“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.

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. 

Roofs in children’s literature

Let’s talk about roofs. Niche, I know, but something that’s sort of starting to needle at my imagination and what with a visit to Oxford yesterday, and my current reading of (the incredibly lovely) Rooftoppers, I thought it was an appropriate time to explore this.

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See, the thing about roofs is that they’re inacessible, usually. They are places that people can’t get to, not easily, and they’re everywhere. And I think sometimes we can miss that, because we’re simply so used to seeing them. They are always there. Every building has them. They are invisible through their visibility.

But, I think, not everywhere has them quite like Oxford.

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Down the Rabbit Hole

Just a quickie heads up for you, but have you heard about Down The Rabbit Hole ? It’s a radio show whose pilot debuted this week, and you can read a bit behind the scenes here. And it is ACE. Seriously, go and listen to it and wallow in it. My congratulations to all concerned. It was a pleasure to hear your smart and passionate thoughts, and the legitimacy and respect with which you treated children’s literature was a genuine joy.

(PS – Laura Dockrill’s reading aloud is very, very splendid).

(PPS – And it features The Etherington Brothers! Excitement!).

(PPPS – And THE WORST WITCH)