Listening to Children Differently

by Jo Holmwood and Ciara Gallagher at Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership

In our day-to-day lives, how often do we see and hear children; not just their bodies running or their laughter echoing in a playground, but their real expressions, their true voices; unaltered or unfiltered by an adult bias?

There is still an urgent need to listen to children and young people differently, to respond to and reflect on what they say differently, to incorporate their creative expression, their stories, their artwork into our cultural makeup. There has been significant and vital progress in children’s participation in decision-making, in hearing and responding to their voices in research and policy. Yet there are other absences. Where are children’s words, ideas, and creative expression that would provide a more holistic and authentic account of childhood from their lived experience? Could children’s own stories and artwork counter some of society’s constructions, often idealised or incomplete, of children and childhood?

Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership was established in 1997 as a response to the absence and even dismissal of children’s voices in our society. From the beginning, Kids’ Own’s ethos has focused on engaging children in a meaningful creative process alongside professional artists through which they could develop a sense of agency and ownership and be active makers in the cultural field. Our creative approach seeks to provide a democratic space where children from all backgrounds can engage and be considered as equals with one another and alongside the adults with whom they work; the creative process is open-ended, non-directive, child-centred and led.

Though the emphasis is never on the outcome, Kids’ Own publishes high-quality, beautifully produced books through many of our projects with children and young people, giving children’s voices a highly-visible and respected platform. We now have a diverse collection of dozens of books by children for children, published over twenty-five years. At the heart of the process underpinning all these publications is a meaningful dialogue between children and professional writers and artists, giving rise to an arts experience in which the work originates with the children’s own experiences and ideas. This aims to provide a starting point where children can be themselves and not feel pressure to perform or make up something that bears no relevance to their lives. 

This approach makes space for children whose stories are not often heard, the children from marginalised communities whose experiences society does not or will not hear. In I Hope You Grow, a book made by children living in temporary accommodation in Dublin, the children speak of lost hairbrushes and digging holes at the beach, as well as the experience of losing their home: 

“The park was near where we lived but we had to move. The guy was selling the house so we all had to move. It was like a piece of glass shattering.” – Amir and Abdi. 

The children in A Strong Heart: A book of stories and dreams for the future by Syrian and Palestinian children living in County Mayo discuss their families, friends, their lives in Ireland now and in Syria before, and in the future, as well as their dreams for the future: 

“My dream for the future is to be an astronaut and fly away when I grow up. I’m going to get all the people to build my rocket. I’m going to take the people I love with me so they will be okay.” – Aya. 

In This Giant Tent, Irish Traveller girls imagine a future which our society has not yet made a reality.  Three girls will have a café and another three of their friends would have a beauty salon:

“We would call it the Pink Ladies, because we all love pink and we agree on the name sometimes.” – Rachel, Alanna and Katie

“We would go to the Pink Ladies for all our beauty needs and the Pink Ladies can come down to us for their lunch and cups of coffee.” – Shakira, Tina and Bridie.

In her article Seen and Heard: Remembering Children’s Art and Activism, Marah Gubar writes of “aetonormative amnesia”. Gubar notes “the term ‘aetonormative’ was coined by children’s literature critic Maria Nikolajeva, who wanted to point out how age-related social norms can silence, demean, and disempower people”. Gubar argues that aetonormative amnesia is another form of forgetting:

“When a member of a particular age group accomplishes something that seems at odds with the stereotypes associated with that group, their achievement is often regarded as exceptional and then is promptly forgotten… This kind of forgetfulness allows our preconceived notions to remain intact: our beliefs about people in particular age groups persist, despite the existence of many, many exceptions.”

Kids’ Own’s books carefully and determinedly speak back to this kind of forgetting that not only happens in the past, but in the continuous present. At the same time, our books counter the idea of exceptionalism: the children who create our books are ‘just’ children, but as the books demonstrate, they are accomplished thinkers, creators, and artists. It is just time we allowed a different listening to happen. 

Jo Holmwood is Creative Director of Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership, a children’s arts organisation and publishing house based in Sligo, Ireland (www.kidsown.ie) and has been working with the organisation since January 2009. During her time with Kids’ Own, Jo has designed and rolled out dozens of projects, including collaborative book projects, early years and family engagement programmes, touring exhibitions, online initiatives, research projects and sectoral development workshops. In her current role, she has overseen the publication of new children’s books includingA Strong Heart“, “I Hope You Grow“, and “This Giant Tent”. She also has a strong background in fundraising, advocacy, strategic development, building interagency partnerships and research and evaluation. Jo has worked in a freelance capacity as a translator and copy editor, and she is also developing her own practice as a writer. In this latter capacity, she has published short stories and has directed and produced her own work for the stage.

Ciara Gallagher is Project Manager at Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership, and has been working with the organisation since 2018. She has worked as a postdoctoral researcher on the National Collection of Children’s Books project at Trinity College Dublin. She also contributed to the European G-Book project, “Gender Identity: Child Readers and Library Collections”, on behalf of Irish partner, the School of English, Dublin City University. She is the co-editor of the volume “Constructions of the Irish Child in the Independence” Period 1910-1940 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Ciara is secretary of a small charity, Providence Education, which supports Providence school in Shillong, north-east India, and has been involved with the school since 2005.  

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