The urge for the classic : on children’s books and those eternal surveys

Another day, another survey that says what children can and should read. The click bait nature of most of these articles aside (and note, I say most and not all), there’s something interesting here worth teasing out. I suspect that something might centre on the historic constructions of children’s literature itself; the nature of age and growth for our interpretation of the sector, and the nature of the adult within that construction and interpretation. That’s a horrible sentence, but I hope it implies one key thing amidst the grammatical morass : children’s literature is complicated.

So, she says nonchalantly, just what is children’s literature? It’s a question that devours great swathes of research and one that bears particular weight to this blog. I focus on children’s literature. I broaden that to include young adult and picture books, but I do not review or talk about works for adults. So maybe we can start there; children’s literature is a space that exists in opposition to adult literature? And yet, even there, in that trembling starter, I find myself arguing with myself. Children’s literature thrives on the adult; they are vital within picture books, they’re vital in the purchase of literature (kids get money from somewhere, right? they don’t get to the library by themselves…). The adult is the silent presence within children’s books; the child themselves is defined by otherness from the adult. The Victorians had a field day (Arcadian pun intended) with the idea of the precious child; the cult of the child saw the great purity of the child fixated upon and maintained. The child as child as child. 

Maybe then we argue for children’s literature to exist not in opposition but in phase; in sequential space within each adults journey towards literacy, but transforming for each and every adult. Children are the great unknowable; we are not children, though we once were. Our childhood is past, but it was there; it was experienced, and now we are through it. We are grown, we are adult (excuse me whilst I go and panic fly a kite and contemplate my aged existence). We look back on childhood. We don’t look on or in. Childhood, our state as child, exists in a backwards, historic state. We have travelled through it.

So, surveys, I suspect, about what children read, will always be historically tinged and somewhat retrospective precisely because of our distance from childhood. We are people who read backwards, and who drive the demand for literature backwards. Of course we read contemporary fiction and we yearn for the new, sharp hit of wonder, but we yearn for stability. Like I said, children’s literature – it’s not simple. There’s a reason that Enid Blyton is one of the fifth most translated authors in the world, and it hinges on that idea of stability. Our childhoods are safe, golden spaces. We are trained to see them as that, regardless of the truth. School is the best time of your life. Holidays become golden tinged. We remember the good. We choose books which will construct that idyll and transfer it onto a new generation.

Sometimes I think these surveys don’t reflect the books at all.

Sometimes I think these surveys reflect the ideologies around these books.

 

Further reading:

Read Samantha Shannon’s lovely piece in the Guardian on this topic.

Non Pratt’s series of gorgeous tweets  delivers a list of reccomendations I’d be thrusting into the hand of every person ever.

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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.

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive”

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”

I bet you know where that comes from.

I bet you remember the first time you read it; maybe not the precisions of it, the exact thing you had for lunch, or what colour socks you had on, but I bet you remember that moment. I bet you remember how it felt.

For me; Leeds, and a nondescript shopping centre. WHSmith, maybe. One of the high-street stores; one of those that look like something you’ve seen a thousand times before. We were passing through. I had a book token.

(Book tokens, oh my lord book tokens, the eternal love of the bookish child)

The shelves were at the back of the shop; tucked away. I bought the first three titles in the series, titles twisting on my tongue. Familiar. Unfamiliar.

I have a habit of being late to things; I am a library lover, a librarian, I read what the library has, and sometimes some libraries are more prompt than others. I picked up His Dark Materials in Totnes, all three of them, another deal, more clean-edged spines; the crisp, indulgent pleasure of newness.

Of a book that has never been read before; a book waiting for you.

Only you.

I am rereading this book now, this book that begins with a suburban couple in a suburban street, perfectly normal thank you very much, and I am thinking of those moments and the way that first read contrasts with the second. The third, fourth, fiftieth.

We read; we connect. That first read, that self-making read.

We read again; we reform, we reconnect, we rediscover. We affirm those bonds of ourselves, hard fought and hard forged.

And sometimes; we rediscover a classic. A book that aches with resonance, with sentences that sound a note something far beyond that which they sounded so many years ago.

This is rereading; this is us, this is the story of who and why we are. This is your first love, your first kiss, first loss, first – moment.

And it all comes from

this.

this tiny, tiny thing

this book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Turning Left

Donna NobleIt’s been an interesting week. My research may need to change tack quite substantially and so that is a lot to come to terms with. Pauses and stops and halts and the realisation that maybe turning left instead of right will be – something different and maybe something better. Maybe. I hope so, at least. I love what I do, and now is the time to figure out how best to shape that something. An intangible challenge; and yet, an odd relief to face it head on. The difficulties of decision. The release of decision, of definition

And as I think about these things, about pulling my own Donna Noble and deciding which way my car will go at the junction, I think about literature and the lines that guide us from book to book. My research is so very centred on space and the idea of mapping; the points of connection between the fictional and the real, and when you start to see them in one space, you see them everywhere.

The world of literature is full of connections, of lines that pull us to and from literature and on a route from book to space to site to book. Think about lines; the use of lines in a bookshop or a library. Think of shelves, really, and the direction of them. The enticement of shelves and shelving, the psychological reading of space and the teasing promise of something delicious around the corner, further in.

We read books before we see them, that much is a given, but we read space like that as well; I walk into a library and I am home, I know how to navigate that world, I know how to master it. I know its symbols, I know its signs. When we read, we read within a space that we know, we know how to handle it, how to be within that space. We know, perhaps, that when it gets too much we can close the book and step away. We know that this will start, this will stop, that books are here for us to pick up and choose and touch and look at.

shelvesImagine the static library, imagine that for a moment, the horror of a still and static space that does not breathe, does not live. That does not long for that presence of the other, that does not even want that other there, spoiling, ruining.

Literature, libraries, landscape; they need people, they need to be read and they need to live; they are half-texts without that, they are readless, restless beasts.

And so, I turn left; I turn, I trail my hands along the shelves, and I read E Nesbit and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Angela Brazil, and I touch ornate spines and wallow in lavish front covers and exultant design, and lines, everywhere, enticements, encouragements, and I turn, I turn, and I keep walking. I keep reading.

Because, I do not think I can stop; readers do not stop, literature does not stop, and I do not want it to live without me, I am in the library and I am stood on the kickstool and I am reaching for the book on the shelf, just to the left of where I would normally look, just to the left.

 

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.

I just read my first ever Jane Austen – and this is what I learnt in the process

Reading’s a funny old thing isn’t it? (She says, lighting a pipe and putting on slippers). You find your groove; you find the sagas or the mysteries or the girls who write stories sitting in the kitchen sink, and you find yourself in the finding of these spaces. It’s a sort of chicken and egg thing; a circular, self-reflexive process. You read yourself into spaces, spaces which don’t exist until you read yourself into them. Jo and her chopped hair. Daddy, my daddy. Bernhilda tipping the ink all over herself (this last one is a bit niche, but I’m aware there’s a substantial amount of you who will get this and I admire you all greatly for that). All of these moments exist in a sort of limbo until you read them and give life to them. And it’s through your reading that you find out who you are. You find the moments that matter to you and that make you who you are. And those moments start to cumulatively work inside of you; they swell and grow and help you to become the person that you always had the potential to be. It’s just that those books gave you a little bit of a shove in the right direction.

So what happens to the books that you don’t read? What happens to the authors that you know of – Hardy, Beckett, Atwood – authors who hold a very specific cultural place in the world and figure in your world and yet  – don’t. Goodnight Moon. Green Eggs and Ham. Anne of Green Gables. All books that I know and don’t know. And, in the case of Anne of Green Gables in particular, books that I’ve tried but just – haven’t – worked for me. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it but I couldn’t even get past the first chapters of Anne. And what does that mean? What does that do to me as a reader?

Until fifteen minutes ago, I’d never read a Jane Austen.

Continue reading

I swim to literature and grab it, finger-tight and breathless

I am moving house at the moment. Not literally, I hasten to add. I am not typing this from a laptop balanced on my knee somewhere on the M1. I am moving in a few days and I type this surrounded by boxes and bags and the remains of Things Which Should Not Be Moved And Really Should Go To The Tip For The Love Of God.

And I am surrounded, quite palpably, by the absence of my books.

It makes me twitchy this space-without-things, this new canvas of my flat where the type of the keyboard echoes and the TV seems too loud. It makes me twitchy because books are the weft of my life in so many ways, they are the binding between the cracks and they are the rock that I swim too when I am drowning and need something to hold on to.

I like books. Can you tell? I like what they mean, I like what they are, I like that the very concept of a book exists – stop for a moment and consider how wondrous that is. That we, as a people, decided to bind and create and collect our stories, our currency as people, our history and our culture, and we realised that was important enough that it needed to be kept. That it needed to be valued.

And that it needed to be

And so, this is where I tell you of my panicked comment to an estate agent: “What sort of an area are you looking for?” “Somewhere close to the library?”, and this is where I tell you why that still matters, why that always matters and why that will always matter. 

When we visit libraries, when we touch a book, when we sit and listen to mum or dad or gran or grandad read the first page of a new bedtime story, we are doing so much more than the reading of that book. We are reading ourselves in a way, we are engaging in the sharing of stories, and we are binding ourselves to one another. 

We are connecting. We are connected. We have a hook into the great weave of our world. We read to hear, to find, to be ourselves.  We are when we read. We read when we are. And we read when we are not, when we are lost in the great nothingness. Libraries open doors to other worlds. And to ourselves. 

I miss my books. I miss them because they are a part of me. .