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Rebuilding Britain through Modernist Children's books

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Britain entered the twentieth century with an acute housing shortage. In cities some of the nation’s poorest families lived in ‘one or two rooms … sleeping three and four to a bed with never enough chairs (or boxes) all to sit down at once’ (1913 Fabian Women’s Group report, Round About a Pound a Week). Poor children in the countryside fared no better. For many children, home was far from clean, spacious or safe. It would be hard to deduce this from most children’s books published in the first half of the last century, however. For example, popular images of home ranged from cosy cottages as pictured by Beatrix Potter and Ernest Shepard to large town houses of the kind lived in by the Banks children in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins (1934). From the 1930s, a handful of left-leaning modernist writers, publishers and architects attempted to focus readers’ attention on the urgent need for new housing and to involve children in the debate about what modern houses, villages, towns and cities should look like. As well as designing for children and incorporating children in architectural photographs and designs, professional architects and some sympathetic children’s writers mounted an unprecedented campaign to capture the youthful imagination. Their efforts focused on publishing books that held out the promise that new buildings and modernist design principles could be instrumental in positive social change. This talk will examine a selection of these texts as well as counterblast in the form of a picturebook that examines the impact of suburban lifestyles on women and children.

Kimberley Reynolds is the Professor of Children’s Literature in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University in the UK. She has lectured and published widely on a variety of aspects of children’s literature. Recent publications include an audio book, Children’s Literature between the Covers (Modern Scholar, 2011) and Children’s Literature in the Oxford University series of Very Short Introductions (2012). In 2013 she received the International Brothers Grimm Award. With the help of a Major Leverhulme Fellowship she has recently completed a monograph titled Left Out: the forgotten tradition of radical publishing for children in Britain, 1910-1949 (Oxford University Press, 2016).

This talk is part of the Pedagogy, Language, Arts & Culture in Education (PLACE) Group Seminars series.

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