One thousand things : Anna Kövecses

One Thousand Things: learn your first words with Little MouseOne Thousand Things: learn your first words with Little Mouse by Anna Kovecses
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this vibrantly produced and character filled vocabulary builder. We follow Little Mouse through a range of different spread and scenes designed to increase vocabulary in a variety of contexts: colours, seasons, body parts, vegetables, weather and many more.

Anna Kövecses artwork is rich and stimulating. There’s a retro tone to it, creams coupled with characters that look like they’ve been cut out and stuck in. There’s hints of decoupage but also those vibrant moments of imaginative expression where a triangle becomes a boat sail or a rectangle becomes a nose. I welcome also Kövecses’ usage of diverse characters and settings and would have welcomed more of these spreads. There is a truth in reflecting the world in a book like this.

Certain of the spreads jarred a little for me; there’s a shift in perspectives from straight on through to top down on some spreads that took me a moment or two to figure out, and in other spreads,the labelling text for the element doesn’t fit quite onto the element itself. I’m thinking in particular of the ‘vegetables’ and the ‘what can you do outside’ spread in particular for these two examples. These moments diverted me from the intense poetry and fluidity of these pages and whilst I’m intensely conscious of the fact that such a response is couched in my personal context, I’m conscious that books like this develop vocabulary but also visual literacies. And in a book that is as genuinely beautiful and rich as this, it’s hard for me to ignore such stutters. I’d have also welcomed some utilisation of the endpapers; exploiting areas like these help children to develop their literacies around the book and the space of the book itself.

I am picky about One Thousand Things for one very simple reason. It is something that is really rather good, vividly unique and evocative, and I can see the space where it can fly into something quite shatteringly brilliant.

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Turn Left : on serendipity, shelving and selection of children’s literature

In beginning this post, I want to take you back a step. I want to take you away from books themselves and back to the word.

I want you to think about these sentences. I want you to think about how you know that they’re sentences. I want you to think about what tells you that this is a sentence. Same for this. And this? This too. What is it about them that makes them sentences? Is it the capital letters? The phrasing? The full stops (or periods, if you’re that way inclined)?

Maybe it’s the sequence. Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve read one sentence and you know that another sentence usually follows. Language is sequential, collaborative. It feeds off the moment before it and the moment after it, even if those moments are unsaid and unformed things. There’s always the presence of the other when you think about language. It’s not a singular beast. It is a many-headed pluralistic thousand-tongued thing.

And I want you to keep that in mind as we talk about shelving and serendipity and ideas of choice in children’s literature.

Have a look at these delicious photos, which tell the story of a bookshop in Rio ordered by colour. Then have a look at this, where a library in Ipswich wrapped up books in neutral paper which showed the first line and the genre of the book. And finally, here’s a library which organised its fiction section by genre.

There’s an element of practicality of course with classification systems and order; we expect them. We are trained to find order, to seek patterns and to make the irregular regular. We seek sequence and we seek the symbols that cause that sequence. Think back to the sentences. The capital letters. The full stops. The structure of them. The systems of them.

We need that. We seek that. We make the world systematic; we get up at a particular time, get the same bus, eat at the same table. And in the context of libraries and bookshops where others are experiencing our systems and classifications, we need to make those systems transparent and clear enough so that others are able to grasp them and utilise them. Stock is for reading, books are for selling, issues are needed and readers are wanted, and so an insight into the classification used is needed and wanted and deserved.

But sometimes, I wonder if all of these systems signify something else and I wonder if that something is fear of the unknown.

Children’s and young adult literature is subject to a lot of labels, names and classifications (do you know of cli-fi and sick-lit for example?). Whilst acknowledging and understanding the marketing urges and practical reasons which drive such descriptors, I do wonder if these and the other classification systems perpetuate a linearity of thought. A specificity of readerly choice.

I wonder if sometimes we are so blinkered by these labels that sometimes we miss that serendipitious moment, that  that swift twist of fate that makes us turn left instead of right, guided by the vivid kingfisher-blue flash of a cover that catches our eye in the morning light.

I wonder if there’s the literary equivalent of Turn Left, being made every day, every second.

I wonder if there’s a whole world of what could have been

A United Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A United Chalet School (The Chalet School, #15)A United Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full of the vibrant light and deft skill that characterises her early Tyrolean work, A United Chalet School sees Brent-Dyer working at the top of her powers. She’s on her way here to the great heights and nuances of The Chalet School In Exile, and A United Chalet School has much to praise within its pages, with not just some delicious character work on part of the staff but more of the great Betty / Elizabeth pairing.

It is the second half of the term which began in The New Chalet School and thus, United sings somewhat oddly if you come to it in isolation. There are references to events which occurred in the New term and they are references which baffled me for years until I finally got my hands on a copy of New and figured them out. There’s also not much in the way of length to United as originally it was all part of the same book as New. Making United into a separate novel does eke out the tension of the Saints / Chaletians pairing in a suitably commercial manner but I’m not sure there’s much else to justify making this a standalone book and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything which satisfactorily explained this to me. A mystery! We’ll chalk it up to the same person who did all those hideous edits later in the Armada paperbacks!

In the brief space that United exists in, not much happens. There are two or three key incidents and, by themselves, they do not seem to take up much space nor concern. But this is Brent-Dyer and right here, right now, she is so very good. She understands her girls and her circumstances so perfectly that it is achingly good to read. The punishment delivered for a prank (and the prank itself) is deliciously done and speaks of such a sympathetic knowledge of girls and how they feel.

It’s a slim book, United, but quite potent in its way. I will never tire of the coach scene, nor the moments where Miss Wilson takes command, nor that moment where Miss Annersley steps to the forefront (oh!). They’re all relatively small moments but in actuality they’re so big. This is writing that is. It’s fat writing, thick writing, layered writing that presents a simple moment but makes that moment ache with resonance. A United Chalet School is slender but so very sonorous. I rather love it.

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New Beginnings at the Chalet School : Heather Paisley

New Beginnings at the Chalet SchoolNew Beginnings at the Chalet School by Heather Paisley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First published in 1999, New Beginnings at the Chalet School has been in my consciousness ever since. Partially, it’s because of that searing front cover but also because of the fact that this was one of the first big non-EBD titles that I was aware of. There were a flurry of fill-in and continuation Chalet School titles out around this time. 1999 saw the publication of the Voldemort of the Chalet School world – The Chalet Girls Grow Up, and 2000 saw
Visitors for the Chalet School, in addition to a host of other non-fiction titles which were already out including Helen McClelland’s lovely and warm biography of Brent-Dyer herself Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer.

It’s interesting for me to consider New Beginnings in that sort of a context and particularly against The Chalet Girls Grow Up. The latter book, a complex and angry text which I discuss more
here, fascinates me. It speaks of an attempt to pull the fictional into the real world, to marry this odd and eccentric series with the world it was inhabiting – a world which it had increasingly refused to take part in. I think it’s intriguing that, to my knowledge, this is the only ‘official’ fill-in title to attempt to do such a thing.

New Beginnings takes a very different route but it’s one that is, very conscious, of this road less travelled. The blurb speaks of its truth to the spirit of the series (such an intriguing statement that, and one I could ruminate upon for hours), and in Paisley’s introduction, she speaks of being conscious that other continuation novels had not been well received. Whilst I suspect this preface was written latterly, it’s interesting to get all Genette on it and consider it as part of the text itself (Gerard Genette saw elements as the front cover, the copyright, the preface etc as being integral and part of the story). Situating New Beginnings in this space of opposition and characterising it by truth and adherence to the spirit of the series fascinates me so much that somebody needs to do a PhD on it for me.

So what is the story of New Beginnings? It’s set three years after Prefects of the Chalet School and things are moving on. Everybody’s getting married and making decisions. Len is still with Reg (boo), and Con and Margot are getting settled and sorted respectively. Jack Lambert is, rather deliciously, head girl. The story utilises the traditional new girl technique that the Chalet School does so well and introduces Charlotte (Charlie). As is the way, her new term is somewhat rocky.

Paisley’s strengths lie in her palpable knowledge and joy in the Chalet School world. Her detail is intensely convincing and speaks of a level of research and awareness that is to be lauded. At points this is a little too much and I’m thinking in this instance of one of the chapter headings which, to those in the know, gives away the conclusion almost instantly and thus robs the sequence of any jeopardy. Paisley also uses the supporting cast to great effect and I was particularly struck by her handling of Jack Maynard. She manages to capture him especially well which is an achievement in a book dominated by women. Quite often in the Chalet School world the male characters are drawn so thinly that, if you held them up to the light, you’d be able to see through them.

And whilst all this is a strength and a genuine strength, I find myself thinking again about the book that cannot speak its name and how New Beginnings works both with, and against, that. I find myself thinking about the nature of continuations and fill-ins and how, quite often, they reveal so much more about the fan and their nature of interaction with the series. Paisley loves the Chalet School, that much is clear, and New Beginnings reads very well. It’s a joyful, and occasionally deeply moving read.


It is a read very much fixed within the Chalet School bubble and whilst that is good and joyous and perfect for those moments when you wish to be in that bubble and to escape and to dream (and lord knows, I want to do that so much and so often), I think that for me, I need something that explores and considers what could happen at that moment where the bubble starts to connect with something else.

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The library of things (with thanks to Bachelard and Barthes)

I’m moving books; placing Coram Boy against Drama, The Whitby Witches against The Three Musketeers. This is my packing and these are the boxes of texts pressed together in their fleshy book-bound bodies, and they are full of my life and a thousand other lives. This is my library; a library of things, of books, of boxes, of moments. As Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space: “Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space”, and so these books are not indifferent spaces. They are loaded and weighted with the space of myself and of my life lived and yet to live, aconjunction of moments and thoughts and dreams and sadnesses, trapped between the pages of The Secret Garden and Looking into the Middle Ages and Jasmine Skies.

This is my library of things, a library of loneliness and of desire. These texts exist singularly, ferociously so, but when they are like this, they are together-texts, and I return to Barthes in my thinking of them: “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” It is my love, this quote, always, and the desire here manifests itself as connections; spines pressed up against other spines, covers pressed against covers; words running from one to the other, leaping the gaps to colonise the in-between spaces. Books do not exist in regimented isolation, in ordered magnificence. They are wild and chaotic and living things that seek these moments of cross-pollination, of blurred edges, of spaces where connections can thrive and react and exist.

I think that the more I write and the more I read and the more I know, the more I think of texts as not being book-bound at all, but rather existing as a world; as a subspace that exists in our world that we enter and exit and a space that sometimes, I think, we never ever leave at all.

On facilitating children’s literature

There’s two pieces I want to draw your attention to, as I think they’re worth a read. Firstly this piece talking about bedtime stories for very young children. It makes some interesting points about the word-image cognitive process taking place and links to some other useful pieces.

Secondly, there’s a report out from Scholastic on what kids want in books. As ever, remember that every survey has its positives and minuses, but bearing all that in mind, do take a look. I sort of suspect there’s some useful data in this one that a librarian can seize on and repurpose in a productive sort of manner. (And do, seriously, do this. Numbers and data are there for you to wield and use. Don’t let research die in some precious removed place from reality)

Both pieces are now making me think a lot about the importance of facilitation. We hear a lot in children’s / young adult literature about the ‘gatekeepers’. It’s an interesting term that to me because, in a way, I think we sometimes hear more about the negative connotations of the role rather than the positives. So here’s the point where I acknowledge the positives.

There are a thousand, thousand people out there who specifically want books in the hands of teenagers and children. I’ve met a lot of them. They want passionate, complicated and provocative books read by people who deserve the very best in literature. Children’s and young adult literature isn’t silo-bound any more. It is out there and it is is bold and it is brilliant and these people recognise that. They fight every day to allow and to faciliate those books to be read by the right and the wrong people. They exist really, I think, for freedom and for empowerment. Being a librarian, a teacher, a parent, a critic – it’s not just about the position of authority that you hold. It’s not about you. It’s about the books. It’s always about the books and facilitating the access to those books and empowering the reading of those books.

So here’s to the gatekeepers that get that, and fight for that to happen each and every day.

You’re great, you are.

The Dragonfly Pool : Eva Ibbotson

The Dragonfly PoolThe Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s nothing quite out there that reaches Eva Ibbotson at her very best. She writes like buttery crumpets on a midwinter’s day; hot, fat moments that can be tasted on your tongue, warmth in every word and that magical storytelling quality that makes nothing else matter but the read. An Ibbotson book is a world-stopper sort of book, something that makes you unable to quite see clearly until it’s over and then you’re struck by that moment of absence, of severance from the story book world.

The Dragonfly Pool is one of my favourites of hers; a hybrid of a passionate, eccentric school story with a Ruritanian adventure, all of which takes place in the tight, tense dawn of the second world war. It’s a substantial book that flies by and so much of that is due to Ibbotson’s intensely delicious skill in writing; set pieces that sing, and moments that feel genuinely big and world-changing in their context.

The school in this book – Delderton Hall – is based on the progressive school that Ibbotson herself attended: Dartington Hall. For a little bit of background on the school itself, have a look at this achingly wistful and equally eye-opening article. Ibbotson describes the school as a school like no other and, many many years later, when I attended university at the same site, I first came across The Dragonfly Pool and realised that she was right. Dartington was magical. Unreal. And she catches that, she catches that twist of eccentricity, hope and oddity so beautifully.

It’s easy to read some of the more fanciful moments in this as naive or blindly idealistic, but I think there’s something more to it than that. I think that, in a way, The Dragonfly Pool is more of a polemic against evil and war itself; a treatise on how humanity is more than what it came to in that moment in 1939, and how hope and belief and friendship, sometimes, is one of the most powerful things in the world. It is one of those books with so much more in it than is immediately apparent, and the subtleties of it are there for those who want to see them. The roundness of her characters, the thick layers which are so lightly and skillfully revealed, will never fail to leave me both madly envious of and in love with her skills. Ibbotson is one of those authors who gives you a story that spirals and sings and touches the stars, and brings you along with every moment. There is such richness here.

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