The NCRCL Open Day 2018

Just a quick note to say that I will be speaking at the NCRCL Open Day 2018 (June 2nd, University of Roehampton). I know that London might not be an option for many people but if it is, and children’s books are your jam, I would urge you to come along! Studying for the MA changed my life in innumerable ways and I’d reccomend it to anybody (and I’m also happy to answer any questions about it). It’s a free event but you do need to book ahead; and do say hi if you get there!

(That was a lot of exclamation marks for one post, do forgive me… 🙂 )

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Translating classic children’s books into feminist blank verse

(Honestly, I’ve never been more on brand).

I am no translator. My French is passable, in that ‘I cannot remember the precise word but can vaguely approximate the sense of what I am trying to describe to you’ sort of manner, but it’s not up to translating prose. My English, however, is and so over the past few weeks I’ve been translating a classic children’s book (which I won’t name just yet) from prose into feminist blank verse. It’s one of my more niche experiments, and yet also something that’s thrilled me deeply because it touches a lot on the things that interest me.

My MPhil thesis, for example, partially discussed the notion of the Golden Age within children’s literature, that is to say the conceit of referring to a particular time of publishing as such – and viewing all since in relation to that Golden Age. I argued for Golden Ages to run on thematic distinction as I did, and still do, view the temporally discreet idea of periodization as something inherently complex. (“I’m sorry Mr Smith, but the Golden Age finished last Sunday…”).

I looked at the school stories located within the first Golden Age, and argued for subsequent Golden Ages to run more or less contiguously. I looked at the school stories, and stories of schooling, for they are my jam, but I also thought a lot about that wider context. The idea of how the quality of children’s books is always assessed by adults, and how popular fiction rarely plays a part in such a thing. (Perhaps we can call this Blytonphobia I don’t know.)

I realised that girls and women don’t often get an easy ride within these Golden Age stories, and I started to wonder what does it mean for our discipline, our sector, to cleave back to these books as gold standard. What do these choices reveal about ourselves and our idea of childhood? How do these stories fit in the contemporary rebel girl phenomenon sweeping children’s publishing? What part do they have to play in contemporary discourse?

So that’s the what, and here’s the why; I decided to rewrite one in blank verse because it gave me the leeway to answer those questions and to redress the balance. I don’t ever argue for the suppression of books, but I do argue for the considered reading of such. The questioning of standards. Challenging the absences.

And here’s the first line:

This is the story of a girl

My experience of Choose Your Own Story apps

I’ve been looking a lot recently at some choose your own story apps available on Android. This methodological restriction is primarily to the fact that an Android phone is what I have, and I was interested to see the sorts of stories that were available for it. I’ve never really looked at choose your own adventure story apps before, because I’ve always preferred a more self-led narrative. The sort that puts the onus upon the reader, rather than the reader reacting to a preset list of choices. This is something that I seek for across all sorts of literature, and not just those that you find on your phone. Reading is – should be – an active experience. I want to be needed as a reader. I want to be wanted.

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The allure of forgotten notebooks

I am one of those people who has legitimate and primal and fundamental personal needs for stationery. Good stationery is a human right. Notebooks make everything better. One of the first bits of advice I will give anybody beginning a research degree is to buy yourself all the stationery that your heart desires.

The only problem with this is that some are too pretty to use. And of those that you do use, you reach a point when you do not wish to break their backs nor rip pages out of them, and so let them slide towards the back of the shelf to the fog of forgotten things.

The one benefit of such a loosely functional system is that you tend to recover them at some point, and find the work of the once-you inside these pages. These are photograph albums in their way; delicious little snapshots of the thoughts and feelings of a time once forgotten, and that is the allure of the abandoned notebook. They will always be found again.

I am opening up a brown notebook today, unlined, and with a slim purple ribbon to mark its pages. I found poetry and bare, sparse pages that sang to be used.

I shall.

1.

to be

the other

is more powerful

than you’ll ever know

2.

the butterfly

that lands

with the weight of bricks

3.

to be selfish

is an affirmation

 

 

“Help, my child isn’t reading!”

I had a couple of really interesting chats recently with parents concerned about their children’s reading habits. They weren’t reading. They don’t read. They don’t read challenging books. They won’t pick up a book. And when all you see in the media is reports about how children don’t read, and this means your child in particular, that’s a tough subject to deal with.

So, here’s some advice on what to do in those situations. I don’t have children, but I’ve helped a lot in a variety of situations. More to the point, I don’t have any ties to advanced reading schemes or organisations who’d like you to purchase their product to help you read better. I’m in this for you and your kids, and let’s do this together.

Any tips you’d like to add, do let me know.

  1. Model good reading behaviour in the house. Have books present and as part of your daily lives. Make sure that you read visibly in front of your child.
  2. Sign up to the library, and go there as part of your routine. Don’t worry if they don’t pick up books the first time, just have a cup of coffee or something and pick up a book yourself, and then head home. This isn’t about getting stressed.
  3. Stop talking about the subject. If you’re worried that they aren’t reading, and keep having a go, then I know I wouldn’t want to read in the slightest. I know this is hard, and I have my utmost sympathies for those going through this. We want the best for our kids, but badgering and flashpoint conversations aren’t going to do that.
  4. See what they’re interested in and embed reading around those opportunities. For example, if they keep watching you cook or want to help in the kitchen, get them to help plan meals and read recipe books. Help you write out a shopping list. If you’re putting together shelves or something and they want to help, get them to read out the instructions.
  5. Take them for a visit to a comics shop, or to a comics festival. Again, this isn’t about ‘reading’ per se, but rather the exposure to literature and formats that they’ve maybe not particularly recognised.
  6. If they’re into computer games or coding, recognise that these are pretty valuable reading experiences in themselves. Quiz them about the games narrative, or get them a non-fiction tie in.
  7. Talking of tie-ins, if a kid is interested in a subject then they’ll tend toward reading the tie-in. Check out books by Youtubers, books about Minecraft, books about Warhammer 3000.
  8. Explore alternative reading formats. Audio books whilst in the car (captive audience), or spaghetti letters on toast. Something weird, something interesting. And again, if the parents aren’t interested, then why should the kids be? Make reading a full family act.
  9. Read out loud wherever you can. Even if it’s just to your partner, or to gran and grandad; this is about modelling good reading behaviour and showing the benefit of literature. Plus, it’s fun.
  10. Your child is probably reading more than he or you thinks. Celebrate the moments where you connect, and make reading a treat. Have a bun, have some time together, and don’t worry. You got this.

The circularity of debate

I have become increasingly conscious of the circularity of many debates within children’s literature, and the way that, so often, these feel as though they’re pushing against an echo chamber. Does it matter to talk about such things when it feels as though nobody’s listening? Of course it does, for words are weapons and vital moments of truth. Disrupt the narrative within the space that you exist, yes, always do such a thing.

But I think, as well, that when a debate hits the wall with such thudding regularity, and nothing seems to change, then questions need to be asked. The debate needs to be reframed. The question itself needs changing.

I need to problematise statements. Statistics, as we know, can say anything we want them to say. One in five people do this, but four in five do not. Read them from the left to the right, and then from the front to the back, and you’ll find a different story.

This is why, when I read a headline about what children’s literature is, and is not, I ache to see the data. I want to know what books you read, and if you think young adult is all about sparkling vampires. I want your credentials

(I also ache to examine our need to understand the absences and shortcomings of children’s literature in a way that, I think, we do not do with ‘adult’ literature. Related to that, I want to examine the cultural ownership of children’s literature. I read very of certain genres. I do not, generally, find myself writing about the deficiencies of such genres. Yet with children’s literature, we own it, and I suspect this is simply because we have all experienced a form of childhood. Were there a form of age after adulthood, I suspect we would look back on ‘adult’ literature and similarly question what it was and what it was not).

In response to all of this, I have made several decisions regarding my approach to reading and writing about children’s literature. I’ve been putting these into practice over the last few months. Here they are:

I don’t, and will not, write about tokenistic attempts at representation, but rather recognise those books that present the world as a rounded and diverse space. I do not seek tokenism, or knee-jerk attempts at diversity, but rather a simple questioning of the decisions and the defaults that are made and perpetuated throughout a book’s production.

I shall question the narrative  around certain issues where I can, and in the space that I can. I have, for example, become increasingly frustrated at how certain issues are represented and have begun to actively seek alternative perspectives. Whether that’s reading outside of my genres or looking for more translated fiction (for which I’d welcome reccommendations), I am trying to challenge the defaults that I cling to.

I am a researcher, a blogger, a writer and a librarian. I wear a lot of different hats depending on what day it is, and I think it’s vital to question the assumptions that I make. And perhaps that’s the way to disrupt the narrative, right there; to understand your place in the system and to question that. To problematise it, to ask – what if? I am interested, for example, that with one of the more recent ‘children’s books do this’ newspaper pieces, the only negative responses I saw were from male authors. I’m not calling out names but rather asking for a shift in perspective.

Perhaps, as Ice Cube would have it, it’s time to check yo self before checking the work of others.

It’s only through self-questioning that you can start to figure out the position that you play in the system and once you’ve figured that out, you can change it. Maybe just a little bit, but it’ll be enough. It’ll be a point that, when the debate rumbles round one more time, makes the track skip just a little bit and have the world pay attention to what you’re doing.

No more yelling into the echo chamber.

An interview with Bessora and Sarah Ardizzone : two-thirds of the creative team behind Alpha

One of the highlights of Pop Up Lab this year was hearing Bessora the author, and Sarah Ardizzone, the translator, deliver a key note about their graphic novel Alpha. Alpha is a fascinating project; originally published in French and republished in English by the team at Barrington Stoke. At a conference that discussed the importance of visual literacies, the book had a deeply relevant part to play – and I’m grateful to both Bessora and Sarah for answering my further questions about it.

If you’d like to read more about the conference itself, here’s an interview with the founder and I also wrote up some notes about the day here – these will be of particular interest if you’re looking at visual literacy in your work (I hope!).

And of course, it’s important to emphasis that Bessora and Sarah Ardizzone are only two-thirds of the team behind Alpha. The third, Barroux, worked on the art and did so quite stunningly. You can view his website here and I’d urge you to do so. Alpha is a remarkable book. 

Bessora and Sarah talking about Alpha

Why do you think it’s important to visually represent the story of Alpha? Do you think the story would have changed if you’d have told it in a mainly prose format?

Bessora: I usually write novels, in which I take all the space:  in novels, images are either described and/or suggested so that the readers can build them through their own imagination. Alpha is graphic: I had to leave room for the imagination of Barroux, who introduced his drawing as a second language. The result is an immediacy – images are an intimate language and the first element one reads as a child.

What sort of opportunities for conversation do you think Alpha prompts?

​Bessora: Alpha is an opportunity to talk about an incarnated man, who could be our brother, our cousin, our friend, our neighbour’s husband, or ourselves.

It is about an intimate who experiences an unbelievable adventure, an intimate that the media makes a foreigner, while the story concerns us intimately.

With Alpha being written originally in French, and translated into English, do you think it reads differently? How has the translation – or has the translation – affected its message?

Sarah: The message remains the same. With the subtle difference that Alpha is an undocumented economic migrant travelling from Ivory Coast in francophone West Africa to Gare du Nord, Paris, France – so Anglophone readers are removed from this story in comparison with French readers. This, in turn, may spark a more empathetic (but also more romanticised?) response to the personal tragedy and human crisis depicted. Otherwise, I would hope that the ‘everyman’ quality of Bessora’s writing – the diary jottings of a person with a simple education, a man who is occasionally naïve, but whose insights affect us all – communicates just as powerfully in English. It’s also worth pointing out that the text looks different. The UK edition is published by the independent Edinburgh-based publisher, Barrington Stoke, whose priority is making stories accessible to every kind of young reader. This means that Barroux’s handwritten text (French handwriting can be difficult for UK readers to decipher at the best of times) has been replaced by a serif font.

Alpha was subject to some very specific creative constraints, such as the diary format and within the artwork. Can you talk a little bit more about these and the impact they have on the story?

​Sarah: As the translator of a graphic diary, my job is to translate the words and the pictures. Bessora wrote the original text before the artwork had been created by Barroux. But now that both exist, I have to marry them in my word choices – capturing Bessora’s tone and Barroux’s palette. Barroux’s creative constraint this time around was the idea of a cheap notebook (perhaps bought in a corner shop in Abidjan) and a kids’ pack of felt-tip pens: my words needed to communicate that non-precious approach to “getting it down” or putting the words on the page, while at the same time conveying the poetic, resonant touch with which Bessora infuses her writing.

Alpha’s a story about people, and I’m interested in how this was reflected in its collaborative production. Do you think this has impacted upon the story itself?

Bessora: First there was the meeting with Barroux, who desired a book on this very large subject “‘immigration”. My role was then to refine the subject, and to embody it. I constructed the story by myself, with the leitmotif of making Alpha, a person (a somebody), and not a thing (a nobody) as migrants sometimes appear. Barroux grafted on the text, which he enriched and nurtured with his images. Then the process was extended through Sarah’s translation. It is a collaboration … not simultaneous, which is reflected in the way the collaboration is established between the protagonists of the story: to survive, Alpha and his pals must be in solidarity.

Sarah: I couldn’t agree more with Bessora – particularly when it comes to the sense of solidarity this book sparked.

One of the many things I love about Alpha is that this story doesn’t ‘belong’ to any single person.

It was inspired by an undocumented economic migrant who frequented the artists’ squat where Barroux had his studio: and Togola’s story is the greatest human story of our times, that of a desperate exodus and a thin welcome. The story was researched by Bessora – but in a sense we have all “translated” it, and the wider public continues to do so. The book was acquired by Barrington Stoke, when they spotted it at the Spectacular Translation Machine (STM) that we staged at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015. An STM is live, collaborative translation at its most exciting. It involves displaying all the images (but not the text) from the book, as if at an art gallery, and then encouraging the general public to choose an image that speaks to them, collect the text that goes with it from the volunteers manning our “reception” and set about translating the words – with help and support from on-tap expert translators. Together we translated most of the book in a single day, but what was most inspiring about this process were the conversations that were struck up between participants, as they talked about what it is that we think we’re doing when we translate.

Alpha is a story that deals with challenging topics. Do you have any tips on how to approach or manage such topics when reading books of this nature with children?

Sarah: Two words come to my mind: simplicity and truth (even if it’s a truth from a fiction).

Children must be protected, but it is useless to lie to them about the state of the world.

And finally, what’s your favourite book?

Bessora: It depends on the day … At this moment, it’s Zoonomia, because it’s the only one I can read since I’m trying to correct it. It’s being published in February!

Sarah: Texaco by the Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau – who writes about the fallout of slavery and makeshift housing on his volcanic island. His style makes for a Creole epic that is fabulous (in the literal sense of the word) and searing, and it is exquisitely translated by Val Vinokurov and Rose-Myriam Rejouis. It is also one of the only novels I know dedicated to an urban planner.

Thank you Bessora and Sarah!