Who are you if you are afraid? : On mediating complex content in children’s literature


“If I have the agency to read texts for young people critically, then might not young readers have this agency also?”

Nodelman, Perry (2016) The hidden child in the hidden adult Jeunesse : Young People, Texts, Cultures 8 (1), pp266-277


I have been thinking about this post for a while and how best to approach it. It was thrown into sharp relief by a few conversations I had recently, and some online activity I watched, which made me realise that I was thinking about the books I study and work with and read, madly, feverishly, selfishly, and had some ideas around content that were worth exploring in a post like this. I am self-indulgent on this blog, I know, but things like this matter immensely. Literature is a building block, a superpower, and once we understand how it does what it does and how we influence that doing, we are warriors.

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The Chalet School and the Island : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and the Island (The Chalet School, #25)The Chalet School and the Island by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s perhaps the context that I’m in right now, swithering from thesis research to thesis research, that when I reread The Chalet School and the Island, I was deeply amazed to find a book that I’d never read before. Of course, I knew of Annis and had read of Kester Bellever and of St Briavels and I knew this book.

I didn’t. Not really.

Giving one book and delivering another underneath is sort of the Brent-Dyer trademark. She gives a covert textuality of independence and liberation masked in the genre tropes of a girl’s school story. Midnight feasts. Future potential careers. Middles playing jokes. Potential penury. It is occasionally jarring and it is occasionally poorly done but don’t ever tell me that these books don’t preach a furious ideology of choice. Be who you are meant to be. Not who you should be. Become a Nun, be a mother, teach, lecture on antiquities, go to university, be a vet, a doctor, whatever – all of these are valid and relevant choices for the girls and thus, by that delicious implication of textuality, for the reader. The Chalet School preaches choice. Freedom. Always has, always will, and to dismiss that on the grounds of a misreading or on the grounds of the irrelevance of the non-canonical, populist text, is to dismiss a great swathe of girlhood. Womanhood. Selfhood.

The Chalet School and the Island sees some rather glorious moments as the school relocates once more to an island near Wales. The location, as ever with Brent-Dyer, varies a little over the next few books but for now let’s settle on Wales. Jack eats a lot of crumpets (I have never loved Jack more) as he delivers some healthy exposition on the topic, and then term starts with a hearty not-so-much-of-Jacynth-as-I’d-quite-like but quite-enough-of-Mary-Lou.

Brent-Dyer seems to thrive on change and challenging the status quo of her ever more lengthy books. Some of her writing here is gorgeous, and although she does slip into some slightly rose-tinted paragraphs, the majority of it is rich and refreshing and good. She was good, and her new characters here are wonderful. From the deeply gorgeous Kester Bellever, a famous bird-watcher and naturalist, through to the entire Christy family and the background notes of the established characters such as Doris Trelawney, it’s embracing, warm and lovely.

And it’s powerful, too, dealing with topics as mixed as (deep breath) potential penury, orphans, isolation, religion, future career choices, and the impact of the second world war. That’s the thing about these books. On the surface they’re one thing, but underneath, they’re everything.

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How many you’s are you a you to?

It was my first year at University. I was sat in a room, surrounded by green fields and woods, and a man was talking about grammar and language. These were lectures that I didn’t, wholly, understand. They were lectures that I couldn’t and wouldn’t miss, not for a second, and I didn’t know why, or even what they were about half the time, but I loved them.

They were experiences. Everything about that University was. From the way the Henry Moore statue gleamed in the morning light, to the way the woods smelt of damp wild garlic after the rain had felt.

He was asking us to think about language. Naming. Identity. Branding. You’re a person. Let’s call you John Smith. How many people know you as John? How many people know you as John Smith? Or Mr Smith? Or that guy with the dark hair, or the guy who gets on the bus and always looks a little bit as though he can’t quite understand how it’s time to go to work again?

I’m a researcher of children’s literature. Identity, representation and the politics of self are intensely vital things within this sector. Read The Uncomfortable Truth About Children’s Books.

What are the you’s on your bookshelf? On the bookshelves you look after at work, or see in the library? I wonder, if perhaps, we need to be finding the ‘you’ more often, and actively questioning who and what it is we’re presenting to people as the de-facto ‘you’ of children’s literature.

I’m intensely suspicious of statistics as a rule. Statistics tell the story you want them to tell. And quite often, that’s not quite the story that the data represents. So maybe, we repurpose that narrative a little. Maybe we gatekeepers need to change the frame a little. Maybe we need to get that frame checked and challenged by others. Audited by the kids we work with. Questioned by our selves.

(A brief segue: read the challenging books, the scary books, the ‘other’ books, the books that you don’t know and the books that you do. Question representation, facilitate representation, understand the genre. Read more, always, read more)

Maybe it’s time to adopt the mantra of: “How many you’s am I putting into the world?”


Are we there yet? : Dan Santat

Are We There Yet?Are We There Yet? by Dan Santat

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s something rather extraordinary about Santat’s latest picture  book which investigates the imaginative potential of the road trip. Road trips are boring, really, unless you’re doing something. And if you are, then you’re not in the car. You’re eating something or photographing or racing your siblings to be the first to the last toilet this side of midnight. But sooner or later, that ends, and you’re back in the car, and there’s another three hundred hours to be worked through before you get to where you’re going.

Time. It’s a hard concept for adults to grasp, let alone very young children, and Santat wisely stays away from rigid facts and figures. Instead Are we there yet? embraces the dream-edge of time, space and indeed, of the very parameters of book itself.

It’s Grandma’s birthday, and, as the road trip continues and boredom sets in, the book flips –  quite literally – and another narrative spills out on the upside-down pages. It’s a narrative of adventure; still, rich scenes torn from time and set against the plaintive backdrop of the family in the car and “I’m bored” emanating from the back seat.Minutes begin to feel like hours. Hours feel like days ( “I feel sick”), and as days become months we slide back through history and the car becomes a participant in a jousting tournament or forced to walk the plank off a pirate ship. The tumultuous culmination of this journey sees the car and its inhabitants come face to face with a T-Rex. This encounter flips the book once more and suddenly we’re in the future where a robot takes your picture and replies in QR coded speech bubbles. Which work. Perfectly. Seriously, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen QR codes do something awesome. You scan these speech bubbles with a QR code reader and a little panel pops up with a ‘translation’ of what the robot is saying. God, I love this book.

You might be gathering that Are We There Yet? is quite a special book. It is. It works damn hard, and a lot of that wouldn’t actually work without the various elements that constitute it working. An awful sentence, yep, but what I’m trying to say is that there are moments when you can throw everything at something and have none of it work. Kind of like this paragraph. Anyway. You need to be able to handle fancy elements and Santat does and can. It’s outstanding work. It made me shriek with joy, this book, and stare at it in wonder because he brings something quite contemporary, new  and quite delicious to the format. And he does it well. It would be so easy to do this badly, it really would.

One of the clever things about Santat’s work is that he brings the reader with him. Give me all the fanciness in the world, but if you forget about the reader then none of that’s worth a thing. Santat positions the reader central to the work and one of the smart ways in which he does that is his handling of text and captions. The below spread is the first ‘flip’ scene; look at the top left of the caption and then trace it round the page (note that white line which takes you with it, and lets you know that it’s okay) and look, in particular, at the point of that final box of the line. IMG_20160916_150431667.jpg

It’s these final boxes – these caption bubbles? my terminology escapes me – that tells me that Santat is good. Because whatever way you turn the book, these points on the boxes lead you towards the page turn and hold you safe throughout the rest of the book.


The next page of the book? Turn left. And oh, the delicious, time-shift of such a gesture in a book built on reading left to right. Santat, I salute you.


The next page of the book? You got it. Turn left. Keep reading. No man left behind.

This is such a wonderful, smart and brilliantly constructed book. Like I said, it’s spectacular.

My thanks to Andersen for the review copy.

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Fifty Shades of Feminism : eds Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes & Susie Orbach

Fifty Shades of FeminismFifty Shades of Feminism by Lisa Appignanesi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fifty Shades of Feminism is a collection of short, bitesize pieces from a range of “some of the most significant feminists of our time”. The list is impressive, juxtaposing Alison Bechdel with Elaine Showalter with Sandi Toksvig and Kathy Lette amongst many other equally talented writers and voices. The editors are overt in acknowledging that limiting the book to fifty was a struggle; and there’s something in me that’s both proud and sad of that. A struggle because the voices are out there and demanding to be heard, and yet, the options for them to be heard are so limited, so tight –

There are omissions, naturally, as with every compendium of this nature. I’d have welcomed some more diversely formatted entries; illustration features, and yet, I want more, somehow, always.

Of the many entries that left me staring and breathless, Laura Dockrill’s entry captivated me. It’s a handwritten piece sprawling across two pages and yet, I didn’t somehow figure this out until I was halfway down one page and loving the free, blank verse. Sentences that ran together as fluid, questioning prose across both pages, broke up and became direct, wonderful things: “that’s your job handing out / purpose. Become a woman”. A wilful misreading, yes, but one that left me breathless.

Maybe that’s the thing about compilations of this nature. There will always be omissions but there will always be space. And that’s what we need to find, need to occupy, need to own –

Shelve this with Louise O’Neill, with Holly Bourne, and allow the questions to be formed –

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Binny Keeps a Secret : Hilary McKay

Binny Keeps a SecretBinny Keeps a Secret by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Binny Keeps A Secret sees Binny join a new school. This doesn’t go terribly well, and Binny is thrilled when a bad storm hits the town and wrecks the roof of their house. They have to move to a rented property in the countryside whilst the roof gets fixed. Clearly, this means that Binny won’t have to go to school, but life’s never straightforward for her. Binny has to go to school and she has to deal with the hideousity (tm Louise Rennison) but then, Binny discovers a great secret about their new house…

There are books that live and die on character, I think, books that have a voice so distinct and palpable and intense, that you can you can forgive them those moments where the structure is a little uneven or where the ending is a little sharp because the book itself is so gorgeous, so madly gorgeous, that you don’t care. You’re reading and it is good and you want that moment to live forever. I could read these Binny books forever.

A part of me wants to give Hilary McKay the freedom of children’s literature. I know there’s no such thing, but McKay’s books make me want to scream and shout and be all “just go look, look at how good she is, and how good these books are”. Binny Keeps A Secret is a little older, a little wiser, but still delightfully Binny. Binny is voice, I think, tumultous, life-living, complex, chaotic, vivid, beautiful voice. She’s an astonishing character. She makes me want to have written her and yet, I know I never could do her justice in the way that McKay does.

This is a book of voice. Of character. Life. It is messy, pretty, beautiful, foolish. It’s full of people. Family. Laughter. Loathing. And Hilary McKay is one of the best, the very best.

Now let’s talk again about that freedom of children’s literature thing…

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