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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Mapping urban childscapes : the imaginary geographies of contemporary North American picture books Hamer, Naomi Elana


Recent cross-disciplinary research on childhood increasingly aims to question, dismantle, and analyze contemporary and historical constructions of childhood as it is mediated through social practices, cultural products, and literary and artistic representations. The representations of urban childhood in contemporary children's literature often dynamically engage with the dominant discourses of North American childhood. The purpose of the study is to examine the spatial discourses of childhood as represented within the urban landscape of contemporary North American children's picture books. Many historical and contemporary classics of children's literature rely on an escape from the city in order for protagonists to experience an alternate fantasy or natural world; however, increasingly in modern children's novels and picture books, the urban landscape itself has become central to the narrative. The urban child protagonists often create their own imaginative geographies in the core of the city where they live and play. These imaginary urban childscapes (Porteous 1990) produced by adults for and about children, elucidate the dynamic interactions and intersecting narratives of gender, class, race, and power in the lives of children and adolescents who inhabit urban spaces. The depiction of urban space in contemporary picture books often exemplifies a conflict between the confinement of children within their urban environments and yet their ability to find freedom as they map their way through spaces. These representations map the spatial and boundary-laden children's geographies of the urban landscape; often charting and traversing the boundary lines between interior and exterior; safe and dangerous; public and private; home and play; fantasy and real spaces. Key questions guiding this study include: How may we define a chddren's geography of the urban landscape? How are these geographies represented visually and textually in contemporary picture books? What do these representations reveal, elucidate, or critique about competing social discourses surrounding contemporary North American childhood? In this thesis, I discuss and analyze three distinct contemporary urban picture books all situated or inspired by the real geographies of New York City: "Madlenka" (2000) by Peter Sis, "Home in The Sky" (1984) by Jeannie Baker, and "Black Cat" (1999) by Christopher Myers. This examination is informed theoretically by critical and postmodern geography (Soja 1989; De Certeau 1984); the geography of children and childhood space (Aitken 2001; Holloway and Valentine 2000); work related to the social discourses of childhood (Lesnik-Oberstein 1998); and urban studies discourses related to literary and artistic representations of space (Balshaw and Kennedy 2000; Villa 2000). I propose and utilize a multi-disciplinary methodology for the analysis of contemporary urban picture books that is framed by spatial metaphors and vocabulary (spaces, landscape, children's geographies and mapping). The methodologies are further influenced by Michel Foucault's theories of discourse, as reinterpreted by Gillian Rose for the analysis of visual images. Guided by key spatial themes derived from the geographic study of children, I analyze how urban childscapes are discursively mapped in contemporary urban picture books. The interrelated spatial discourses of childhood and urbanity are often embedded within these mappings. I examine how the spatial discourses of the child's eye view in these picture books elucidate how we construct modern and post-modern childhood space within the urban context.

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