EXTENDED: Word Play: Nonstandard English and Multilingualism in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

deadline for submissions: 
March 28, 2021
full name / name of organization: 
Modern Language Association 2022
contact email: 

Children’s literature in English has long been a tool for literacy instruction and acculturation to English language, used both as a tool for learning and as a force for homogenization within histories of Anglophone colonialism and imperialism. As scholars and professors dedicated to exploring the ways in which texts for young people make meaning, we know that language functions as both a tool of empowerment and one of imprisonment. Amiri Baraka writes that “users”—or dominant cultures—“have words. And it is the users that establish the world’s realities.” Language, then, inevitably divides as it shapes such realities by sorting people into groups of “users” and non-users. “[W]ords,” says Baraka, “like their users, have a hegemony.” Throughout culture and history, young people have created their own category of “users” —their own form of creative play with language—through subverting or disrupting the use of standard English.

Children’s literature in English has also played with language, extending its uses of English byond standard forms and pedagogical goals. Word play is one strategy for disrupting Anglophone hegemonies in these texts. Acknowledging languages and literacies beyond English, children’s and young adult literature in English have included non-English words and phrases. Native, Latinx, Asian American, and Arab American authors have integrated different language elements into their texts for children, at times with accompanying translations and glossary definitions and at others without -- inviting readers to read and speak beyond English. Others, including Elizabeth Acevedo, Sue Cheung have illustrated the permeability of languages, representing multilingual characters and hybrid forms such as Spanglish and Chinglish, pushing against prioritizations and assumptions of monolingualism.

Other writers have taken up English in nonstandard and even maligned language forms. African American writers from Paul Laurence Dunbar to June Jordan, to Sharon Flake have long used African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to speak to Black child readers (and perhaps, as Michelle Martin has suggested) over the heads of white readers. While some readers and educators have critiqued this use of nonstandard English, preferring a linguistic standardization that is also racially coded, others have acknowledged the importance of these kinds of authentic language representations for Black children.

As recent technology creates new modes of linguistic expression and understanding, young people (especially) have learned to communicate through digital spaces and social media via technological devices. Just as children’s and young adult literature has recognized and represented the breadth of other linguistic moves,  it has also evolved to incorporate new uses and representations of language in recent novels about and for young people that incorporate text-speak and emojis into their dialogue.

The variability, permeability, and malleability of language becomes visible in children’s literature, revealing also how these genres are a particular site for examining subversions of and shifts in linguistic power.

Paper topics might include:

  • Histories of nonstandard English and (accurate or inaccurate) racial representation
  • Changes in nonstandard English in children’s literature over time
  • Critiques or defenses of nonstandard English
  • Children’s responses to nonstandard language in their texts
  • Technology and language in children’s literature
  • Non-English words and phrases in English-language children’s literature

Those interested in participating should send a 100-200 word abstract and 2-page CV to brigitte.fielder@gmail.com or blankpaige@gmail.com by March 15, 2021.