Let’s talk about sequels in children’s literature

A couple of articles and new titles have caught my eye this week and they’re all about sequels to classic pieces of children’s literature. ‘Katy‘ by Jacqueline Wilson is out now, ‘Return to the Secret Garden‘ by Holly Webb is due in October and ‘Five Children on the Western Front‘ by Kate Saunders has been out for a while (brief segue: this latter title is terribly, hideously perfect). The Telegraph wrote about this ‘plum period of classic novels being reinvented, updated or given sequels’ – and, whilst I appreciate it’s a spoiler, the last lines to that piece struck me: “Let’s encourage children to reach into the past and discover those delights for themselves”

Well.

Ish.

So here’s the piece where I talk about sequels to children’s literature.

Firstly, a little bit of background. Technically, every story has already been written. There’s a school of thought that says there are only seven different plots in the entirety of literature. I rather love that bald statement; the challenge of it and the blunt truth of it. There are only seven different plots in the world. So what’s the point of writing? What’s the point of creating literature where every piece of literature has already been done before? These, perhaps, are questions for another post, but for here, I want to pick up on the idea of repetition and connectivity. The intertextuality of it all, if you will.

If every book has already been written, then logically every book is a sequel. Every book is connected. No book is an island sort of thing. I’ve talked before on this blog about how books co-exist and how to seek a sequel is perhaps to misunderstand what children’s literature actually is, so here,I want to extend that a little and talk about the fear that comes with sequels.

We fetishize the book. We do. We really do. I love books. If you ever see me at a book fair, I’ll be the one crying in front of the beautiful Chalet School hardbacks and going ‘BUT WHY CAN’T I HAVE THEM ALL’. And that’s a great thing (the crying, maybe, not so much). We should understand and respect and, to be frank, love the book because it is such a beautiful art form. The cover, the binding, the printing – the everything. There is a reason that the book has survived for so long and continues to thrive – it is perhaps one of the most beautifully and perfectly designed things that exist.

But maybe we misunderstand a little bit about what it is.

To think of a book as the limitations of a text is wrong.

(To clarify: when I’m referring to a ‘text’ I’m talking about the actual words that construct the story – the ‘Once Upon a Time’ through to the ‘Happily Ever After’)

A text exists pre-book and post-book. It exists in those moments when a small child runs through the park and imagines themselves in Gotham, fighting crime. It exists in those moments when you’re on a bus through Red Lion Square and imagining yourself off to the Dominick Ballet School. It exists for those moments when you hunt a Gruffalo in the woods, or whisper ‘We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it’ when you see some tall wavy grass.

The book is a moment in the life of a text.

The text is not solely the book.

And that’s how it should be. A book does not begin with page one, nor does it end with the final page. Fanfic tells us this, literary tourism tells us this, our imagination screams it as us every time we walk down a road and imagine ourselves somewhere else.

We get scared, I think, of what will happen to a book when a sequel is written. I know I do. But here’s the thing : we’re writing sequels to everything, every day, all the time. There are only seven stories. And that’s the point : if there are only seven stories, then everything we do, every day, is a remix of those seven. There is no preciousness about that, it’s simply how it is.

A text does not exist in isolation.

And neither do readers.

Sequels don’t exist.

(Oh – can I end this there? I think, maybe, I can. I think, maybe, that’s the point that I’m trying to make : sequels don’t exist. Texts are texts, stories are infinite, everything is everything, and books exist in dialogue, literature is a conversation, a dialogue, and without such conversations, we would be so very much poorer.)

Finding Alice at Harlow Carr

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The Mad Hatter

As part of my PhD, I’m exploring and thinking a lot about the commercial implications of literary tourism and children’s literature. What texts do people use? How do they use them? What do they hope to get out of it? How is the text transformed as part of that process?

Or, to phrase that a little less ‘head in the thesis’, I go to places that are doing children’s literature related things and check out what they’re doing. And then I have cake.

RHS Harlow Carr, one of the Royal Horticultural Society gardens located in Harrogate, currently has a series of Alice-in-Wonderland themed events going on until the 31st August. There are costumed characters going on, special craft events, storytelling and a band on Sundays playing music. (The band played Frozen. THEY PLAYED FROZEN)

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This way!

Harlow Carr is a large site and it’s one that I’m familiar with from many trips there with family over the years. The Alice-in-Wonderland trail runs around the whole site – it’s quite a walk, so any small children may need to take advantage of the benches on route (or the quite fabulous playgrounds that are available). I say small children, but also means PhD students who went and said “Crikey, this is farther than I expected.”

So. The practicalities of the trail are really well done. Children get a small booklet which is covered with activities (there’s a pen fixed at every key stop for them to mark off things in the booklet – some canny thinking there on the part of the authorities) and at each of these moments, there’s a character from the series for children to put their head through and get photographed. Again, I say small children, but this could also mean PhD students and pretty much everyone (I mean, who doesn’t want to masquerade as the Cheshire Cat occasionally?)

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The Three of Clubs

One particular note about the signs that marked each key stop; they had more activities on, a contextually relevant activity (can you identify the trees that these leaves came from?), a little fact about the relevant character (Cheshire Cats love to sit in trees. They have a habit of disappearing and leaving their smiles behind). I loved this. It’s clever stuff, to pull something like the Cheshire Cat out of a book and situate it very firmly in a real world context. The ‘made up’ elements of the text sit next to the practical elements (you can see them in the pink section of each sign in the photographs) and there’s nothing splitting the two, nothing that says ‘imagine’ or ‘make up’. Now, whilst imaginary play has its intense validity, there’s something quite delicious about this practical insistence of the fictional being the real. It’s work that speaks both to the adults and the children and to the space around the sign. As far as that sign goes (and therefore, by implication, anybody who’s reading it), Harlow Carr is Wonderland. And that’s a brilliant, brilliant thing.

I love this … intervention? This exhibition? This performed reading? I’m not sure what to call it, but I know that I am nothing but thumbs up for organisations who both sponsor this sort of thing and organisations that allow their space to be redefined and moulded by readers who are recreating texts with every step they take. These sorts of activities build readers. They make readers.

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Green Grass of Wyoming : Mary O’Hara

Green Grass of Wyoming (My Friend Flicka #3)Green Grass of Wyoming by Mary O’Hara

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is something all encompassing about that moment when somebody discovers that they can love; that they can truly, madly and wholly love somebody or something. It becomes the everything that they are, the everything that they do. It is the air, the earth, the word, the whisper. Everything is about their love and their love is lost in everything.

I have often thought that horse stories are, really, love stories at heart. They are stories shot through with love and loving. They are stories of girls and boys and mares and geldings learning to love and trust and believe in another and to be something greater together than they can be apart. These are stories of love these, from Ruth and Fly-by-Night through to Jinny and Shantih, Ken and Flicka, these stories tell us that there is no shame in loving something so much that you cannot quite breathe without them there. There is something quite perfect in that. And, as every perfect moment brings with it the inevitability of the fall, these stories teach us how to live with and through those moments when every breath you take feels like a knife to your throat and ice in your heart. You are not alone. You have loved once and you will love again and you will be loved, and there is something so perfect in this world and one day it will find you.

This, then, is the horse story at its best, that fine mixture of love and loss and hope and fear and feelings that have never been thought before but now that you have thought them, you know that the world is a better place. There are several authors who catch this shift in consciousness so very perfectly and Mary O’Hara is one of them.

Green Grass of Wyoming is her third book in the Flicka series. The first is the heart-song My Friend Flicka and the second, the wild cloud scudding across a bare-blue sky: Thunderhead. They are good books, both, and they have their moments of being something very great. Green Grass of Wyoming stands well in its own right, but the experience of reading the trilogy, from dawn to dusk, from ranch to range, is something worth doing.

This book, the final in the trilogy, tells of Ken and his wild white stallion Thunderhead who is roaming free on the Wyoming ranges. Thunderhead is a king of horses, and a king needs his court. He’s stealing mares and, when a beautiful racehorse – Crown Jewel – is lost mid-transit, he ends up taking her as part of his herd. Crown Jewel, though, has a human herd of her own. She was to be a gift and when she doesn’t arrive, people come looking for her. And that means, it’s time for Ken to come and find his stallion and deal with the problem that he has become. Coupled with that, is the slow realisation that he has feelings for Jewel’s young owner: Casey. Green Grass of Wyoming sees all of this come together and inevitably, painfully, beautifully, start to conclude the trilogy.

How best to describe this book then? It is like cut glass at its heart, a shining, multi-faceted thing. There are plotlines here concerning mental health, marriage, love, fear, hope, religion; it is a book that was young adult before its time but also something more than that. It’s almost a young adult saga; a sort of hybrid of those books you know that sprawl over years and see characters change and break and shift and grow. And underneath that all is Ken and Nell and Rob and Carey and their horses and animals of vivid name and character; Whodat, the wide-eyed stallion-to-be, Pilgrim, the protector dog, Flicka, the heart-whole of Ken, and so many more.

There are some books that sort of exist in an other-space without definition nor years to hold them back nor pigeonhole them, and I’d argue quite vehemently for the Flicka trilogy to exist in that space. They are horse books, but beyond all of that – ? They are books of love and life and living.

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First Pages : Eustacia goes to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Eustacia goes to the Chalet SchoolWelcome back to another one of my intermittent looking at the first pages of books series. I’ve chosen the great Eustacia Goes To The Chalet School for today’s post, and a lot of it hinges on that near legendary first sentence:

“There is no disguising the fact that Eustacia Benson was the most arrant little prig that ever existed.”

What a sentence. What. A. Sentence. It’s one with at least two words that I remember not understanding the first time that I read this, but my word, how I understood that sentence. It’s full of authority; and it’s an authority which almost breaks the third wall. This is the great authorial voice speaking and it’s one that, at this point in the series, is full of strength and vigour. Brent-Dyer is pretty much speaking straight to her audience. Eustacia is awful, she’s saying, and you need to know this before you know anything else about her.

(For those of you who remain unsure – and I grant, I just had to double check I was getting the meaning of ‘prig’ right – it means “a self-righteously moralistic person who behaves as if they are superior to others” according to Google. So there we are. Eustacia is horrible. Even Google says so).

That’s such an odd way to introduce a protagonist to the series. We know that Eustacia is to be the protagonist of this book; she’s named in the title, she is the title of the first chapter, she is in the first line. She is central and yet, hated. She is a character constructed – and “subjected” – to a childhood that is defined by the absence of normal things. There’s a lovely little line towards the end of the first paragraph where Brent-Dyer groups herself with the reader and muses: “We have little difficulty in guessing the effect of those theories when we meet Eustacia for the first time…” Have a look at the construction of this sentence in conjunction with that opener. Eustacia is an arrant little prig. She is not pleasant. We know this, you and I, because I (the author) am standing on the side of you (the reader) and we’re studying this strange “unfortunate” creature together.

I find Eustacia such a fascinating individual. She’s introduced as somebody quite horrible and yet somebody who’s going to go to the Chalet School. Note the construction of the title: “Eustacia goes to the Chalet School.” It’s not “Eustacia at the Chalet School”. It’s not “Eustacia of the Chalet School” (The of and at constructions are titles used liberally throughout the series, but goes only occurs twice when related directly to school based adventures, and once in the ‘fill-in’ episode of Joey goes to the Oberland). That title suggest a girl who is being sent and yet, will not belong. A destination, but one that is not welcoming. Previous to this episode in the series, we’ve seen another new girl introduced – The Princess of the Chalet School – and Eustacia’s not destined for a similar experience. She is alien, really, to everything in this series and around her, and she is fascinating.

Brent-Dyer at this point in her writing career was so, so strong in how she could draw a character and context together. Eustacia is, for me, one of her more enduring and complex creations and it all centres around that opening sentence: “…the most arrant little prig that existed”. I think it’s madly intriguing that she set this book around such a resolutely unlikeable heroine – and one that she only, very briefly, admits is not to blame for being so unlikeable. She is the “unfortunate Eustacia”, who has been “subjected” to her childhood.

And maybe that’s the crux with this page, that little brief coda in the depths of the opening paragraph, that little mark of humanity and careful word choice that shows that maybe, underneath it all, Eustacia isn’t that bad a thing. She’s a victim. She’s obnoxious and superior and, as one might phrase it nowadays, rather full of it; but she is not to blame.

That’s such a careful nuance and it’s one that, I think, this whole page hinges upon. Eustacia’s character is laid out for all to see here, mercilessly so – but it is not all that she is. It is well for both the author and reader to see the cracks in it, even at this early point. It is the smallest of moments but it is so indicative of what is yet to come. Eustacia is a victim. And this book is going to explore just exactly what that victimhood has created.

Don Quixote (a Spanish language primer) : Jennifer Adams & Alison Oliver

Don QuixoteDon Quixote by Jennifer Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love this. It’s a board book which introduces some of the key words in and around the story of Don Quixote, in both English and Spanish. Each spread deals with one particular moment ‘castle / el castillo’ and delivers a vibrant, chunky drawing underneath it which ties back into the word. The noises are translated as well: ‘baaa’ / ‘beh beh’ for the goat, and ‘zzz’ / ‘sss’ for the snoring in the ‘bed/la cama’ spread. On the back page of the book is a phonetic translation of the words in two columns: one for English speakers and another for Spanish. It’s such a lovely glorious book with images that are chunky and thickly coloured and intensely evocative in their precise, clean nature.

Armor / La Armadura

Armor / La Armadura

One key thing to mention – and I grant that this is such a finicky note on a very good book, but it’s something that is worth mentioning. I’d have welcomed a little more consciousness of the role of the gutter within the book. Some of the double page spreads are beautifully aware of their construction; the ‘armor / la armardura’ one for example sees both figures facing into the middle of the book, mirror images of one and another and thus they tie the language down very specifically to both images. Sometimes the colour notes on each one vary, yellow flowers instead of pink, a brown goat instead of a white one, but the construction of these images do not change. There is an inclusion about these spreads. You know that the ‘goat’ on one page is ‘la cabra’ on the other.

Windmills / Los Molinos De Viento

Windmills / Los Molinos De Viento

Other spreads such as the ‘windmills / los molinos de viento’ see two separate images without this mirror construction; ‘windmills’ has a bigger windmill to the left of it and then one smaller to the right, whilst ‘los molinos de viento’ has a smaller windmill to the left and a bigger one to the right, thereby matching the stylistics of the previous page, but not the mirror images of the other spreads.

It’s a very finicky note in a rather lovely book but things like this matter within a language primer, particularly for this age. Are you telling the children that windmills are image a) or image b) ? (And particularly, with something potentially quite removed from a child’s experience, are you asking them to link the word with the windmill or that windmill, the little one or the big one? And how are you asking them to engage with this page – where do you want your reader to be, even at this age, at this point in the text? How do you want them travelling over the page? Do you want them to start with one method and then shift to another or not? All questions that, I’m sure, are addressed as part of this lovely series, but they’re all questions that strike me as being centred around issues of construction and concern for readership.

Goat / La Cabra

Goat / La Cabra

I mention all of this because this is a book very much on its way to being perfect. I love things like this that deconstruct classics and reconstruct them in accessible, fun and contemporary ways. I have never read Don Quixote. I’ve never had the inclination. But right now, I sort of do, and I think that’s one of the massive powers of a book like this. It opens (and re-opens) doors into texts.

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First Class Murder : Robin Stevens

First Class Murder (Wells and Wong, #3)First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s strange, sometimes, how books can make you long to read them and then freeze a little when you have them finally in your hands. And this was one: I love the work of Robin Stevens. I have adored Murder Most Unladylike and Arsenic For Tea. The third in the series, First Class Murder, was something that I was viciously hungry to read – and yet, reluctant to do so. I think that’s something that sometimes happens when books are this good, this continual level of good and wonderful writing and plots which hit all of your sweet spots and just make everything right with the world. You get scared that it can’t last. You get nervous.

There aren’t many contemporary writers I feel like this about. Susie Day is one as is Sita Brahmachari, and I suspect Aoife Walsh may become another.

Robin Stevens is very much up there on this list; a collective of some of the smartest and most exciting author voices working in contemporary children’s literature today. And because of all of that, I was nervous of First Class Murder. I was nervous that it just might not be that good.

So. Let me tell you this before we go on. First Class Murder is just -well, it’s perfect.

I love what Stevens does with her characters. I love that the further on she gets in the series, the more confident her writing feels and the drama becomes more dramatic and the humour becomes more stylish and heartfelt (The ‘Hermes’ moment is one such perfect example). I love that this series is turning into a such a powerhouse that can have jokes about the amount of times somebody vomits, with discussion of some incredibly dark and relevant issues. I love how the female characters in this book are so intensely multi-faceted and rich and capable; and I love how the adult characters, in particular Hazel’s father, are drawn with such sympathy and truth.

I would give these books to the world if I could, because they’re just a genuine joy all the way from the start through to the end, so instead I shall end with a small anecdote about a girl I met in the library once. I asked her what sort of books she liked. She told me that she liked Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie. “Well,” I said, “Do I have the perfect recommendation for you,” and then we beamed at each other as fellow bookish folk often do.

This is the perfect book for that girl. It’s also the perfect book for anyone who’s wanting something that has strong and brave characters, a tightly choreographed and controlled dance of a plot, murder, trains, shenanigans and buns. Basically, it’s the sort of book that I am and will continue to be slightly evangelical over.

(Also, these books are begging to be bought together as a series. Just look at those covers! My book shelves long for the three of them to be back to back!)

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Doodle Lit : Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver

Doodle LitDoodle Lit by Jennifer Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Doodle Lit, the work of Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver, is a book that I specifically requested to review and my thanks to the publishers for the review copy. I specifically requested it for several reasons: the boom in colouring in books currently hitting the United Kingdom market and also the fact that it was a book that paired doodling with classics. I was, as you might say in a TL:DR sort of fashion, intrigued.

And how could I not be? I read a lot but I only recently read my first ever Jane Austen. I have a fragile relationship with canonical texts. I would desert island with books such as The Secret Garden, but I’d run a mile were my only option something like a Thomas Hardy. And I grant that a lot of that is due to my educational exposure to these texts, to over-studying a lot of them (I only really got back Sylvia Plath quite recently, after my A-Levels pretty much took her away from me), but it’s also related to a lot of the expectations that go on around the idea of a classic text. They are texts that a lot of people revere and love. There are texts that have burnt through the years as though they were paper and each word was a flame. These texts exist and they cut through the world for a reason – but they don’t do that for everyone. They can be intimidating spaces precisely because of that weight behind them, that power. Sometimes it’s hard to find a fix on a text which is from a different world from you. Sometimes it’s hard to find the key to the door, let alone even see the door.

And so : Doodle Lit. It’s split into several sections; a brief introduction of an author with a quote about their doodling (Mark Twain : “I have never let my schooling interfere with my doodling”), followed by several pages of thematically relevant doodling. Shakespeare sees a page asking us to design our coat of arms, whilst another asks you to draw a bunch of rose and another offers some cut out and keep mask outlines. Tolstoy’s section (“Everything that I understand, I understand only because I doodle”) sees us being asked to design an evening bag for Anna, and another spread asks us to give her a new hair do.

I did feel that the book slightly lost its way at points; Lewis Carroll is included twice, albeit with a different focus on his work (his nonsense poetry vs Alice-in-Wonderland) and the activities in Emily Brontë’s section in particular felt a little tenuous at points (though I did rather adore the spread which declares: “Cathy is hanging up her laundry to dry on the clothesline. Doodle it”)

Despite these dips, there’s a lot of quality here. I can understand why books like this are problematic for some (I’m thinking of some of the media coverage of books like srsly Hamlet for example), I’d argue that there is definitely a space for books like Doodle Lit. It’s been produced with a lot of quality, the paper was thick enough that the felt-tips I used didn’t bleed through to the other side (I tested! For science!) and each page is printed with a perforated edge so that it tears out easily. It’s a good book. It’s been put together with a lot of care and consideration for the texts in question (though I can only specifically comment on the ones that I’ve read, do bear that in mind), and I like that. I like people that are taking risks and trying to introduce the classics to a new audience. I like that they’re breaking them down for readers to find that space within them for themselves. I like that a lot. Plus, I like the first spread a lot (“What kind of dog does Mr Darcy have? Doodle it and give it a name”).

(He’s got a purple spotted dog called Percy.)

(Obviously.)

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