Visual literacies, comics and Mark Twain : An Interview with Dylan Calder of Pop Up Projects

I’m lucky enough to be attending an event tomorrow which focuses on something very dear to my heart – visual storytelling. As you’ll know from my picture book reviews in particular, visual literacy is an important and powerful thing that is, so often, misunderstood or denied its critical relevance. Pop Up Lab, the brainchild of Pop Up Projects, is looking to address that in a day devoted to the topic, with contributions from some really exciting people working in the area. 

Pop Up Projects was founded by Dylan Calder, and I’m very excited to say that I have an interview with him to share with you today. I asked him a few questions about his organisation, visual storytelling and the role that comics currently – and should – play in the classroom. 

Dylan Calder of Pop Up Projects

Dylan Calder

Did You Ever Stop To Think : What prompted the organisation being formed and why focus on children’s books in particular?

Dylan: We are driven by a desire to see children from all walks of life access and enjoy literature – not just as something to be studied and deconstructed in school examinations – and, fundamentally, to encounter author role models – people who write and illustrate for a living. Children’s authors, in the main, have this extraordinary ability to show children what’s possible, what you can achieve, what you can strive to be through the writing, drawing and making of stories. We’re not here to sell books to families who already read widely; we’re here to bring literature to life in ordinary, mundane, diverse, deprived and isolated places. We want to tap into that audience of readers who are yearning for great literature but due to curriculums, budgets, closed libraries, family economies, and teachers who don’t know what’s relevant and contemporary, aren’t accessing it.

Why have you chosen to focus on visual literacy now, and what you see this as covering? How would you define visual literacy to the interested onlooker?

Visual literacy is the most inclusive form of reading and writing you can do. It’s simultaneously complex and accessible, and children of all abilities and needs can read and tell visual stories. Visual stories are – in my words – narratives told in sequential images, although individual images can in themselves contain single narratives.

How do you think comics currently function in a classroom? What role do they play? And, in an ideal world, what role should they play?

I don’t think they even feature. I think teachers who have a pre-existing passion for them would use them; probably most would go down the superhero route – which is great as it’s the route many kids take into reading enjoyment. But comics can be truly complex things – wonderful in the expanse of their narratives, often breaking out of the frames to challenge and disrupt form. They’re the perfect things with which to study sequential narratives, pace and cliff–hangers, and – most importantly of all – that writers’ rule of ‘show not tell’. Comics are collaborations too (writer, illustrator, colourist, letterer, editor, art director) – and they have restrictions (format, dimensions, number of pages, colour schemes) – which help structure the stories. Comics have a lot to teach about writing– and, let’s not forget, comics are written; they’re not in any way some lower form of literature. I’m not at all into literary hierarchies, but if I were then I’d put comics – great comics – right at the top. And by comics I also mean graphic novels, graphic reportage, graphic memoir – all those ‘higher–brow’ ways of saying ‘serious comics’. Comics are where diversity is happening more. Check out the multicultural cast of characters in something like The Wicked and The Damned (and it’s the rule, not the exception, in many comics publishers) and tap into the world of comics memoirs to learn all about growing up in Iran, Kashmir, Palestine.

Is there one tip you’d give people who want to help children develop their visual literacies?

Give them illustration at every age. Don’t tell them they’re too old for anything. Encourage them to draw; to mimic illustrators and their styles; to draw as much as write stories. Look for the complexity in illustrated books and comics. Explore comics with children, explore comics yourself; there’s a lot of seriously incredible stuff out there.

And finally what’s your favourite children’s book?

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn – it’s not considered a children’s book anymore but was so radical and beyond it’s time; the first novel in the dialect of a poor illiterate kid; and the story of an abused boy forming an incredible, beautiful bond with an abused man would be radical event today. I’ve read it six times.

Images courtesy of Pop Up Projects. Thank you! 

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Conversations with dead authors : Enid Blyton

 

  1. Enid Blyton

“Can you write a biography of somebody without ever knowing the true facts? Why, you barely know anything about me.”

She’s bored and not trying to hide it. I suspect that she never hides the way that she feels. I saw the little flash of irritation when they took a little too long to bring her tea and I watch her now as she bites down on her cake to discover jam inside of it.

“Jam,” she says, with tight fury, “Jam should never be unexpectedly found in things. It should always be obvious. It should be announced and spread lavishly on bread thick with butter, and it should be on scones,” – she draws out the o, rounding it with feeling – “but never, never, unexpectedly on a cake.”

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So I found my first subject

So I’m currently down in Cambridge, working on the #a14stories project, and I spent much of yesterday outside. The grounds at Madingley Hall are free to enter to the public, and the gardens are beautiful. There’s influence here from Capability Brown, but also from something rather distinctly English; topiary hedges, and striped lawns.

I wanted to spend some time outside in paticular because true writing, for me, doesn’t always come from staying inside and being locked up in a room. That’s where the words come from, don’t get me wrong, but the story, that comes from experience. From watching, waiting, listening and talking to people. It’s about finding that headspace where stories can happen and then, later, remembering that and punching out the words when it’s just you and the computer, that’s the work.

One of the things that I’m starting to come across in this project is the impact of the road upon the immediate, local landscape. It’s one of the first things that people tell me when I mention the project. They tell me that the redevelopment and works have gone on for so long that, in a way, they don’t ever think that it’s going to be finished. I’m not here to promote the redevelopments nor to take a side, so it’s important for me to listen and try to understand these perspectives.

And so I went to the trees.

I started to map the treeline.

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And after a while, I found my first subject to write about…

Capture.JPG

Listening to the wind

I’m writing this with the windows open; a rare thing in England, even during the Summer, but it’s one of those nights where you can’t not do such a thing. It’s cold, don’t get me wrong, but in a way that’s perfect. I don’t want to be warm. I don’t really want to be inside, and in a second I won’t be. But for now, I have to tell you this : it’s my first night at Madingley Hall, as the A14 Writer in Residence

Birds! A shadowy wheel of them, one of those huge dark swarms that black out the sky, swallowing the blue with their wings –

(Oh, I wish I could write quicker to catch this, I wish words could fall from me quick as breath, because the birds have already gone, they’re distant, and the world has stilled again.)

Madingley has air like glass, clean and clear and sharp. It breaks, sometimes, and refracts, letting something through before sealing up again.

I am going to write here. I am going to hear stories from people.

My favourite one today has been from a gentleman who drives 400m along the A14 every day before turning off. I rather love the idea of being so familiar with one, tiny, precise piece of landscape.

My own story has been fifteen minutes of mild panic when the junction my satnav wanted to take me down was a junction no more. A friend has told me about a murder mystery game she had which was set at Madingley Hall (trust me, I’m going to find out more about this). And as I sit here, staring out of the window. I know I’m going to go for a walk in the grounds tomorrow and figure out the connections between this place and the villages behind it and the shifting, sinuous line of the A14 that lurks beyond the line of the trees.

Tell me your A14 stories? Memories? (Murder Mystery Games?)

I’m going to be a Writer In Residence at the University of Cambridge

I’m trying to be coy but I rather think that title has given it away a tad. So without further ado, I have some rather exciting news to share.

I’m going to be working with the University of Cambridge for six weeks this Autumn, as the A14 Writer In Residence. 

I’m going to be based for three days a week at Madingley Hall, near Cambridge, where I’ll get the fantastic opportunity to work with users of the A14 and help them develop their creative writing, alongside developing my own writing in response to the area. During the residency, the wonderful team at the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education will also be leading several creative writing courses and pop up events. We will also be launching an anthology of all of the best work written during the residency, including a special piece by me.

What all of this means is that if you’ve ever driven the A14, or connected with the landscape around it, we want to hear your story. 

(We really, really do.)

I’m going to share as much as I can with you throughout this process, whether that’s writing, interviews, or behind the scenes information,  because that’s incredibly important to me and also, because, one day you, or your kids, are going to see an advert for a wonderful opportunity and wonder if you can or even should apply. (Here’s the thing. You should. The world needs your voice. I want to hear what you’ve got to say.)

I’m also going to talk a lot about children’s books. 😉

So now’s the time to let me know if you’re in the area, or have connections to the area? Are you a business owner? Do you fancy getting you and your employees on board? Are you a parent? Would you like to get your children involved? Do you commute – work – live anywhere near the A14? Do you work with children in the area? Have you always wanted to write but never known where to begin?

Are you none of the above but know somebody who is?

Please let us know! You can make contact with ICE and myself on Twitter, leave a comment on this post (please let me know if you’d like it to stay private and I won’t publish it), and we’d love to hear from you!

Now, let’s get going .. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

The legitimacy of critique : or, who am I?

(This is today’s post – a long read touching on criticism, the internet, and also distant reading. There’s a bit of theory, but I hope it’s worth the effort. If you’d like to read other longer posts in this series, here’s the archive of long reads.)

I have a friend who’s researching narrative autobiography, and every now and then, when we’re out, it’s fun to talk about the great self-questioning nature of her research. Of course all postgraduate research is self-questioning and often far too much so. The question of one’s mental health during research is something I’ve covered elsewhere, but I want to talk here about the legitimacy of critique. Or, to be more specific, the legitimacy of critics.

I’m reaching the end point of my research and am working on making it a springboard into something else. This requires talking to a lot of people, and pitching a lot of ideas, but I’m doing it with the realisation that I am a new person now. Research – this period of frantic question, determined typing, and ferocious passion – has changed me. It’s made me more confident (more argumentative, as my family will point out) and it’s led me towards questioning everything in my sector of children’s literature. I am moving into better and greater things but I will do that reflexively. I don’t leave readers behind. You, and the people I work with, the people I share texts with, all of you will come with me for the ride because literacy – power – doesn’t work when it’s in the singular. This is a collective effort, a collective strength, and the ability to question – to realise – to challenge – and to understand – is vital.

This has never been a blog for me, and my children’s books, it’s a blog for us.

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