“We don’t bury ourselves in books – books bury themselves in us” : finding ‘sequels’ for children’s literature classics

“We don’t bury ourselves in books – books bury themselves in us”

Let that just hang for a moment. It was something that I heard today at the York Festival Of Ideas. I was at a talk about the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland and Professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst was discussing the idea of how a text can survive and thrive over such a long time frame.

Now, this got me thinking (partially because he also mentioned the great glory that is Rooftoppers), why do we expect that of certain books? Why do we, for want of a better phrase, stick them so firmly in their context – but then bring them along to ours. I’m not sure that makes sense so let me explain a little. Something like The School at the Chalet is very dear to me. It was originally written in 1926 but for me remains a beautiful snapshot of issues we still deal with today. Issues that affect my attitude towards my own work and writing: identity, selfhood, responsibility and growth. Eternal issues. But this book is very much not a book that would thrive if written today (forgive me for sweeping sweepingness). I bring it to a present day context with my reading but in the same reading, I’m reading it ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. All of those reads captured and recaptured every time I read this book. An ocean of readings, from the now, the past and the futre, and one that I navigate each and every time I read. That’s what happens when we read. We’re occupying a position in space and time between ourselves and a text and that position is madly unique and transformative on both sides. Every time. Every single time.

Ha, I’m digressing slightly. Basically, what I’m trying to hit on is the idea of books being ‘accepted’ as classics and then being pulled into contexts distinctly different from those that they originally encountered. So. Let’s challenge that thought a little (sidebar: I argue with myself a lot at the moment, the PhD’s a wondrous thing 🙂 )

Can we say that something like Alice-in-Wonderland can have a sequel? Can we say that something like Alice-in-Wonderland isn’t unique, that it holds a distinct place in the world, yes, but that place is not uniquely carved out by this work? Can a – has a – textual baton be passed somewhere?

And if it can, where does this urge come from? This, at least, I can answer fairly swiftly. It comes from my belief in the uniqueness of childhood. I hold the ideals of childhood, of creativity, of freedom, as vitally important but they are ideals that come from my awareness and from my perspective and of my journey. And so I think that I need the state of children’s literature to be fluid, to be organic, to be misshapen and bold and incomprehensible and to evolve; to acknowledge a (the?) canon but to also question it – to be anarchic, distinct and resolutely unique. Always.

But where does that leave us? Reflexively, it brings us back to Alice-in-Wonderland and to Rooftoppers; two books that started this journey of thought for me, this journey that sees me tapping on my keyboard in the smoky dusk, and trying to figure out an answer. The parallels of the texts are immediate for me: an exploration of imagination, female protagonists, an embracement of the Other, an acknowledgement of rules and a distinct (lovely, wonderful) joy in testing them and breaking them. So, yes, perhaps, perhaps we can say that Rooftoppers is a sequel of sorts to Alice in Wonderlands but then, now that I write this, now that I consider the end of this phillipic, I wonder if maybe this has all been missing the point.

Maybe we don’t need to find sequels for children’s literature. Maybe to talk of texts that supplant each other and divert attention is to belittle this wondrous space of literature, this burning edge of creativity and heart-holding texts. Maybe I’m thinking of literature all wrong. Maybe it’s not a game of textual musical chairs for one book to stand whilst another sits down. Perhaps, maybe, we need to think of texts as points in a circle or stars in the sky. Existing, yes, interacting, yes, but with that, existing as part of a great and thrilling and spine-tingling network of texts that talks and shares ideas and feeds back and forth and does so without hierarchy or value judgement. Maybe it’s time for the canon-less canon.

Maybe it’s time for an anti-canon.

(And, as is traditional on DYESTTAFTSA, here’s a post-epistle Pikachu GIF 🙂 )

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