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.

Unruly.

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

 

 

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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How many you’s are you a you to?

It was my first year at University. I was sat in a room, surrounded by green fields and woods, and a man was talking about grammar and language. These were lectures that I didn’t, wholly, understand. They were lectures that I couldn’t and wouldn’t miss, not for a second, and I didn’t know why, or even what they were about half the time, but I loved them.

They were experiences. Everything about that University was. From the way the Henry Moore statue gleamed in the morning light, to the way the woods smelt of damp wild garlic after the rain had felt.

He was asking us to think about language. Naming. Identity. Branding. You’re a person. Let’s call you John Smith. How many people know you as John? How many people know you as John Smith? Or Mr Smith? Or that guy with the dark hair, or the guy who gets on the bus and always looks a little bit as though he can’t quite understand how it’s time to go to work again?

I’m a researcher of children’s literature. Identity, representation and the politics of self are intensely vital things within this sector. Read The Uncomfortable Truth About Children’s Books.

What are the you’s on your bookshelf? On the bookshelves you look after at work, or see in the library? I wonder, if perhaps, we need to be finding the ‘you’ more often, and actively questioning who and what it is we’re presenting to people as the de-facto ‘you’ of children’s literature.

I’m intensely suspicious of statistics as a rule. Statistics tell the story you want them to tell. And quite often, that’s not quite the story that the data represents. So maybe, we repurpose that narrative a little. Maybe we gatekeepers need to change the frame a little. Maybe we need to get that frame checked and challenged by others. Audited by the kids we work with. Questioned by our selves.

(A brief segue: read the challenging books, the scary books, the ‘other’ books, the books that you don’t know and the books that you do. Question representation, facilitate representation, understand the genre. Read more, always, read more)

Maybe it’s time to adopt the mantra of: “How many you’s am I putting into the world?”

 

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.

 

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.

Voice in children’s literature : Power, space and place

One of the big things I’m passionate about (and you may have gathered this) is the demystification of children’s literature. Of literature, really, of the breaking down of the fear of it and the awe of it and the preconceptions of it. Doing my MA in Children’s Literature (with the rather superb department at Roehampton) was one of the greatest things I did. It helped give me confidence in talking about this great love of my life – and it gave me confidence in dealing with that great love of my life. I genuinely think that in a way it gave me my voice.

Voice. That’s a big thing in children’s literature. You’ll hear a lot about it everywhere, in agents wishlists and in reviews. The voice. We search for it because it is a way to connect with something. It is not about what is said (as we all know, an unreliable narrator can shift and spin the narrative to their own ends) but rather it is about how it is said. How a word is in the text and how it touches the left and right space of that word. How a story aches to be complete, and how it rages against being fenced in. How a paragraph can be everything and nothing and a world can be caught in that space between where it starts and ends.

So I want you to think about voice, I think, in the next book you’re reading. But I don’t want you to stop at the voice of the words inside the book. I want you to think about the whole of the book, the sense of it. I want you to taste it. I want you to push at it and find your space in it.  I want you to hold that book in your hand, be it a picture book you’re reading with your children, or a dystopia you’re devouring on the commute, and think about how it feels in your grip. About the sense of it, about the emotion 

Because I believe that understanding and being able to touch literature, to feel it, makes you strong. Being able to understand how you feel about something makes you powerful. Your voice is constructed of a thousand shards of you and the discovering of that voice is maybe one of the hardest things in the world to do. But it’s also one of the most valuable.

The understanding of voice, the experience of voice can give you your voice.

This is why literacy matters. This is what it can do.

This is what it does. 

How children distinguish fantasy from reality

I’m so pleased to share with you an interview with Allán Laville, a doctoral researcher based at the University of Reading, who very kindly let me talk to him about his work. (And oh guys, his work is fascinating and bears a WORLD of relevance for how we look at children’s literature – particularly when thinking about how very young children read and interpret texts). I hope you enjoy the interview! I’m really keen to hear from you what you think about this so please feel free to comment / tweet / email me 🙂

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