Judy Acheson in Russia and Constantinople: The Equanimity of Juvenile Travel Writing

Stream: Travel and Place
Date: Wednesday, 18 May 2022
Time: 11.00 am – 12.30 pm


Juvenile authors often come to public and scholarly attention because of their capacities to turn their quotidian experiences into something extraordinary. For twentieth-century teenage travel writer Julia (Judy) Acheson, however, life was something extraordinary: for several years she accompanied her father, head of the Near East Relief, across Turkey and the Soviet Union, and she wrote about her experiences in two books for Frederick Stokes: Judy in Constantinople (1930), and Young America Looks at Russia (1932). Despite the remarkable historical and material events to which young Judy bore witness, including the aftermath of the Armenian genocide, the rise of the socialist Soviet Union, and the reorganization of the former Ottoman Empire, her books are steady and even pleasant, recommended by reviewers for their educational merit rather than their excitement or literary qualities. This twenty-minute, co-authored paper tests three ways of understanding the equanimity of juvenile travel writing in the 1920s and 30s, of which Acheson’s work is a particularly illustrative example. The first approach is to conclude that the writers of juvenile travel narratives, including Acheson, were largely unskilled storytellers who had little literary interest or talent. Yet this analysis is an unhelpful endpoint, and it overlooks the consistent demand for and popularity of these books. The second approach is to consider the diplomatic and strategic purpose of this level, factual style of narrative. In the immediate post-World War I and interwar period, were child writers like Judy complicit in a foreign policy grounded in rationalism? Were Americans interested in presenting themselves as steady, reasonable forces of good in a world of chaos, and was this ideology expected of children, too? Did educational experts strive to mirror this philosophy by presenting the world as a place first to be learned about, and only then to be experienced in the form of adventure and artistry? Comparing Acheson’s work to G.P. Putnam’s “Boys Books by Boys” series and the larger fad for American juvenile travel writing in this period suggests an attempt to understand the world as a space that—whether ludic or educational—could be moulded to American purposes and be made safe for American innocence. The third approach is to consider what this equanimity says about children and child writers more generally. Though child writers who would go on to become well-known adult authors often apprenticed and played by adapting scenes from their lives into the kind of clever narratives and evocative descriptions that they appreciated, less literary child writers moulded their lives into the educational styles that they knew best, and were likely apt to conform to the expectations of their parents and publishers. As specialists in learning—that is, experiencing new things every day—child travel writers often turned their extraordinary lives and material experiences into the quotidian work of learning. Our presentation concludes that while this process may have flattened their narratives, their sturdy books found eager buyers in school librarians and other education experts, creating artifacts of American culture and internationalism that would shape a generation and continue to serve scholars today.


Caroline Lieffers (Presenter), King's University
Caroline Lieffers is an Assistant Professor of History at King’s University, where her research examines the cultural history of US imperialism. She has also curated several exhibits for the University of Alberta and Yale University Libraries, and has published widely in the histories of juvenilia, child travel writing, medicine, and domestic life. In 2011, Caroline co-edited *Crossing Canada: The Diary of Hope Hook* with Juliet McMaster and other colleagues from the University of Alberta. Caroline sits on the Board of Directors for the International Society for Literary Juvenilia, and also hosts a popular podcast for the Disability History Association.

Frederick Mills (Presenter), University of Alberta
Frederick Mills is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Alberta, specializing in Russian and Soviet internationalism in the twentieth century. His dissertation examines scientific, cultural, and diplomatic exchanges between the Soviet Union and the Arab World in the Khrushchev era. Frederick is also the co-editor of *Ukraine's Euromaidan: Analyses of a Civil Revolution* (2015) and has published widely on the history of diplomacy and international relations. In addition to his academic research, Frederick has won a University of Alberta Graduate Teaching Award, and he provides career and education counselling for newcomers to Canada.