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  • Melissa Terras

Academia and Children’s Literature: Analysing expertise in Picture-Books

How is academia represented in children’s literature? In the spring of 2012 I began to ponder that question, coming across various professors in kids’ books, while reading them to my own three young children. At the time I was myself going up for promotion to Professor at University College London, and it was interesting to explain what mummy did when she went away from them – or what they were being led to believe about expertise, science, and universities, from what they saw in all media, but, in particular, from picture-books. Over the next few years I systematically gathered images of professors and non-medical doctors that I came across, searching them out from library catalogues and social media forums, and consulting both books from the library, and second-hand books bought from online retailers. By 2015 I had amassed 328 illustrated academics in 289 English language children’s books published between 1850 and 2014, and it was time to analyse what I found.

Professors are generally depicted as old, white, rich, male scientists who tend to fall into three stereotypes: the vehicle to explain scientific facts, the baffled genius, and the evil madman. These crystallise early in 20th Century, with the phenomenally popular publication of Norman Hunter’s Professor BraneStawm in 1933, which sets the tone for much of children’s literature to follow. By the late twentieth century, the stereotype of the male, mad, muddlehead, called Professor SomethingDumb, is formed in humorous yet pejorative fashion, and often appears in literature (and films and TV) without need for backstory or further explanation.

However, this means that children’s literature has been informing children that experts or academics are worthless and baffled, or dangerous and destructive, and it has been doing so for 170 years. “We’ve had enough of experts” and a mistrust of intellectual activity is hard baked into the tales we tell our children. It should be said, though, that these tales allow slapstick humour, and some of these stories are very, very funny – playing around with magical thinking, nonsense, and imagining adult life beyond safe parent role models.

There are issues about diversity in the corpus, including gender, class, and race that are hugely problematic: only 29 of the 328 Professors I found are women, and only one has an ambiguous gender identity. Only three are adults of black or ethnic minority descent. This follows the results of other studies of the place of women and ethnic minorities in children’s literature, but despite years of analysis (and lots of studies that count things) about the lack of diversity in children’s literature, the book publishing industry has not responded in a way which supports diverse depictions of characters in books. It is hard to do so, though, given expectations from readers, and cultural stereotypes which have developed (in the case of professors, we all expect them to be baffled and called Professor SomethingDumb, with hair like Einstein, don’t we?).

The hard reality is that we also have to confront the fact that the academy itself has diversity issues, including of gender, race, class, etc. For example, in the UK, just 24% of Professors are currently women but that percentage has fallen in recent years in one in three universities. A 2015 study showed that there were only 17 black female professors in the UK. Children’s literature therefore holds a mirror up to the academy, reflecting its own problems with diversity, while mocking it, but also reinforcing these inequalities to children.

I’ve published this analysis in two forms: a monograph from Cambridge University Press, which is available for free digital download and is a whistle-stop, rollicking tour of representation studies in children’s literature and the analysis of professors. Secondly, I put together an anthology of the earlier sources, which are often rare and hard to find, to show people my “working out” in the anthology, exploring how open access can work as a mechanism to deliver the equivalent of “open science” – showing your sources – for humanities research.

This is a project which I have enjoyed from start to finish, teaching me about library systems, digitisation, children’s literature, open access, and how difficult it is to undertake an analysis of this kind, which I hope contributes to our understanding of how media marketed towards children affects their world view. I’m still not sure my children are any further forward in understanding what mummy does, but walking through this simple question – how is academia represented in children’s literature? – has been an education.

Picture-Book Professors, Academia and Children’s Literature is available in open access from Cambridge University Press and freely available to download from

The Professor in Children’s Literature: An Anthology is available in open access from Fincham Press, the imprint from at the University of Roehampton and the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature, and freely available to download from

Melissa Terras is the Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage at the University of Edinburgh‘s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, leading digital aspects of research within CAHSS, and Director of Research in the new Edinburgh Futures Institute. Her research focuses on the use of computational techniques to enable research in the arts, humanities, and wider cultural heritage and information environment that would otherwise be impossible. She is an Honorary Professor of Digital Humanities in UCL Department of Information Studies, where she was employed from 2003-2017. Books include Image to Interpretation: An Intelligent System to Aid Historians in Reading the Vindolanda Texts (2006, Oxford University Press) and Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader (2013, Ashgate). She is a Trustee of the National Library of Scotland and currently serving on the Board of Curators of the University of Oxford Libraries. You can generally find her on twitter @melissaterras.

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