5 Life Lessons Children’s Literature Taught Me (with a little help from Buffy)

1. bravery is not what you think it is


I think, in a way, this is one of the more important and perhaps the most important message that any book can tell anyone. As Buffy says in the above gif that sort of reduces me to an emotional wreck every time I look at it, the hardest thing to do in this world is to live in it. And it’s even harder to do that as a child with all of the power and control that you lack in that position. Life is horrible, sometimes, and to live in that – to be able to be brave within that? To show your reader that there’s a light in the darkness, however dark your darkness is? That’s a gift.

Reading suggestions: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, There May be a Castle by Piers Torday.

2. it’s all about the journey

Image result for buffy travel gif

It’s too easy to shift life into a series of moments. Of goals. And they don’t get easier when you get older, but somehow they’re more sharp when you’re a child. Exams. Grades. Friendship. The shattering moment when your friend plays with somebody else on the playground or that moment when your social media is full of people having a better life than you. So this is where the books step in to show you that there is something else out there and that’s the journey. You may be all heading towards the grim inevitability of SATS or A-Levels or university or the first job, but these books remind you to enjoy the process of getting there. To party, to laugh, to love, to live. Sometimes your destination will wait.

Reading suggestions: Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson, My Name is Mina by David Almond

3. you matter

Image result for buffy kind gif

You’ll see it on the front of certain magazines and you’ll know it, straight away. It’s that urge to mould a million faces into a concept of perfection that, often, bears a mad disconnect from reality. It’s in the urge to deny the voice of the individual. The urge to laugh at people who get upset when their favourite band breaks up. The urge to mock otherness, to deny otherness within the world. This is the point where young adult literature comes out fighting: it is the space for otherness to thrive. It is a space for that otherness to exist.

Reading suggestions: What’s a girl gotta do? by Holly Bourne, A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian

4. be kind

Image result for buffy kind gif

Life isn’t about isolation but isolation is often a part of life. Anxiety, fear, terror; teenagers today face pressures that adults can’t often begin to fathom. I know it works the other way too (let me tell you about the wonder that is imposter syndrome some time), so these books work both ways. They talk to adults and to teens. Let’s phrase that a little bit better: these books talk to people. They make connections and ask you to see beyond the edges of your own world. To be kind within the context of yourself and to others. To be part of the world.

Reading suggestions: Girl with a white dog by Anne Booth, An Island of Our Own by Sally Nicholls

5. love is love is love

Image result for buffy love gif

The shape of love. To know what it is before you have it, to find it andto hold it. Questions that I still can’t answer, not wholly, not easily, but questions that exist. The limit of love. What is love? Who gets to love? How do I love? What can I love? Who loves me? What if I don’t want to love anything at all? Questions, questions, and sometimes we need to allow the space for those questions to be formed. And to not be afraid of that. The safety of the unknown is, I think, a rarity. We urge ourselves to answer the question, to find an answer and to not allow that silence. And we try to provide clarity to children, to others, to ourselves. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t. And this is where these books step in.

Reading suggestions:  I capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Unhooking the moon by Gregory Hughes.


Mistletoe and Murder : Robin Stevens

Mistletoe and Murder (Wells and Wong, #5)Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Long term readers of my reviews will know that I adore what Robin Stevens writes. The Wells and Wong series are that delightful thing: a series which continues to get better with every book published. And that’s not easy; series are hard works. As are colons. And semi-colons. I am incoherent. These books make me scatty, because I love them and I can’t write coherently about love, I don’t think, not when it’s like this. Not when it’s so perfectly formed and delivered and utterly good.

To be precise: the fifth book in the series sees Daisy and Hazel visit Cambridge over Christmas. Shenanigans occur and, naturally, the girls become involved. But this time they’re not alone; a rival detective agency is on the scene and challenging Wells and Wong’s competence. Will they solve the case? Will their rivals take the glory? Will there be buns? (Of COURSE there will be buns).

The more I read of this series, the more I realise that we are privileged readers today. We get to witness series like this where the titles get better each and every time. And to say that involves a caveat that these were not poor books to begin with. There is not one of this series that I have not been prostrate with love for, that I have not rated five stars. But better is always possible, and Stevens is doing it. She’s doing it so well and I am jealous of her skill and I love it and I adore it. Mistletoe and Murder has a complexity to it that both speaks back to the books which have been, but also looks forward to the books which are yet to come. Relationships, same-sex, mixed-sex; racism, conscious, unconscious; gender-bias, sexism; give these books to people who question the relevance of children’s literature in contemporary society. Give them two copies because once they’ve read it, they will want to share it with the next person they’ve come across and realise that they can’t let their copy go.

There’s not much else to say here other than this series is wonderful and Mistletoe and Murder sparks with a delicious and beautiful complexity and I love it, I love what these books are, I love that they exist, that they are.

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Binny Bewitched : Hilary McKay

Binny Bewitched (Binny, #3)Binny Bewitched by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Binny Bewitched returns to the Cornwallis household and sees the family in disarray. Binny herself has misplaced something that wasn’t hers to start off with. James and his new best friend are engrossed in their own adventures, whilst Clem is acting particularly oddly. Coupled with that, the builder keeps coming round to do one last job on the house, whilst their next door neighbour is, pretty definitely, a witch….

Sometimes it’s hard to rate McKay’s work as you rate it within a certain context of wonder that is formed from your experience of her other books. This, the third in the Binny series, feels like an ending to that series and there will never be a part of me that chooses for McKay’s stories to end. She’s such a gifted, genuine, lovely storyteller that I get greedy and hungry and desperate for them to continue. I love what she does. Binny Bewitched then gets five stars, because it is perfect, and yet it’s not because I feel like this is it, but then it is perfect because it is here and it reads like soup and quilts and snow on a school morning.

What makes Binny Bewitched so wonderful is the way it hangs on a cusp of growth. There aren’t many writers who can transition well from one age group to another within the same text; from boyhood to manhood, from girlhood to womanhood. It’s a complicated moment and it’s one that, I wonder now, I haven’t described particularly well. Maybe it’s better to pull it back to the idea of moments; moments when you look at somebody and see a friend, but then, one day, you look at them and see something different. Something new and sharp and wonderful. Something else. Or when you’re walking down the road, and you see something that you’ve seen a thousand days, but then, suddenly, it means something totally different. Shifts. Changes.

Adèle Geras does this well. and Susie Day is, I suspect, another author who gets it. Who understands that moment when the world makes sense and then suddenly reforms to make another sort of sense. A different sort of sense. And that’s what Binny Bewitched captures, so wonderfully, that difference between the self you are and the self you will be. Binny is a wonderful character. She’s stubborn, tempestuous, funny, brave, passionate, confused, perfect. She’s everything, and this book is lovely and I hope this isn’t the end for this series but if it is, what a way to go out. And why we haven’t given McKay the Freedom of Children’s Literature yet, I do not know.

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Blue & Other Colours with Henri Matisse

Blue & Other Colours: with Henri MatisseBlue & Other Colours: with Henri Matisse by Henri Matisse

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wonderful book. Genuinely. It’s rare to find board books that slip into non-fiction but do it so deftly, so unconsciously, so ‘without getting massively educational in the process and whoah yes I’m bored and I’m three hundred years older than the target audience’ sort of thing.

Blue & Other colours is part of a series of ‘first concepts with fine artists’. This title focuses on Matisse and quietly works through a series of his works by picking out the colours. Every time ‘Blue’ is mentioned, the font turns blue, and as each new colour is introduced the font changes once more to reflect that colour. This is such a nice, subtle touch of design and will help immensely with both colour recognition and language development.

The captions are simple, ranging from: “Blue Again” through to “Blue and yellow, and look – orange dots too!”. Each caption is set against a clean white background which again is another good design; this book could have been very easily over-designed and too busy, particularly with some of Matisse’s more exuberant works, but it carefully stays away from that. It includes a little bit of blurb about Matisse at the end, which speaks about his methods and techniques.

This is such a delightful, solid book. I loved that it included a list of the works depicted throughout the book, because these are books to be shared. To be played with. To live with. I also suspect this will be a book that will last with the reader for a while and grow with them, particularly because certain elements of it do read up and towards imaginative play and craft activities. I loved it. More please.

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This Is Not A Book : Jean Jullien

This Is Not A BookThis Is Not A Book by Jean Jullien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Shall we start the week off with a very good book indeed? Yes. Of course we should.

This is Not A Book by Jean Jullien is an outstanding thing; a board book that defies conventions and expectations by resolutely refusing to be a board book. There’s no linear narrative here, rather there’s a series of double page spreads where the book is something other than a book. It’s a set of piano keys with the sheet music for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, or it’s a man walking across a tightrope, or it’s the inside of a tent, a girl sat on a chair reading a book to her pet dog, or a gorgeously simply rendered pink bottom.

This is a delightful book because of its ability to give a constant surprise. It’s so defiant of convention and expectation that it manages to deliver something quite extraordinary. Not quite book, not quite toy, but rather wonderfully creative experience. I loved it. This is classy, brave and smart work.

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Girl Online : Zoe Sugg

Girl Online: The First Novel by ZoellaGirl Online: The First Novel by Zoella by Zoe Sugg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Penny, aka GirlOnline, blogs about her life and the panic attacks she suffers from. Following a chain of circumstance, she ends up spending Christmas in New York with her family. Whilst there she meets Noah and the two of them fall in love. Penny blogs, Penny falls in love. But Noah’s got a secret …

I’ve kept an eye on Girl Online ever since it was published and the saga around it’s authorship became public. Whilst I’m not interested in a review about the nature of ghostwriters nor parsing the nature of this text for traces of that experience, I am interested in what this book is and I’m interested in why, always, I see it on reservation for people. It’s being read. Immensely. And I can’t deny the relevance of that nor of Zoella herself.

So. Girl Online is rather lovely. It’s not Dostoyevksy (nor should it be and if you think it should be then we need to talk) but what it is is a novel which wears its heart on its sleeve in a rather wonderful manner. I genuinely enjoyed it.

Where it shines is in its relateability. It read a little younger than I thought it would, but there’s something rather delightful in how overt and emphatic it is. It doesn’t hold back from itself nor the tone of that; it’s very intense, very lovely and delightful. There’s a hint of innocence about it that’s also oddly intriguing; it’s not a book that dwells in the darkness. Conflict is introduced, resolved, and the happy ending is reached. There is space in the world for books like this, and this is so emphatically determined to reach a happy ending that I can’t deny it, I can’t.

Girl Online is a genuine, intense, innocent (I wonder if it’s almost naive at points?), sugary and rather lovely in a very particular sort of way book. It’s hard to resist. And whether I credit that to Curham, Sugg, or both, I don’t know. What I do know is that this book surprised me. And I like that, I like that a lot.

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Contributions towards a narrative of erasure

  1. I was driving the other day and listening to the morning show on Radio 2. Chris Evans. Chat. You know the sort of thing.  One of the recurrent items on the show is ‘Top Tenuous’ : tenuous claims to fame on a particular topic. They were celebrating the 70th birthday of BBC Woman’s Hour and had decided to make a Top Tenuous on the theme of Men in Woman’s Hour. Because they “wanted to be in on the action” as well.
  2. Mental illness has soared amongst the young women of the United Kingdom.
  3. “When you’re a star they let you do it”
  4. Five out of six Australian girls believe they do  not have the same chances in life as boys.
  5. “This year girls and young women told us that they feel held back by gender stereotypes, sexism, and anxiety about how they look”


I am so mad some days, so mad.

I believe in using your voice to make a difference where you can. Impacting the world where you can. Making a choice. Making a decision. “Activating yourself”

I am a specialist in children’s and young adult literature. It’s articles like this that make me determined to not restrict space on my shelves or on this blog or in the world. I don’t ban, I don’t restrict content, I don’t take books away from those who need them the most and can’t even yet verbalise that need. I facilitate access to literature. I facilitate access to liberation.

Don’t ever, ever, turn to me and tell me that children’s books don’t matter. These books build childhoods, shape them and make people out of them. Read whatever you want but read it critically, bravely, angrily, foolishly. Accept the problems but let yourself enjoy it nevertheless. Read books where you’re rescued or where you’re doing the rescuing. Read books by voices different, voices same, voices other. Read, read, just read, and never be afraid of being the bookish one, the one who reads. 

Reading and talking and articulating your narrative challenges this constant urge on the part of somebody to erase your experience. To erase your voice. To erase the validity of self, the importance of you, the wonder of you.

Reading is power, even when the world seems determined to not let you have it.