Interview: Ani Lawrence


University of Glasgow

Areas of Interest/Research:

The Interstices of Children’s Literature and Religion: developing methods for using contemporary children’s literature as a way of bringing the lived religious experience to life in the classroom and beyond.

What is it about your field that you love researching?

I’m a former teacher and headteacher and fascinated by how we bring learning to life and place it in a context that is meaningful. I was inspired to research religion in children’s fiction by a 2014 Radio 4 broadcast, Beyond Belief, where a range of authors including Geraldine McCaughrean, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Tariq Mehmood discussed what Mehmood described as the ‘fictional invisibility’ of children of faith in contemporary children’s fiction. I was undertaking my M.Ed studies at the time and the changing portrayal of religion through history in children’s literature became the focus of my dissertation. My PhD has continued my studies on this under researched area, focussing now on practical approaches in the classroom. I can talk about it incessantly – I’m sure that my family are now as informed about the subject as I am!

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

There are many, but the one I am focussing on currently looks at how we could undertake “religious” readings of secular texts, and use critical literacy skills to dig into the lives of fictional protagonists and their personal and organised religious practices – where religions are recognised, or where ritual and artifacts become allegorical components of the stories themselves. This is leading into the development of a religio-artifactual critical literacy analysis toolkit which combines and builds on work undertaken by Pahl and Rowsell (2010) in artifactual literacies, Prothero’s 2007 work on religious literacy and Orsi’s 2010 writings on the lived religious experience, amongst many other brilliant commentators.

What is your current research about?

My research looks at how we could use contemporary fiction to explore others’ beliefs and values, and develop frameworks for promoting understanding and acceptance of difference in the classroom. It pulls together thinking and research on religious literacy, artifactual literacy and critical literacy, and explores how contemporary fiction for middle grade and young adult audiences presents and defines religious experience and lives in stories. I’ve been fortunate to have access to a large bank of sales and publication data from the last ten years from Neilsen Bookscan, which I’ve been analysing for trends in approaches to religion from authors and publishers over the last ten years, from the point of view that, as adults who control the books our children have access to (teachers, parents, publishers, agents, booksellers, librarians), we hold enormous responsibility both for the conversations we promote amongst those children, and the worlds with which they are presented in books in order to be able to interrogate the lived experience of others. With this responsibility comes great power, and it is my position that we need to recognise and acknowledge that power and use it wisely and transparently.

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

Oh there are so many! But to be honest, for this study area, it’s the fiction authors themselves who are teaching me so much. Philip Pullman, Patrice Lawrence, Randa Abdel-Fattah, Morris Gleitzman, David Almond – the list could go on and on. And when I get stressy about the research and whether it really is all worth it, Kate Clanchy’s book “Some Kids I Taught – and What They Taught Me” (2019) reminds me why I am doing it – because the impact of good teachers and good teaching on children’s lives is immeasurable and a privilege and something we have to hold with the greatest of gentleness and defend with the fiercest of attitudes. Academia isn’t the sole preserve of academic heroes – they are so often hidden in plain sight, in classrooms and libraries, in youth centres and sports clubs, between the pages of books and in the lyrics of songs, changing lives quietly and without ceremony, and if I can add a little something through my studies and musings to their impact on children, then this will all have been worth while.

What books have been formative for you in your study? Why were they so important? How did they shape you?

In terms of framing my thinking and nudging me towards practical applications of the research, I’d have to include Kate Pahl and Jennifer Rowsell’s (2010) “Artifactual Literacies – Every Object Tells a Story”, which is perhaps the most thumbed book on my shelf. I’ve learnt huge amounts from Coles (1992) “The Spiritual Life of Children” which is a beautifully written examination of how children perceive spirituality all around the, and verbalise, and live it. And Anne Trousdale has written many books and papers which resonate with my area of study. But again, it is the works of fiction: His Dark Materials (Pullman); Harry Potter (Rowling); The Candle and the Flame (Azad); I am Thunder (Khan); Grace (Gleitzman); which have been most formative in shaping my views of how we could be presenting a lived religious experience for children through the books they read in ways which are positive but critical, and which also encourage Big Questions to be asked and explored.

Where can we follow you online?

My twitter handle is @lawrea

If we ran into you at SBL/AAR and you didn’t want to talk about your field what would you want to talk about?

If I wasn’t banging on about stories and books, then I would probably be bending your ear about special educational needs, which is an area of education I am passionate about. Either that, or cake!

Other than your thesis, what research/writing project are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

In terms of research, I’ve been looking at the shapeshifting power of children’s literature and the relationship between magic/fantasy and religion in children’s fiction, in preparation for a presentation at ISRLC’s Transmutations and Transgressions biennial next year in Chester, which is proving to be a rich and exciting area to study. And as part of my PhD thesis, to explore the challenges in writing about religion for children in fiction, I had a go at writing a children’s book. It will probably never see the light of day, but it ignited a fire in me to write another one which might be one I could share one day, and so that’s what I am having a go at in the few spare moments available right now!

>> Thank you so much Ani for taking the time to share a bit about yourself and your work.

Are you a PhD student or Early Career Researcher working in Religion or Biblical Studies? If so, we’d like to hear from you. This website is dedicated solely to interviewing PhD students and ECRs on who they are, what they love about their work, and what has inspired them. If you’d like to be interviewed, head over to the Contact page and fill out the form. There’s no catch. Don’t be shy. Self-promotion is a virtue.

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