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3rd Children's Literature Symposium

3rd children's literature symposium

3rd Cambridge Symposium on Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature

March 17 - 18  

9am - 6pm

Mary Allen Building G08/G09
Homerton College
Hills Road

Conference overview

Literary cognitive criticism (also known as cognitive poetics, cognitive narratology, literary affect theory, embodied cognition, along with a number of other labels) has become a noticeable direction of international children’s literature research, visible in recent publications and conference presentations. The first Cambridge symposium in 2014 mapped existing research through talks by international scholars and posters by doctoral students. The second symposium in 2016 featured Peter Stockwell, and focused on doctoral projects. While these two events were by invitation, the third symposium opened to broader participation and attracted scholars from many countries and from several related disciplines, including psychology, linguistics and education.


Registration for this event is now closed.  For a full programme, please click here.

For further information please contact Professor Maria Nikolajeva (mn351[at]

Keynote Speakers:

Professor Karen Coats (Illinois State University, USA): Possible Worlds of Children’s Poetry

One of the more fascinating cognitive tasks that children accomplish in their early years is the ability to sort out modal claims, that is, to discern what is necessary and actual, what is possible and/or probable, and what is impossible in the factual and counterfactual make-up of their internal and external worlds. Philosophers and logicians have developed possible-world theory to codify this task as a function of logic in language use, and Maria Nikolajeva (2014) has usefully applied it to children’s narrative fiction in order to discuss the ontological status of fictional entities, the nature of fictional worlds, and the status and definition of fictionality itself. What has rarely appeared in the criticism of adult literature and never in critical work on children’s texts is a discussion of the possible worlds created in children’s poetry. This talk will enter into that critical lacuna, briefly explaining the premises of possible-world theory using examples from various children’s poems and then taking a closer look at how several alternate worlds are created in two verse novels, Helen Frost’s Diamond Willow (2008), and David Elliott’s Bull (2017). I argue that the creation of various possible worlds through the poetic forms and material presentations in these verse novels intervenes at critical periods in the cognitive and affective development of their intended audience by modelling and substantiating the emergent connection between their physical, psychological (including wishes, intentions, beliefs) and axiological (regarding obligations, ethics, values) possible worlds. By offering these close readings, I show how possible-world theory is a potentially relevant and useful model for describing more specifically how readers relate to and understand poetic texts and how such texts foster cognitive and affective development.

Karen Coats is professor of English at Illinois State University, where she teaches children’s and young adult literature. She publishes on a wide range of subjects related to youth literature and critical theory. Author of Looking Glasses and Neverlands: Lacan, Desire, and Subjectivity in Children’s Literature, Children’s Literature and the Developing Reader, and The Bloomsbury Introduction to Children’s and Young Adult Literature (forthcoming 2017), she is also co-editor of the Handbook of Research on Children’s and Young Adult Literature; The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders; and Mothers in Children’s and Young Adult Literature: From Historical Legacies to Postfeminist Subjectivities.

Professor Rosalind Ridley (University of Cambridge): J. M. Barrie's Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness in the Peter Pan Stories.

I will consider the texts of J. M. Barrie’s works Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) and Peter and Wendy (1911) from the perspective of the science of his time, and that of modern cognitive psychology. Barrie had a well-informed, post-Darwinian view of the biological origins of human behaviour, and often explicitly compared instinctive animal behaviour with rational adult human activity. He also described the limited mental abilities of infants (and fairies) in order to illuminate the structure of adult human cognition. Peter demonstrates a lack of ability to form secondary mental representations resulting in amnesia, failure to envisage the future and an inability to take two things into account at once. As a consequence, Peter lacks a Theory of Mind and is therefore unable to progress to adulthood. Barrie also reflected on the nature of consciousness through his descriptions of parasomnias and his exploration of the interaction between perception and time.

Rosalind Ridley MA ScD is a neuroscientist who spent many years working for the Medical Research Council in London and Cambridge. Her work was concerned with understanding the relationship between brain activity and cognition, and its primary purpose was to develop medical treatments for psychological and neurological illnesses. This required consideration of the relationship between brain, experience and behaviour, the nature and purpose of consciousness and a broad understanding of biology and evolution. She argues that these themes can also be found embedded in the works of J. M. Barrie and she explores this in her book Peter Pan and the Mind of J. M. Barrie: an Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness.