; its studying children, literature, pictures, books at school, books at home, books for children, by children, adapted for childrenthe list goes on. Its a mix of doing what you know (or think you know), and what you never thought youd do. And then you realise that actually, its a mix of everything.

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