The Good Immigrant : (ed) Nikesh Shukla

The Good ImmigrantThe Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes it takes me a while to get to literature, relying as I do upon my heavily used library card, and so I was thrilled to finally get to the top of the reservation queue and pick up The Good Immigrant. It’s a book I’ve heard a lot about and sometimes, I think, these books have a complex pre-read to overcome. Suffice to say The Good Immgirant exceeded those, challenged those, and lived up to much that I wanted from it. It is one to be added to library lists, furiously so.

The Good Immigrant a collection of 21 essays from black, Asian and minority ethinic writers who explore the perspective of otherness within the UK today. The voices here are personal, tight, nuanced things and many of the essays are near-visceral experiences. Edited by Nikesh Shukla, who provides both an essay and foreword, this is a potent collection of work.

As somebody who specialises in children’s and young adult literature, I was particularly interested in Darren Chetty’s essay. Chetty, a primary school teacher, writes about how he was told by one of his pupils of colour that stories have to be about white people. It’s such a simple, horrific moment and Chetty has a great skill in his essay in recounting both it and his reaction. One of the things I value as a researcher and emphasise is the need to maintain the awareness of the child at the heart of children’s literature; we work in the heights of academia but moments such as that which Chetty discusses are the grassroots of the subject. They need to be both addressed and acknowledged. I do not work for a culture of erasure, nor for a cultural monolith, and I suspect I will be recommending Chetty’s essay to many.

As ever in a collection of essays, there are some which hit and some which don’t. Much of The Good Immigrant is fiercely on point, beautifully written and deeply disturbing. Several of the essays were intense, searing and vital experiences. This a big, vital read.

(And also, on a design note, that cover is rather wonderful).

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Wanted : Guest Posts

This is just a quick note to say that I’m looking for a few more guest posts. I’m meeting so many interesting people doing interesting things that I want to share them with you….and I will! I’m queuing up some amazing guests at the moment (augmented reality anyone?)

But I Want More…

So you, yes you, should pitch me! Talk to me about Interesting Things and Children’s Literature. Tell me what you’re doing with children’s books. I’d love to hear from researchers working in children’s literature, charities, mums and dads, and kids! Lovely amazing smart kids!

Pitch me about the bookish things that make you excited. But please, no pitches about Twilight. I can go a thousand years without hearing about Twilight. We’re all past Twilight.

Remember that pitching does not automatically equal yes. I reserve the right to say no without feedback. (Though I will give you feedback if I can.)

Here’s a contact form should this be your sort of thing. (Guess who just found the contact form button?). I will offer editorial support if you need it (we all need it, I need a bracket intervention right about now) and I will offer you space to talk about what you’re doing to change the world. Please pitch!

 

“She has torn yet another dress”: Reflections on being a book collector

It’s hard to pinpoint where you fell in love with something when you have been in love with that something for a while. I don’t remember my first book, nor my first library, nor my first story. I remember beats in my journey of literacy, of reading; moments that echo in my heart and sing out, oddly, vibrantly, sharply, when I least expect it. Sitting on my dad’s lap in a great armchair. Telling the librarian what happened in a story. Passing round the salacious bits in a Jilly Cooper (wonderful, wonderful Jilly Cooper).

I don’t remember when I fell in love with the Chalet School. It’s been too long, really, and I can’t begin to unpick the stitch of this book inside of me. It simply is a love; a love I have for an eccentric Aunt that turns up at Christmas brandishing gift, or those moments when you see your favourite thing reduced at Waitrose. Simply, indefinable, truthful moments. Happiness. Satisfaction. Fullness.

But I do remember the moments within the series that cling to me a little harder than most; and one of them is in the below image. It’s a simple paragraph, part of The Princess at the Chalet School, and what I want you to do is read it it and then read it out loud. Slowly. Carefully. Dwell on that last little speech of Mademoiselle’s, and the way that it has so much effortless wonder in it. That final, round full stop of a sentence. It is a perfect paragraph, and perfectly ended.

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Now, there’s a part of me that could talk for hours about the thematic implications of that paragraph and the great symbolism it holds for the notion of feminine power within the series, but I won’t. At least, not now. Maybe later. I’m totally already planning it.

But, for now, what I’m trying to say is that there are moments within a text that make you find your home. I’d forgotten about this one but when I read it again yesterday, I realised that it was one of the best moments of the series for me. It is a paragraph that brings me home.

It is love, caught up in the tight ink curve of letters and of space on a page, it is love.

What is Red? : Suzanne Gottlieb & Vladimir Bobri

What Is Red?What Is Red? by Suzanne Gottlieb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recently republished by the blessed Bodleian Library, What is Red? is a charming and rather beautiful book. It’s a simple journey through a series of colours framed around a question and answer dialogue: “What is Red? / Red is the colour of many things / – apples and berries and warm glowing fires” (A quick reminder, when I use ‘/’ in quotes, it’s to show where the line breaks are.) This continues throughout as we learn that the earth is brown, that the sky is blue and that the sun is yellow. The book concludes with the protagonist, Jonny, learning that night is black and it’s time to go to bed and dream of tomorrow’s adventures.

Originally published in 1961, this has a rather distinct charm about it. Bobri’s vibrant and beautiful illustrations would sell this book by itself. It’s a thick, chunky sort of style that occasionally borders on abstraction and it’s gorgeous. These are illustrations to wallow in; colour spills from edge to edge on the page, a tall sunflower grins down, and beyond the window, a fat, rich sun rises with thick yellow triangular rays. I did feel some of the accompanying texts were a little cumbersome and wordy, but I suspect much of that is grounded in my love for the illustrations; I’ll always inch towards a slender, finely worked narrative where the illustrations are this strong and impactful.

I am grateful to the Bodleian for the chance to review this title.

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The Farmer and the Fairy and other stories : Elizabeth Clark

The Farmer and the Fairy: And Other StoriesThe Farmer and the Fairy: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘The Farmer and The Fairy and other stories’ is a beautifully produced volume of Elizabeth Clark’s folkloric stories. Drawn from a variety of cultures, these stories range from ‘Yogodagu and the Bees of Yamato’ through to ‘The Tale of King Solomon and the Hoopoe’. Illustrated throughout by my beloved Nina K. Brisley (who worked on the original Chalet School hardbacks), the volume contains a series of small, detailed black and white illustrations and the occasional full page colour plate. It also has a ribbon of which I approve greatly. There is very little better in books than a good ribbon.

Clark is new to me, but her work reminded very much of the Perraults and of Madame D’Aulnoy. She retells stories without losing their original roots, situating them within their cultural context whilst allowing the story to speak for itself. Certain of these cultural aspects, particularly as embodied in Brisley’s illustrations, have dated a little but again, these are discussions and learning processes for the reader to engage with and learn from.

I liked this slim volume a lot, though I suspect it might inch in appeal towards the collector as opposed to the more general audience. One aspect I undoubtedly loved were the comprehension questions at the back of the novel; I’m not sure as to whether they’re original or added in for this volume, but they’re all twisted towards asking the reader to retell the story and make it their own. This focus on the communicative aspect of story, of the transference of literature, is something that has a very great weight within children’s literature. and I will always love it.

I am grateful to Pikku Publishing for the review copy.

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No Virgin : Anne Cassidy

No VirginNo Virgin by Anne Cassidy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to review this. Much of my thoughts find themselves settling on the cover, which I love. I do, genuinely, love this brilliant and blunt cover. It is unabashed and unashamed which befits the topic immensely. Language has an immediacy, a wonderfully sharp immediacy, because once you understand it, you understand everything. Our conceptualisation of the word differs as to our own personal circumstances but, say, if you read the word ‘table’ and have an imaginative link to the idea of ‘table’, you understand that word. And we all understand ‘virgin’, really, especially in the young adult market which so often touches on this issue.

And yet, in coming from a library context and as a librarian, I wonder how this cover would fit and work in such a space. It is not that I am asking for this cover to be redacted, nor edited nor hidden, because that stands against all I have ever understood and believed in. Rather, I’m wondering how it fits in that space and whether it would, easily, live and thrive. (Books live in libraries, trust me on that, and some jostle their way to the front and others are hidden behind others and some barely even return to the shelves, and there is a lifeblood and system here that I will write upon some other day, I promise).

As a gatekeeper both virtually and within the real world, I work to make sure that books get read, that they get out there, and they get to the right reader, and I hope this does. I really hope it gets out there and it gets displayed face out, and people are ready to answer the queries of customers with the point that this story, this slim and bare-boned and blunt story, is something very vital indeed. Maybe that’s why this cover startles me and yet I love it; it’s a rare thing, and yet change has to come from somewhere. Something has to begin it.

Cassidy’s prose is direct and bare. It’s simple, at times, and that’s a sign of trust in the story and the way it needs to be told. Stacey Woods, the narrator, was raped. Following her confession to her best friend, she writes it down and retells the story, exactly as it happened. And what follows is a twist on the Cinderella story; a rags to riches to tense, horrible moments and back again. It’s sympathetic, genuine, and very very tautly told. There were a few moments when the prose danced around, but contextually this worked immensely well. It’s not an easy story to tell and Stacey embraces the distraction before slowly, tentatively telling her story. Of finding out what’s left of her. Of finding out where to go next and what to do.

For me, it read a little bit younger than work by Louise O’Neill, though it certainly stands with such books. No Virgin is important, really, because of the still dominant absence of such narratives and it’s one that I’d rather love to be read by all sexes. It’s slender, incisive, painful, and sharp. Unabashedly so.

And here’s the thing, that even amidst all my reflection about the role of that cover and the position of that book within the library system, that’s where I found it. And that cover is why I picked it up. It’s not a reach to suggest that the same thought process might happen in another library, with another reader, and that this book might change everything for them. This is important literature, and even though it’s maybe isolated and different literature, these are the sorts of books that form the bones of why libraries matter. Stand up for these books, stand up.

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On “beautiful girls”, bookclubs and Zoella

Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg is a vlogger. She is incredibly successful at what she does and regularly posts videos on Youtube covering beauty, fashion and general lifestyle topics. She is the author of Girl, Online, a book with a controversy of its own regarding the authorship, and which I reviewed here. It is a charming, and rather lovely book in its own distinct way.

Zoella featured in this article yesterday on the Guardian, an article which I tweeted and described as interesting but – and that ‘but’ is embodied in the extract tweeted below from Holly Bourne.

 

There’s a lot in that screenshot to unpick. To start with, let’s compare it with the description of ‘Between Two Books’

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And here’s the description of Emma Watson’s book club (in two images, the only thing I’ve omitted is a picture here)

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One of the recursive discourses around young adult literature and teens reading is that they do not do as they are told. I’m harking back to a theme that’s dominating me at the moment, and it’s one of unruliness. Teens are other. Everyone other than yourself is other, but teens are vividly, sharply unruly other. They are transgressive. You were a teen once but your teenager life bears no existence to theirs. And yet we reflexively seek for that connection, we reflexively twist ourselves to try and understand the otherness. To mediate it, to control it, to harness it. But we can’t, we can’t ever. We can perform a semblence of understanding, we can mediate and we can be empathic, but we can never wholly understand teenage life unless we are experiencing it and even then, we experience our own iteration of it and to cast a global reading from that iteration is to deny a thousand other voices their right to be heard.

So where do we find ourselves amidst that cacophonous discourse? We find ourselves footholds, we understand our own critical perspectives, we engage, we disengage, and we question, always, always. And we particularly question articles like this which perpetuate questions and stereotypes without twisting back on themselves and ask whether they contribute to or question that stereotype.

Zoella’s Book Club is a welcome initiative. It’s overtly run with and through WHSmith, to which I have no problems. Any book club is a welcome initiative because anything that gets people reading and articulating thoughts around literature is a Good Thing. Always. Give me positive feedback or negative feedback or ‘this book was written by monkeys with typewriters’, I’ll take it and I’ll be happy in doing so because it means you’ve read the book. You’ve critically responded and that’s one of the most important things about literacy. You are able to understand it and to refract it through yourself. You’re in charge.

The first titles that were selected for Zoella’s Book Club were: Fangirl by Rainbow RowellBeautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Potion Diaries by Amy Alward and We Were Liars by E Lockhart.

Of the ones I’ve read (I have read some which I didn’t review) one made me lose the will to live, another made me fall in love, another broke my heart, and I will give Fangirl to everyone from now until the end of time.

Her second selection included: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness,  Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn,  Lying About Last Summer by Sue Wallman, The One We Fell in Love With by Paige Toon, I Was Here by Gayle Forman, Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell and If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo (Usborne).

Again, not a list I’ve wholly read, but the ones I have looked at and know of don’t easily wed themselves with a ‘beautiful white girls’ narrative.

Zoella’s Book Club is a good thing. I suspect much of the problematic coverage it gets come with her platform existing outside of the traditional paradigms for critique and comprehension. She’s not wholly selecting canonical novels, nor wholly selecting popular literature, but rather mediating between the two and creating a dynamic selection with wide appeal. This, if I’m frank, is the nearest we’ll come to the realisation of a contemporary critical canon for some time.

That’s not a bad thing.  If anything, this rooting of children’s and young adult literature within society and this firm foothold is a brilliant and wonderful thing, and I am frustrated by this reflexive urge to critique her.

I will never deny the right for discourse around literature. I will, however, question the urge to critique the figures such as Zoella and their apparently inappropriate and unwelcome dialogue around literature. Zoella’s Book Club is not the problem here.