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.

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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?)

 

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

1. bravery is not what you think it is

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

 

Who are you if you are afraid? : On mediating complex content in children’s literature

 

“If I have the agency to read texts for young people critically, then might not young readers have this agency also?”

Nodelman, Perry (2016) The hidden child in the hidden adult Jeunesse : Young People, Texts, Cultures 8 (1), pp266-277

 

I have been thinking about this post for a while and how best to approach it. It was thrown into sharp relief by a few conversations I had recently, and some online activity I watched, which made me realise that I was thinking about the books I study and work with and read, madly, feverishly, selfishly, and had some ideas around content that were worth exploring in a post like this. I am self-indulgent on this blog, I know, but things like this matter immensely. Literature is a building block, a superpower, and once we understand how it does what it does and how we influence that doing, we are warriors.

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Good books, bad books : discussing value in children’s literature

I  had an interesting chat earlier this week with a colleague. She asked me to show her an example of good illustration, versus an example of bad, and whilst I could easily fulfill the request for the former, I struggled with the latter.

Bad. Bad books. We think about that a lot with children’s literature; it’s a space of competing agencies and ideologies. It’s a sector of publishing that has to be almost everything and nothing, all at the same time. For a book to work within children’s literature, for it to even get to the child, it’s got to pass a thousand boundaries.

Author. Agent. Editor. Publisher. Marketing. Libraries. Teachers. Parents. Child.

A thousand steps; a thousand leaps. There’s more in that journey, I know it, but I think the point is made. That book in your child’s hand, that book on the shelf at the library, it’s come a long way baby. And seeing it there says something quite distinct about both itself and also the process which has enabled its presence.

Somewhere, somehow, that book has been given value.

It’s not a cheap process publishing, nor is it swift. Ditto having the book in the library, in school. It’s taking space that could be used up elsewhere, always. Each book in the library, each book on the shelf in the bookshop, they are all on their notice. At some point, their space will be used for something else. Stock rejuvenation. Circulating titles. Value being given to this book that might find another usage somewhere else.

I keep coming back to that idea of value, when  I think about the good / bad dichotomy. I argue, a lot, for the good books. For the books that deserve to be revelled in and loved, and yet, can these exist without the ‘bad’?  Can good exist in isolation or does it always need the ‘bad’ before it can be understood as good?

Think of a chair with four legs. And now, think of a chair with two legs. Is it still a chair?

I think, perhaps, I’m talking about relationships and about the dialogue of books between books.The way that no book exists in isolation, the way that even the bad book (for what that definition is worth) holds value. Importance. Weight.

There are good books out there that I will not touch, for I do not see them as good, but I recognise their value. They are not bad books then for me, but rather they are other books. The chair with three legs. The chair with two. They are still books, but books which exist in an other space. A space that is laden with value and ideologies and agencies, but not a space in which I find myself.

Bad. Good. It’s a simple sequence, and yet, maybe I think it’s the hardest one out there.

And I suspect that maybe, that the bad book might not exist at all.

 

The books I don’t review

Oh, that title makes me think of some sort of bookish elephant graveyard! Rest assured, that’s not my intention; this post is to talk about all the books I don’t review. I read a lot of books (a lot, seriously, it’s like my superpower) and I don’t even begin to review half of them. A handful, really, and I thought it would be interesting to share a few of the reasons why the ones that Don’t Get Reviewed, um, don’t get reviewed. I am a horrible reader. Consider these my confessions!

  • Really horrible front cover. I thought I could get past it. I couldn’t.
  • You know that habit of making the first letter fancy and a different font in a paragraph? Like This? That.
  • That thing where people don’t use speechmarks and instead use – or nothing. I can’t deal.
  • A stain on one page. A mysterious, please GOD, don’t make me talk about it any more stain.
  • Not being able to say much about it. “This book is good” doesn’t make a review.
  • Being able to say too much about it. “This book is everything that’s wrong with the world” makes the review too much.
  • Books represented by my agent or her agency. A conflict of interests and super weird for me to review them from a critical place.BUT. I will talk about them on Twitter because it is nice to talk about nice books.
  • Oh my god, I stopped one recently because it had horrible feeling pages. Forgive me!
  • Boring book. It took about 300 pages to get anywhere and by 301, I’d had enough. Other things to do, people to see.
  • It dealt with an important issue BUT didn’t deal with it in a way that felt I could use it and talk about it. A difficult one, but any inkling of doubt is something that I take very seriously. Gatekeeper, I know, and that’s something I’ll talk about at a later date.
  • It had an awful pun in.
  • I couldn’t add anything to the critical discourse around it.
  • Forced rhyme. The sort of rhyme that works with a very particular type of English and not, quite, with everything.
  • Bad binding. Forgive me!

 

Next time : a list of the reasons I do review a book. It is a lot less embarrassing 🙂

 

 

The drum

I am good in libraries, in bookish spaces. I understand how they work and I’m comfortable in them. It’s a skill honed over many, many years of being bookish. A commitment to the spine, to the folded edge.

I am equally conscious that those spaces that I inhabit are, quite often, full of privilege. A library can be an intimidating space. It should never be, and we should stand against such demarcation of public spaces and fight against the barriers established therein. But it can be intimidating.

Every new is new, until it’s old. Every fear is fear until it’s known.

I’m a writer, a critic, a student, and yet I find myself defending that too much in some spheres. I research children’s literature. I find it an important worthy topic. I find it fun, relevant. Exciting. And yet: pauses.

Somebody told me the other day that there are only two things which never let you down: music and books.

I think they’re right, but I think that statement needs something else adding onto it. Music, and books, and story. That last word, that great intangible edge that defines our lives. That we perform, every day, with ever step we take and whether we choose to go to Asda or Tesco, the bus or the train.

Story is in everything, quite clearly. Define a story for me, quickly, loosely. Your first instinct. For me, I return to the idea of beginnings. Endings. A start, an end. Something in between. It’s a structure that was taught to me in junior school. It’s a structure that left me in tears once, in front of the class, as I wasn’t able to follow it.

Instinct. Patterns. Returning to what you know, even when it’s not comfortable. Even when it’s not right. Yours. Familiarity. A regularity of rhythm, of expectation. The prince needs to find his one true love. The evil needs defeating. We need our patterns. Our familiar spaces.

Narrative; that great drum beat. We march to it, we echo to it, we search for it. We love, lie, live to it.

I study children’s literature because it is the drum. It is the first drum, and often the loudest. The most present. The most recurrent. The story that’s passed down through the ages, from parent to child, from shelf to hand. These are the beats which define us, which make us. And when we know them, we know them intimately. Lovingly.

I had an argument about a film once. Independence Day. Aliens, explosions and Will Smith. It’s a film made by numbers, almost, if you break it down to the morphological level. The level of breath, of beat.

Doesn’t make it a bad film though.

The narrative of Independence Day is one that fills the gaps. Same with a thousand other films, novels. Story. The constancy of story, the way it fills us and edges our bricks with a neat and solid mortar. Being given the skills to recognise those narratives is a gift; and one that I live to share, every day.

Learning how to read is a superpower. Learning how to read the markers of story; the tropes, the archetypes, the figures that make the story what it is, is also a superpower. Sometimes learning to read isn’t enough. It takes you to the edges, the ring fenced space of books that are suitable for you and the great morass of those that aren’t. The tempting otherness. The wild beyond.

We look for patterns as humans; we exist for rhythm and pattern and structure.

Working with, talking about, living with children’s literature allows us to interrogate what those patterns are and to enable readers with the strength to challenge them. Us. Everything.

Defy the fears.

And change the world.