Students, Alumni, GSWS

Alumni Profile: Robert Bittner, GSWS

February 16, 2017

If during the last decade you picked up a book for children or youth published in North America, chances are Robert Bittner (B.A. English, PhD GSWS) has read it. And if it’s an award-winning book, chances are that he served on the jury that honoured it. As a jury member for the Michael L. Printz Award (2015-16), the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award (2014-15), the Newbery Medal (2012-14), the Sheila Egoff Children’s Literature Prize (2011-12), and the Stonewall Book Awards (2011-13), among others, Bittner contributes his knowledge of representations of gender and sexuality to the world of publishing for youth.

Bittner, who successfully defended his PhD dissertation on January 11, 2017, researches transgender and genderqueer teen reading habits, particularly reactions to trans and queer representations of characters in literature written for youth readers. “The young adult (YA) genre of literature is expanding rapidly,” says Bittner, “and queer and trans protagonists and secondary characters are becoming more prevalent with each passing year.” Thus, “as YA literature is so incredibly responsive to sociopolitical events and activism—and youth are coming out as trans and making more decisions about their bodies earlier and earlier—there is a need for more scholarship that pushes for stronger and more varied representation of trans and queer teens.”

As he notes in his dissertation, most existing scholarship in the field of criticism of YA literature “privileges the study of gay and lesbian identities, as well as binary gender identities—either male or female. There is not much treatment of those who identify as other or in between.” In his research, Bittner combines “queer and trans theoretical approaches with literature and the transgender body and experience” to work “with new and emerging issues in literature, such as intersexuality, asexuality, and two-spiritedness.”

Bittner sees his academic work on YA literature as closely tied to his work on awards committees and other volunteer activities: “I bring my knowledge of queer and trans subjects to discussions at events, to presentations at conferences, and to reviews of books. I have read manuscripts and given feedback on books before publication, which is really neat and which I see as an extension of my research.”

Bittner first came to SFU for his BA (English) from Spruce Grove, Alberta, “just west of Edmonton,” which he calls a “‘interesting’ place to grow up.” This move provided Bittner the opportunity to explore personal connections between literature and identity -- connections that would evolve into his current academic research. He explains: “(in Spruce Grove) there was a strong religious community that I was a part of, and discovering my own sexuality made it a rather uncomfortable place at times. When I moved to Vancouver in 2001, I remember going to the library and finding books by David Levithan, particularly Boy Meets Boy. Seeing a gay character existing in a book without being bullied or hurt (as in many pre-2000 YA books with gay and lesbian characters), and seeing a gay secondary character who was also growing up in a religious community really made me feel less alone in the world. That book is pretty much what started me on the path of researching LGBTQ fiction for teens, and I’m so thankful to David Levithan for that.”

Following his SFU BA, Bittner attended the University of British Columbia, where he completed an MA in Children’s Literature in 2011. He then returned to SFU to continue his work on gender and sexuality: “What spurred me to accept a position at SFU in particular was that I had worked with Dr. Helen Leung in my undergraduate career, and we had kept in touch over the years. When I found out that she was able to take me on and be my senior supervisor, I jumped at the chance. And the rest is history.”

Rob Bittner speaking at Northern Lights College in Fort St. John, BC, as part of GSWS' Travelling Speakers Series.

When asked what makes his work so rewarding, Bittner is thoughtful: “People who aren’t involved in children’s and youth literature often see my work as unnecessary or silly. We learn much about the complexities of life through stories, though, and much of my research—especially seeing and hearing the reactions of children and teens to literature—helps to remind me that stories can and often do change how we see the world. Teaching introductory courses in children’s literature is incredibly rewarding, seeing adults come to the realization of how books are so much more than just words and pictures, but are introductions to entirely new ways of thinking and being.”

He also notes the reactions he sees and hears from teen readers when they tell him that a book has affected them positively and changed their lives. Bittner interviewed teens in his dissertation research; one teen spoke about how he was able to come out as trans because of reading one of the novels that featured in Bittner’s literary analysis. “It was,” he says, “incredibly moving. Hearing these stories reminds me that stories have the ability to change lives and make us think.”

Bittner also blogs, and currently works with, among others, the Association for Library Services to Children, the Canadian Review of Materials, the International Board on Books for Young People, and the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable, where he is the organizer for the 2017 Serendipity conference. He recalls some stand-out moments from his career to date: “When I served on the Newbery Medal jury, I had the opportunity to have dinner with the incredibly prolific Kate DiCamillo (author of Flora & Ulysses, The Tale of Despereaux, and Because of Winn-Dixie), and it was amazing. That being said, perhaps one of the most memorable meetings (for other reasons) was when I met, and then sneezed on, Judy Blume. I’ll never forget that. I hope she has.”