“She has torn yet another dress”: Reflections on being a book collector

It’s hard to pinpoint where you fell in love with something when you have been in love with that something for a while. I don’t remember my first book, nor my first library, nor my first story. I remember beats in my journey of literacy, of reading; moments that echo in my heart and sing out, oddly, vibrantly, sharply, when I least expect it. Sitting on my dad’s lap in a great armchair. Telling the librarian what happened in a story. Passing round the salacious bits in a Jilly Cooper (wonderful, wonderful Jilly Cooper).

I don’t remember when I fell in love with the Chalet School. It’s been too long, really, and I can’t begin to unpick the stitch of this book inside of me. It simply is a love; a love I have for an eccentric Aunt that turns up at Christmas brandishing gift, or those moments when you see your favourite thing reduced at Waitrose. Simply, indefinable, truthful moments. Happiness. Satisfaction. Fullness.

But I do remember the moments within the series that cling to me a little harder than most; and one of them is in the below image. It’s a simple paragraph, part of The Princess at the Chalet School, and what I want you to do is read it it and then read it out loud. Slowly. Carefully. Dwell on that last little speech of Mademoiselle’s, and the way that it has so much effortless wonder in it. That final, round full stop of a sentence. It is a perfect paragraph, and perfectly ended.

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Now, there’s a part of me that could talk for hours about the thematic implications of that paragraph and the great symbolism it holds for the notion of feminine power within the series, but I won’t. At least, not now. Maybe later. I’m totally already planning it.

But, for now, what I’m trying to say is that there are moments within a text that make you find your home. I’d forgotten about this one but when I read it again yesterday, I realised that it was one of the best moments of the series for me. It is a paragraph that brings me home.

It is love, caught up in the tight ink curve of letters and of space on a page, it is love.

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)

 

 

Contributions towards a narrative of erasure

  1. I was driving the other day and listening to the morning show on Radio 2. Chris Evans. Chat. You know the sort of thing.  One of the recurrent items on the show is ‘Top Tenuous’ : tenuous claims to fame on a particular topic. They were celebrating the 70th birthday of BBC Woman’s Hour and had decided to make a Top Tenuous on the theme of Men in Woman’s Hour. Because they “wanted to be in on the action” as well.
  2. Mental illness has soared amongst the young women of the United Kingdom.
  3. “When you’re a star they let you do it”
  4. Five out of six Australian girls believe they do  not have the same chances in life as boys.
  5. “This year girls and young women told us that they feel held back by gender stereotypes, sexism, and anxiety about how they look”

 

I am so mad some days, so mad.

I believe in using your voice to make a difference where you can. Impacting the world where you can. Making a choice. Making a decision. “Activating yourself”

I am a specialist in children’s and young adult literature. It’s articles like this that make me determined to not restrict space on my shelves or on this blog or in the world. I don’t ban, I don’t restrict content, I don’t take books away from those who need them the most and can’t even yet verbalise that need. I facilitate access to literature. I facilitate access to liberation.

Don’t ever, ever, turn to me and tell me that children’s books don’t matter. These books build childhoods, shape them and make people out of them. Read whatever you want but read it critically, bravely, angrily, foolishly. Accept the problems but let yourself enjoy it nevertheless. Read books where you’re rescued or where you’re doing the rescuing. Read books by voices different, voices same, voices other. Read, read, just read, and never be afraid of being the bookish one, the one who reads. 

Reading and talking and articulating your narrative challenges this constant urge on the part of somebody to erase your experience. To erase your voice. To erase the validity of self, the importance of you, the wonder of you.

Reading is power, even when the world seems determined to not let you have it.

 

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?”

 

Don’t be afraid of academic children’s literature

I bought a writing magazine really. I don’t do this often, because I’m a self-funded researcher and those magazines aren’t cheap. But every now and then, I dip in and see what’s going on. One of the ones I bought recently had an article in which the author discussed an academic text from 1963 and concluded that “if you seek practical guidance in the art of novel-writing, do not go poking around the shelves of the academic library”

This saddens me, really, because one of the great principles of academia for me is that it produces work with a global remit. It unpacks texts and ideas and shares them with readers. Personally, as well, I’d go so far as to say with children’s literature that there’s somewhat of an ethical responsibility to tie your work back to the reader themselves and that to work in a bubble, devoid of this consideration, is deeply problematic.

And I get the impression of academia seeming to be a place where you “undertake so-called research [and] in order to make their work look important, they often invent their own vocabulary for some very simple concepts”. I understand how that’s possible to think that (lord, on my very bad days, I think something similar) but to apply that globally? Sweepingly? That’s intensely problematic.

So here’s the thing. Research, even by those fabulous professorial types you see at some universities, is being done within a global context. It is being done within the worlds you live in every day.

Some of the best books I know about writing and children’s literature are done by academics (“Some of my best friends are academics…”). Children’s literature lives in a space between people, between readers, and has to reach in a thousand different places all at the same time. And the more you understand that, the better a writer you’ll be. Fact. Write your books. Send me a pitch to review if you like. But know your field. The more you read, the better you’ll be. As writers, readers, people, we thrive on voice. Interaction with different, new perspectives. And to deny that is to deny a sense of betterment. Don’t ever be afraid of challenging yourself, of reading something dangerous or unwieldy, or ‘beyond your capabilities’. Don’t ever be afraid of reading.

And if you do head towards that academic library, here’s five titles you might want to take a look at…

On glass ceilings and echo chambers

It was YALC this weekend and for those of you who don’t know what it means, YALC is a Young Adult Literature Convention held as part of the London Film & Comic Con. YALC is in its third year now and seems to be going from strength to strength which is excellent and lovely news. If you’re wanting to find out more about the event and to be cheered by life in general, I’d recommend a check of the Twitter hashtag. There’s really very little better than celebrating books in an overt and joyous manner – and enabling that enjoyment for a ton of readers? Brilliant.

I read a really interesting and thoughtful post this morning from Jo Hogan on the experience of taking her teenage boys to YALC. She writes about the exclusion felt by the boys from young adult literature and touches on some points that struck a chord with me . I wanted to talk a little bit about that. As Jo so accurately writes:

“a healthy community questions and challenges itself. A healthy community looks at not just whom it includes but whom it (unintentionally) excludes and whether there is more that we can and should do to welcome others.”

I am a writer, blogger, librarian, researcher, and reader. I wear a lot of metaphorical hats.  I write young adult fiction about the experience of girlhood and womanhood because I’m fascinated, preoccupied and occasionally deeply terrified about it. I’ve lived it. I’m still living it. Being the you that you’re meant to be is the hardest thing in the world. I write books that slide a knife into that and try to cut it open. I write incisions.

But I also balance that with all the other hats I wear.

I am a blogger. This blog, I hope, reflects a fairly diverse and open reading experience. I will read anything I can though I have a natural predilection towards certain genres and a distaste for other. Fantasy and love stories? Not for me. But I will read anything and I will try and help the good books to get out into the world and if I can write about it constructively, I will. (And if you have a book to recommend for me, that you think needs that extra coverage, please comment as I want to hear it).

I’m also a librarian. I work a lot with boys and young children and nervous, tense readers. It’s the Summer Reading Challenge at the moment in public libraries. It happens every summer and it’s one of the great joys of my life. As part of it, but also as commonplace, I get asked a lot about what books to recommend to people. And here’s the thing; I haven’t read a lot of the books that I recommend. I can’t. I am not superhuman enough (though I’d love that to be my superhero power).

So here’s my secret: recommending books? It’s often about actually not recommending them at all. It’s about taking the time with the reader, sitting down on the floor with them – talking to them  as much as I talk to the mum and dad – and it’s about finding their thing. Everybody has a thing. I’ll try some key words. Maybe find out about books they’ve enjoyed before. And I’ll watch where their eyes go, what makes them smile or what makes them look up – that’s the point where we click, that’s the point where I find them something. Might be a non fiction book about tigers, might be a comic about robot brothers, might be a recipe book. The point is, they’re invested and they’re a part of this journey. And they’ve, pretty much nine times out of ten, chosen the book themselves without realising it.

I’ve had children tell me that they don’t like reading, that they don’t read, that they don’t like books – and that they are ‘bad’ readers. All of that is fine, because choice, but that last one pains me so much. I would ban that expression if I could – and if such a sentiment wasn’t deeply against my liberalistic hippie tendencies. No child is a bad reader. They aren’t. Reading isn’t a scale; it’s about framing that journey differently for the needs of different people. And what so many people just need is time and the confidence that they too, will one day reach that glass ceiling and smash it.

Whilst I can’t yet coherently respond to some of the points made by Jo in her thoughtful post, I can address the points that stick with me.I can challenge the limits of the echo chamber. I can talk to the parents of the kids that I meet and the parents I don’t.

I am here to help you, and if I can I will.

I work to make, create and empower readers.

All readers.