Oxford Children's Literature and Youth Culture ColloquiumWednesday, December 7, 2011
In our last session for 2011 - how time flies! - Dr Margaret Kean (St Hilda's) presented on a children's lit-related element from her wider project charting cultural responses to Hell: the picture book The Young Inferno, written by John Agard and illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura. Beginning with the premise that much of children's literature depends on either the child saving the adult or the child being saved by the adult (an interesting dynamic where depictions of Hell are concerned), Dr Kean positioned The Young Inferno as a renewal of Dante couched in Agard's own cultural milieu (the damned are updated to include various twentieth-century figures of note, for example) and fully conversant with the picture book's unique techniques for 'making meaning' through word and image. Dr Kean's many pictorial examples showed Kitamura himself visually 'reading' Dante and Dante's illustrators, updating, for example, the bone landscapes Blake used to illustrate the work in the nineteenth century with his own chilling and beautiful piles of skulls and fish skeletons. Kitamura's stark black and white illustrations become a visual pun on Agard's text, which questions the binary between black and white, good and evil (from canto 2: 'neither beast nor man / can be divided into black and white'). Darkness and vivacity, what Dr Kean called the 'double energy' of updated versions of Dante's Inferno for children (she also touched on Dale Basye's Circles of Heck series), generate a rich, multilayered quality in both text and illustration.