“Not just a children’s book”

I attended a talk the other week, one of many that came all at once as these things to do, and whilst I was there I took some notes. I take notes often at this sort of thing, because my brain often reaches a point of fullness that means I can’t take anything else in. I write the words down, let them sit there on the page, and then I come back to them later and reread them. I don’t often think about what I’m writing, but sometimes a phrase hits me and I am blinded by it.

“Not just a children’s book,” they said, before moving onto another point. The phrase was throwaway, careless, and I suspect that the ramifications of what it meant were barely considered. But it’s a phrase I hear often at talks, and it is one that has come to concern me.

Language, you see, is a precise and clean thing. We make it inept, we make it fuzzy, because we are inept and fuzzy individuals. We bring a thousand different interpretations to a word because we have lived lives. Stories. A ‘cat’ is a ‘cat’ but it’s never just a cat. That ‘just’ is almost redundant there, do you see how? A cat is a cat but it’s never a cat.

Nothing is ever just anything.

A children’s book is never just a children’s book because it’s that ‘just’ that colours the object with a sense of distaste. It’s an apologetic just, an excuse to escape the label of ‘children’s book’ and to apologise for what that might mean for the content of the talk. But to do so, to explain that your topic is not ‘just’ a children’s book implicitly denies the value of the term itself.

Am I about to try and define what children’s literature is? I’m not sure. A part of me wants to slide towards that age old cheat of defining what something is not; a definition of exclusions and oppositions. But perhaps I can cheat that desire as well and instead tell you that quite often, I simply think of the idea of an intended reader. An intended reader is that fuzzy individual for whom a book is intended to be read by. For children’s books, that intended reader is a child. And note the looseness of that phrase; intent, child – they are immense terms and one’s which I have used deliberately lightly. What is a child? What is intent? What is language? Do we even exist right now?

Excuse my hyperbolic self-questioning, but I’m trying to make a point. Labels come from people as much as they do from the language itself. A word is a half-formed thing, to paraphrase Eimear McBride, and without the reader to provide some form of concretization (cf. Wolfgang Iser), the thing remains unformed. Does a word make a sound if it falls in the forest?

So: to children’s books, and the way they are not ‘just’ children’s books. It is that just that rankles with me; an individually placed value judgement on that which follows. Not just a “children’s book”. But what is? What isn’t? How are you so uncomfortable with that book being intended for a juvenile readership that you feel the need to absolve it of that labelling? What do you do to the books that you leave behind?

In writing about the mystery genre within children’s literature, Adrienne Gavin and Christopher Routledge suggest that “perhaps because adulthood is a mystery to children and childhood has become a mystery to adults and neither can ever ‘solve’ the other state, mystery has a particularly strong presence in children’s texts.” (2001 : 2). It’s a quote I’ve been wrestling with for my thesis, but one that holds relevance here. If a book is “not just a children’s book”, then that’s a perspective that comes from adulthood. It suggests the awareness of some sort of other book that may exist, a wider taxonomical understanding of literature, and also the awareness that you – as an adult – are supposed to not read this books.

To call something “not just a children’s book” is a deleterious act of adult appropriation that damages not only the very idea of children’s books but also, indelibly, the subsequent critique of them.

Like I said, I find it problematic.

 

 

 

 

Courage Mountain, or the one where Heidi falls in love with Charlie Sheen

It’s been a while since I read Heidi but I have some fairly solid memories of it. Mountains. Goodness. Goats. That sort of jazz. It was with interest then that I came across a film called Courage Mountain which was a sequel to Heidi, but involving an Italian boarding school and the advent of World War One.  Naturally, I watched it to save you all the bother….

(spoilers ahead!)

Now boarding school stories are one of my greatest love (this might not come as a surprise to many of you but I thought it was worth putting out there) and this one starred the wonderful Leslie Caron and, uh, Charlie Sheen. As Peter. Peter the goatherd with whom Heidi has a romance, and I can’t quite write a sentence that conveys how much my toes curl at remembering this. Sheen can be good. He can be blinding. He is woefully miscast in this role and it’s quite the thing to hear Heidi in her cut-glass English accent chatting to Sheen, about four hundred times her age and size with his American accent wholly intact, on the mountain surrounded by goats. And there’s panpipes. Did I mention that? Lots of miming to panpipes, and when Charlie Sheen gives Heidi his panpipes to remember him by, reader, I died.

So. Heidi has money now and has been invited to an Italian boarding school run by an Frenchwoman who was bought up in England (or something, there is a terribly convoluted line to explain Caron’s accent) and she must decide whether to go or stay. Naturally Heidi and her Beautiful Hair That Never Loses Volume leave. She encounters cockney urchins in the train station (there is a lot you just need to accept in this film), and ends up at the school. Heidi is an Innocent Urchin and thus comes across the staples of these stories; the mean girl, the girl-who-will-be-friends, and then Leslie Caron leads all the girls in skipping across the verandah and Heidi wigs out glamorously at the gramophone because She Is An Innocent Urchin With Beautiful Hair.

Oh I forgot, whilst at the station Heidi comes across the panto villain of the piece who is nattily dressed and practically twiddles his moustache at her (Not a euphemism….).

The school section is relatively brief, before the house is requisitioned by the Italian Army who throw in the odd ‘Signora’ because They Are Italian. Most of the girls are sent home save a handful whose parents or Noble Mountain Grandfathers can’t be reached. Heidi and her fellow Beautiful Haired Urchins With Artful Smears of Grease end up at the workhouse where the moustachiod villain and his paramour (sister? Factotum? lover? the film is very unclear about this) put all of the urchins at work making soap. Heidi glowers at everyone (and never once loses the volume in her hair) before escaping down the drain with her school friends. The other urchins are basically forgotten about at this point.

This is the bit where the film gets spectacular (more so). Heidi points at some mountain in the distance and goes “That’s Switzerland over there” and so the girls decide to go there. On foot. Through World War One.Whilst being chased by the moustachiod villain from one side, and noble Charlie Sheen coming to save the day from the other. It’s handy, really, that there’s only one mountain between Switzerland and that Sheen’s a bit of a dab hand on his skis (the ski sequence is, in itself, outstanding. It’s a James Bond rip off done by Channel Five…).

Everything ends up well though! Charlie Sheen skis the villain off the mountain, Heidi and him get together, my toes curl so far that they practically fall off my feet, and Leslie Caron ends up shacking up with Noble Grandfather and the Urchins Are All Safe And Their Hair Is Spectacular.

Here’s the trailer. It’s pretty much the whole film in two minutes.  I hope you enjoy every single thing about it.

 

“Their climb to freedom will be their greatest adventure”

 

 

 

Pigeon P.I : Meg McLaren

Pigeon P.I.Pigeon P.I. by Meg McLaren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When it comes to picture books, I always, always have to talk about the complexity of them. They are hard beasts to get right, they are even harder beasts to do well. Pigeon P.I is something quite oddly wonderful, a sort of mashup of gumshoe detective drama with a lot of bird puns and something quite delightful in the process. Forgive me for simply reciting the blurb in whole but I think it does the business better than anything I can

CASE No. 621 – Feathered friends are going missing all over town, but private investigator Murray likes the quiet life … until a little bird tells him a story the famous Pigeon P.I cannot ignore.

There’s such a lot to enjoy in this book from the wry beginning of “Business was slow / just the way I liked it” through to the exuberant flurry of detail that dots nearly every page and in substantial amounts. Some of the more specific puns may require explaining (“Privet Eye – Gardening Solutions”) but it’s a delight to pick them out and this is a book that will sing with repeated reading (“Two beaks are better than one”). As Murray starts to work his way through the case, he comes into contact with a range of individuals – plucky canaries, furtive pigeons, and the reveal of the eventual kingpin is a delight. It’s a soaring, intense, bold double spread and one that stamps the book with such a moment that you can’t help but stop and drink it in.

I’d definitely place this a little towards the older edge of picture books, somewhere around Elys Dolan and Sarah Bee because of the dense detail and puns. It’s such a smart and witty book, and it’s one that gives different endpapers! Endpapers are so important! The reader gets a guide to investigation at the start of the book – take quiet snacks, and not ‘quiet but impractical’ snacks such as jelly; whilst the end of the book has tips on advanced detection featuring Duck Tracy and Sherstork Holmes. A delight. A bold, mad, glorious delight.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

View all my reviews

Talking Mobile Fictions, Digital Storytelling and Hairy Maclary with Alastair Horne

Forgive me resharing this, particularly if you subscribe to both my blogs, but I think this deserves it. I interview Alastair Horne regarding his PhD research ; we touch on digital storytelling, apps for children, tips for authors on social media, his favourite children’s book and Hairy Maclary. It’s so worth a read and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Big boots and adventures

I’m privileged to be able to share something special with you today. This is an interview I did with Alastair Horne about his PhD research. Alastair is looking at the role of digital devices in fiction and how they’re affecting the relationships between author, text and reader. His topic really struck home for me because children’s literature has a relatively uneasy relationship with the digital device. It’s a relationship that I’m not sure should be as uneasy as it is but it is uneasy nevertheless. You only have to look at the fairly regular headlines that talk about children being addicted to screens to see the sort of dialogue that I’m referring too. 

That’s what drove me to get in touch with Alastair, alongside a general intrigue for his research topic, and I’m immensely grateful to him both for saying yes and also giving me some incredibly thoughtful answers. I…

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Writing outdoors

Sunshine makes me want to write outside. 17498869_10158391832070371_2801967951944888519_n.jpg

I remember the first time I figured out that writing did not have to be bound to the page, hunched over in ink and pen. I was at university, at a course I did not quite understand, and we were asked to write.

We were asked to write in anything other than pen and paper.

The liberation of it! The terror, too, because when pen and paper are nearly all that you know, to step away from them is hard. Illegitimate. Writing  – important writing – consists of paper and rules. Ink. Capital letters and full stops and precise nuance thought.

Writing is craft. Precision.

Writing is about knowing the rules – and knowing that you have the right to break them.

Maybe that’s it; really, that’s it right there.

Learning to write is about learning how to gain legitimacy for your practice.

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Picture books, art, and the appreciation of things

I have a passion project. Thanks to Facebook, and my inability to hold onto a USB stick for more than thirty second without losing it, I have started to gather an album of picture book images. The curation method for these is simple, eccentric. I have to like it. I have to be able to talk about it.

(How curious it is that books are one thing when read privately, selfishly, but quite another when we talk about them.)

I did a talk the other day to some local sixth formers about life as a researcher, doing this. Books. Literacy. Trying to understand one of the most global, primal experiences.  Reading. Communication. Everything builds from books, I said, everything.

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More Katie Morag Island Stories : Mairi Hedderwick

I described research:

Asking why. Asking, always, asking why things are the way they are and what can we do to affect, address, challenge, question that.

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Cloudland by John Burningham

And I showed them Art.
Capital A, capital ART.

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Madeline in London : Ludwig Bemmelmans

Picture books are something which we treat, sometimes, too lightly.

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Five Senses : Herve Tullet

We’re driven by our sense of adulthood. Age based imperialism. A sense that we know better, that we shouldn’t be reading these things.

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A Brush with the Past: 1900 – 1950 The Years that changed our lives : Shirley Hughes

So sometimes, I asked them to just look at things.

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Refuge – Anne Booth & Sam Usher

Because looking – seeing – is where it all begins.

All of it.

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A Taste of Chlorine – Bastine Vivés

Us.

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.

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