On glass ceilings and echo chambers

It was YALC this weekend and for those of you who don’t know what it means, YALC is a Young Adult Literature Convention held as part of the London Film & Comic Con. YALC is in its third year now and seems to be going from strength to strength which is excellent and lovely news. If you’re wanting to find out more about the event and to be cheered by life in general, I’d recommend a check of the Twitter hashtag. There’s really very little better than celebrating books in an overt and joyous manner – and enabling that enjoyment for a ton of readers? Brilliant.

I read a really interesting and thoughtful post this morning from Jo Hogan on the experience of taking her teenage boys to YALC. She writes about the exclusion felt by the boys from young adult literature and touches on some points that struck a chord with me . I wanted to talk a little bit about that. As Jo so accurately writes:

“a healthy community questions and challenges itself. A healthy community looks at not just whom it includes but whom it (unintentionally) excludes and whether there is more that we can and should do to welcome others.”

I am a writer, blogger, librarian, researcher, and reader. I wear a lot of metaphorical hats.  I write young adult fiction about the experience of girlhood and womanhood because I’m fascinated, preoccupied and occasionally deeply terrified about it. I’ve lived it. I’m still living it. Being the you that you’re meant to be is the hardest thing in the world. I write books that slide a knife into that and try to cut it open. I write incisions.

But I also balance that with all the other hats I wear.

I am a blogger. This blog, I hope, reflects a fairly diverse and open reading experience. I will read anything I can though I have a natural predilection towards certain genres and a distaste for other. Fantasy and love stories? Not for me. But I will read anything and I will try and help the good books to get out into the world and if I can write about it constructively, I will. (And if you have a book to recommend for me, that you think needs that extra coverage, please comment as I want to hear it).

I’m also a librarian. I work a lot with boys and young children and nervous, tense readers. It’s the Summer Reading Challenge at the moment in public libraries. It happens every summer and it’s one of the great joys of my life. As part of it, but also as commonplace, I get asked a lot about what books to recommend to people. And here’s the thing; I haven’t read a lot of the books that I recommend. I can’t. I am not superhuman enough (though I’d love that to be my superhero power).

So here’s my secret: recommending books? It’s often about actually not recommending them at all. It’s about taking the time with the reader, sitting down on the floor with them – talking to them  as much as I talk to the mum and dad – and it’s about finding their thing. Everybody has a thing. I’ll try some key words. Maybe find out about books they’ve enjoyed before. And I’ll watch where their eyes go, what makes them smile or what makes them look up – that’s the point where we click, that’s the point where I find them something. Might be a non fiction book about tigers, might be a comic about robot brothers, might be a recipe book. The point is, they’re invested and they’re a part of this journey. And they’ve, pretty much nine times out of ten, chosen the book themselves without realising it.

I’ve had children tell me that they don’t like reading, that they don’t read, that they don’t like books – and that they are ‘bad’ readers. All of that is fine, because choice, but that last one pains me so much. I would ban that expression if I could – and if such a sentiment wasn’t deeply against my liberalistic hippie tendencies. No child is a bad reader. They aren’t. Reading isn’t a scale; it’s about framing that journey differently for the needs of different people. And what so many people just need is time and the confidence that they too, will one day reach that glass ceiling and smash it.

Whilst I can’t yet coherently respond to some of the points made by Jo in her thoughtful post, I can address the points that stick with me.I can challenge the limits of the echo chamber. I can talk to the parents of the kids that I meet and the parents I don’t.

I am here to help you, and if I can I will.

I work to make, create and empower readers.

All readers.

A Leader in the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A Leader in the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #49)A Leader in the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two Chalet School reviews in a row! I imagine you can guess that I am in a mood for comfort reads at the moment; I want fat, luscious, clean reads that I can just sink into and enjoy. Perhaps it is a reaction to finishing a draft of my thesis. I rather suspect it is.

I have enjoyed revisiting these later Chalet School books more than I thought I would. A Leader In The Chalet School is one that is more workmanlike than most of the ones around this point in the series, but somehow it is strangely appealing. There are moments of EBD at her best – “and her French was weird and wonderful” – and there are moments of EBD at her worst – writing a tear-filled confession with copious ‘wa-ahh-ahh’ is never a good idea. Consider that my first and best writing tip. Never write ‘wa-ahh-ahh’. Or else I will glare at you.

So; Jack Lambert’s first term. She’s destined to be Head Girl isn’t she? But fanfics aside, this is the traditional ‘new girl encounters hijinks and ultimately gets all sorted out by the end of it’ formula. It is, as I mentioned, workmanlike, but it works. it really does. It’s briskly told and well told, if a little basically at times (there’s a delicious moment where somebody says something to somebody else off the page as it were, and the text just goes ‘well, whatever she said, clearly worked’. Lol. A thousand times lol.).

What makes A Leader distinct is that I think it’s the first time Len really becomes centred in her own right as an Important Person. She’s left the rampant character assassination of Theodora and the Chalet School (Len’s treatment in this book utterly fascinates and confuses me), and she’s now Somebody. And she’s not hideous. She’s really rather lovely and real. The dynamic between her and Jack is delightful and it’s understandable. And that’s what drives this book; it’s about relationships and identity and selfhood and in a way, it’s not really about a school at all.

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The Feud In The Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Feud in the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #52)The Feud in the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Feud In the Chalet School bears some deep similarities to Rivals of the Chalet School. Following the slightly dramatic incident of ‘their new school having burnt down to the ground overnight’, the new school St Hilda’s is forced to bunk in with the Chalet School. It is when Gillie Garstin reminisces, in a handily expository manner, about the incident, that I utterly fall in love with this ridiculous book. Gillie has a good paragraph of adoration over the lovely uniform of the Chalet School girls. It is rapturous and oddly specific. “The thing which had first caught the eye was their uniform. Such a lovely, deep blue! ….. The St Hilda’s girls had thought it was just a Sunday frock, but now it seemed that it was the school uniform. And was it the tops, with its honeycombing in crimson at waist and shoulders and the little white revers at the neck!” What is a revers? Who would combine crimson honeycombing with deep blue? Were the girls dressed as christmas crackers? How is this any better on the orange and brown combos of before? WHO SPENDS AN ENTIRE PARAGRAPH IN RAPTURES OVER A SCHOOL UNIFORM?

God I love this book. It’s recycled, yes, but you know, massive series and I’d be knackered at this point. It does have some splendid episodes of snottiness between the pupils of the respective schools and it does have a gorgeous episode of stupidity on behalf of the middles that includes Miss Annersley importing some epic advice over wood. I adore this series.

Where Feud makes its mark is in its treatment of Miss Ashley who is determined to remain unaffected by the Chalet School. The resolution to this (come on, you all know what’s going to happen to her) is a bit rubbish – but the bits beforehand are fascinating. It reminds me a lot of Miss Ferrars’ debut and I start to wonder – is this the point where the series about schoolgirls started to actually become a series about adults? Is this the point where actually I’ve been misreading it and instead, somehow, this is the point where everything started to actually have grown up – ?

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A spectrum of choice : Girlhood and Enid Blyton

“Shall I tell you what I want? What I really really want?

I really really really want to see a recognition of the diverse modes of femininity and girlhood presented in Enid Blyton’s school stories zig a zig aah.”

Whilst I’m conscious that these aren’t the exact lyrics for the Spice Girls classic, I want you to imagine that for a second they are. Wait. No. I’m a step too far ahead already. Let’s go back. Twist the sky and push the sun down over the horizon, let the night fall, let’s go back.

Let’s start here; and with Anne and George and Dick and Julian and Timmy. The Famous Five. I’d hazard there’s not many of us who haven’t met them, whether through the series itself or through the cultural shorthand that Blyton has come to represent. Racism. Sexism. Outmoded sterotype-ism. Slightly rubbish writing every now and then-ism. We know Enid Blyton, even when we don’t. She’s cultural shorthand; an icon wrapped up in sensible shoes and fanciful stories about blackbirds and some chap with a saucepan on his head. She’s part of our world.

Yet, equally, she isn’t. We know a construct of Blyton. We know an idea of her, a shape to be filled in with our concerns and our needs and our fears. It’s the same for every public body, maybe, they become a politicised space that can be written over with our needs. We don’t know Benedict Cumberbatch, but we do. We know and unknow. The paradox of knowing. The paradox of knowing that you don’t know. The paradox of increasingly complicated sentences!

So let’s go back to the simple points, to Anne, to George, and the way they are both girls and not girls, the way that they are shorthand for all that is bad and good for Blyton, all that they are and were boiled down to this – simple – dynamic.

And I am the first to find Anne complex, challenging, but she exists with George; not opposed, not the other, but rather an other. Girlhood is a spectrum; not all girls this, not all girls that – , this girl is – . Not these girls are. Not all girls are. Boil this down to pink and flowers, I dare you – girls are more, beyond that, they are not one word nor one action, and they exist, co-exist, share space in the world –

they do not cancel each other’s space. Not one for the other, but rather both as an expression of girlhood, neither as the distinct representation thereof –

Anne thrives in the domestic, the control – the limited expression of power, perhaps, because that is all she can control within that environment? The domestic space; not a subspace, not a second space, but rather space; Anne’s space –

George, the girl of action, the girl in the wide, wide world, the girl who adopts masculinised vestments and behaviours because , perhaps, she cannot exist in that wide wide world without doing so? A Cesario in the world –

Simplistic readings, perhaps – but contrarily simplistic. Deliberately so. Blunt, hardheaded readings because I rail.

I rail against readings that reinforce ideologies, that deny the shifting nature of critique and selfhood, that deny these texts relevance, that belie them –

Girls as girls as girls. A thousand figures of girlhood stretch themselves against Blyton’s canon; girls that yearn for the domestic, girls that would rather die than touch it, girls that embrace careers, girls that embrace maternity, girls that embrace a spectrum of potential – a spectrum of choice

I choose to read Blyton like this, I choose compexity, I choose, I choose –


Further reading

Empowering girls? The portrayal of Anne and George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series

My Gym Teacher is an Alien Overlord : David Solomons

My Gym Teacher is an Alien Overlord (My Brother is a Superhero, #2)My Gym Teacher is an Alien Overlord by David Solomons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s very hard to do funny in the world of children’s and young adult literature. It’s even harder to do funny that doesn’t shift over to being cruel. Louise Rennison was the queen at this, balancing her delicious and hysterical prose with a genuine love for the world. My Gym Teacher is An Alien Overlord, the second book in the My Brother is A Superhero (these titles!) series, reminds me a lot of Rennison at her best. Though it’s written for a younger audience, My Gym Teacher has that similar sense of heart. It revels in its space and it’s bright, swift and deeply, genuinely, funny.

Luke’s brother, Zack, has superpowers. Luke’s friend, Lara, has superpowers (and a gift for delicious malapropisms). Luke has resentment and a side order of ‘knowing exactly what is happening with the aliens about to invade Earth but nobody is listening to him let alone all the people with superpowers itis’. It is the second in a series and several of the references will definitely make more sense if you’ve read its predecessor, My Brother Is A Superhero. This shouldn’t be too much of a trial though as both books are a deep delight to read.

There’s a thing about children’s books in that quite often they have to appeal to both child and adult; books don’t arrive in children’s hands like magic. They have to get there and in that process get past a whole host of gatekeepers. I’m one of them. You’re another, that lady’s nan is one, that guy down the road is another. What Solomons does, in his deeply satisfying and packed with in-joke prose, is that he ticks all the boxes necessary to open those gates without neglecting the quality of what he’s writing. It’s a difficult road to travel. You don’t write for children whilst writing for adults. But – this series is rapidly developing into something that’s for everyone regardless of age or literary leanings. And that’s a great, great gift.

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Chloe Takes Control : Phyllis Matthewman

Chloe Takes Control (Daneswood, #1)Chloe Takes Control by Phyllis Matthewman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first came across the name of Matthewman in reading about my beloved Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. In the last years of her life, Brent-Dyer shared a house with Sidney and Phyllis Matthewman. There’s a fairly prevalent theory that Phyllis assisted with the writing of Prefects of the Chalet School. I’m not sure about the last one (and I’m not sure that I want to fully blame Prefects of the Chalet School on one person…).

Phyllis Matthewman was a prolific author in her own right. I’m conscious that framing her in the context of Brent-Dyer does her a disservice and it is one that I will rectify from this point. Chloe Takes Control is a lovely book, vibrant and well told and delightfully character driven. Matthewman pauses every now and then to engage in the genre tropes; the middles are rumbunctious, the headgirl is quietly authoritative, and a middle is Possessed Of Good Things But Doesn’t Quite Know It.

What distinguishes Chloe Takes Control is the complex nature of Chloe herself. She’s not the traditional schoolgirl heroine; she’s reticent, quiet, self-controlled and doesn’t like games. The last is almost unique within the canon and Matthewman earns this accolade with a quietly told, well-judged and understandable back story. Chloe is intensely believable and surprisingly contemporary in tone. It’s just a good, vivid, book. Matthewman writes with intense verve and alacrity. This is my first Matthewman; I hope it’s not my last.

One thing to note is that the edition I read (GGBP) has the phrase ‘working like n-‘ in it. It’s a throwaway moment, and one that very much reflects the context this was originally written in, but it is one instance of vocabulary that may require some clarification with a contemporary audience.

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Articles and programmes and things of interest (oh my!)

I have a couple of EXCELLENT things to share with you in this post, hence … um … this post. I moan a lot about children’s literature getting a less than positive coverage in the media (ie: none) so it is important to acknowledge those moments when it does. And one of these moments  in particular is 30 minutes of the most lovely television I’ve watched for a while (I’m looking right at you Shirley Hughes…)