‘Extraordinary Women’, ‘Visionary Women’ and ‘Fantastically Great Women’: exploring children’s responses to contemporary biographies

Couceiro, Louise (2023) ‘Extraordinary Women’, ‘Visionary Women’ and ‘Fantastically Great Women’: exploring children’s responses to contemporary biographies. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Having run one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns in history, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo published Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women, in 2016 (King, 2018). Translated into dozens of languages and quickly selling over a million copies, the compendium was a huge success (Laity, 2018). Arguably, it signalled a reinvigoration of what had been considered, by many, a languishing genre: children’s biography. Following the success of Good Night Stories (Favilli and Cavallo, 2016), titles such as Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World (Pankhurst, 2016a) and Little Leaders: Visionary Women Around the World (Harrison, 2018) began flooding the market.

In this thesis, I offer an account of my exploration of how eight children, aged between 7 and 10, responded to and engaged with four of these biographical compendiums. Constrained by the social distancing measures implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19, I investigated participants’ engagement from a physical distance. Participants received the books in the post, and I conducted interviews and group reading sessions via Zoom. I also developed a new method, the reader response toolkit, which comprised of participants’ suggestions for arts based activities that they could engage with in response to the texts.

Underpinned by Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of reading (1938/1970; 1978; 1986) and framed by poststructuralist theories more broadly, I developed five themes to encapsulate participants’ responses. Together, these themes illuminate the myriad of complex and insightful ways participants engaged with the texts. Simultaneously affirming and challenging the women’s inspirational-ness, and drawing on neoliberal discourses of empowerment to appraise the women’s bravery and confidence, participants’ interpretations provide important insights into how expressions of popular feminism might be ‘landing’ with young people. My analysis also highlights how, despite perceiving the texts as resources for knowledge acquisition or, to use Rosenblatt’s term, as sites for ‘efferent’ reading, participants’ engagement went far beyond a simple retrieval of facts. Entering into critical, reflective dialogue on a range of social justice issues and questioning the texts’ authority with exciting levels of zeal, the children’s responses prompt reflection on the value of biographies, and the nonfiction genre more broadly, for facilitating readers’ aesthetic, critical and ‘aestheticritical’ engagements.

This study makes four significant contributions. Methodologically, it provides insight into the opportunities and limitations of conducting reader response studies from a physical distance. Theoretically, it proposes the term ‘aesthetricritical’ as a way of capturing the fusion of aesthetic and critical qualities within readers’ responses to texts. Pedagogically, it offers possibilities for how educators, practitioners and interested adults might utilise these texts to facilitate conversations with children about feminism and other social justice issues, and it highlights the value of supporting children’s critical engagement with representations of ‘truth’. Finally, it contributes to two neglected areas of research – children’s nonfiction and children as consumers of feminist media – both of which require engagement with children to enrich their growing corpuses of scholarship.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: L Education > LC Special aspects of education
P Language and Literature > PZ Childrens literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Education
Funder's Name: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
Supervisor's Name: Read, Professor Barbara, Hedge, Professor Nicki and Arizpe, Professor Evelyn
Date of Award: 2023
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2023-83837
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 02 Oct 2023 15:10
Last Modified: 05 Oct 2023 07:30
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.83837
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/83837

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