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.

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?)