Kathleen Forrester on Exploring Kinship in Children’s Literature through a Queer Ecologies Framework

December 10, 2020

Bio: Kathleen Forrester is a PhD candidate in SFU’s Faculty of Education ETaP: Curriculum and Theory program. Studying under the supervision of Dr. Elizabeth Marshall she researches kinship in children’s literature through a queer ecologies framework. She has an MA in Children’s Literature from the University of British Columbia and a Graduate Certificate in Children’s Literature from Deakin University (Australia). In 2017, her manuscript, Jaida Wood, was longlisted for the international Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition. Kathleen has published peer-reviewed papers on topics related to children’s literature in the International IBBY journal, Bookbird, in the Canadian journal, Jeunesse, and most recently in the open-access journal, Barnboken.

Congratulations on winning the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship award. How do you feel about winning such a prestigious award?

This was my second time applying for a doctoral SSHRC grant and I am so thankful to all the readers, both faculty and other students, who gave feedback and support across the two years. I am humbled and honoured to be a recipient this year and feel gratitude for the financial security this award offers, especially during this pandemic time. I also feel relieved to not be in the process of applying for a third time as I found the process to be quite a grueling one. I know that a certain degree of luck plays a role in these things, along with hard work and good mentorship. I also know that merit scholarships hold complex histories often rewarding the same privileged demographic over and over. It feels gratifying to have my research acknowledged through such a prestigious award at this stage in my student career, and at the same time it is a complicated legacy and I look for ways to pay it forward.

Please tell us something about yourself such as your academic background, hobbies, interests, etc.

I often joke that theory and philosophy make the most sense to me when I have a kid’s book in my hand. I love reading and studying children’s literature and have made this niche field my specialization in all my graduate degrees. I also love writing stories for children, and my master’s thesis was a creative-critical hybrid project in which I wrote a fictional middle grade novel exploring queer intergenerational kinship alongside an exegesis. The novel went on to be longlisted for the 2017 Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition and I am in the process of revising in the hopes of publishing. While my doctoral dissertation is not a work of fiction I do plan to push at the creative-critical binary and employ a narrative style that blends theory with story.

As a queer person who has travelled away from my Australian family of origin to make a life with chosen family here in Canada, I find I am always looking for ways to make visible the myriad of non-traditional constellations of intimacy and kinship that exist beyond the dominant notions of bio-nuclear families. Of late this has meant thinking about kinship in more-than-human ways. For example, thinking relationally about the wild yeast and bacteria in the sourdough bread that I love to bake. Thinking about my body as porous, as not separate to the environment, and as very much tied to these sourdough critters has been an everyday way for me to expand my understanding of what queer kinship could be.

What are the implications of your research and who will benefit from this?

The working title of my doctoral research is Changing the Story: Queer Worlding Kinship in Children’s Picturebooks. I am inspired by multispecies feminist scholar Donna Haraway who writes a lot about the need for humans to expand the stories through which we make and recognise kin. Learning from Haraway, I take up children’s picturebooks as colourful companions in theorising about the queer possibilities of making kin in inventive ways. My research project is one of disruption and imagination: I set out to question normative notions of family embedded within picturebooks, but also and at the same time I read picturebooks for odd and wild kin assemblages, unexpected and imaginative collaborations, perverse and strange intimacies. Certainly many picturebooks are rife with normative (hetero-patriarchal-reproductive-monogamous-nuclear-white) representations of human relationality, and yet if read with a strategic openness to queer worlding, these texts are also brimming with diverse cross-species entanglements, hybrid embodiments, and unusual alliances that offer radical, queer reimaginings of alternative kinship possibilities across human and more-than-human worlds.

I feel that philosophy and picturebooks have much to say to one another, and my love of both brings me to this research juncture hopeful that I might generatively add to and weave together various conversations happening across diverse fields including queer theory, feminist science and technology studies, and children’s literature. Acknowledging that the category ‘human’ is far from universal, and that Indigenous and other peoples around the world have resilient and ongoing relational knowledges and practices, I set out to do this research hoping it might be part of a collective shift in consciousness toward understanding that humans are entangled in interdependent more-than-human relationships that require accountability and care. As such there are ecological, pedagogical and social justice implications for this work. The ways we tell, receive, and perpetuate stories about kinship matter greatly if we are to create a more hopeful and equitable world.

You have recently published an article in an international journal. Could you tell us something about it?

Yes! Earlier this Summer my article “Nature Unnested: Kin and Kind in Switched Egg Children’s Stories” was published in Barnboken: Journal of Children’s Literature Research, an open access, international journal. This article builds off various papers I had worked on in my doctoral seminars, as well as conference presentations I gave last summer, and it was a fun piece to write. In the article I draw on queer theory to focus in on the figure of the egg in children’s stories, thinking about what the trope of the “switched egg” reveals about socio-cultural ideas of nature and naturalness in relation to notions of kin and kind. In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, for example, nobility and aesthetic beauty is pre-determined by the “egg” one hatches from—in other words, an implicit message one might take from the text is that worth is genetic and pre-determined. I read Andersen’s text alongside two contemporary children’s picturebooks exploring the different ways nature is called upon to uphold white supremacy and heteronormativity. Disrupting these naturalizing discourses opens opportunities to imagine otherwise.

Can you tell us how you prepared your SSHRC proposal?

I gave myself permission to commit to a version of my research, knowing that it will change, this helped me not fret about the impossibility of pinning down a thesis that will be emergent in the writing. I then tried to craft a story in every sentence that showed why this research matters and is relevant, why I am the right person for this research, and why I am at the right institution and working with the right people to do this research. I learned a lot about brevity in the process—about cutting out loose words and using affirmative and bold language to describe the project and myself. The whole application took many, many long hours, and multiple drafts to complete. I relied heavily on a couple of fellow students who were also in the same intense SSHRC boat, we sent each other notes, feedback, and words of encouragement in the wee hours. My supervisor, Dr. Elizabeth Marshall, was also very supportive throughout the whole process.

What suggestions would you like to give to students interested in applying for SSHRC fellowships?

I recommend reading as many past proposals as you can possibly get your hands on. A SSHRC proposal is almost a genre unto itself and the more examples I read from other students across various disciplines, the better I understood how to convey my ideas in clear, succinct, and interesting ways that fit the criteria. Email past winners to see if they will share their proposal with you and find out if your supervisor will ask around through their networks as well. Also, start early! There are so many parts to the application, and they all take an inordinate amount of time. Finally, even if at the end of the day you do not receive the grant, know that you now have the bones of a really good dissertation proposal ready to go, and there is always next year to make a few (or many) tweaks to your proposal and apply again.

Thank you very much Kathleen. We wish you all the best for your future endeavors.


Forrester, K. (2020). Nature Unnested: Kin and Kind in Switched Egg Children’s Stories. Barnboken43https://doi.org/10.14811/clr.v43i0.489