Awards and children’s literature

Last night #kidbkgrp talked about awards and children’s literature. It was a very brief and quiet chat as there weren’t many people online (my thanks to those who were around!). I therefore decided that the chat as a whole wasn’t worth storifying but, as I do think this is a topic worth pursuing, I decided to blog. Voila! Cogito Ergo Blog!

Photo courtesy of  daverugby83 (Flickr)

Photo courtesy of daverugby83 (Flickr)

A brief check of Wikipedia reveals that there are a minimum of 31 children’s book awards in the UK. Now, as per the nature of WIkipedia, that’s not going to be a complete list. And it isn’t. There’s no UKLA award on there and I expect that’s not the only one. Wikipedia is a brilliant resource but it’s not infallible. (Do I sound like I have my librarian hat on? I surely do. It’s a sombrero btw).

Children’s book awards in the UK range from those voted for solely by children, such as the Red House Children’s Book award, administered by the FCBG, through to those selected by professional bodies such as CILIP who look after the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway awards. As I’m a member of CILIP, I get to nominate which is exciting and also rather a huge privilege.

So what does this mean? Why do we have awards?

Well, I think one reason is that we’re sort of honouring the presence of literature in our lives. We’re saying to our contemporaries, our peers and those readers yet to come that these books are wondrous. They are life-changing, vivid beasts and they are good and great and should be read. As previous Carnegie winner Philip Pullman says: “Once upon a time lasts forever”. Stories are forever and they should be and we’re memorialising these books by entering them in a sort of joint record (like a societal bibliography, if you will) and we’re trying to give them a sense of longevity. Just looking at the previous winners of the Carnegie is like looking at a distilled vision of perfect, wonderful (and occasionally intensely challenging) British children’s literature. And it’s right to be proud of that, I think. It’s more than right.

Another reason, as mentioned last night, is to give books by new authors a chance of being read. Did you know that over 10,000 books were published last year in the UK? (At least 10,000 books – some reports go way, way higher than that). Proportionally speaking, the number of children’s books that get published in one year is basically tons (technical, I know, but have a look in your bookshop at the number of new titles and you’ll see what I mean). It’s hard to get read out there. And it’s hard to find books. I read a lot (this is a safe space, right?) and so many of my books are found through browsing and happenstance. A good cover. The librarian reshelving it just in time for me to see. There is so much luck about this. And awards help! They do. They give people a chance to catch their breath and go – wait, this is supposed to be good, I heard about this, let’s give it a chance. Awards can do that signposting towards literature and almost ‘remove’ that risk element of reading. Nobody wants to invest time of their own in reading something rubbish. And when we’re talking about children’s literature, with that always tricksy contextual element that it no doubt has, that’s two fold. You don’t want your kids put off by accidentally reading say War and Peace instead of Where’s Wally.

As it’s always good to do things in threes, here’s a third reason why I rather love what awards can do. They can make statements. They can set out and articulate issues that need articulating.  The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award came into being in 2013 with the aim to “to recognise a rich tradition of radical publishing for children in the UK”. Radical is, they say “include[s] books informed by inclusive/anti-discriminatory concerns or those which promote social equality or social justice”. In an increasingly diverse world, they’re making the statement that diverse and brave literature matters for juvenile readers. And that’s brilliant because it is such a statement. It’s proud and it’s lovely and it’s desperately vital. I believe in the right of children to see themselves in literature and awards that celebrate that right are a good and great thing.

So here we are. As you’ll gather, I’m in favour of literary awards. I do acknowledge that they can be problematic beasts at time but as a whole, I think I’m rather proud that we have them. Here’s to us and our continued celebration of children’s literature. Long may it continue.

No and Me : Delphine de Vigan

No And MeNo And Me by Delphine de Vigan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a strange book ‘No and Me’ as it’s one which didn’t really get me until the end. Written originally in French and translated into English, it is full of eloquent and heartbeat like moments that sort of somehow just are, until you reach the end and have a great, glorious, painful moment of revelation that this is what the book was saying and it was what it was saying all along.

So it is not the most easy of reads I have ever had, and frankly I would have put it aside several times. But something kept me going and I think a lot of that is to do with de Vigan’s languid, lovely prose. She writes beautifully and, acknowledging that this is a translated edition, it’s worthwhile acknowledging the skill that George Miller has brought to this text. I haven’t read the original in French but I’m certain, somehow, that it remains this same momentous thing. Even in English, it is very French. The nuances of the language. The precise impreciseness. Those little Gallic moments. They’re all there.

Story wise it is relatively simple. Relatively, I say, when in fact is deep and full of story that is not remotely simple, not at all. Perhaps I should call the story nominally simple for on first glance, that is exactly what it is. Lou Bertignac, gifted, smart, befriends a girl who is homeless. Lou herself is homeless in a way for her house is not a home. Her family are still suffering from the impact of something that happened to them. Lou brings her friend, No, home and things happen. Big things. Life changing things. For all concerned. Paralleled with this, is the relationship between Lou and Lucas, friends, more than friends, and Lou’s relationship with the world.

It is a very quiet book with a very immense heart. I wish in a way that I’d been able to find that heart earlier than I had, but once I did find it, I was a little bit smitten with No And Me.

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I registered this blog five years ago today

When I started this blog, I started it out of a sort of desperate urge to do something with children’s literature. I wanted to talk about it, to someone. To anyone. I wanted to share this great love of books and find others that loved the same sort of thing. I wanted to connect,  I think, really, and continue the journey that I was on as part of my MA.

It took me a while to find my groove. What to talk about? What to say? How to say it? My early reviews and posts are less than brilliant, but I’ve kept them there for a reason – I want to track the growth of my thinking. I want to track the growth of my reading, too. I think how you read changes, so much, throughout your life and it’s fascinating to look back at something that I wrote and look at the person I was then.

So what’s happened in five years? Well, a lot, and a lot I think comes from doing this blog.

  • I’m writing this in the University of York library where I just started a PhD in children’s literature and literary tourism.
  • I finished my MA in children’s literature and passed.
  • I’ve written a zillion (or near enough) reviews
  • I’ve met some amazing, utterly amazing people, as a direct result of this blog
  • I run a monthly children’s literature discussion group
  • And I have the great joy to be represented by Bryony Woods of DKW Literary Agency.

All of that, all of that, comes either directly or indirectly from blogging. Let’s just say I’m a bit of an advocate of what a blog can do. I think it’s great. And I think you’re all amazing too. Seriously. Books and reading and readers and literacy wouldn’t exist without people like you. You change the world each and every day and that’s a privilege to even be tangentially part of. Here’s to the next five years! :)

Wolf Brother : Michelle Paver

Wolf Brother (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, #1)Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Torak woke with a jolt from a sleep he’d never meant to have”

This, the opener to Paver’s stone age saga, sets the scene instantly and does so with a great and vivid grace. This sentence. This book. This story, this richness of story, this richness of tone, of voice, this book, oh my god, this book.

It’s rare, I think, to find a story which is written so sparsely, so subtly, and yet have every word tinged with such a great and terrible grace that you can feel it. All of it. The words spill from this book until it is not book-bound and simply is.

It is a great and terrible thing, Paver’s writing, for she writes so quietly and perfectly. So simply. So tightly: “An ember spat. The dark trees leaned closer to listen”.

This is such story.

It is the story of Torak’s quest; his father has been slaughtered by a giant demon who came to them as an immense bear, and now Torak has to survive against a world that is full of terror and foretold horrors. The only thing he has on his side is Wolf; his ally, his brother, a young wolf cub.

Paver shifts viewpoints between the two characters occasionally, writing both young boy and young wolf with such grace. There’s a great orality to her text as well, a spell in her words.

When I reached the end of this, I started to get a bit nervous. Have you ever had that? That sort of book sadness; that feel that nothing can ever be as quite as good as this moment that you have, right now, this connection between you and a story, and you are so deeply aware that you may never experience that again? I had that. I have that now. I don’t want to let this book go and yet, I have the feverish urge to want to do so. I need this story to go on. I need more of Paver’s beautiful writing. I need it.

One final thing to note is that I was lucky enough to read the 10th anniversary edition of Wolf Brother, courtesy of Orion (ISBN: 9781444015416). It is a ridiculously beautiful book as so many of theirs are and a genuine joy to read. The cover is embossed and the edge of the papers are inked with signs and symbols from the book. It is so beautiful. So, so beautiful.

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The Sixth Form at St Clare’s : Pamela Cox

The Sixth Form at St. Clare's (St. Clare's, #9)The Sixth Form at St. Clare’s by Pamela Cox

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to my local charity shop, I recently picked up a batch of the Pamela Cox fill-in titles for both St Clare’s and Malory Towers and was a bit fascinated to see what I thought of them. I’d registered that they existed but had never, quite, wanted to read them. It’s hard to quantify why I didn’t but I think it had something to do with the whole fact that, well, Enid Blyton is so resolutely Enid Blyton that thought of somebody else trying to be Enid Blyton blew my mind a little bit.

And these books do feel like they are undercover Enid Blyton titles. There’s something interesting in how Cox’s name doesn’t appear on the front and instead we see that familiar signature of Blyton’s on the cover. It feels a little like these are packaged as Blyton books rather than, say, a book written in the St Clare’s series but by another author. And that’s interesting to me. Do we buy these books as St Clare’s books, or Blyton, or Cox? What sort of pre-reading do we come to these books with; these books that both fit and don’t fit into the Blyton school story canon?

The Sixth Form at St Clare’s is one of the books that I felt a greater affinity with and that was primarily because I was already acquainted with the characters. I already loved them, really. My reading of the Malory Towers fill-ins (they’re the story of Felicity Rivers and her journey through the school) have been substantially different in that I have had to let go of the fact that I want them to be about Darrell and Sally and Alicia. I want that story. And there’s a necessary reading process of grieving for that.

So here we are with Pat and Isobel, the don’t care O’Sullivan twins, and it’s all rather lovely. There were a few plot twists which felt far too modern and a little off-canon (I found the ‘coming to the sixth form with your problems’ plot, very problematic), and certain of the new girls didn’t quite gel with the context of the series as a whole.

But I did enjoy it. I enjoyed it because I’ve always wanted this story. I’ve always wanted to know what happened – and Cox is very good at delivering that. She knows her series and she knows the motifs of it so well, Mam’zelle Dupot and Mam’zelle Rougier, Miss Potts, midnight feasts, Miss Theobald being awesome (Carlotta being awesome…). It’s a lovely book. And I think the key for my enjoyment of it was to acknowledge what it wasn’t, and understanding why it wasn’t that, and then appreciating what it was.

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This morning, I accepted an offer from the University of York for their full time PhD programme. I will be researching children’s literature and literary tourism. (Aren’t you all impressed at how calmly I said that? Let’s just say the reality involves lots of WOARGH and buying of new pencil cases).

I’m ridiculously excited about it and the opportunity to wallow, in depth, in some of my most beloved texts. I’m hoping to look at things like Robin Jarvis and his ridiculously wonderful Whitby books, Enid Blyton and Bourne End  and perhaps, just maybe, get chance to squeeze in some Chalet School books. There’s a chance for me to look at Noel Streatfeild and Madame Fidolia’s Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, or to read about the Jinny books by Patricia Leitch.

Basically, it’s a glorious, huge, topic and one that I’m very interested in (which is handy, as I’ve just signed up to study it for three years!). An opportunity to study this in depth is a great and exciting gift.

(And on a final note, if you’re a publishing / literary / heritage / museum type, who wants to be in on this research from day one, it may be worth us having a chat? One key driver of this research for me is for it to have practical, applicable and commercial interest. If you think I might be of use to you, please do get in touch. I’d love to hear from you

Worrals of the W.A.A.F : W.E Johns

Worrals of the W.A.A.F.Worrals of the W.A.A.F. by W.E. Johns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve heard a lot about Worrals over the years. It’s a title I’ve sort of brushed into contact with, having read a lot of Girlsown, and so, when I received an email telling me that it was being reprinted by IndieBooks Limited and would I like to review a copy, my answer was a very positive yes.

The titular Worrals, Joan Worralson, is a pilot in the WAAF. Worrals and her best friend ‘Frecks’ are rather lovely creations. Vivid, hearty and hugely patriotic, they’re a defiant joy. I don’t think I’ve read much that teenage / children’s fiction which acknowledges the role of fighting women during the second world war (Code Name Verity etc aside) so Worrals is a much welcome addition to the canon.

Worrals of the WAAF is the debut in the series and it features Worrals and Frecks solving Mysterious Goings On Involving The Enemy. I was really surprised at just how much is packed into this book – there’s so much plot. Everything happens and then, just to make sure that you’re paying attention, Johns throws a little more in to make sure that you won’t even think about stopping reading. It is very good adventure writing and it’s undoubtedly hooky.

However, there a few parts in Johns’ work which don’t translate superbly well to modern audiences. His sentences are quite complicated in parts and require some parsing: “Drop she dare not, for fear she should slip from the roof of the car and injure herself on the concrete floor”. I’d recommend this for confident readers for that reason or for readers who won’t be intimidated by such stylistic tics. One thing that is worthwhile noting is that this new edition is unabridged and that’s something I hugely welcome. Johns’ text is sporadically dense (as is this entire paragraph, ha!), but it’s a stylistic that whilst it occasionally irritates, does not detract (and, to be honest, cannot detract) from this lovely, pacy, adventurous story.

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