“Nobody needs me” – “I do.” A few thoughts on space, relationships and children’s literature

Catching Fire is one of those films that I fear I might be thinking about for a long time. It aches inside of me and I love it. I love the furious pain of Jennifer Lawrence in it (that end shot!). The layers beyond layers of story and doublespeak and intrigue. The beautiful honesty of Josh Hutcherson. Mags.

I am, as I was in the cinema, struck by this exchange between Peeta: “Nobody needs me.” Katniss: “I do.”

There’s so much there. This complex, difficult, pained relationship borne from bread and honed through the hunger games is something quite graceful and wondrous in both the books and the film. Better people than I have written about the complex wonder of Katniss as a heroine, but I want to take a moment and talk about relationships. The potential of them. The space of them.

I talk a lot about space, I know, and in a textual sense, I use it quite loosely. There are many different types of space. There is the space between you and the book; the dynamic of reading it, how you feel, how it changes throughout the reading, how you change and so on. There is the space of the book itself; the dynamics of the words in the text, how they play and shift and push against each other. There is the space outside of the book; the world that the book inhabits, the way that it relates to other books, to those that have come before and those who will come after it. In a way, when I talk about space, it can be one or all or none of these and instead that little, desperate clutch inside your throat as you realise that the character you care about will falter, will fall, and it will happen because this book is written and this book has an end and you are locked in with it now until the death.

That is space. The everything. The nothing. The heartbeat. The eye-blink.

This is the space of literature and it is a space new-formed with every reader and with every page turn. Think about the potential of that. The utter, endless potential of that. A new story given to every reader from one book. A new experience.

And that is where I think my interest in relationships and the potential of them in children’s literature comes from. I read this excellent piece about relationships and sexuality earlier. The final paragraph of that article is the kicker:  “YA literature has a responsibility to make a space for girls to think about sexuality on a broad spectrum. We owe it to girls to give them something we don’t have—more than one ideal Relationship Narrative. Open space where there used to be claustrophobic one-path hallways. A chance to decide for themselves what love looks like, and what sex looks like in all its forms

Boom. We owe it to readers to present a space where sexuality, where relationships, happen. In all of their messy, wild, heartfelt, angsty ways. We owe it to readers to give them the chance of seeing themselves in literature. We owe it to readers to give them the potential of seeing themselves and what they are, and were, and will be, reflected in the space of literature. We owe it to readers to give them the chance to find the threads of their life reflected in this mirror shaped in ink and paper, and we owe them the opportunity and the actuality to find that in whatever shape and whatever pattern that thread may take.

For it will breathe there, so comfortable, so quiet, so small, in the space of that book until it is found and it will ache with longing until it is given life.

Until it is read.

May I draw your attention to the best thing ever?

booksbeyond-colour-webDo you know about the FCBG conference? FCBG stands for ‘The Federation of Children’s Book Group’ and their conference is a thing of utter joy. Seriously. If you work with children, libraries, teaching, whatever, or are just interested in children’s literature (holler!),then get yourself along to it if you can. I was lucky enough to attend the 2012 one and I was borderline evangelical afterwards. It was basically like getting an extra Christmas.

This year’s conference features Meg Rosoff (!), Helen Oxenbury (!!) and Anthony Browne (!!!) amongst many other wonderful names. I do reccomend attending it if you can. It’s one of those ‘build me a willow cabin at your gates’ sort of conferences, as you will not want to leave.

You can find out more about the FCBG here and the details of the conference here.


Voice in children’s literature : Power, space and place

One of the big things I’m passionate about (and you may have gathered this) is the demystification of children’s literature. Of literature, really, of the breaking down of the fear of it and the awe of it and the preconceptions of it. Doing my MA in Children’s Literature (with the rather superb department at Roehampton) was one of the greatest things I did. It helped give me confidence in talking about this great love of my life – and it gave me confidence in dealing with that great love of my life. I genuinely think that in a way it gave me my voice.

Voice. That’s a big thing in children’s literature. You’ll hear a lot about it everywhere, in agents wishlists and in reviews. The voice. We search for it because it is a way to connect with something. It is not about what is said (as we all know, an unreliable narrator can shift and spin the narrative to their own ends) but rather it is about how it is said. How a word is in the text and how it touches the left and right space of that word. How a story aches to be complete, and how it rages against being fenced in. How a paragraph can be everything and nothing and a world can be caught in that space between where it starts and ends.

So I want you to think about voice, I think, in the next book you’re reading. But I don’t want you to stop at the voice of the words inside the book. I want you to think about the whole of the book, the sense of it. I want you to taste it. I want you to push at it and find your space in it.  I want you to hold that book in your hand, be it a picture book you’re reading with your children, or a dystopia you’re devouring on the commute, and think about how it feels in your grip. About the sense of it, about the emotion 

Because I believe that understanding and being able to touch literature, to feel it, makes you strong. Being able to understand how you feel about something makes you powerful. Your voice is constructed of a thousand shards of you and the discovering of that voice is maybe one of the hardest things in the world to do. But it’s also one of the most valuable.

The understanding of voice, the experience of voice can give you your voice.

This is why literacy matters. This is what it can do.

This is what it does. 

Cowgirl : GR Gemin

CowgirlCowgirl by Giancarlo Gemin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is such a weirdly entrancing and lovely book. I mean, genuinely so. Gemma on the Mawr Estate meets Cowgirl. Cowgirl is the school outcast; tall, angry, and best mates with the cows on her father’s farm. Cowgirl and Gemma are thrown into an odd, abrupt sort of friendship that culminates with a sort of Western movie meets Wales meets Cows sort of quest that is MAD, but ridiculously lovely and entrancing.

Basically, this book is weird but gorgeous. It is Most Unexpected. I brandished it at my colleagues at work and went “Look, look at the loveliness!” because as ever with a Nosy Crow, it is designed beautifully. The cowhide motif runs throughout the book with a little bit at the start of each chapter and is very nicely done. The packaging of a book is vital – it’s sort of the icing on top of the cake that gives you a feel of what’s to come. And this is lovely.

So the book itself? As I said, odd but ridiculously lovely with that oddness. The premise is so unexpected, but the voice is beautiful. It carries it off. Gemma is frustrated, charming, funny, angry and brave. Cowgirl is heartbreaking. The cows are adorable. The characters on the estate are adorable, stubborn and rich. This is a book written with a lot of love, a lot of passion, (a lot of cows!) and I’m so glad it exists.

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The Everest Files : Matt Dickinson

The Everest Files (Everest Files, #1)The Everest Files by Matt Dickinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really like what Matt Dickinson does. I think he’s in the process of carving out a sort of modern Hardy Boys / Biggles esque niche; a sort of very ‘boys own’ adventure style reinterpreted for the modern era. I had a lot of time for Mortal Chaos, and so I was more than happy to accept a review copy of the start of his new series – The Everest Files.

Whilst on his gap year in Nepal, working with a local medical charity, Ryan ends up talking with a local girl. This is Shreeya and she asks Ryan to find out what happened to her friend Kami. Kami’s story, once Ryan discovers it, takes place on the unbearably dramatic slopes of Everest.

The thing about Dickinson is that he does what he does very well, and I think in a way I was waiting for him to get there. I could have done without the framing story of Ryan, though I think that will pay off in the sequel. It’s when we get to the story of Shreeya and Kami that this book starts to properly get going. And when it gets going, it gets going brilliantly. There is such truth about Dickinson’s adventure writing and it’s thick with tension and honesty. I really love it but it took such a long time for me and the story to get there.

The other issue I had about this is a stylistic tic that pops up quite often in the text. It’s the habit of having the odd sentence in italics.

For dramatic effect

I don’t think this is necessary at all, and it’s something that I’d welcome being dropped in reprints and the sequels. Dickinson’s writing is strong enough without this sort of panicky emphasis, and it does prove distracting.

So, how to sum The Everest Files? Problematic, but good. Honestly so. Dickinson writes Everest with love and with respect and with fear, at times, and that’s a heady combination to read and it’s one that will keep me coming back to it and to him. And it’s something I understood in the final moments of the story, and I think it’s something that I understood when I finished; Everest casts a spell. It cast a spell on Ryan, on Shreeya and on Kami. It’s something you can’t deny, once you’ve been caught in it. And that’s a beautiful, terrifying story in itself and one that Dickinson comes very close to capturing.

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Interplay in ‘the yes’ by Sarah Bee and Satoshi Kitamura

I have been aching to do another picture book in depth post for a while now. Whilst I know picture books aren’t the main focus of this blog, they are one of my great and genuine joys and they are something very, very important. Picture books are our introduction to literacy. They’re read by us in so many ways as our reading ability develops, and as such they have to work on a ridiculous amount of levels. They have to reward the adult reader. The child pre-literate. The child emerging literate. The child literate. And quite often they do that with maybe a handful of words, or none.

Picture books are extraordinary.

Front cover of 'the yes'

A) Front cover of ‘the yes’

And I think that the yes stands proud up there with the best of them. Continue reading

Rooftoppers : Katherine Rundell

RooftoppersRooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Found floating in a cello case in the English Channel after a shipwreck, Sophie is adopted by Charles; a beautiful, good, eccentric and lovely character. Together the two of them live their oddly lovely life, acceptable to them but unacceptable to the authorities who eventually come calling for Sophie and announce their intent to remove her from Charles’ guardianship and into a ‘normal’ life.

The thing is, Sophie does not feel she is an orphan. She remembers, quite vividly, her mother. And so Charles and Sophie run away to Paris, to evade both the reach of the authorities and to find out if Sophie’s mother did truly survive. After all, it is not impossible that she survived and “you should never ignore a possible”.

This rich, whimsical, destined-to-be-a-future-classic book is something rather lovely. There was a lot in it that reminded me of my beloved Girlsown books; the inherent strength and bravery of Sophie and the richness of Rundell’s text. That sort of comfort in the space of her narrative, to play and to spin with language to the extent that Rundell does, and yet to retain the pure truth of her story? That is why I love Girlsown books. And that is one of the big reasons why I loved Rooftoppers. It is so comfortable and so wholly what it is.

It’s a lovely book this,can you tell that I adored it? I loved the fairytale feel of it and I loved Charles. Oh god, how I loved Charles. Rooftoppers has so much to give. It is a story of love, and of faith, and of acceptance. It is a wonderful, buttery-toast by the open fire, sort of book.

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