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  • Sandra Dinter & Maren Conrad

Surprising Synergies: Co-Teaching Representations of Migration in German & British Children’s Lit

Representations of Migration in German and British Children’s Literature


In the light of #blacklivesmatter, Maha El Hissy @mahaelhissy, Assistant Professor of German Literature at the University of Munich, explained on Twitter on 6 June 2020 why she believes that “postcolonial studies make sense in #academia &should be/remain part &parcel of academic curricula”, using the hashtag #4PostcolonialStudies, initiated by Andrea Geier @geierandrea2017. Many scholars joined her, concluding that postcolonial studies play at best a marginal role in German departments in Germany.

This finding also holds true for German Children’s Literature Studies (‘KJL’, ‘Kinder- und Jugendliteratur’, i.e. the field in German academia devoted to the study of children’s and young adult literature written in or translated into German). The issue of #diversity does play a role here but, from our point of view, in the rather superficial sense that literary characters are expected to represent a plurality of genders and races; explicit postcolonial approaches remain rare. A different picture presents itself in the English departments of German universities where postcolonial approaches and theories are frequently used and taught. Yet while the study of children’s literature is a distinct subfield in German Studies in Germany, with departments even offering MA degree programmes in ‘KJL’, only few English departments have integrated children’s literature studies into their curricula or research frameworks; Anglophone children’s literature is far less institutionalized in Germany than ‘KJL’ or children’s literature studies in the US or the UK.

These disparities across our two disciplines, German Studies and English Studies, inspired us to design a comparative and bilingual seminar on migration in post-1989 German and British children’s literature. Our intentions were manifold. First, we wanted to explore a topical issue that is just as relevant to national identity in Germany as it is to the UK. The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 had resonated in both countries. Yet different colonial histories and more recent developments, especially the Brexit referendum of 2016, as well as discourses on racism in Germany surrounding the trial of the terrorist group National Socialist Underground in 2018, have led to two distinct public and literary discourses on migration that we wanted to examine in more detail with our students. Second, we wanted to use the seminar as an opportunity to expand the canon of ‘KJL’ that still focuses on somewhat dated school literature from the 1970s, such as Peter Härtling’s novel Ben liebt Anna which perpetuates conventional gender norms and migrant stereotypes. Finally, we were curious to see how our different disciplinary backgrounds would complement each other in the classroom and forge new intercultural perspectives on Germany and Britain.

The Course

Conceptualizing our course, we soon realized that Maren’s KJL material provided well-established models to analyze the structures and genres of German children’s literature on migration, but hardly any readings of recent literary works from the angle of postcolonial studies. Sandra consequently added postcolonial theory and criticism to the course. We ended up naming our seminar ‘Strange Me, Strange Place – Migration in German and British Children’s and YA Literature’ and offered it in the winter term 2019/20 at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg for undergraduate students in different teacher training programs. Some of the students studied to become teachers of German and others to become teachers of English (taught as a foreign language in German schools). We taught several sessions together, but sometimes one of us did most of the planning and led the class discussions while the other one assisted in the background. We decided that the language used in class would derive from the literary works themselves: Sandra taught her individual sessions on British literature in English and Maren taught hers on German literature in German. Students were encouraged to answer in the language of the respective primary text but could also use the other language if they felt more comfortable with it.


We started the semester with a survey of the different cultural histories and forms of migration in Germany and Britain. Then we moved on to representations of migration in picture books (e.g. Kirsten Boje’s Bestimmt wird alles gut, 2017) and graphic novels (e.g. Eoin Colfer, Illegal, 2017), paying attention to recurring visual tropes like the nuclear family, orphanhood, or the Mediterranean Sea. The following sessions of the course introduced the students to diaspora studies and Homi Bhabha’s notion of hybridity, which we used as a lens to discuss Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (2001) and Julya Rabinowich’s Dazwischen: Ich (2016), two novels with first-person narrators who come to Europe as refugees from Ethiopia and Syria, respectively. We matched works with similar narrative structures, aesthetics, and themes to encourage our students to draw connections across German and British literature. In the second half of the course we mainly focused on coming-of-age novels (for example, Abbas Khider’s Ohrfeige, Saša Stanišić’s Herkunft, Meera Syal’s Anita and Me), because we felt that these texts had a complexity that lent itself well to close readings. Along with refugee narrative we thus also included narratives of second- and third-generation immigrants.


Good news first: teaching a bilingual course, which we expected to be the biggest challenge of the semester, turned out to be the smallest. Switching languages was not always easy for the students, but mostly doing so from session to session and guiding their weekly readings with study questions, it soon became a routine.

Our 28 students had very diverse backgrounds and came with a plethora of encounters with migration in their biographies. This diversity made our discussions very lively. At times, however, this could be a drawback because students responded to the literary texts personally or ethically rather than approaching them with scholarly distance. This meant that we sometimes had to insist on returning to our postcolonial framework, which did result in pondering and occasional silences. We soon realized that our idea of combining two disciplines with different maxims and conventions would turn out to be a powerful source of synergies, giving our course a whole different drive. Not only the students but we as teachers had to think outside the box. Interdisciplinarity assumed full force: more so than in our usual courses, we had to reflect upon the established paradigms in our fields. We not only learned more about the other discipline but also became aware of the implicit assumptions of our own fields. In the end, however, this process was worth it. Reading many excellent essays at the end of the term showed us that our students had become even more daring thinkers and readers, willing to dive into previously unknown territory.

This is why we can only encourage everyone to embark on comparative teaching scenarios in children’s literature studies.

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Sandra Dinter

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sandra Dinter is a lecturer at the English Department at Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuermberg in Germany. She has published on representations of childhood in contemporary fiction for adults and on space in children’s literature. Currently, she is researching the role of female pedestrianism in nineteenth-century British culture and literature.

Maren Conrad

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Maren Conrad is is a professor of German Literature and Children’s Literature at at Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuermberg in Germany. She has published on the fantastic, dystopia, multimodality and digital children’s literature. Currently, she is researching the history and role of inclusion in children’s literature and leading a research network on forgotten authors and precarious texts in mid-nineteenth-century literature, funded by the German Research Foundation.

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