‘Roads’ in children’s books

As I’m sure you’ll know, I have a particular interest in the representation of landscape in children’s books. Landscape tells you everything, and yet it’s often one of the more forgotten elements when people talk about a book. Consider the difference between the two sentences below.

The cat sat on the mat in a field.

The cat sat on the mat in the ocean.

Two entirely, viscerally different scenarios and all of that comes from adding a little bit of context. Location. Landscape. Setting.

I’ve been thinking about roads at the moment, and in particular stories where roads form a key point of the narrative. I don’t want books where roads appear in the background or as a vague element in the illustration, I want them to be centralised within the text. Characters, if you will, in their own right.

So this post is essentially to ask for some help! Do you know of any children’s books – picture book through to YA – that might fit the bill? If you do, please let me know in a comment below and I’ll collate the results into a reading list . Thank you!

Learning how to be not afraid

I was asked, the other day, in the middle of a conversation: “what has life as a research student taught you?’.

And my answer was: “it’s taught me to be not afraid.”

I was a little bit surprised as to where that came from and more so, perhaps, in how I phrased it. I think that language reveals a lot about people and that the unguarded utterance, the blurt, the interruption, they say perhaps even more.

I have learnt to be not afraid. Not unafraid; not that, because to be ‘not afraid’ or ‘unafraid’ are two slightly different things. Two fine, finely similar carvings in the tree of life but one with a line that slightly moves to the left instead of the right. Fear, I think, is always there in life. It is pronounced, it is shadowy, but it is almost always there. Doubt. Shadows. Light. Darkness. We don’t live wholly in one space nor the other, but flit between the two like a moth seeking a flame.

You might be asking what this has to do with children’s books; after all, this is a bookish blog to talk about bookish things and bookish things are always worth talking about and understanding in depth. And that’s precisely what being ‘not afraid’ is all about, I think, especially as an adult who engages in children’s literature. I am transgressive. I am other. I am not the child. I am an adult. Does my presence erode the very thing I love? That, perhaps, is a question for another day – but the question for today is this: how do you learn to be not afraid of the things you love?

(A memory from school : a discussion of Snowball from Animal Farm. How did we know he was a pig? Because I have read the book, I wrote, but because I had not referenced the quote we were given, I was marked down)

I have learnt to be not afraid of children’s literature. I don’t think, maybe, that I ever was palpably afraid (and indeed, how difficult to quantify such a sentiment), but I was afraid of the discourse around them. I was conscious of the conversations and questioning of my space within that dialogue. The space. I am, I was, I will be forever bookish, but the bookish world is a difficult space to navigate even then. And if you are not bookish; if you have been halted at one of the barriers that we adults are so keen to place in your way, then how do you navigate that? How do you defy that fear and learn to live and survive and thrive ?

(A memory of a reading competition in school. I read “too fast” for the rules and was quizzed as to whether I was cheating).

I have learnt to be not afraid of thoughts, of thinking, and of stating that opinion. We seek to silence opinion so easily, and to hold onto yours is the greatest thing. I attended a conference recently where we spoke of how a conversation of certain authors became gendered as masculine because only the male authors in this discipline were talked about. And thus because the discourse became gendered as masculine, more male voices were privileged, and others were forgotten and silenced.

I work for children. Not, perhaps, in a literal sense, but they are centred in everything that I do. A consciousness, an awareness, that my subject and its application exists in bedrooms and at bathtimes and at storytimes. That it can be fought over in the pram or on the bus or with your friends discussing who writes the best pony stories. That it is a subject driven by passion, by love, and that to participate within it is a privilege.

I have learnt that the barriers we place in front of literacy are made to be questioned, challenged and – quite often – broken.  And I have learnt that that journey is no fun unless I bring others with me along for the ride. These are your books; our children’s books; their children’s books; humanity’s books.

I have learnt to be not afraid of telling the world of what I love.

 

 

Thank you Michael Bond

I’m supposed to be editing my thesis, and yet here I am trying to hide my tears because of the death of a man I never met. Michael Bond has died, and I am beyond words and yet words are what I turn to. How do you express your grief? How do you express your grief when you know that it will never, remotely, hit the kindly grace that Michael Bond hit in every sentence?

You begin, perhaps, by saying thank you. It is a simple sort of thing to say and yet one that I keep coming back to over and over again.

Thank you.

Thank you Michael Bond for your stories; for Olga Da Polga, Monsieur Pamplemousse and for Paddington. Thank you for your genuine and kind and warm and rich stories that defied their apparent simplicity to cut deeper, deeper than anybody may have ever expected.

Thank you for marmalade sandwiches. Thank you for making children the centre of your stories, thank you for trusting that that story was worth telling. Thank you for bears. Thank you for overly ambitious guinea pigs. Thank you for Pommes Frites. Thank you for honesty. Thank you for gentleness. Thank you for seeing the best in people, whoever they might be.

Thank you Michael Bond.

We were so very privileged to have known you.

Image result for sad paddington bear

Losing my marbles (or the day I visited the Miffy Museum in Utrecht)

For those of you who don’t know of her, Miffy is a joy. She is a small white rabbit created by Dick Bruna and I love her greatly. Dear Grandma Bunny, for example, is one of the best picture books that have ever been made and The Little Bird isn’t far off. Miffy is one of the points that I include on my 54 places to begin when thinking about children’s and young adult literature, and I hope that by now you’re starting to realise how important Dick Bruna was. His art was precise, beautiful and incredibly eloquent. We are a poorer world without him, but we are so, so lucky to have had him.

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Born in Utrecht, and beloved by the city, Bruna and his work are now memorialised in every inch of the town. From a pair of familiar ears peeking out from a shop window, through to traffic lights that offer red bunnies for stop and green for go, Utrecht is rightfully proud of its artistic son.

I took a day out from a week in Amsterdam to go over and visit; and oh, it was glorious. This blog is a safe space to confess such things and so I confess this to you: I lost my marbles and I loved it. There is something madly joyful about being unabashed in your loves, and when I sat in the reconstruction of Bruna’s studio in the top floor of the Centraal Museum, I cried.

bruna miffyThere is something very religious about this sort of thing for me; this travel to pay tribute to somebody, and it’s not a sensation that I can easily verbalise, but I can recognise. It comes when I love something and I do, frankly, love what Dick Bruna did for the world. He drew sensitively and smartly and warmly and to be a part of that story, even at this late and painful moment when you know it can’t continue, is a gift.

If you’d like to visit Utrecht on a similar pilgrimage, here’s some useful information for you. It is very easily accessible from Amsterdam station (literally half an hour train ride and then about twenty minutes walk from the sation). There are two points you’ll want to go to, the Miffy Museum and the Centraal Museum where Dick Bruna’s studio is in situ until 2025. You can buy a combined ticket for the two. The Miffy Museum itself is, I’ll grant, somewhat scant on the museum aspects but it’s oddly joyous to see a horde of little children racing around and enjoying themselves in that intense, whole-body, way that little children do. It’s a beautiful tribute and one that, in its way, left me as moved as visiting the recreation of Bruna’s studio did.

Here’s to you Dick Bruna, and thank you for your work. You made my heart break, you made it whole, and you made that happen with such unconscious finesse. You were – you are – you always will be – a gift. Thank you.

Talking Empathy with Sita Brahmachari

I am immensely proud to be able to share a guest post with you today. I won’t ever deny that I’m picky about this sort of thing but that’s because I know you and I take this seriously. Children’s books are important, statuesque things and even more so in the frail and friable world we live in today. It’s with great pleasure then that I bring you this guest post, on Empathy Day, from Sita Brahmachari.

The topic of empathy is a subject close to the heart of Brahmachari’s new novel, Tender Earth, and it’s something which has characterised much of her other work. I have a world of time for the eloquent, graceful and kind Kite Spirit, Artichoke Hearts and Jasmine Skies and look forward to reading and reviewing Tender Earth in due course.

A final note: I was lucky enough to hear Sita speak at a conference a few years ago. I still remember her generous and inspirational words. My thanks to her for this.

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Tender Earth by Sita Brahmachari

‘A coming of age story for young protesters everywhere.’

Tender Earth is endorsed by Amnesty International UK because it illuminates the importance of equality, friendship and solidarity, and upholds our right to protest against injustice.’

Tender Earth is one of Julia Eccleshare’s picks of the month

‘A sharply observed and warm-hearted story about change and transition in adolescence, Tender Earth also carries a powerful message to all young readers about tolerance, integration and the need to stand up for what you believe in.’ Julia Eccleshare/ Good Reads

June 13th sees the first national empathy day and it feels to me like we need to see and feel greater levels of empathy on that day and every day. As a mother I worry about the impact of the often heartless, reactive words and actions that young people hear and experience every day. I have a thought a great deal about this when writing Tender Earth. How are young people navigating their way through the trials and conflicts of this time? How can we help them?

Many characters in Tender Earth feel that the things they hear and see on the news, as well as exchanges on social media, lack a common humanity but there are also moments when my characters step inside the shoes of others and get an insight into each other’s way of life. Sometimes these insights begin with a small conversation at a bus stop or in a school corridor but they can be like a door opening just a little crack to let you in …. But because we are inquisitive, questioning beings we want to open that door wider so that we can see and experience what’s behind it and try to understand another’s experience no matter how hard that might be.

‘Laila I really want to invite you to where I live, but it’s nothing like your house! I don’t ask people back usually,’ Pari says as if that’s a good reason not to invite me.

‘I don’t care what it’s like’

‘Actually…ever.’

‘What… you’ve never had anyone back from school, not even in primary?’

Pari shakes her head.

In Tender Earth each character who feels true empathy for another finds themselves having to ask some searching questions of themselves about what they can and should do to help each other.

World events impact on Laila, Kez, Pari and their community just as they impact on you and I and they are stunned and saddened by some of the hateful actions of people in the their own city, but the thing about empathy is it demands an action no matter how small or seemingly insignificant this action might seem to the world. Even a small action, like laying a flower on a memorial for the children of Manchester, lighting a candle or a minute silence can be a powerful reminder of our human ability to feel deep empathy for each other.

The fact that through stories, through fiction and non-fiction we can step into another person’s life even when they may be so different to ourselves is something that gives me hope in Tender Earth that young people might change the world for the better.

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In the words of the late Jo Cox MP

“We are far more united than the things that divide us”

The artichoke charm that appears in all three of my Levenson stories Artichoke Hearts, Jasmine Skies and Tender Earth is for me an empathy symbol and a metaphor for the process of writing. The outside leaves symbolises the guarded, protected layers we all often show to the world, it’s only in unpeeling the layers by getting to know someone’s story that we get to the softer more expressive heart of a person and in discovering that heart we ourselves are moved and changed to act differently.

If you are looking for articles and information about working with young people to extend empathy or sharing where young people can go to explore this further. Here are some links that I used in my research…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/23/psychopathic-murderers-manchester-attack-terrorists

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/jo-cox-maiden-speech_uk_5762de5be4b03f24e3db840f

http://www.empathylab.uk/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/virtue-in-the-media-world/201507/news-stories-the-power-empathy

https://www.amnestyusa.org/about-us/who-we-are/local-groups/

https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/jan/12/books-breed-tolerance-children-read-errorist-attacks-paris

www.sitabrahmachari.com

“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”