Structurally speaking

Structure in children’s literature, heck, literature in general, is an odd tricksy beast. If I think of structure, one of the first examples that come to mind(though everything is an example of structure, this one comes first) is Tristram Shandy. Though it still remains not the most readable of books for me, and nowhere approaching children’s literature, I am always fascinated by the structure of it. Sterne’s book, madness, flirtation with order and sentence, is something quite extraordinary. That, coupled with Enuonia, remains one of my great reminders of what books can do and what the form of a book can be.

And to be specific with an example in children’s literature; that flirtation with form, that embracing of what is, is something that Room 13 by Robert Swindells does quite brilliantly. It is a gothic story set in the heartland of gothic-onia, Whitby, and the book itself possesses no chapter thirteen. Chapter Twelve exists. Chapter Fourteen exists. Chapter Thirteen does not.

I can’t tell you how much this thrilled me when we had it read out to us at school. I still remember the way that the entire class let out a low, stunned, “Ooooooh” when the teacher showed us the blank pages. It’s such a brilliant, clever stylistic touch which adds so much to the story. It is the story inhabiting itself (lord, how I hope this makes sense) and being more than the words on the page.

And that’s what we want, as reader, as writer, we want these stories to live and to burn in our hearts. We give ourselves when we read, when we write, and there’s nothing more pained than finishing something and feeling – nothing. Just the turn of a page and a blank, emptiness inside you.

I don’t want that. As writer, as reader, as big old book nerd, I do not want that. I want literature to mean something. Art should give you something, whether it’s something you understand or don’t, you should be able to recognise (lord, not even recognise, just feel ) something different about yourself at the end of it. The closeness of reading is particularly potent. You are in somebody else’s headspace for the entirety of that encounter – and that’s amazing to me. It always has been, it always will be. The transformational power of a text.

That’s why structure’s so important. It is the shape, the framework of that encounter, and it has to be accessible. Every book wants you to unlock it and to be part of it. There’s no fun in something which doesn’t want you to be part of it. I am a selfish reader sometimes. I need to be needed. I want to feel like I am actualising this story and if I sense that it doesn’t need me, that the structure is too tight and too dense to let me in and doesn’t care about that, then I feel like I’m missing out.

(And I think, I think I have found my structure for my book. It is not what I expected but if I had expected it then I’d have been eating chocolates and watching DVDs for these past few weeks rather than slash, slash, slashing with my red pen. What can I tell you about it? Well. I will tell you this:

Every book is a performance, I think, and mine is no exception).

Best of British : is there such a thing as the Great British Children’s Book?

I’ve been thinking about children’s literature and what, you know, makes it what it is today. I’ve thought for a while that we’re living in a second golden age, with the quality of titles being published during and in the past few years. But then I thought that well, maybe there’s something in that but there’s also something in that if I ever think about what’s my British classic, what’s the book that embodies children’s literature, there’s a vast likelihood that it’s one of the classics I grew up with.

We’ve touched on this beforehand (most notably in one of the #kidbkgrp chats on classics) but I wanted to push it further. I want to reason out why I think this is such a Proper Good Time for children’s literature in the UK.  And I think the first thing I need to figure out is if there even is there such a thing as a classic British book? Because if I’m saying this is an amazing time in British children’s literature, I think I need to figure out where we’ve already been.

Continue reading

The use of Framing and Composition in Ellen and Penguin : Clara Vulliamy

I’ve spoken before about how much I love Clara Vulliamy’s skill with picture books. She’s got an awareness and respect – and love – for the medium that translates into some very good and very smart books. It was with some excitement when I discovered Ellen and Penguin and the New Baby nestling on the bottom shelves of my library.

Ellen and Penguin and the New Baby is a very sensitive and  charming book that is practically a lesson in frames and composition. So I thought I’d share some of that with you by looking at how Ellen is treated throughout the book. Continue reading

Once upon a time

Image: o palsson (Flickr)

I’m doing a lot of reading of fairytales at the moment, and am being struck by the narrative joy inherent in them. ‘Once upon a time’. It’s a glorious, effortless phrase. It transports you instantly into a world of wicked stepmothers, princes turned into frogs, and talking cats.

I always tended to read fairytales as fairly unique creatures, personal to my own settings and surroundings. I mapped the troll bridge from the Three Billy Goats Gruff onto a bridge in the middle of the North Yorkshire Moors. I imagined the fat round pumpkins from the vegetable patch next door being transformed into Cinderella’s carriage.  And yet, something like Cinderella has been being told across the world from the 1st century BC! I find that fascinating that a story can grow and spread and grow again in intensely different contexts.

But that’s the thing about fairytales, I feel that for all their prince and princesses, they are stories based very much on the common experience of being human. They teach us not to judge on appearances. Not to trust strangers. About sex. About growing up. About surviving when your parents drop you off in the forest and a witch decides to stuff you into an oven. Which is exciting, and also sort of subversive in a kind of splendid manner.

The other thing fairytales also allow us to do is work out the boundary of our world – of our experiences and of our selves.  They allow us to learn how to control our surroundings, and to engage in fear in controlled contexts. I always remember a quote I read about why people read crime and horror fiction – and it was because when events like this occur in a story, we know that there is control. We know that this event is controlled, either through the page-turn of a book, or through the fact that the storyteller will finish their story and we learn to ‘manage’ that horror.

Critically speaking, it’s worth having a look at the Aarne-Thompson Index, and also the work of Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar who excel in this area. I’ve also got a lot of love for the work of Iona and Peter Opie (and not just for their fairytale work, the Opie book on the Lore and Language of School Children is superb though sadly feeling a bit aged now).

And, obviously, on a fictional note, the wondrous The Jolly Postman, which should be on mandatory reading for pretty much everyone :-)


Why read? The School Story

There are a whole world of genres in children’s literature, and there are new ones being created each and every day. In these posts, I’ll be focusing  on some of the key genres and both introduce them and offer some top hints on where to begin.

My first in this occasional series is very close to my heart. Behold the school story genre!

Image: theirhistory (Flickr)

The appeal of school stories can come from both the mimicking and distancing of real life. Education is something nearly everybody experiences, albeit in different forms. Reflecting this common experience onto literature allows the reader to both empathise with characters and also allow a sense of wish fulfilment to occur. In the book the mean girl might get her comeuppance, the awkward kid save the day, or the school is racked by a series of pranks. In the real world, it might be a very different scenario. The kid might be lonely, bullied or just unable to talk yet in the quick brashness of schools. Books set in schools can show behaviours and strategies to help in dealing with this and also implicitly support the child by reinforcing the very simple fact that they are not alone.

There’s also something rather glorious about the structure of school stories. They occur very much in their own world that’s been separated from the ‘real’ world of the reader. It’s rare, for example, to read one that doesn’t begin with a journey. This can range from taking the train from Platform 9/34, the boat across the Tiernsee, or getting sent to England from the wilds of Africa. The journey element helps to remove the book school from the reader and their daily trials and tribulations. This source of escapism would prove to be something of a poignant source of comfort during World War Two. The school story was thriving, vigorously so, and some of the best of the genre were produced during this era. Have a look at the Chalet School in Exile for some superbly ideological bravery and also Owen Dudley Edward’s magnificent ‘British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War‘ for more info.

School stories have had a little bit of a resurgence in the past few years. Stemming initially from the dominance of the Harry Potter series, this has boiled down into a host of books hitting the market. You can track everything I’ve written on school stories here and this includes reviews of The Paladin Prophecy, the Alice-Miranda books and also a vast amount on my Mastermind specialist subject which is early 20th century school stories. Commonly referred to as GirlsOwn literature, this covers authors such as Angela Brazil and my darling Elinor M. Brent-Dyer.

Other key authors in the genre include the indefatigable Enid Blyton for her redoubtable ‘Malory Towers’, ‘The Naughtiest Girl’ and ‘St Clares’ books. Despite being published a good seventy odd years ago respectively, they still remain popular and St Clares, as I discovered recently, has a peculiarly prevalent life as the series (and FILM!) Hanni und Nanni.

If you’re interested in a list of school story recommendations, have a look here. The FCBG (Federation of Children’s Book Groups) hold a regular Twitter chat on various different topics. It’s always fascinating, and you’re guaranteed to end with a list of titles you need to get hold of instantly.


- School stories reflect the commonality of school, the dominant impact of education upon the majority of children  and offer a way of both dealing with, and escaping it. Because they’re awesome.