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 Emer O'Sullivan: "'G is for German': Constructions of Nationality and Ethnicity in Picturebooks

CSWGS was pleased to co-sponsor Emer O’Sullivan’s lecture, “’G is for German’: Constructions of Nationality and Ethnicity in Picturebooks” on February 6th. O’Sullivan’s talk emphasized the importance of children’s literature in the construction of perceived foreign national identities.    

Emer O'Sullivan

As the dominant supplier of cultural images for children until the advent of television, children’s books provided, and still provide, a vocabulary through which young minds read the world. Tracing a trajectory of English picturebooks, O’Sullivan charted the changes in English perceptions of German and Spanish nationalities from the eighteenth through the twentieth century. These representations are often the best sources for understanding how nations perceived one another because the images within the books and rhymes that accompany them are simple enough for children to comprehend. The general development of German and Spanish national imagery in English picturebooks follows national attitudes of the time—for example, before Germany emerged as a viable threat to other European powers, children’s books often depicted German children as toy makers. Representations of nationalities perceived to be weak or non-threatening tend to include corresponding verbal and/or visual clues. These books tend to represent nations that were more powerful at the time in a negative light. To this extent, picturebook representations of Spain and Germany follow a reverse trajectory: as Spain passed from the era of the Inquisition to its presence as a smaller European power, images of Spaniards morphed from fierce, proud men to sweetly singing balladeers. As O’Sullivan demonstrated, the transition of national stereotypes finds fecund ground in children’s picturebooks.  

Emer O'Sullivan is Professor for Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Lüneburg, Germany. This event was co-sponsored with the Department of French Studies, the Department of German Studies, and The Humanities Research Center.