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.

 

8 ways to handle difficult books

I’ve been thinking about difficult books, recently, about pieces of children’s literature that are stark and unflinching or those that present difficult and controversial narratives. I am passionate about books being available to readers, always, but then there are moments when there are books that challenge that stance for me. I am honest about that, here, because I think that’s a vital thing to have. I am passionate, madly, about these pieces of literature but sometimes I struggle with that they are. And I need to understand that because I need to understand how I live with these books in the world.

I suspect that might be a commonplace thing; that urge to passionately defend, advocate and promote literature and yet, sometimes, realising that you’re standing on ice so thin that you can see the shadows underneath and the fin-tipped doubts that you have about a book are circling, ready to break through.

So here’s my way to handle that.

  1. Read the book.
  2. Seriously, read the book. I’m very upfront about this. Make time in your life to read that book that makes you wary or unsure abut it. Covers and blurbs and reviews are coded with meaning and ideologies, whether implicit or explicit, consciously constructed or otherwise, and you will never know what that book means until you read it. And until you know what that book means, what it says to you, you can’t even begin to understand what it may say to others.
  3. That may in the previous paragraph. Think about that. No book says the exact same thing to every reader. Not possible. If I were to say to you ‘cat’, you’ll think of a cat that’s unique to you. Maybe the one that’s curling around your feet right now, or sitting on the laptop and ‘helping’ you to read this post. So. Books say different things to everyone. That difference may have some commonalities, but it will be different in its nuances so be wary of predicting a general response to a book. Be wary of predicting a general blanket response to a book.
  4. So now you’ve read the book, and began to understand what your response is, here’s the part where you try and figure out why you’ve responded to it in this manner. Reflect. Be honest and true to yourself. I have difficulties with books about certain subjects. I recognise that, and when I read books about those subjects, I read them with that awareness in mind. Not everyone has the same difficulties that I do. There’s that generalisation again. Stick with that. Remember that, if you don’t remember anything else. Don’t generalise. It’s hard, I know, but try. You’re in a position of power with these books ; don’t abuse that.
  5. You’ve read the book and examined your response to it and understood that and maybe you’re still finding it problematic? Fine. Genuinely. That’s fine, and not in that passive-aggressive sense of fiiiine. I will always fight for the right to have opinions and to allow and enable those opinions. But here’s the part where you frame that opinion within yourself. Here’s the part where you look at the books that go out of your library and maybe find out that the difficult book has immense usage stats. Here’s the part where you go online and find out that it’s award winning, and teens are talking about it. Here’s the part where you recognise it’s difficult but you put it on your shelves because it’s wanted there.
  6. A final note on the difficult, truly difficult books. The ones where bad things happen, or history is presented in a way that is complex to mediate in a contemporary event. The ones where things happen that should not happen. Here’s the part where you trust yourself and your knowledge of your children, your customers, your publishers. You’re not reacting on your own part, here, you’re playing devils advocate. You’re going through the book on a case by case basis and understanding what it might say to the world. You’re researching the book in question. Checking its Goodread reviews. Doing a Twitter search on it. Maybe reading up on it in blogs. And then, you decide what to do with it, because you can justify every single step of your decision at this point. Maybe you don’t buy it after all. Maybe you put it out but keep an eye on the stats. Maybe you add it to stock but talk about its complicated and problematic representations. Maybe you talk about it, but you don’t hold it. A thousand different ways to mediate the book and to understand the meanings of that mediation.
  7. Don’t ban. Never ban. Mediate and manage and enable. Don’t ban. Ever. Please.
  8. Read. The. Book.

Vegetarians / vegetarianism in children’s fiction

Last night I was having a chat with a colleague about representations of vegetarianism and vegetarians in fiction. To my shame, I couldn’t think of many potent examples in children’s literature of this. My instincts went to somebody like Richard Adams and Plague Dogs / Watership Down (which I have just reread btw, and am a bit entranced by how thickly layered and robust and dreamlike a story it is) and George Orwell and Animal Farm, but that was about it. So. I threw the question out on Twitter….and collated the responses below.

Thanks so much if you helped! More suggestions welcome!

  • Eustace Scrubb’s family from the Chronicles of Narnia, and Annie Whitman’s stepsister from the SVH books (Thanks @actuallyaisha)
  • Suzy Austin in Meet the Austins (Thanks @conmartin)
  • Possibly Emerence’s parents from the Chalet School series (thanks @lavender_75)
  • Nanny Fox by Georgie Adams (Thanks @flissjohnston)
  • The parents in Groosham Grange by Anthony Horowitz (Thanks @thehiorns and 8yr old)
  • Olga da Polga (thanks @thornflowers)
  • Willow Chance in Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan (thanks @lauramainellen)
  • Possibly Caddy in Caddy’s World / Weetzie Bat (thanks @effjayem)
  • Winni Allfours by Babette Cole (thanks @suzannebarton0)
  • Vlad the Drac by Anne Jungman (thanks @tamsincooke1)
  • Draculaura in the Monster High books (thanks @lbkidsuk)
  • Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (thanks @fionanoblebooks)
  • Mia from the Princess diaries books by Meg Cabot (thanks @conmartin)
  • Scarlet McCall in The Scarlet Files : Cat Burglar (thanks @tamsincooke1)
  • Herb the Vegetarian Dragon by Jules Bass (thanks @damyantipatel)
  • Vera the vegetarian vampire in Vanishing Trick by Ros Asquith (thanks @rosasquith)
  • T-Veg : The Tale of the Carrot Crunching Dinosaur by Smriti Prasadam – Halls (thanks @potternicky)
  • Medwyn from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series (Thanks @konallis)
  • Gemma from Cowgirl by GR Gemin (thanks @konallis)
  • Tyrannosaurus Drip by Julia Donaldson (thanks @mrsdebspatters)
  • Plague 99 by Jean Ure (thanks @huskyteer)
  • And finally, thanks @272BookFaith for the excellent suggestion below 🙂

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16 ways to help yourself and your child make the best of your public library, books and reading

 

  1.  Sometimes I think we become afraid of challenges and the potential of failure, especially with reading. I hear the phrase “that book’s too hard for you” an awful lot. If you say that: ask yourself why you’re saying that. Unpack the statement and challenge yourself about it.
  2.  The journey to literacy has to start somewhere. Everything’s been too hard for a child once upon a time – but they haven’t stopped. I acknowledge the potential of putting somebody off – but, that book’s been picked up for a reason. Maybe this time work through the illustrations together, or use it as a bed time story. Don’t make the book a source of intimidation.
  3. Hard books become easy books. Help that happen.
  4. Make sure you have more time to spend in the library than you think you need, and conversely, be prepared to leave early if things aren’t working out for either of you. Come back tomorrow. There’s still time.
  5. Don’t make reading A Thing That We Fight About And Talk About In Capital Letters. If it’s becoming a flash point, time out. Step back.
  6. Acknowledge how much reading your child really does. I suspect that we forget this, but reading isn’t just about books. It’s about shopping labels, instructions, video games, it’s about the language that’s embedded in our everyday world. So if the library is a place where neither one of you want to be, that’s fine (for today, not forever, you get back there asap please 😉 ).
  7. Make the most of the textual resources you have at your disposal. Read those. Help your child master the texts that are already in their world.
  8. Don’t be scared of the library. I get that libraries are scary places. I’ve been put off a few in my time. But here’s the thing : they are your space. You are welcome in this space, it is here for you, and if you’re scared or nervous there, than your child will get that.
  9. Model the behaviours that you want your child to see. Perform the associations that you want them to have with a space. Kids are savvy, savvy creatures. If the library is a place where you’re not comfortable, then they will know and they will consciously or unconsciously react to that. Fake it until you make it. Make the library space somewhere where they will choose to be. Why would they want to go if you don’t?
  10. Pick up a book yourself. Non-fiction, fiction, poetry, whatever.Bring it home and read it in front of the child. Read obviously. Weave books into the world. Make books something that the child will see
  11. Don’t be afraid of books. Ask for help if you need it. Seriously.
  12. If you don’t know what your child should or could be reading, ask one of the librarians. Ask them about the most popular authors. Look at the gaps on the shelves. Head to the books that the other children your child’s age do. It’s a rough guide, yes, but sometimes we need those rough guides where we don’t know where to begin.
  13. Encourage your kids to talk about reading and books. Ask them if this is the breakfast cereal that a Gruffalo would eat. Tell them you spotted Gangsta Granny on the way to school.
  14. Get your kid involved in the library. Come up to the desk with them if you can’t find what you’re after. Get the child involved in the conversation. Reserve books that the child actively asks for. Allow them the time for a long chat with the librarian.
  15. Let the child babble about books. Don’t cut them off. There is nothing better in the world than children who are almost breathless with love over a book. Passion is such a driver. Allow the time for those conversations to happen. They are perfect, perfect moments.
  16. Pat yourself on the back every once in a while. You’re doing so much better than you think you are at this. You really, really are. I have such admiration for you. Keep it up.

On library ladders and curlicues

Last night I watched a repeat of a programme, nestled away on the depths of BBC4, about life at Windsor Castle and it featured a scene in the Royal Library. Reader, I almost wept at how lovely it was. There is something quite ferociously glorious for me in an everyday basis in a library, but sometimes, sometimes, there are libraries that take my breath away. The symbolism of these libraries. The importance of them. The richness of them. Oh, and the library ladders on wheels. These are important too.

(Library ladders on wheels are my emotional kryptonite; I long for one)

Here are three of my current favourite libraries. I’ve visited one, long to visit the other two, and there are other libraries that I can’t bear to share but they are there, silently, quietly, the curve of their leather seats and their rows of neat spines nestle alongside these choices.

The Library from Beauty and The Beast

There’s something very private, sometimes, about sharing ones passions with somebody else. These passions are instinctive things; they define us and shape us, even at our lowest points, even when we’re wordless and lost in the night, there are the things that we love and it is those that provide the light. Gaming. Food. Films. Books. This scene isn’t just about he curve of those staircases and the delicious symmetry they provide, it’s about the shy nerves of the Beast and his realisation that Belle loves the space as much as he does. It’s about realising that there’s a space in the world for him once more.

But oh, oh, those shelves. The roaring heights of them, and those staircases, and the great space of this library, oh.

The Library at Windsor Castle

This video links to the documentary about Windsor Castle and in a way, I’d encourage you to watch the whole thing if you can. There’s something so fascinatingly glorious and outlandish about it all; the way the maids unpack the luggage through to the stick they use to measure that the chairs are the right distance away from the table.

The library itself appears fairly early on and intermittently throughout the episode. What makes my heart sing about this library is the nature of its holdings; this library contains history (which, I appreciate, a lot of them do) but when combined with this location and the finery and the dancing routines that surround it, there’s something quite potent about these finely bound volumes on the shelf. Knowledge is power. Always. But knowledge is also something else, and that is something to be treasured. Never be afraid of learning and never be afraid of what a book holds. That’s the message of this library for me; the way it holds such intensely worldly things on a shelf. Just. On. A. Shelf. Oh the discussions these books must have when the light’s off and the door’s locked…

Duke Humfrey’s Library

 

Recognise this one yet? I appreciate the tiny Daniel Radcliffe (so young!) may give it away, but it’s the library as featured in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. The delicious thing is that you can visit this library as it’s part of Oxford University and occasionally allows in tours (check for times and dates, etc, etc). I was lucky enough to get on one of thse tours and oh, it’s such a vivid experience. You climb up the stairs from the quadrangle, passing the narrow and ornate windows as you go, and emerge into the library itself; chained books on the shelves, the dark wood, and the sunlight cutting in through the leaded glass windows. Go (and also, whilst you’re in Oxford, take in a children’s literature tour – there are quite a few locations and things of interest there…)

 

 

54 places to begin with when thinking about children’s and young adult literature

A manifesto, of sorts, for those who are interested in children’s and young adult literature but don’t know where to start. Start here. Somewhere. All of them. One of them. Just start.

  1. Read something you remember from your childhood. Read it now as an adult. Be aware of the differences between that read.
  2. Read The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan and revel at the precision of her language.
  3. Subscribe to this blog. And this blog. Also this blog.
  4. Read Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman.
  5. Lurk (or even join in) a Twitter chat. Have a look at #ukyachat and #ukmgchat for starters. If people aren’t talking about what you want to talk about, be the one who does.
  6. Read The Green Grass of Wyoming by Mary O’Hara. Fall in love with the wilderness.
  7. Sign up at your library to help with the Summer Reading Challenge.
  8. Go to The Story Museum.
  9. Read reviews on Goodreads. Decide whether you agree with them or not. Work out why.
  10. Ask your young relatives, friends, pupils what they’re reading. And then read those books.
  11. Read Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill. Let the words scald you.
  12. Start a blog. Make it private, make it public, find your voice.
  13. Read one of the Miffy books by Dick Bruna. Any of them.
  14. Read this blog. And this blog.
  15. Give somebody a book. The idea of the giving of children’s literature is an important thing.
  16. Read Alfie Gets in First by Shirley Hughes.
  17. Go to Seven Stories.
  18. Read The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac. Practice them.
  19. Write something. Doesn’t have to be good, doesn’t have to be bad, doesn’t have to be imaginative, but flex your imagination. Start to understand the space of the children’s book. Start to understand your contribution to that space.
  20. Read The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. Understand how a book can be great and complex and challenging.
  21. Go to a bookshop. Stare at some books. Look at the colours, the descriptions, the arrangements of them. Understand the shape of these books and the contrast between them and others.
  22. Read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Push your fingers through the holes.
  23. Go to the library. Get some books out. If you don’t know where to begin, ask. Librarians are your friends. They are there to help.
  24. Read Artichoke Hearts by Sita Brahmachari.
  25. Experience The Game of Sculpture by Herve Tullet. When you’ve finished, experience it again.
  26. Set up a Twitter account and follow a lot of people in the sector. You don’t have to necessarily engage, but do follow. Educate yourself in what’s going on.
  27. Read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
  28. Visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.
  29. Have some cake. And then read something. Read indulgently, selfishly, wholly. Stop the clocks. Lock the door.
  30. Read I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith.
  31. Read Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.
  32. Send a book on an adventure. Track its progress.
  33. Read The Chalet School in Exile by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer.
  34. Visit Daunt Books.
  35. Attend an author event. It’s one thing to read the book yourself, but it’s quite another to hear it being read and talked about by the author.
  36. Read some Eloise.  Any of them. Sink into the exuberance of them.
  37. Read A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian. Fall in love for the first time.
  38. Read Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill. Think about his use of colour and scale and scope.
  39. Attend Alice’s Day in Oxford.
  40. Read Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens.
  41. Read Max’s Wagon by Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson. A short one this, but something quite brilliant.
  42. Go to Whitby and read The Whitby Witches series. Sit in the abbey. Walk the beach. Tread the steps of Ben and Jennet and Aunt Alice.
  43. Read My Name is Mina by David Almond. Sink into its language.
  44. Go to the woods on a bear hunt. I’m quite serious about this one. Think about what you’d need and then pack it and then go. Don’t come back until you’ve found one.
  45. Read Cowgirl by GR Gemin.
  46. Read Dog Ears by Anne Booth.
  47. Talk about books. To everyone, anyone. Don’t be ashamed. Don’t be reticent. Be passionate and vital and interested in the power of this sector of literature.
  48. Visit Barter Books.
  49. Read a book out loud to yourself. Somewhere silent, if you can, and let yourself hear the words.
  50. Read Looking at pictures in picture books by Jane Doonan. Apply some of her ideas to the next picture book you read.
  51. Read Unhooking The Moon by Gregory Hughes.
  52. Attend a literary festival. (Oxford Literary Festival‘s children’s programme is particularly wonderful).
  53. Read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.
  54. Read Pea’s Book of Holidays by Susie Day.

Facebook’s Book Club : Children’s Literature edition

You may have heard of Mark Zuckerberg’s declaration that 2015 will see him read a new book every other week with “an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.”.

Well, Mark, here’s your chance to add some children’s literature to the mix. Children’s literature changes worlds, each and every day, and you should seriously think about adding one or more of the following titles to your list. I guarantee that they’ll teach you about the world in ways you never thought possible.

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