Monday 18 April 2016

Bringing Seven Stories to the British Conference of Undergraduate Research

At Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books, we have close ties to the Children's Literature department at Newcastle University which means that we hold workshops for their students and support research visits.  Megan Ayres, a final year undergraduate student, has recently been working with our collections.  Megan originally came as a researcher and ended up as a volunteer. As well as researching the Berlie Docherty collection she has listed some of Beverley Naidoo's collection and most recently she has taken her Seven Stories research to Manchester to champion our Collection, the North-East and literary studies. 

This month I was proud to be one of the students representing Newcastle University, in particular the School of English Language and Literature, at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research. This year the conference was held at Manchester Metropolitan University, and over a two day period in March hundreds of undergraduate students from all corners of the UK turned up to present their projects. I was all too glad (and a fair bit nervous) to be presenting my research on Berlie Doherty’s novel Dear Nobody (Hamish Hamilton, 1991) as a focus for my investigation on how the Young Adult novel represents teenage pregnancy. The Seven Stories Berlie Doherty collection was an irrefutable treasure trove for the information I needed, specifically, what goes into writing a book about a topic so culturally pervasive and, admittedly, controversial.

Front of the BCUR pamphlet. 

After walking fifteen minutes in the wrong direction, I made my way to the university to start the conference off by listening to a keynote speech about achieving success, which left me feeling very encouraged (getting lost aside) for my ten minute presentation. I couldn’t believe the range of topics available on the day, from publishing to tree bark. Though, admittedly, whilst there were a lot of business, science, and sociological research, there wasn’t much in the way of literature. So when it came to presenting research based on a close textual analysis of a novel I knew I was potentially doing something unfamiliar, which I hoped would be quite interesting for everyone. After all, looking at the world through the pages of a book is quite different than looking at it through quantitative heavy research.

Dear Nobody is a book that won the Carnegie Medal, has been adapted onto TV, radio, and the stage, and has been used as an educational tool for teaching children about safe sex in places like Germany. It’s undoubtedly a landmark novel for contemporary YA novels that include this issue and through the archive I was able to see just how far its influence stretched. It follows the story of Chris and Helen, two eighteen-year-olds about to leave school for university. These aspirations become jeopardised when Helen discovers she’s pregnant. Both Helen and Chris negotiate their feelings towards the pregnancy and their involvement in it, of which I focus predominantly on the letters Helen writes to ‘Nobody’, her unborn baby. I did this primarily to explore how Doherty validates the teenage mother by redefining ‘good’ mothering.

Front cover of Dear Nobody Puffin 2001 edition. 

One thing that became abundantly clear to me as I traversed through files and folios was the difference in the critical reception the novel received. For example, correspondence between Nicholas Tucker and Berlie Doherty clued me in that there had been a Channel 4 piece about the book, claiming it encouraged teenage pregnancy (Taken from ‘Correspondence 1990-1995’, Berlie Doherty Collection, BD/01/06/12/24). This stems from a long history of believing that children’s and adolescent novels have a didactic duty to encourage socially approved morals in readers. Nicholas Tucker, a renowned children’s literature critic, was exploring primarily how the novel frames the unborn child as an ‘ideal companion’ for the adolescent (Quoted from ‘Publicity & press cuttings’, Berlie Doherty Collection, BD/01/06/15/27).

Correspondence between Nick Tucker and Berlie Docherty, BD/01/06/24-30 Photograph © Seven Stories The National Centre for Children's Books

On the flip side, Doherty has maintained that the novel was never intended to be about ‘safe sex’, but a novel written with the hope of inspiring an emotional reaction in its readers (Quoted from ‘Correspondence 1990-1994, Berlie Doherty Collection, BD/01/06/12/24). This echoed on her Doherty’s website:

‘I simply wanted to write a book which would be interesting to teenagers. I never want to write a message or a moral in my books – I don’t think that’s a novelist’s job. If I can write a strong story that moves my readers, then that is as much as I want to do.’ (Quotation from

Fan mail has also been divided on this account, most praise Doherty for her sensitive depiction of pregnancy, particularly prevalent in a letter from a mother who believes it should be compulsory reading for all parents and plans on giving it to her child when she is ready to read about such topics (Taken from ‘Correspondence 1990-1994’, Berlie Doherty Collection, BD/01/06/12/198). It becomes quite obvious that this book had a massive impact on its audience to the extent that it was considered a tool for the socialisation of young people.

Fan mail, BD/01/06/12/198.  Photograph © Seven Stories The National Centre for Children's Books

These ideas interact more broadly in my dissertation, which is smattered with the research I did in the archive. It fits into my discussion of what ideas are normally associated with the pregnant teenager, specifically that the teenage mother is associated with inadequacy, the father associated with immaturity, and rooted at the core of this issue that the young parent does not fit within the favoured nuclear family framework. Dear Nobody explores all three of these generalisations closely, and uses them to shape the novel’s view of teenage pregnancy as a deeply personal experience – which I believe contributes to its widespread popularity.

In my presentation I was able to look at the evidence for this view, and root it within a critical framework surrounding motherhood: particularly that the ideal of the female as innately nurturing is an inherently damaging ideology, because it implies that the woman’s only role in society is her biological one. Doherty ties the young mother, Helen, to the “ideal” mother to imply that the centrality of the mother role for the female transcends age, and therefore refutes the inadequacy associated with the teenage mother. This contrasts with the male, Chris, who is unprepared for the role of father, which highlights how despite rejecting the stereotypical association of the young mother with insufficiency, the father maintains a secondary position in which he is expected to be ill equipped.

This culminated into Doherty’s discussion of the nuclear family: the nuclear family is normally considered the favoured structure for socialising children. It is socially considered a stable structure, educating children in labour divisions between male and female, and introducing children to power structures operating within society that are integral to maintaining a Western, capitalistic society. But it’s not something the teenager has easy access to, which follows that the nuclear family is expressed as an oppressive force for the female in the novel. Undermining this view is the retention of approved gender roles - in which the female is innately nurturing - normally associated with the nuclear family, where the mother is typically imagined to care for the children. The figure of the pregnant teenager has been used as a theme allowing the discussion of broader issues surrounding gender.

As for me actually speaking, well, I was reassured that the room was still full by the end of it. The audience responded well to what I was saying, in fact everyone was talkative and engaged with the topics on offer throughout the entire day. There’s something to be said for being in an environment where people want to hear you ramble about something you’re now kind of emotionally invested in. It was nice to bring a little bit of the North East to Manchester, and Seven Stories with it. The North East was minority on the day, but then again so was literature research. I would encourage other literature undergraduates to get involved with BCUR, because it is valid research and people do want to hear about it. Public speaking isn’t nearly as scary as it appears, either (I promise).

Passing the BCUR bear onto the host of BCUR2017, Bournemouth University 

If you find yourself interested in looking at how the teenage parent is presented within the Young Adult novel I’d recommend Blue Moon (Puffin, 2003) by Julia Green, The Opposite of Chocolate (Macmillan, 2004) by Julie Bertagna, and Boys Don’t Cry (Corgi Childrens, 2011) by Malorie Blackman. 

- Megan Ayres, Newcastle University undergraduate. 

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