The politics of children’s literature; patterns, voice, ideology

Where are we in this year, this year that’s seen the paradigm shift, this year of evenings where everything made sense and then mornings where it didn’t, this year of hope and of fear and of confusion and of sheer raw confusion, confusion, confusion, where are we now?

I have written about this before, fogged, pained, post-Brexit, and here I am again, reflecting on the political world we live in and exploring it through the frame of my love, of books and of reading and of children formulating themselves against a scaffold of words and images and ink.

Children’s literature is a politicized space; it is, always, driven by the ideological and cultural and personal instincts of those who write it and make it and publish it. A book exists because somebody wants it to exist, and that want is driven, always, by a need to speak. To say something, anything sometimes, but normally something. A vivid, bright, pointed something that can be said only by the writer of that book at that point in time, a message that only they can give.

I ran a creative writing workshop last week and told them of the theory that there are only seven stories in the world, and that what made them different was not the story they told but how they told it. Voice. Voice, always voice, identity and nuance and crafted, pointed, passionated voice.

Voice comes from context and context, sometimes, is forgotten. The superhero saves the day, the villain gets his just desserts, the world is righted, the girl gets the girl gets the boy gets the boy gets the girl, patterns. Always patterns.

And when they are jagged and broken, then it is hard to know where to begin again, where to find the fit in the shards of glass because patterns matter. We understand patterns but we also pattern ourselves; we turn left, catch that train, have a coffee at eleven, a sneaky extra drink on a Friday night. Structure. Pattern. Books fix those patterns within us at a young age because they are a mirror when we are doing nothing but looking and trying to figure out who we are.

Children’s literature matters, undoubtedly, always, indubitably. But it is political. It is a fought for space, from those stories which urge to be part of it and should never have a space within it, from those stories which are part of it and could never be anywhere else. But they are always political, perhaps not within themselves, perhaps not without themselves, but there is always, always, a discourse of politics around them. From the way they’re shelved, to the sex and gender roles of the children they represent, from the way they mask adult concerns around childhood, or from the way they reflect a dialogue around the idea of childhood, a collaborative attempt to understand this space, not through talking down, nor talking up, but rather, simply, talking; of articulating, of dialogue, of discourse.

Children’s literature is not a safe space.  This is not to deny that it can and should be safe, that children deserve and long for this space where their stories can be heard and understood, that to feel safe and complete is something that children’s literature should not do. Of course it is a safe space. But that is not all it is.

Children’s literature is dangerous, challenging, other. From the picture books which ask the single child to consider the presence of a new sibling in their life to the books which tell teenagers how to live when all around them is dark and horrific, children’s literature questions what makes us human.

To navigate that space requires an understanding of self, and the relationship of that self towards this sector of literature. To navigate that space successfully often requires an absenting of the desires of that self. It isn’t easy. But to participate within children’s literature, particularly as an adult, is to participate in a politicized and political space. To be that adult in this sector is to be transgressive, other. Powerful.


(“Hope is a very unruly emotion” – Gloria Steinman)



The Loneliness of Distant Beings : Kate Ling

The Loneliness of Distant BeingsThe Loneliness of Distant Beings by Kate Ling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Seren is part of a multi-generational intergalactic crew, on a mission destined to last as long as her life several times over. The ship is all that she knows and all she’ll ever know. But then she falls in love; dizzy, drunk, but it’s the guy she can’t love and the rules won’t let it happen and they can’t be together, they can’t. Or can they?

An occasionally messy novel, yet oddly appealing, this is a romance story set against the impossible decision of a life that is not yours. Being part of the crew means that Seren is subject to rules and regulations such as who to marry, when to have children, and what jobs she must do. The system needs to keep running. People need to keep playing their part. Ship gotta fly, people gotta crew. When she falls in love with Dom, everything changes. She can’t do what she should – so it’s time for her to do what she shouldn’t.

I liked this; it’s messy and kind of frantically over-written in parts where not much actually happens, and it is ferociously predictable at points, but despite all of that there’s something deeply appealing about Ling’s chaotic, heartfelt prose. This is intense, vivid, selfish love. It’s about holding on when holding on is the last thing you feel like doing. And the premise is delightful, brilliant; how do you live a free life when all the choices have already been made for you? The Loneliness of Distant Beings is the first of a series, I think, so I’ll be back for the future. I’m intrigued. I suspect it’ll settle down and grow into something quite wonderful, because underneath it all, Ling’s prose is a joy and a love story set in space with echoes of The Tempest is something I’ll always sign up for. Give me chaos, and give me predictability, but if you give me heart, then I’m there. Passionate, stubborn, stupid heart.

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The Special Ones : Em Bailey

The Special OnesThe Special Ones by Em Bailey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Special Ones are chosen. They are four individuals who have been removed from their former lives to live in a remote farmhouse under the watchful eye of him because he believes that they are the reincarnated totems of a cult. They must live a life of simplicity and meaningfulness to their followers; nightly chat sessions where The Special Ones answer their problems, and obediently confessing their sins in the middle of the night to be punished. And when they can’t perform their identities, when they fail in their role as one of the Special Ones, they are sent off to be renewed. To be replaced by somebody else from the world, somebody else to be held prisoner..

Reading like something between Big Brother and Black Mirror, The Special Ones is a darkly hypnotic and deeply unnerving novel. It is also a novel of two halves of wildly differing quality, and it’s hard to wed the two together. Bailey’s voice thrives in the darkness of the unsettling home of The Special Ones where everything lives on a knife edge, all along, but then somehow, the novel loses something in its second half. Much of this I suspect rests on the introduction of other voices; we spend the first half of the novel in the company of Esther, and her increasing disquiet and unease. The second half introduces others, rarely signposting the shift (all of these voices are in the first person) and so the text recursively feels the need to contextualise this voice through reference to others or perspective. It’s as though I write one paragraph and then another paragraph appears

which is apparently written by myself even though I am not myself any more, I am the person who walked by just as she needed to make a point about structure and reflexivity.

Suffice to say, it’s complex. Bailey gets away with it a lot because of the competence of her writing and the deep dark unease that permeates the novel at that point, but it’s an issue that does detract from her story. The first half is brilliant. The second half, less so. A dilution of voice, a dilution of focus, a scrappy – too quick – ending. But again, much of that derives from my greed for a resolution to match the opening of the novel, that powerful, dark, wonderful first half.

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On crying in the dark and Catherine of Aragon’s bible

It was dark, the early all-consuming blackness of a November evening. It was raining, the sort of rain that glitters and rests on the edge of a building like coy midday frost.

And I was crying.

Not fully, not half-consciously, but still, it was there. That edge of not understanding what had just happened to me. That slightly overwhelmed, dizzy, uncomprehending, state of being unable to fathom the world and the twists of circumstance and life.

I had just held Catherine of Aragon’s bible.

How ridiculous is that sentence? How – other – is that sentence? To even formulate those words, to have that connection to another world and another time, captured in literature, and so innocently, so silently there and waiting  to be found by another –

The darkness in the park, the unseeing eyes.

all books wait to be read, all books are to be read, yet all books exist without reading, yet all books need a reader. The concave twists of interaction. The moebius strip of reading.

The darkness in the park, the rain on the shoulder.

Books. A singularity in the world. An incision. A blade from now to then, from today to yesterday, a world of intent and hope and sadness and joy caught in the frame of this tiny, ridiculous object. This venerated, venerable thing.

The darkness in the park, the world slipping away.

I had just held Catherine of Aragon’s bible.

What a remarkable and wonderful and blinding world this is.


The Liszts : Kylo Maclear, Julia Sarda

The LisztsThe Liszts by Kyo Maclear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully complex and dark, The Liszts is a picture book that stands at the edge of a thousand different classifications. It’s poetry, it’s art, it’s story, and throughout all of that, it’s a quiet instruction to value the arrival of the unexpected and the different within your life. The Liszt family make lists: “lists most usual / and lists most unusual”. These may range from “lists of dreaded chores / and small winged insects” through to “lists that went on for 31 pges / lists to quiet the swirl of his midnight mind”. One day a “visitor” arrives and makes friends with Edward, the middle child. The two of them find a friendship in each other centred around questions delivered in vibrant, thick capitals: “Does anyone own the moon or the sky? / Where do my thoughts come from?”. The book ends with an echo of the opening, “The Liszts kept making lists. Scritch, scractch, / They made lists most usual. And lists most unusual” but this time, the visitor is there in the scene, reading a list of his own.

It’s not a particularly clean and simple book this which is one of its great strengths. The Visitor himself shifts from the perspective of something quite unworldly and odd to something almost benign and it’s hard to think through just what or who he’s meant to be. But perhaps, really, this is one of those books that thrives on that indeterminacy, of asking children to ascribe feelings and motivation to the incomprehensible edge of life and to try and understand those things with rough edges and less than straightforward intent. The Liszts does, I suspect, lean more to the older edge of the picture book market, but again that’s no bad thing. It’s a book that is beautifully produced but also one which thrives on an almost Gothic edge of otherness, something you might see in Neil Gaiman’s work or Chris Riddell. That edge of the world where things aren’t straightforward, but they are.

Artistically, this book is a joy. Sarda illustrates this book with a gleefully weird, almost 1920s edge where the ladies wear turbans and the gentlemen have great and splendid beards. Butterflies are pinned onto the wall, whilst characters sunbathe next to an empty swimming pool, scattered with leaves and detritus. It is a dark, odd, wonderful book this with images that fill the page and defy expectation or predictability. My only slight tinge of doubt is with the font; it’s one of those wobbly hand-written, scratchy jobs that is a little bit difficult to read at times. Aesthetically it’s perfect, yet it would push The Liszts again to that upper edge of the picture book market. But that upper edge is a wonderful, dark, perfect space for this book to inhabit. It doesn’t tie everything off neatly, nor does it place itself squarely into a frame of expectation. It’s not easy to classify, nor is it easy to predict. It is weird, delightfully so, exuberantly so, and it is beautiful.

My thanks to Andersen for the review copy.

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The Butterfly Club : Jacqueline Wilson

The Butterfly ClubThe Butterfly Club by Jacqueline Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been a while since I read one of Jacqueline Wilson’s books. I went through a phase of them when I got access to a new library (I say that like I was a burglar, but trust me I was legitimate and had a ticket and everything). They had shelves and shelves full of Jacqueline Wilson’s work, and it was a heady rush to get to read them all. Wilson is one of the great dames of British children’s literature and one that exists in a curious absence. It is an absence that characterises both her and similar popular authors, an absence of critical approval and mainstream awards. Of course Wilson has won awards, and plenty of them, and has been longlisted for the Carnegie, but her work exists in a sort of popular bubble of otherness. This isn’t new in British children’s literature: JK Rowling, Enid Blyton, etc, etc, but it is marked. There are times when I wonder if we know how to handle popular fiction in this country (Let me talk to you at some point of Twilight and of how popular does not necessarily equal the death of all things …).

The Butterfly Club is deeply charming in that way that Wilson has. The consistent markers of her work are a charming, genuine sympathy both with her protagonists but also with the other characters in the story. She’s known, too, for integrating a diverse range of issues into her work and The Butterfly Club is no exception. In one neatly constructed narrative that bowls along with abandon, it deals with social class, health, school worries, and friendship.

I will admit that I was concerned at how certain elements of the class related issue was portrayed in the illustrations as they felt markedly simplistic in how they portrayed the different people involved. A sort of shorthanded visual stereotype. It’s difficult to explain and, in a way, I wonder if it’s because of the nature of the reading I give these texts. I am an adult, reading from a very privileged and distinct context, and so I mention this reaction but I do not deny the great appeal of this book. And I do not deny the great appeal and wonder of Sharratt’s vibrant and dynamic work; he draws his characters with such rich and lovely thick lines that it’s hard to not love them.

One particular piece of joy for The Butterfly Club is the way it highlights Tina’s scientific knowledge and interest in butterflies and how this helps to form a connection between her and others. Wilson handles it so well and positions it as such a source of pride within Tina, that it’s deeply inspiring and rather lovely.There’s also a delicious character cameo within the final sequence of the book that will make fans of Wilson’s former titles deeply happy. I like what Wilson does, I really do. She finds the heart of everything she does, and this book is no exception. It is full of such heart.

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5 Life Lessons Children’s Literature Taught Me (with a little help from Buffy)

1. bravery is not what you think it is


I think, in a way, this is one of the more important and perhaps the most important message that any book can tell anyone. As Buffy says in the above gif that sort of reduces me to an emotional wreck every time I look at it, the hardest thing to do in this world is to live in it. And it’s even harder to do that as a child with all of the power and control that you lack in that position. Life is horrible, sometimes, and to live in that – to be able to be brave within that? To show your reader that there’s a light in the darkness, however dark your darkness is? That’s a gift.

Reading suggestions: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, There May be a Castle by Piers Torday.

2. it’s all about the journey

Image result for buffy travel gif

It’s too easy to shift life into a series of moments. Of goals. And they don’t get easier when you get older, but somehow they’re more sharp when you’re a child. Exams. Grades. Friendship. The shattering moment when your friend plays with somebody else on the playground or that moment when your social media is full of people having a better life than you. So this is where the books step in to show you that there is something else out there and that’s the journey. You may be all heading towards the grim inevitability of SATS or A-Levels or university or the first job, but these books remind you to enjoy the process of getting there. To party, to laugh, to love, to live. Sometimes your destination will wait.

Reading suggestions: Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson, My Name is Mina by David Almond

3. you matter

Image result for buffy kind gif

You’ll see it on the front of certain magazines and you’ll know it, straight away. It’s that urge to mould a million faces into a concept of perfection that, often, bears a mad disconnect from reality. It’s in the urge to deny the voice of the individual. The urge to laugh at people who get upset when their favourite band breaks up. The urge to mock otherness, to deny otherness within the world. This is the point where young adult literature comes out fighting: it is the space for otherness to thrive. It is a space for that otherness to exist.

Reading suggestions: What’s a girl gotta do? by Holly Bourne, A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian

4. be kind

Image result for buffy kind gif

Life isn’t about isolation but isolation is often a part of life. Anxiety, fear, terror; teenagers today face pressures that adults can’t often begin to fathom. I know it works the other way too (let me tell you about the wonder that is imposter syndrome some time), so these books work both ways. They talk to adults and to teens. Let’s phrase that a little bit better: these books talk to people. They make connections and ask you to see beyond the edges of your own world. To be kind within the context of yourself and to others. To be part of the world.

Reading suggestions: Girl with a white dog by Anne Booth, An Island of Our Own by Sally Nicholls

5. love is love is love

Image result for buffy love gif

The shape of love. To know what it is before you have it, to find it andto hold it. Questions that I still can’t answer, not wholly, not easily, but questions that exist. The limit of love. What is love? Who gets to love? How do I love? What can I love? Who loves me? What if I don’t want to love anything at all? Questions, questions, and sometimes we need to allow the space for those questions to be formed. And to not be afraid of that. The safety of the unknown is, I think, a rarity. We urge ourselves to answer the question, to find an answer and to not allow that silence. And we try to provide clarity to children, to others, to ourselves. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t. And this is where these books step in.

Reading suggestions:  I capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Unhooking the moon by Gregory Hughes.