Children’s literature and the great ‘oh’

This post marks the debut of a new series on this blog, namely a collection of longer and more in-depth pieces. Long-reads, essays, that sort of thing. They will be able to be read in sequence or in isolation, and I hope they’ll help to shed some light on children’s literature. And on tigers. 

Let me know what you think x 

 

I. Introduction

I’m in a taxi, on my way home from a conference, and we’re cutting through the streets of York. As shops blur past us, and tourists pause to photograph each other against increasingly antiquated backgrounds, he asks me, in that way that taxi drivers do, where I’ve been. A conference, I say, and then in that still somewhat disbelieving frame of mind, I add, Cambridge. Cambridge. I have spoken about my research at Cambridge and it is all still a little unreal to me.

Oh, he says, and what were you talking about? Children’s books, I say. Or rather, in my dizzy and deftless and exhausted manner, I fall back on the language of the weekend and refer to it as children’s literature. Pony books, I say, to be precise. Words. I struggle sometimes with them when all I want to do is talk about them. The knot of language in my throat, coupled with the weekend I have had, makes me fall silent. Makes me wait for his reply.

Oh, he says.

But this time his oh is different. It is a flat oh, a sort of dimly appalled oh, the oh that speaks of somebody who has entered a conversation that they do not wish to end.

It is the sort of oh I have heard before.

Continue reading

Thanks Obama

I was thinking today that I can’t remember a politician who has so actively centred books within his public dialogue and persona. Literature. Education. The power of the novel and the belief in collective education. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in a British context and that saddens me. But I saw it in the Obama administration and I loved that.

Books matter, and you know that if you’re here. Books, and the reading of them, and the public embrace and advocacy of them matters. And when you’re president or prime minister or the head of a school, or a mum or a dad, you almost have to forget yourself because, in a way, you don’t matter. What matters is the act of reading. Of participating. Of believing that we’re better together. Of knowing that empathy and understanding and knowledge is good. Great. Powerful.

And I think the Obama administration got that.

When you read, when you model behaviours, when you talk about the books that matter to you, you share and you advocate and you talk and you connect. And you build hope and connections and you build the ability to disagree but to do so on the strength of your literacy, of your ability to synthesise and understand and analyse information, and you build the ability to connect.

You build with books.

Thanks Obama.

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen : Hope Nicholson

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book HistoryThe Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History by Hope Nicholson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Due out in May, this is one of those books that I want to write about now and talk about now because it’s great. Simple as that; I have been looking for books and for writers that historicise their work from a female and a feminist perspective because, so often, that is a perspective that is lacking. And it’s a perspective that I’ve not come across that much in comics and so, because of all of that, and the characters that this text covers, and the sheer welcome presence of it, that I review it and tell you to get it on order and get it on request and to find a hole in your budget for it now.

Nicholson writes with a lot of love for her subject and isn’t afraid to pull and poke at the holes within it. There are always problems in beloved things; nothing is not perfect and there’s a skill in being able to love and to address the problematics within your subject. Nicholson doesn’t shy away from addressing these and I was struck most powerfully by this with her discussion of Witchblade. Witchblade is a comic I’ve always struggled with visually and Nicholson both reassured me with this perspective whilst helping me to understand the aesthetic more. And I like this; I like people that make me think twice about something.

So yes, this is an early review, but it’s a review that I’ve sat on for about two weeks now and that I don’t want to sit on any more. This is an important and relevant book that talks about heroines ranging from Squirrel Girl through to Xavin through to The Wing. Nicholson ranges widely and freely around her topic and I like that a lot. I like this book, can you tell? There’s a place for it in the world, and I’d like it to inhabit it quite solidly. As Nicholson herself writes, strong female protagonists “belong in comics [and] they’ve been there all along.”

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

View all my reviews

Thank you Richard Adams

Richard Adams has passed away aged 96 and I am so sad.

The author of Shardik. The Plague Dogs and Watership Down amongst many other titles, Adams stood for something quite distinct in the world of children’s literature. He stood for bigness; of stories that ache at the edge of the world and carve something else, a space of their very own. I talk a lot about space in children’s literature and of knowing who and what you want to be and what you want to say. It’s important, endlessly, because once you know what you want to be, and where you want your voice to sit and who you want it to talk to, then you can know how to get there. You read, endlessly, hungrily, and through that reading learn how to position yourself.

But then there are the big authors; the statues carved out of marble and wrapped in ivy, the authors who are so resolutely of something different and something wild and unknown and something that is so vividly, vividly theirs that you cannot imagine anybody else ever living there. This was, is, always will be Richard Adams. I came to him after Colin Dann and Joyce Stranger, strong and wonderful authors of their own, and the world split open. Rabbits. Dogs. Darkness thrown against the world and hope and anger and rage and joy and love.

(There is always love at the heart of the greatest works of children’s literature, there is always that. Characters fight, live, die, but there is always love, always love)

These were Adams’ books. They are his books, they are books of power and of primal and distinct power.  These are novels where words become laden with symbolism and thick with meaning and of story; novels that feel like they’re not told but retold; a story that already exists out there simply finding new voice. These are wild and big books of otherness and they stand next to the greatest books out there and, in many cases, above them. Rabbits. The world caught in rabbits, and so effortlessly and so artfully done.

I am so very grateful that his books exist and that he was able to share them with us.

Thank you Richard Adams, thank you.

“I’ve come to ask if you’d like to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you, and I know you’d like it. You’ve been feeling tired, haven’t you? If you’re ready, we might go along now.”

2016 : the year in children’s literature

“Wasn’t it good?”

The sound of Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson slide into my ears as I settle down to write this look back at the bookish year, and they’re more of an appropriate soundtrack than I originally thought they were.

2016 has been a year, a whole hefty stomach punch of a year, and yet Elaine and Barbara are right. Despite everything, this year has been good in bookish terms. And maybe, sometimes, when everything is horrible and unfathomable, bookish things are good to hold on to.

In January, the brilliant news came that The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge had won the Costa Prize. The whole thing. The whole damn beautiful thing.

In February, I reviewed the beautiful Mango and Bambang from Polly Faber and Clara Vulliamy. I am a fan of Vulliamy’s genuine, gorgeous art and after reading this from Faber, I was smitten. It’s not often you get books that read like joy, and yet this did. Faber has great things to come in her future.

In March, we lost the wonderful, epochal and beautiful voice of Louise Rennison. Rennison was a writer who got voice and got life and flung in Vikings for good measure. What a wonderful and sorely missed writer.

In May, I wrote about the brilliant Reading Well scheme from the Reading Agency. This list of publications, co-selected with young people, addressed a range of mental health issues and got some smart and considerate and great books to the shelves. In May, I also got to present my research at a conference in Cambridge and MEET KM PEYTON AND SERIOUSLY YES OH MY GOD SHE’S EXACTLY AS WONDERFUL AS YOU WOULD IMAGINE.

In June we witnessed the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals going to Sarah Crossan for ‘One’ and Chris Riddell for ‘The Sleeper and The Spindle’. The Carnegie ceremony is something rather wonderful, as is the participation of young readers, and this year also saw the introduction of the Amnesty Honours. We respond to darkness by shining lights, and this was a most welcome addition to the ceremony. June also saw Britain vote to leave the EU and the increasingly painful addition of ‘Brexit’ to everyday conversations (I voted to stay. I will always vote to stay.)

In August I got a bit obsessed with Enid Blyton and began to realise that she was something quite other than what she’s made out to be. Though critique of Blyton is often well grounded and justified, critique is not all she is. August also saw the publication of the first new Harry Potter story in a curious addition to the canon; Harry Potter and the Cursed Child hit the stage, but was also published in a play script format – something I suspect will remain quite unusual within the wider publishing world.

In September, I shared a map of 1000 points where children’s books are set  in England. Excitedly, I’m now submitting funding proposals on working more in this area so fingers crossed I can… (and if you want to talk about this on a professional level, please get in touch..)

In October, I reviewed the latest book by Robin Stephens. Mistletoe and Murder is another brilliant book in a wonderful and increasingly complex series and why these haven’t received all of the rewards, ever, is beyond me. I also reviewed Binny Bewitched by Hilary McKay, and a similar sentiment applies to this book. McKay is heavily overdue the freedom of children’s literature, she is so utterly, continually brilliant. October also saw me a book with awards in its future (I’m looking at you Piers Torday), and basically, it was a GOOD month.

In November, we returned to politics once more (as so much of this year has been defined by it) and I wrote about the dangerous space of children’s literature and  Teen Vogue continued to deliver some of the most searing and responsible and brilliant journalism I’ve ever read.

In December, I launched an appeal for Interesting People. I want to give you space to talk about the things you’re doing with children’s books and my response to the year is this. I will give you space to talk about the things you do and love (and all you need to do is get in touch….)

And so to the one final thing of the year that needs to be mentioned and that is you.

Thank you. 

Thank you for being a  part of this blog (because you are, you really are). I value, immensely, every contribution and response you give me. It is a pleasure to live in this corner of the internet.

Merry Christmas!

(wasn’t it good?)

 

How to make the perfect film : take one small brown bear…

It’s not easy to make a children’s film. It’s not easy to do anything with or for children (parents, I can see you nodding in the back there) because of the sheer breadth of childhood experience that is out there. Articulating a story is easy when it’s for yourself; articulating a story that reaches out to others and hits something within them, that’s hard.And when you’re adapting something from a book, it gets even harder. Do you adapt your reading of the book or do you try and broaden the experience? Do you keep the bits you love or do you drop them when somebody else gives you negative feedback? How do you find the space for your story within a very successful other story?

Shall I tell you what you do, oh mystical implied other? You watch Paddington, that’s what you do, and you realise that this is probably the best movie out there (ever) that’s been adapted from a children’s book and then you hang up your socks and do something else because nothing you ever do will beat this pure and wonderful and loved piece of work.

paddington_bear_ver4.jpgPaddington is a joy. Adapted from Michael Bond’s Paddington books in which a small bear from Darkest Peru comes to London, the film is pretty much perfect. I don’t say that lightly and indeed, I didn’t expect it to be. You come to these movies with an awareness of the potential for failure. For every Paddington, there’s a Golden Compass or a Narnia; films which take these great swathes of wonderful literature and transform them into something a bit, well, awful.

Paddington defies that because it is a film which doesn’t underestimate its audience. Driven by a strong sense of magical realism, this London teeters on the edge of the fantastic and revels in it. Candy coloured houses, preternaturally present pigeons (one of the best running gags in the films), bands playing in the street, and characters who don’t bat an eyelid at a bear walking down the street. There are references back to evacuated children, touching on one of the great themes at the heart of Paddington, and this drives one of the most wonderful and heartwrenching sequences of the film (underpinned by a lovely and incredibly potent turn from Jim Broadbent). It’s smart film-making, and it’s brave and it’s innovative and it’s challenging. Scenes shift on a dime, leaves fall from a painted tree to signify the shift in the seasons, and I’ve never seen Paddington station look so wonderful. It’s easy to neglect the background in a film like this, but this is painterly space; landscape which tells the story as much as the spoken word does.This is a film which delivers slapstick and social commentary all in the same breath, alongside some of the best looking marmalade I’ve ever seen.

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a film on this blog, and a lot of that’s driven from a slight malaise. I’ve not seen a film for a long time that has had me marked with love for it from the get go; there are moments, always, within every film, but it has been too long since I have been left breathless with love for something.

Paddington is perfect. It really, really is.

Here’s to you bear.

Wanted : Guest Posts

This is just a quick note to say that I’m looking for a few more guest posts. I’m meeting so many interesting people doing interesting things that I want to share them with you….and I will! I’m queuing up some amazing guests at the moment (augmented reality anyone?)

But I Want More…

So you, yes you, should pitch me! Talk to me about Interesting Things and Children’s Literature. Tell me what you’re doing with children’s books. I’d love to hear from researchers working in children’s literature, charities, mums and dads, and kids! Lovely amazing smart kids!

Pitch me about the bookish things that make you excited. But please, no pitches about Twilight. I can go a thousand years without hearing about Twilight. We’re all past Twilight.

Remember that pitching does not automatically equal yes. I reserve the right to say no without feedback. (Though I will give you feedback if I can.)

Here’s a contact form should this be your sort of thing. (Guess who just found the contact form button?). I will offer editorial support if you need it (we all need it, I need a bracket intervention right about now) and I will offer you space to talk about what you’re doing to change the world. Please pitch!