- Identity, Representation, and Coming-of-Age in Football Fiction for Children
Some years ago, before I became a researcher, I spent a day at the National Football Museum in my football1-obsessed hometown of Manchester in the North of England. In the bookshop, I picked up Dan Lyndon's biography of Walter Tull, one of the first Black officers in the British Army and a professional footballer. I continued to look out for similar books throughout my PhD in children's literature with the hope of one day carrying out a project on football books for young people.
The 2019 REIYL (Researchers Exploring Inclusive Youth Literature) conference, with its focus on inclusive youth literature, provided a catalyst for my thinking about what such a project might look like, and what its core aims should be. A personal highlight of the conference was hearing Dean Atta read from his new (and now Stonewall Book Award-winning) coming-of-age verse novel, The Black Flamingo. The Black Flamingo references football in several poems, exploring issues of race, gender, and sexuality in the beautiful game and society at large. Soon after the conference, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education released their findings that of all the children's books published in 2018, only 7 percent featured a Black or ethnic minority character (Reflecting Realities). The equivalent figure for my growing collection of football books for children from the last twenty years is closer to 100 percent. What might these books contribute to discussions about diversity, representation, and identity in children's literature?
Children's literature is a vibrant and growing area of academic study. Yet there has been almost no research on the depiction of football in books for children. Children's literature is coming to terms with its own erasures, misrepresentations, and oversights, and indeed, has much to learn from [End Page 181] football's own history and challenges in achieving greater diversity, inclusion, and justice. Meanwhile, football can learn from children's literature criticism, specifically by gaining additional materials, tools, and ideas that can improve the quality and inclusivity of educational outreach materials and other publications for children produced by football clubs and their partners.
This research note outlines ideas for a project focusing on football fiction for children. The main aim of this project is to describe and evaluate representations of different identities in Anglophone football fiction and creative nonfiction written for children and young adults, using the ideas of personal "growth" and "coming-of-age" as framing concepts. These latter concepts are intrinsic to understandings of the so-called "apprentice" novel thought to be at the core of what is often understood as "children's literature." The structures, themes, and character types typically associated with the coming-of-age story can be readily observed in many football stories.
Theoretical Framework and Key Concepts
This project will build on the theoretical framework I developed over the course of my doctoral project, in which I found economic criticism to be a useful approach for thinking about identity and how it functions in society, especially when thinking about what child characters are able or permitted to do, and the limits of their agency when engaging with the wider world. Economic criticism is a mode of criticism that is often used to look at literary representations of themes such as work, money, and property as well as more abstract concepts such as agency, exchange, and choice. In the context of football stories, an economic criticism approach will lead to more nuanced analysis of ideologies of individualism and individual growth versus collective effort and responses to setbacks.
In the introduction to The New Economic Criticism, Mark Osteen and Martha Woodmansee describe the approach as follows: "When applied to narrative works, such criticism usually begins by analyzing the actions and interactions of the characters—their exchanges, debts, purchases, losses, gifts, etc." (36). This form of analysis will underpin my readings of football books and their representations of different identities in the context of coming-of-age narratives. For example, a character who succeeds in their footballing career may make financial gains while at the same time losing a sense...