OU student Sarah Layzell Hardstaff on accepting the Jacqueline Wilson award

A few weeks ago, I accepted the Jacqueline Wilson award for best MPhil thesis in children’s literature at Cambridge. This was of course one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to me, especially as Dame Wilson was there in person to present the award and had actually read my thesis. And to think, it all started with the Open University and EA300, I thought wistfully. Or did it? Maybe it all started with my childhood reading. With Aidan Chambers. Or J.K. Rowling. Or Roald Dahl. Or, indeed, Jacqueline Wilson herself.

But it really started with Raymond Briggs and The Snowman.

I would not accept that (spoiler alert) the Snowman could melt. Of course I knew. The first time I watched the film, at a very young age, I watched it right to the end. And thereafter refused to watch the ending ever again. Without realising it, I was starting to engage with the vexed questions of scholars: what does it mean to say a text is for children? What does suitable for children mean? What does good for children mean? Briggs himself has expressed confusion (frustration?) that a story about loss and death has become a Christmas classic. There’s no Scrooge-like redemption here, or is there?

These questions are important because they go to the heart of our understanding of culture and society. Literature (or rather fiction, which comes in many forms) is part of how we teach our children to become adults, to know themselves, to interact with others and their environment. In offering an undergraduate course in children’s literature, the OU offers a typically interdisciplinary opportunity to anyone interested in childhood or books or both. At Masters level, the field opens up even more. I’ve written about child psychology, neurology, linguistics, politics, economics, history, art, and the list goes on. For some people, this might be unbearable, the thought of becoming a jack of all trades in a subject few people seem to understand or respect. If I sound a little defensive here, it’s with good reason. Many’s the time I’ve been told: “What a lovely subject – when you become a mother you can tell your children such wonderful stories!” Which is of course a fine thing to be able to do. But it’s also a fine thing to analyse popular representations of food poverty and try to understand them against the political backdrop of Western neo-liberalism, which is what I did in my thesis. All things considered, I’m happy to be able to dip in and out of different disciplines, which incidently was why I was drawn to the OU in the first place. I’m also very fortunate to have found such wonderful communities, both at the OU and Cambridge, where children’s literature is taken very seriously indeed. And I can’t think of a better way to end my studies (for now!) than by meeting one of my favourite children’s authors, who incidentally is one of the loveliest people I have ever met.

But I still can’t watch the end of The Snowman.