According to Assistant Professor Hannah Dyer in the Department of Child and Youth Studies, a child’s picture really can be worth a thousand words.
In her new book, Dyer explores the ways in which children’s artistic expressions can make space for them — and for the adults who care for them — to grapple with issues like racism, homophobia and settler colonialism that touch and shape their lives.
The Queer Aesthetics of Childhood: Asymmetries of Innocence and the Cultural Politics of Child Development was recently published by Rutgers University Press.
“Here, queerness describes that which is not recognized as innocent,” says Dyer, noting that although “the figure of the child is often summoned to represent hope and the future, not all children are equally hailed by notions of childhood innocence.”
It is Dyer’s goal to bring to the forefront these “asymmetries” of innocence — which might be based on ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, religion or traumatic events like war or forced migration — by centring the experiences of marginalized children in the context of studying child development.
“Critically studying the rhetoric of childhood innocence becomes indispensable to supporting children who experience homophobia, war, or racism, for example,” explains Dyer. “When taken seriously, these children’s acts of imagination and aesthetic expressions such as drawing and play can help adults rethink what we know about their experiences, feelings and insight.”
In order to pursue these ideas, both in her book and in her current SSHRC-funded project collecting, analyzing and exhibiting children’s drawings, Dyer has taken a transdisciplinary approach to her research, incorporating methods from both the humanities and the social sciences.
The results have gained recognition in the field of child studies for the ways that her scholarship “attends to both the needs of real children and the discourses of childhood at once,” as Dyer describes it.
Dyer credits her history of working to support marginalized and vulnerable children and youth, many of whom identify as queer, trans and non-binary, with helping shape her theories about the expressive potential of art in or about childhood.
“I think that it is in art and cultural production that we come closest to imagining what justice feels like for these children and youth.”