Faculty Stories & Profiles

Galway delves into the power of literature

from The Legend, Dec. 2009

Never underestimate the power of the written word – especially when it’s used in children’s literature.

English professor Dr. Elizabeth Galway has focused her research interests on the written word and how it is used in children’s literature from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

She has discovered that while children may be marginalized and their literature passed off as trivial, many profound themes are often woven into children’s works and they can have a strong and lasting impact on a young reader.

“There has been a tendency to view the literature written for children as less important than literature for adults,” says Galway.

“This dual status of children’s literature – the fact that it can have a strong impact on its readership but is often assumed by adults to be trivial – is one of the characteristics that makes it such an interesting genre.”

Her current SSHRC-funded project, Young Canada Goes to War, examines a variety of children’s literature from 1914-1925, with a view to understanding how Canadian participation in WWI was portrayed by children’s writers from Canada, Britain and the United States.

“There is, for example, the question of how the violence of the war is portrayed,” says Galway. “In some children’s stories the horrors of war are displayed in full for children to see, while in others the violence is downplayed. In the latter case, this can occur for a variety of reasons, which may include softening depictions of warfare for younger readers to protect them from these traumatic events, to help encourage boys to enlist once they come of age, or to downplay the casualties suffered by Canadians in order to promote national pride and enthusiasm for the war effort.”

She also found interesting the relationship depicted between Canada and Britain as our young nation begins to exert its independence from the “motherland”.
“The war also had an impact on the nation’s attitudes towards its other allies, like the United States, and its enemies,” says Galway. “Depictions in children’s literature of Germans, for instance, along with discussions of immigrants from war-torn Europe, shed light on how the war affected ideas about citizenship, race, and immigration in Canada.”

It’s an especially timely subject to review, given the current political climate and the lingering debates about Canada’s role in international affairs.

“Given the great potential of children’s literature to educate, socialize, and indoctrinate its readers, the study of this genre can give us important insight into how the Canadian identity, including attitudes towards peacekeeping and militarism, developed in the early twentieth century.”