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“When you can’t speak, you sing, and when you can’t -” : musical theatre, Glee, and Naya Rivera

I never wanted to perform myself. Still don’t. The amount of interest I have in getting up on the stage can be measured in one hand. Musical theatre wasn’t – isn’t – for me. But watching it? I can’t imagine anything better. There’s something so intoxicating about watching people sing and dance their way across the screen to me, whether that’s the impromptu neighbourhood getting down to Shake Your Tail Feather (the dancer at 1:44 gives me life every time), or the iconic finale to Dirty Dancing*, where Baby realises that she can be whatever she wants to be (and the dancer at 3:31, I adore her so much), or the great legend that is Gene Kelly simply being his perfect self (I adore how the kids are actually cracking up all the way through the clip here). In fact, I’m going to pause for a moment there and let you watch the clips in question.

It’s difficult to define what makes these moments work so perfectly, for not everything in the world of musical theatre does. I could insert the whole of Showboat as evidence here, but I’m going to refrain. My point is that it’s difficult to capture perfection. Fred Astaire worked at it, so did Gene. Tales of their perfection are immense. Here’s a clip that took seventy-three takes to get right (!). Look at how Frank watches Gene all the way through it, just a brief – almost imperceptible – second behind him. They’re both amazing here, but Gene is – as ever – transcendent. His athletic, powerful dancing style is intoxicating:

We sing and dance in musicals because there’s no other way to express the feelings that we feel. It requires something more than what we have and so we rise to the occasion, singing and dancing and putting something magical together in order to wholly capture that moment. And it’s difficult to know what makes that moment work. I can snooze through a vast amount of Oklahoma (it’s a beautiful morning, we knooow), but I can’t take my eyes off Seven Brides For Seven Brothers** when it’s on.

When Glee first broadcast in 2009, I devoured it. I remember telling my friend at work about how perfect it was, about the sheer audacity of this show. It was sharp, sarcastic, and then – suddenly – iconic. Here’s Rehab by Amy Winehouse, as performed by the rival Glee club. (Honestly, I didn’t have a clue what a glee club was but I knew it was perfect when I saw this).

Glee fell off the rails fairly swiftly from that promising beginning, but two people in particular kept me watching. Amber Riley*** and Naya Rivera. And just over a week ago, Naya Rivera died.

I have been revisiting Naya’s performances in Glee ever since, emotional over many of them as I remembered and rediscovered the vibrant power and fierce eloquence of this remarkable performer. It is hard to know what makes somebody work on camera, but Naya’s performances worked every time in a way that I could barely understand:

It was when I reached the following clip in my rewatch that some thoughts (and indeed this post) began to crystallise themselves. A moment of context: Santana – Naya’s character – is gay. She has been recently outed to the school.

It’s the little moment at 0.56 that breaks me. “Don’t forget me, I beg.” The way she stands. The way she sings. The way she holds everything, all of it, so very precisely within herself. The way that even though she holds it, we know it’s there. Sadness. Heartache. Power. Don’t forget me, I beg. Remember me. Be aware of who I am.

And as I rewatched that moment, once, twice, a hundred times more, I realised how much that’s influenced me. I want to write stories full of girls who are remembered, who make themselves be remembered because they’re so wonderful that they can’t be forgotten.

There’s a quote from Firefly that is relevant here.

“When you can’t walk, you crawl. When you can’t do that, you find someone to carry you.”

When we can’t express feelings, we look to the world about us to make that happen. To help us communicate. We paint, we sing, we read, we dance. We look to find the expression of ourselves within things, we look for mirrors and reflections, for modes that express the feelings that can’t be expressed any other way. And those things that we find, they help us. They let us live.

That’s what all of these moments do. When we’re watching Gene Kelly, we’re not really watching him. We’re watching a man explore the infinite potential of his self, we’re watching emotions made whole. The same with Patrick Swayze and the way he could suddenly shift from vulnerable to raw, fierce confidence with only a slight change of bearing. When you can’t talk, you sing and you dance and you tell the truth of yourself in doing so.

Naya Rivera was a remarkable performer, and her vivid vulnerability astounds me, even now. She carried us. She gave her truth.


*Technically I know Dirty Dancing isn’t a piece of musical theatre in this incarnation, but I’m having it because of the later adaptation and because this is iconic stuff for girls of a certain generation. Plus that bit where Baby’s mum goes “I think she gets it from me” makes it worthy of inclusion in all lists, ever.

** Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, the most perfect and most offensive musical ever. There’s a whole separate article in that musical (and it would begin with a fifteen thousand panegyric to that incredible Barn Raising scene).

***Treat yourself if you haven’t, and watch Amber Riley here. She is a force of absolute nature:

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Lockdown Libraries

I had the sudden realisation the other day that due to the *gestures vaguely* everything of everything, this is the longest I’ve ever been without going to the library. Eighty-two days. Or, as the internet has helpfully informed me, eighty two days is the equivalent of over 22 % of this entire year.

Libraries matter a lot in my life, and the absence of them has been a strange and tender bruise. When I was looking for somewhere to rent, I would look for somewhere near the library. When I moved somewhere new, I would go and sign up at the library. I have worked in them, I have laughed in them, and I love them because they symbolise so much of what we can be.

This period has seen my approach to reading change, not only because of the absence of library visits but also because of the (forgive me for gesturing vaguely again) everything. The first few weeks saw a frantic tidy up of bookish things, a purposeful addressing of the TBR pile – a pile more ambition than stability – and then I threw things away. A reaction to it all, I suspect, but also one of those long needed jobs. There were certain rules of course (I’m not a monster). Anything that’s a tentative throw and is still in print can be thrown. Anything that I’ve not looked at for a long time and can be replaced can go. The Elsie Oxenhams must be placed in a bag to go and then they must return for they have a peculiar and quite lovely staying power.

I packed up six bags of books. And the books stayed in the bags.

They didn’t come back out again. I didn’t have that moment of doubt. I didn’t tearily smuggle something back upstairs at midnight promising never to leave it ever again (not that I’ve, errr, ever done that). The books stayed in the bag and even though they still haven’t gone (circumstances!), they are going. And I don’t really remember what’s in there, but they’ve already left my little library.

And nothing has yet replaced them. No library books, no secondhand hauls (I am aching to head back into my favourite cobwebby auction rooms let me tell you that), no charity book shop bonanza. Just that light and tender bruise, the space on the table that looks fine but – if you touch it, if you recognise what isn’t there, if you see it – then it hurts.

Eighty-two days. It’s weird, right? The moments where you realise just how strange this process is. The moments where you think – this is embarrassing. I should have more than three books on my account but three is all I have. It means that I’m going to be spending the first weeks of a pandemic with a biography about a Nun, an emotional look at the cultural life of American immigrants, and Elton John’s autobiography.

And inevitably I read them all in minutes and thought – what now? what now?

(Of course in the scale of things, all of this is small. So small. I do not want my library back – or indeed any library – to return to public service until it is safe, feasible and realistic for them to do so. I especially want the needs of library staff made paramount during this process and I recognise that many of you will have been working wonders through this entire period through online services and support and distanced working. I will go another eighty days, another hundred, if it means that library staff remain safe and healthy and able to do their jobs without fear. It also goes without saying that I wish you well if you are a member of library staff, and that you have my utmost support and love and respect at this time.)

A tender and most peculiar bruise this whole thing, but the thing about bruises is this: they heal. And the books shall wait, and the reading shall come back, and I shall comb the secondhand bookshops once more.

This is only how we live now.

And now is not forever.

Two quick updates: this blog shall no longer be covering Harry Potter nor any of the related media. It has been a while since I have covered any and it has never been a particular focus, but this is how things shall lie from this point on. It is also worthwhile reaffirming that I welcome authors from diverse backgrounds and under-represented cultures getting in touch if they think my work – both here and on BookRiot, where I write a weekly newsletter of new children’s book releases and also co-host a fortnightly literary fiction podcast – may be a good fit for their book. I want to know you. Here’s my contact form or you can reach out to me on Twitter. Thank you.

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In the Shadow of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis

In the Shadow of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

[I am very grateful to my friends at Latvian Literature for securing me a review copy of this. As ever, my opinion is my own. I’d not be writing this if it weren’t…]

First published in 1899 and based on a then contemporary newspaper account of several fisherman who were lost at sea after the ice floe they were on broke away, In The Shadow Of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis is pretty much the perfect short story. It is a quick read and yet, in many senses, not; I keep looking at it and wondering just how it does what it does. It’s like one of those pebbles you drop into water, the ripples echo out from it and the landscape is forever changed by its presence. A big book, a little book, a haunting book. A good book, yes.

Blaumanis is new to me and I didn’t know who he was or what to expect of him. And so, if you’re like me, here’s some facts from the edition itself. Blaumanis (1863-1908) is “noted especially for his numerous short stories and plays, and for his command of literary realism”. Later it talks about how “energised by the social issues of the day, he honed a deep sympathy for the lives of ordinary Latvians”. And that’s a really good point to link back to In The Shadow Of Death itself, it’s a story of the everyday person. The people who make the world turn – the people who carry out their jobs because they have to, and who deal with all of the dangers and difficulties that simply living may bring. This is such a tense, unnerving story because it feels so real. So immediate. So brutally matter-of-fact.

Blaumanis writes with an incredible restraint, and reminded me in many ways of Hemingway’s frank directness. There’s also a hint of Virginia Woolf in here, that nuanced, deep eye for style and structure and theme; these are characters that you get to know very briefly but intimately somehow, people made flesh and truth in a moment of a paragraph. It’s so subtle this book and so clever, so small and yet so, so big.

My thanks again to the team at Latvian Literature for hooking me up with a review copy.

View all my reviews

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The Lord Of The Rings film trilogy by Peter Jackson, the art of storytelling, and season eight of Game of Thrones

It’s not a good sign when you watch something and think, quite clearly, of something else that did it better. But that was what happened on my watch of the final season of Game of Thrones, a season that was derided by pretty much every critic I read and person I know as appalling. They were not wrong. This was a season that folded within itself, grossly rewriting characters and forgetting years of slow and rich growth. But you know this, we all know this, and my finally watching these episodes will only serve to confirm how right we all were. Stories cannot be shot in almost total-darkness, characters cannot blink their way across the country, and goodwill can be lost – so, so easily.

It was The Long Night that broke me, an episode that should have been the pinnacle of so, so much and the way that it was not. The way that none of the marquee actors died (although here’s to you hot knight), the way that other characters just went off to the coast for a while on their dragons before popping back to see what was going on, and the way that the Red Witch just became the Red Witch Of Plot Convenience. And as the episode finished, I knew one thing very clearly: I had to rewatch The Lord Of The Rings film trilogy.

And I had to rewatch one very particular part of it.

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Some News

A slightly “more coherent than yesterday” post about my news…. 🙂

Big boots and adventures

My debut children’s book HOW TO BE BRAVE will be out in 2021 in both the UK and US, and I am SO excited to introduce you to this world. Here’s a few tweets on the topic..

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Some news

(I wrote a book).

Book Reviews Everything else

Trials For The Chalet School, an audio review

I’ve been contemplating doing some audio content for a while (I feel like I need to hashtag that liberally but I honestly can’t bear it, so forgive me). The current situation in the world has given me that opportunity and so, here we are with a review of Trials For The Chalet School – a short and somewhat eccentric (play to your strengths, I know) look at some of the most intriguing aspects of this fascinating book. Forgive me my neophyte audio-editing ways, but I hope you enjoy!

Trials for the Chalet School (19:07)

(Music: Xylo-Ziko, used under creative commons).

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Cynthia Voigt, Americana and the texture of literary things

“Dicey looked out over the tall marsh grasses, blowing in the wind. If the wind blew, the grasses had to bend with it.”

I don’t remember the first time I read Cynthia Voigt. I do, however, remember what it was that I read. A book called Homecoming. A title that bore little resonance to my rural childhood, more concerned with ponies than proms, but it stayed with me for years. And it stayed with me in a particular kind of way; I would struggle to tell you much of the plot now other than a brief precis, but I would not struggle to talk to you about the way that book felt. Not how I felt when reading it, but the way that the book felt. Books hold a quality about themselves, a texture within. Some are spikey, some are loving, and some sing of endless blue skies and a country almost too rich and too big to be understood. America. A land I had not visited but could feel within these pages, an introduction to another world.

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About that secret project I've been working on…

Hello! So, over the past few months, I have been working on a small secret project and now I can tell you all about it. Essentially, I got increasingly grumpy and decided to do something about it. Grumpiness is a very good motivational factor! My grumpiness centred about the increasing realisation that the women writers I collected and loved were so often erased from literary histories. Much of this I think comes from out conceptualisation of literary history itself and how it is so driven by patriarchal concerns and the like. You hear a lot about people like Charles Dickens, right, but you very rarely hear about people like Angela Brazil who basically defined the term popular bestseller. E Nesbit only just got the really decent biography she deserves (here’s an affiliate link to the one I mean – it’s really a very good book and I do recommend it). Bessie Marchant was the GA Henty of her day, but there’s like three articles on her in the entirety of Google Scholar and a ton of him. And The Chalet School In Exile is begging for a Netflix adaptation, but I’ll bet you good money that nobody there has ever heard of it.

So! What to do in such circumstances?

You set up a micropublisher, call it Hot Pot Press, and teach yourself how to publish and publish these stories. You teach yourself how to do it (this is no vanity press btw) and you undertake projects for friends and family until you figure it all out.

And when you do, you launch herstory, which is a range of formerly out of print and forgotten children’s classics by female authors – the first of which is Miss Wilmer’s Gang by Bessie Marchant – and you give them a new introduction and a further reading list and all of the added content you can stuff into them on the tiniest and most non-existent of budgets.

You tell people that this is about rewriting wrongs, about bringing these women back into the critical picture, about making them part of the literary world once more. You adopt the mantra that publishing is a feminist act. You realise that this is your academic attitudes made flesh, that research is nothing unless you bring people and stories with you.

You set up options for people to support your publisher by micro-donations or simply following it on Twitter as the world is a lot to handle right now and support is welcome in all and any forms, and when you’ve done all that, that’s when you draft a post all about it on your blog.

And then you press publish.

Miss Wilmer's Gang by [Marchant, Bessie]
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Unexpected Archive Delights : 1920s Children’s Book Adverts

I am constantly surprised by archives. I know that’s an incredibly strange thing to say and one that sounds even stranger when you are supposed to know what you are looking at, but it’s true. I am surprised by archives; the way they give me something that I request that comes with a thousand other delightful things. Much of this is the nature of research itself, that need to pursue one thread of thought whilst ignoring the others that tug at your senses – but sometimes, it’s nice to look at those other things. And so I did and I do, because they tell you everything. They tell you about the texture of that thing you’re looking at. They tell you about the readers, about the writers – everything, really. It’s all clues towards understanding the thing that you’re interested in.

And sometimes, they tell you about the books you have on your shelves, even now.

Here’s some rather lovely adverts for then-new publications from WR Chambers, a firm of publishers based in Scotland. They are a publisher that may be well familiar to a lot of you. These adverts and book reviews come from the Life Of Faith – a weekly religious newspaper that covered ‘spiritual life’. It cost twopence and covered everything somebody involved in religion may wish to know – whether that’s the details of the nearest service, or what books to buy the younger members of their family. There were many other adverts from Chambers but I picked out the ones with the most notable titles and authors.

First up is this lovely advert from November, 1927. I particularly enjoyed the strapline underneath THE SEVEN SCAMPS (did the copywriter give up at this point, we wonder?). I’m also very fond of the title to Josephine Elder’s latest…

A 1927 advert for books from WR Chambers.

Now it’s time for November, 1930, and a slightly longer write up of the new titles (two pictures). The Life of Faith featured books regularly but children’s books only seemed to creep into these end of year round ups. It’s interesting that they did! It tells you a lot about who the reader of the Life Of Faith was – that they had enough disposable income to buy books as (presumably) Christmas gifts, and that they cared about “good, healthy stories”. I think my favourite here is again the rather “I’ve given up and gone home for tea” description of the Chalet School books…

A 1930 editorial for new books from WR Chambers.
A 1930 editorial for new books from WR Chambers.

And now, an advert from 1927. It’s the prices that are the most interesting here I think – look at that distinction between “new books” and “cheap editions”. There’s also a story here in how Eustacia Goes To The Chalet School is listed under the ‘New Books For Boys And Girls’ section.

A 1927 advertisement for new books from WR Chambers.

I was also very much delighted to find connections to another popular girlsown author. Here’s an advert from the Life Of Faith in 1916 and in the top right hand corner is a poem. Have a look at the author. Do you recognise that surname? (It’s Elsie Oxenham’s dad…).

A 1916 advert from The Life Of Fait featuring a poem by John Oxenham.

And now for something completely different. Let’s end with a look at a Bovril advert in 1927, and a marketing department that’s decided “go big or go home”.

A 1927 advert for Bovril reading "DRINK BOVRIL ONCE IT'S IN YOU IT'S SINEW"

(Amazing, right?).

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Merry Christmas!

Thank you for being a part of this blog this year! This is a very good corner of the internet and you are one of the lovely community of readers who makes it so. I am very happy that you’re here.

I wish you a peaceful and happy Christmas, doing what you love best and being with the people who make that happen. And I wish you a particularly peaceful Christmas if this time of the year is difficult for you. Be kind to yourself, you are valued, you are loved.

See you next year x

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Burt Lancaster : a watching and reading guide

I remember the precise moment I understood Burt Lancaster. Or, at least, I remember the precise moment I understood that person he was on screen – the person he wanted to let me see. It was From Here To Eternity (1953) and it wasn’t the scene you might think. Though the film is justifiable notable for a thousand moments, let alone that iconic moment between Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the surf, it was a scene in the bar that got me. The soldiers are on temporary leave, carousing and partying. A simmering tension explodes between two of them in a bar. Warden – Burt Lancaster’s character – breaks it up.

There is a lot of talent in that room. Montgomery Clift. Frank Sinatra. Ernest Borgnine. And then there’s Burt Lancaster who just takes all that star-power and eats it for breakfast. He is a big man at this point, all muscle and height and power, and yet he moves with a lightness that I still can’t quite understand. Look how he places himself in this scene, how he handles himself – how he smashes that bottle only when he has to. This is West Side Story but with soldiers; a ballet of power, force and raw, sudden anger, and Lancaster the passionate, mad, desperate heart of it all.

Image: Nick Cravat and Burt Lancaster perform on the parallel bars. (Library of Congress – public domain)

Burt Lancaster was discovered in an elevator. Anybody who looked like him – a tall, handsome guy – was bound to be an actor, reasoned the producer who rode those few flights with him. He invited Lancaster to an audition, the audition was successful, the rest is history. But every history comes with a story of what happened beforehand, and Lancaster’s story comes from the circus. He was an acrobat and together with his friend, Nick Cravat, formed Lang and Cravat and joined the Kay Brother’s Circus. Although injury formed a halt to his act, Lancaster and Cravat stayed close friends. You can see Cravat as the mute Ojo in The Crimson Pirate – mute, only because Cravat’s broad New York accent would have been somewhat out of place on a pirate ship on the high seas. A fascinating film in many respects – not only in how it gleefully goes past stupid and all the way back to brilliant – The Crimson Pirate sees Lancaster and Cravat leap and swing their way through the rigging, pausing only to break the fourth wall and address the camera directly, or to smile in a devilishly handsome manner at the local ladies.

A bodily actor at the best of times, Lancaster’s movement and grace could shift from elegance to pain and suffering in a heartbeat. Pent up in a small room, or limping down a traintrack, Lancaster could give you a man that’s done with the world and everything in it without a word. But when he does speak, he talks quickly, sharply. He talks in the manner of somebody who knows he’s going to be listened to. Who knows that he should be heard.

“Here’s this great big aggressive guy that looks like a ding-dong athlete playing these big tough guys and he has the soul of—who were those first philosophers of equality?—Socrates, Plato. He was a Greek philosopher with a sense that everybody was equal.” Tony Curtis, qtd. Burt Lancaster : An American Life.

Titanic in every sense, Lancaster had a prolific career that ended more recently than I realised. Forced to retire in 1990 after having a stroke, and passing away in 1994, his final role was in Field of Dreams in 1989. It’s easy to see actors of his ilk as belonging to another generation and so it’s rather strange to see him on the same screen as Kevin Costner. But time is tighter than we realise it to be, and even though he’s older, it’s his voice that makes the scene for me. Lancaster tells a story like it’s the first and last time he’ll ever tell it. There’s a cadence to his work, a rhythm. A song. In a way, he’s balanced on the bars and working the moment, same as he always did. But that’s Burt. That’s what he does.

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Adapting literature for television: (or, why doesn’t The War of The Worlds work for me)

My house has been watching the recent BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds, and we have been disappointed. It is not that the story itself is at fault, for it is not. There isn’t much of HG Wells’ work that is. The problem resides in that notion of adaptation, of taking something that works in one medium and making it fit for another, and how sometimes a text exerts considerable effort against allowing this to happen. I write of a text as though it is a thing, capable of feeling and thought and reason, and in one way it is. “Language is a skin”, says Barthes, “I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” Words seek for connection, for sustenance. Language does not exist in isolation. Neither do texts. They yearn for connection, for completion. For readers, yes, but also for each other.

I’m reaching slowly here towards the notion of intertextuality, that is, to turn to Barthes once more, the “quotation without quotation marks”, the point of connection within one text to another without perhaps either of them ever quite knowing it. Of course, sometimes they do and those connections are made with a sly look towards the camera and a knowing wink, but sometimes those connections are like smoke in the wind. Solid, for a brief moment, seen only by a privileged few, and then gone, changed into something else –

It’s that point where adaptation lies. Do you hold onto what was – the memory of that moment of solidity – or do you yearn back towards the text that was and not the text that shall be? Do you craft something that echoes the memory of itself, or do you try and remake that thing however imperfect or laboured that remaking might be?

I remember being terrified by the War of the Worlds album when I was younger; I remember the precise point

I’m listening to it now, remembering that moment. The way that it’s layered, so thickly with story and sound, the way that it gives space to the action and the way that it gives space to the utter madness of what’s happening. There’s a risk in adapting something in that we want to fill every inch of the silence with something. It’s a risk in anything, teaching for example. I have taught myself to not fill the silences when I teach, to let other people step into that gap and provide the answers that I’m asking for, rather than providing them myself. Rather than filling the silence.

The War of the Worlds is a quick book, pacy in that way that so much of Wells’ work is, but it is a book also full of silence. How can anything concerned with an invasion from another world not have silence? Horror – fear – terror. It’s noise, but it’s also silence. You don’t think when you’re scared but then, once you realise what you’re scared about, that’s the point where it becomes horrific. That’s the point of realisation. That’s Thunder Child disappearing and the knowledge that there’s nothing else out there that can save you. That’s knowing that the Earth belongs to the Martians.

That’s silence.

The War of the Worlds BBC

And I think that’s where the BBC series struggles. It is an adaptation concerned with filling the gaps, with giving you big set pieces that are undoubtedly well done, but there is nothing in between but circumstance. Characters are parted, characters reunite, and roofs fall in conveniently specific manners to kill off secondary characters. A scene is reminiscent of Dunkirk; a character says ‘we’re sailing to Dunkirk’; an echo becomes a bludgeon, the quotation becomes no longer silent but bold, underlined and framed on the wall for all to see. This is not a book that should be seeking for such moments, it is the book that made the echo happen.

We shall prevail with this adaptation and watch the rest of it, out of morbid curiosity I suspect rather than anything else, but I do not think that it will be good.

(His Dark Materials, however, is rather transcendent.).

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Things are going to be changing a little bit at Did You Ever Stop To Think towers

Hello! I’ve been thinking about this for a while and circumstances (more of which in later posts) have helped me come to a bit of a decision. Things are going to be changing a little bit at Did You Ever Stop To Think and I wanted you to know the rationale behind that. The first thing to say is that I am not quitting. I love this blog! I love writing it and I love talking to you. I have met many of the people I have come to know online and you are all great. This is a good corner of the internet full of good people, and I like that it exists.

What will be changing is this: Did You Ever Stop To Think will no longer be covering just children’s books. You might have noticed a few new titles sneak into the reviews over the last few weeks and they have been tests, of a sort, to see how I can figure it out. To see how they fit. To see what I want the next version of this blog to be.

I started writing this blog a fair few years ago now, and it’s right that every now and then I consider who and what I want it to be. I have evolved since I began and so have you and so has the world and so has literature. I’ve been wondering how to best capture that – and how to best capture the things that are saying increasingly important and relevant things.

There are also some other things happening for me personally which I shall share with you when I can – exciting things! – but they are not necessarily things which fall under the neat umbrella of children’s books. But they are things that I think will interest you and I’d like to share them with you when I can.

And so because of all of that this blog is going to broaden. Children’s literature – good, brilliant, brave and bold children’s books – will continue to form a key part of what I talk about here. I will never let that go. But alongside that, I’ll also be writing about literary fiction, feminist texts, educational classics (my entire PhD realigned after reading The Tidy House by Carolyn Steedman for example), comics from small and indie presses, books about being a woman, books about being a girl, books about writing, theoretical classics, people doing exciting research and anything else that falls into these categories.

There are so many literary things that I’m interested in and want to talk to you about. I hope you’ll come along with me for the ride. x

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Book Fair 101: everything you needed to know about book fairs

I came up with the title of my autobiography over the weekend. Inspiration struck just after I’d picked up a lovely copy of one of the Moomin annuals, displayed face out on a bookstall at York Book Fair. It was priced at £750. My autobiography is, perhaps unsurprisingly, going to be called: Books I have touched but could not afford. Here’s a sneak peek at the cover.

A cartoon depiction of the Jealous Girlfriend meme in pen and ink against a yellow background; in the foreground, a girl in a red dress captioned "all the beautiful books"; in the background, a boyfriend captioned "me" turns to stare, whilst his girlfriend captioned "bank balance" looks on jealously.
“all the beautiful books, me and my bank balance”

It’s a hazard of attending a book fair, and one that I should be accustomed to by now. I am interested in children’s books and they do not come at children’s prices. Not when you’re at the business end; my strength is in jumble sales and Unexpected Places. I sell books on Ebay when I have things to sell, and the thought of a stand at one of these fairs is a distant and somewhat heady dream. It’s a dream that lives somewhere next to my adorable book cafe that has gingham table-cloths, sunflowers in vases, and a menu full of literary puns.

So how does one book fair under these circumstances? I attended my first book fair when I was a teenager, and have been fairly regular at fairs across the country ever since. I do get still somewhat intimidated by them however and for a long while, I wasn’t even sure if I was allowed to touch the books or pick them up off the shelf. It’s the little things like this – and not just related to book fairs – that I think the literary industry (and libraries!) could do with thinking about more. Once you’ve learned the rules about something, it’s easy to forget that period before where you were still figuring it out. I tweeted this over the weekend, and it’s something I’m actually rather serious about:

Can you imagine if it a book fair had a book buddy? Somebody who said – look, what are you into, great – here’s the stalls you should look at and here are the people you should meet? And what if you could get a buddy for author signings? Somebody who said – I know it’s your first time, look, this is what you have to do, it’s going to be great, I’m here for any questions, have a lovely time.

That’s great, but how do I find out about book fairs in the first place?

I’m glad you asked, mythical internet person! You can look at this list from the PBFA – Provincial Booksellers Fair Association – which covers upcoming book fairs in the UK. There’s also a nice list here of book fairs from Inprint, who make the important point that book fairs can be anything from tiny to several floors and 200+ sellers. If you’re starting out, I’d suggest you look at one of the smaller and more regional ones first and use this as a chance to educate yourself as to prices, presentation and those books that are beautiful but might require your firstborn in payment.

Prices, though? How’s that work?

You are on fire with the good questions today! Prices for books are generally written on the inside cover, or one of the first few pages, in pencil. There’s no sticky labels here because they are the devils work when it comes to book collecting. You’re looking for that little number on the inside, and if it’s not there then ask. Terrifying, right? Obviously. But even if you are screaming inside, all you have to do is say “Thank you” and pull a thoughtful face when you put it back on the shelf. If it helps, you can method act this and pretend that you’re a rich person with millions to spend – but not on that book you’ve just had to put back, so sad! but this is my rich millionaire life!

Not that I’ve, uh, done that.

A cartoon of somebody laying on a couch. Above them, a speech bubble says "What, actually, is the problem?" and the person on the couch replies "I picked up a moomin book and it was £750 and three days later, I'm still not over it."
Four days now, but who’s counting.

Okay, I think I’m getting it. But – can I actually touch books at a book fair?

Yes! Of course! But you do have to do it nicely. York, for example, is a massive book fair, featuring people from across the world, and being able to see their books and handle them is a gift. Book collecting is about that moment of connection with the object. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll know it when you get it. And you can’t get it if you don’t pick up the book and look at it.

There are rules for touching books and some books are substantially more fragile than others so ask if you’re unsure; caution here is a good thing. As a rule though if they’re on an open shelf with others, then you can handle. Cradle it – support the spine – don’t even think about having any food or drink near it. In fact, you shouldn’t take food or drink inside the fair at all. It’s just easier that way. Make sure your hands are clean and dry as well and be gentle. These are old, delicate things. Treat them with the respect they deserve.

Okay. Last question. How do I know what to collect in the first place?

Go read an article I wrote for Book Riot on “How to become a rare book collector“. And then come back. Have a think about what you love and your budget and what’s going to be there that might never be there again. There will always be Chalet School hardbacks in the world, for example, as there’s a healthy collecting culture about them. There are other books though that you don’t see much of – whether it’s for cultural, practical or mystical reasons. I’ve only ever seen one fabulous Barbie hardback from the 60s (and it’s one that I still regret not picking up). But you’ll figure this out, the more you read and the more fairs you attend. In fact, as an eminent doctor once said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

I look forward to seeing you at a fair!

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Malory Towers, Wise Children, and adapting Enid Blyton

“It’s quite the thing,” said my father to somebody on the phone, “There’s an attempted drowning.”

He was talking about Malory Towers by Wise Children, a play I’d taken my parents to see earlier in the week. The appendix incident doesn’t actually appear; problematic as it is to keep painting your heroine as some sort of violent warrior princess type, but other incidents of this sort do. One, not carried out by Darrell, is invented for the stage and remarkable in its blunt ferocity. It was, as I realised later, a particularly Blytonian thing to do.

First Term At Malory Towers by Enid Blyton cover
“the one with the attempted drowning”

The thing about adaptation is that you adapt. It’s a tautological sentiment I know, but it’s one that I keep coming back to. Emma Rice takes much of her action from First Term At Malory Towers (1946) but embraces incidents from across the series and characters who arrive much later in the books arrive within minutes. But there is only an hour and forty minutes to play with, plus a quite delightful interval; only so much can happen and Rice’s intent is clear. This is a story not of singular female strength but collective. Girl power. Family. Sisters. Support. It’s an interesting angle to take in a series that is so moralistic and convinced of its own righteousness that sometimes it forgets quite what that righteousness is. I think here, in particular, of Amanda Chartelow – a character who drove the vast amount of the Malory Towers themed article I just sent off to a journal. She is celebrated and censured in equal manner, an early rebel-girl in a world where rebellion was not easily nor comfortably allowed.

The Wise Children production is remarkable in many senses not only in the fact that it exists and that it allows these moments of independence, but also in how it speaks to an intensely wide audience. The liberties that Rice takes with the source texts, the elasticity she finds in it and exploits is well deserved and well used. Certain characters are provided with a roundness that Blyton was not able to find at the time, and certain characters are given a softness, a truth, that Blyton perhaps could not see. But then again, perhaps this is the privilege of hindsight and the liberty of being where we are in the world as women, third, fourth, post-feminist wave riders that we are.

The girls are all new to the school in the play, save one, and there’s a moment of pure delight when those familiar uniforms appear on stage. It’s confidently done – there’s a little moment of stage-craft right at the beginning of the play that was pure brilliance – and the actors eat the roles up. Francesca Mills who played ‘sensible, stolid’ Sally Hope was a particular delight, managing to bring the righteousness of Sally to the fore whilst always, subtly, managing to play with that. Sally is a little bit, how to say, dull in the books. Here she’s the exact opposite and yet, somehow, intensely true to life.

Truth, again, is something I keep coming back to. For Kierkegaard, subjectivity was truth and I think it’s a relevant thing to remember at this point. Enid Blyton is a fought-over author and ‘true’ readings of her work are difficult to find, subsumed as they in the discourse about her. Many of these fights are legitimate, earned, valuable things and I do not discount the necessity of them nor do I discount the relevance of them. I think it’s a privilege to live in a time where we have the ability to both have and vocalise those discussions and they are important discussions to have. I also think it’s important to question why many of those discussions happen solely about Enid Blyton and to, perhaps wonder, if some of that centring is because she is a woman writing children’s fiction. To paraphrase Taylor Swift’s The Man: were she a man, then she’d be the man.

(Kierkegaard, Taylor Swift and Enid Blyton! What a Friday!).

Malory Towers is on tour until 5th October 2019, and here’s the remaining tour dates.

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Dancer In The Wings by Lorna Hill

Dancer In The Wings by Lorna Hill front cover

Dancer In The Wings by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The more I read of the authors I read, the more I become convinced that there is a fine line between ridiculous and genius. So close and yet sometimes, so very much one or the other. It is the problem, I think, of being so squarely located within a series and world that you, as the author, have created, and being unable to find your way out of it. The Drina books suffered from this towards the end, I think, because it was too far in. So did Harry Potter if I’m being frank; I ached for it to be edited so much more towards the end of the series, and yet there they were. Behemoths, character-locked, mythology wrapped islands. Maybe it’s a problem of series fiction, and not one of genre at all. Maybe that’s what series do: leave you wrapped up in a problem of your own making and you’re just left trying to find the way out.

And so to Lorna Hill, and this delightful yet inherently ridiculous affair. Annette Dancy (“dancey by name and dancey by nature” reader, I die) needs to get to Scotland. She has no money but a great idea. Inevitably, none of that matters because everything works out! As you always knew it would! This isn’t a spoiler! You knew it from the moment you read it!

There’s something comforting about Lorna Hill and I do love her, but this is essentially ‘dancer on a boat and then dancer in Scotland’ and she’s done it better elsewhere. Much better. Dancer In The Wings just feels comfortable; a book span out of air, easy as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West. And even in that comfortable ridiculousness, there are moments when it’s still perfect, albeit briefly, so very briefly, because Hill does write a bloody good dance scene. You root for Annette, even though she’s an idiot, and you root for dancing on a ship, even though it’s ridiculous, because Hill makes it work. It’s comfortable, comforting stuff, and sometimes that’s what’s needed. It’s not the highest of literature, nor will it last with you very long after it happens, but for a moment? It’s ideal.

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A book club for adults who read children’s books in York

[Update 2nd July: The group is now at maximum – so I won’t be accepting any more applications for now. I’ll leave this post up however and update it should things change. Thanks for your interest :)]

Hello! This is a very quick and quiet post to say that I am thinking of setting up a book club for adults who read children’s books. The very vague idea would be to read a book a month and talk about it somewhere nice in York. I know that childcare’s often problematic for people so I have no problems whatsoever with pushchairs and sproglets coming along as well. If you, or anybody you know would be interested, let me know! You can comment here or get in touch via the form here.

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The Oberammagau Passion Play and the Chalet School

It’s no secret that we support the works of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer on this blog (and if it is, then welcome! stay! let us talk about romantic omelettes and improbable speedboat shenanigans!), and the Chalet School books in particular. One of the earlier titles in this sprawling series, The Chalet School And Jo, is of interest to us today. It sees the girls attend the Passion Play at Oberammagau – a ‘once every decade’ piece of theatre that retells the story of the Passion.

I was reminded of this book this week. I was finishing off a research job at the British Library (hire me! I’m very good!) and as is the way when you’re a big nerd, taking some time afterwards to look through the material on my own behalf. The paper was The Wearside Catholic News (1910) and it was fascinating – though I have to admit, the photos of Archduke Franz Ferdinand were quite startling. But that’s research; sometimes you see people before they become history.

I found some rather brilliant reports of the Oberammagau Passion Play and thought instantly of The Chalet School and Jo. I was particularly enamoured to find mention of some of the characters that Brent-Dyer herself references. Here they are. The Wearside Catholic News was a weekly paper and these are all from July 1910. I hope the photographs are legible!

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The Naughtiest Girl by Enid Blyton

The Naughtiest Girl In The School by Enid Blyton front cover

The Naughtiest Girl books then, eh? Let’s talk about them and what riots of weirdness they are. I’ve been rereading them for an article and I have thoughts noodling around in my brain about them.

Blyton’s fascinating like that. She makes me noodle (is that a verb? Let’s make it one if it isn’t.). I’ve written a lot about her before because she is worth writing about in that endless ‘wow, the canon really is constructed by white men who know very little about anything other than the books white men like’. And as somebody who has one foot in academia, and finds much of the research about Blyton to vastly miss the mark, I think it’s worth writing about her from that angle. Enid Blyton, enigma. Everything to everybody and yet never quite herself.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? An author so well known – so intimately and globally and comprehensively – and yet, none of us quite grasp her at all. I don’t think I do. I don’t think I ever will however much I try. She’d quite like that, I suspect, and I rather like that thought. Complicated people are interesting. Complicated authors, in particular, moreso. They give so much of themselves into their work and yet, when it comes down to it, we don’t know them at all.

I’m scattered. There’s so much I want to say, and I’m not quite figuring out how to find the meaning in it.

Perhaps we turn to Elizabeth and her father and the way he does not ever talk to her. That’s interesting. Fiercely, utterly sad too. Elizabeth worries about her mum, talks to her mum, and yet she does not talk to her dad. Not one bit. And Blyton did not lack for strong male characters in her work (perhaps too strong, whispers a voice in the back of my head, a voice with meaning and relevance). Something changed here; something that the ‘works’ are unafraid to collect and record. This is women’s work, this book, messy and complex and occasionally deeply scarring.

I speak here of the estrangement between Joan and her mother, a key subplot of the first book. The Naughtiest Girl makes friends with Joan, circumstances spiral out of control – inevitably, always – and the truth comes out. Joan had a twin brother who lived while Joan did not. Her mother has held a resentment to her ever since. And Joan deals with all of this pretty well considering the lifetime of neglect she’s had. Child abuse, plainly. Let us be plain; this is a subplot of abuse and everyone just.



But that’s Blyton, I think. The dark things happen, the world splits, and she keeps writing. The words hold her together when the world would not, could not, did not even know how. There’s a safety to be found in these books, even if they do touch on some disturbing issues. The children are free, they are fine, they are safe. Children drown, they come back to life. Children are smacked with tennis rackets but are pretty cool with it all. (How do you know you are in an Enid Blyton school story? Somebody lamps somebody else…). The story must go on. The story never stops.

And maybe that’s it; maybe that’s why she keeps being read.

Maybe we never stopped.

(Like I said, I have thoughts. )

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Warrior women and children’s books

A couple of years ago, I attended a conference. As is usual, there was a bookshop there. As is perhaps less usual, there was a remarkable author there. She was – is – elderly. Tiny. Legendary.

She arrived at lunch; word ran around the tables that she was here, that she had arrived. Arrived. I keep repeating that word, but that’s the crux of the thing: she arrived. She Arrived, She arrived, she arrived; she was real.

It’s a curious thing for the bookish to comprehend; those beloved stories that speak to your soul come from somewhere specific. Somebody. Somebody who exists, who breathes, who is.

I was delivering a paper after lunch. Conscious of my need to to have a moment by myself in the bathroom beforehand (oh imposter syndrome, I have learnt the tricks to handle you), I made my excuses early. Left my lunch and went back to the bookshop. Crept into the room, and saw this tiny, brilliant, wonderful writer.

I loved her a little bit then. I loved her so much for what she had given me, for what she had written, for being. There was nobody else there but her and me, stood awkwardly in the doorway, peering round the corner. She had her back to me. The sunlight was beaming through the windows. The room was utterly, perfectly, still.

And she was there, this author, she was there.

I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot recently. The death of Judith Kerr reminded me of it; the way that there is a generation of precisely brilliant writers of children’s books, writers who speak to a world that they maybe don’t even realise. Writers that have given hope to a thousand, thousand readers. Writers that have sang out in the darkness, refusing to be quelled.

It’s humanity, I guess, that connection. Story. The thing that bring us together, the thing that binds us. The thing that makes us find a sense of unity in a world so desperate to embrace division. The thing that make us us. It is, I suppose, the reason why the ‘book’ itself survives; it’s made. It’s human. It’s crafted, touchable, holdable. It’s a connection with somebody; it’s hands holding on and believing in something other. Something better.

Children’s literature; oh, that ephemeral thing. Crafted by tiny, bird-like women with warrior pens, and hearts that do more than sing –

they shout.

We can Do it! poster
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Thank you Judith Kerr

Judith Kerr has passed away, and I am a little bit verklempt, so this shall be brief.

We celebrate good books here, good stories told by good people, and Kerr was one of the best. She will always be so.

This is a candle into the night and it is for her. I light it for her, now.

Thank you Judith Kerr.

The cover of My Henry by Judith Kerr
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A Space To Be Herself : Locating Girlhood In Children’s Literature

Forgive the dual posting, particularly if you subscribe to both these blogs, but I wanted to draw this to as wide an audience as possible. I promise this sort of reblog shall be a rare and intermittent thing x

Big boots and adventures

If I believe in anything, I believe in making my research publicly accessible when and where I can. Obviously I believe in a lot of things, but I think that’s the one that underpins everything. Share your work. It’s terrifying, but I think, vital.

So, on that note, here’s a brief note to say that my MPhil thesis is officially on public view from today. It’s called A Space To Be Herself : Locating Girlhood In Children’s Literature and is available to download here. In it, I write about Angela Brazil, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Michelle Magorian, Enid Blyton, Robin Stevens, and David Almond. Here’s the abstract.

This thesis argues that the representation of both the ‘girl’ and ‘girlhood’ within children’s literature can be best understood through a reading of space and place. The opening chapter considers the Golden Age of children’s literature, and investigates The Secret Garden by Frances…

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Revisiting The Bunker Diary; or, the state of Children’s and Young Adult literature today

I’ve recently been revisiting The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. Much of the prompt for this comes from a class I’ll be teaching in a couple of weeks about writing young adult fiction, though I admit a part of me was interested to see how it felt reading this complex, challenging book from a fresh perspective. When I first read it, I didn’t quite know how I felt about it; but I knew it had made me think. 

In the time between that review and this, I moved back into academia and my thoughts have become increasingly concerned with two distinct things: that is to say the representation of the female body, and the representation of power in children’s and young adult literature. I tend to lean towards the younger end of the market, in my reading, theory and creative work, and have recently had a project accepted to look at the representation of the preadolescent female body in children’s literature (but more of that anon). For now, it’s worthwhile wedding that idea of ‘power’ and ‘body’ with The Bunker Diary as I think there’s something interesting there – and something that reflects on the state of play in children’s and young adult literature today.

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Charlie Changes Into A Chicken by Sam Copeland

Charlie Changes Into a Chicken

Charlie Changes Into a Chicken by Sam Copeland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s something rather appealing about a book that displays its intent so clearly. Charlie Changes Into A Chicken gives you everything from page one, and continues to do that on every page that follows. It’s determinedly readable (seriously the drive behind this is almost palpable), full of direct address to the reader and some very funny moments. Charlie McGuffin (the layers of meaning in THAT surname…) has developed a curious talent. At times of great personal stress, he turns into an animal – and for somebody who has a beloved brother in hospital, panicking parents, and a school bully on his tail, that’s a lot to deal with.

The first of a series, and Copeland’s debut, Charlie Changes Into A Chicken is, as I say, a determined book. I like that sort of a feel to something; this wants to be read, and doesn’t want to let its readers go without a fight. Copeland embraces every technique at his disposal to keep his readers, and it’s very nicely done. Confidently, too, and that’s something that says a lot about Copeland’s knowledge and belief in his fictional creation. It’s also very funny.

Paired with Sarah Horne’s fiercely dynamic illustration, it’s a potent mix. Horne has a lovely sense of movement and dynamism to her lines; there’s not one instance of her artwork that doesn’t push right to the edge of the page.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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You’re Not A Proper Pirate, Sidney Green! by Ruth Quayle and Deborah Allwright

You're Not a Proper Pirate, Sidney Green!

You’re Not a Proper Pirate, Sidney Green! by Ruth Quayle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’re Not A Proper Pirate, Sidney Green! is a lot of fun. I can’t imagine things not looking up after a read of this. It really is genuine, exuberant, ‘drop it all at once and have an adventure’ fun. Written by Ruth Quayle, and illustrated by Deborah Allwright, it tells the story of Sidney Green and his dog Jemima who go on adventures – but, according to Captain Shipshape and his pirate crew, Sidney and Jemima should be more concerned with being a Proper Pirate. Right now!

I always think it’s a good sign if a picture book embraces rhythm. It’s so important to understand that these books are not about being just seen – they’re about being heard. You’re Not A Proper Pirate has some delightful refrains, but also some lovely use of repetition. It’s about using all the tricks of your trade to build readers and Quayle works her story to the max to do this. It’s great. It’s also a visual treat. Some of the spreads are busy, but there’s a nice internal logic to them. You can find and work out what’s happening, and much of the credit for that must go to Allwright. She handles a spread well, and the scenes where they go to space are lovely. (Pirates in space, yep). Finally, it’s worthwhile mentioning that – as ever with Nosy Crow – You’re Not A Proper Pirate depicts a wide range of skin colours and genders. This quiet representation is something Nosy Crow books really do excel at.

I do grant that there’s a leap to be made about accepting the presence of a pirate in your local neighbourhood, let alone one who’s concerned for the pirate education of the local youth, but make the leap. Come on. It’s better if you do. This isn’t about pirates at all; it’s rather about finding adventure and imagination in the everyday – and giving yourself permission to be part of that. It’s a great lesson to learn. It’s also a pretty damn great one for adults to be reminded of as well.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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2019 Nature Month-By-Month: A Children’s Almanac

National Trust: 2019 Nature Month-By-Month: A Children's Almanac

National Trust: 2019 Nature Month-By-Month: A Children’s Almanac by Anna Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s the little details about this book that make me happy. The idea of a month-by-month review of the year is no new one within the world of children’s publishing. I recently have been spending several very happy hours with similar titles from the fifties, that show children how to press flowers and make pinhole cameras, and a more modern version of these books is a great and lovely thing. And as ever with Nosy Crow, it’s produced with an absolute finesse that makes the book nerd inside me very satisfied. The book has rounded edges (perfect for stuffing in a rucksack and not getting damaged), and a little ribbon (and books with ribbon are always welcome in the world), and it’s sturdily and robustly put together. This is a book that wants to be used, and should be.

Published in collaboration with The National Trust, this almanac wears its affiliation lightly. It’s not asking children to visit their nearest stately home which was something I wondered about (it’s always a worry in content of this nature). Rather the book works towards a different goal where children of all ethnicities, genders and background work to enjoy the wild world. The artwork is lovely; round and rich and stylised, and full of fun. This is the work of Elly Jahnz who’s done something very beautiful here. It’s hard to make, say, a seashell collectors guide a particularly dynamic spread, but she manages to do so. Working alongside Anna Wilson who wrote this, the two of them produce something kind of delightful. And nice. More books should be nice and talk about everything from making April Fool to how to go wild swimming.

I’m reviewing this towards the end of January for a deliberate reason. It’s about this time that the post-Christmas blues hit in. Everyone’s back at school, back at work, and the weather isn’t perhaps the best. Perhaps it’s even snowing a little bit (she says, with a look at the camera and a gesture outside her window). Books like this offer a way to navigate those blues and to pull the outside in, and to do so as a family. They deserve a spotlight of their very own.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Skylarks War by Hilary McKay

The Skylarks' War

The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Endlessly beautiful, in that way that only Hilary McKay can be, The Skylarks War is perfect. I thought it might be on page ninety-seven, and then when I finished it and let out a great gasping sob at that ending, I knew it was. This is rich, wild and lovely storytelling, and reading it is like reading something you have known your entire life. I wonder sometimes at how McKay can do this, and then I realise that I don’t need to wonder. I simply need to be glad that she can, and does, and that books like this are in the world.

It’s a big book as well, this, it doesn’t shy away from some hard and precise horrors in the world whether they are familial, and of individuals who do not know how to love their children or indeed, whether they can, or bigger, made of people fighting and dying in landscapes far away from home. This is World War One, and McKay does not shy away from its great and dark horrors. Some of her writing here is some of her best, I think, encompassing a curious mixture of numbness and truth and sadness and fear and honesty that makes the pages feel almost like a primary source. That they’re written from that time, from that space, from that darkness.

I am concious that I’ve not told you much about the book itself, and in a way I’m not sorry. I want you to feel the texture of it, that great depth that gives you so much in a single sentence, and does so in a way that only McKay can do. This is deep storying, and it is done in such an unafraid and simple and matter-of-fact way that makes it something else. It is a coming of age story. It is a story of family. It is a story about growing up and figuring out who you are in the world. It is a story about figuring out what the world will let you be.

But most of all, I think this is a story about love. Love for family, love for friends, love for each other, and a love of those summers where nothing is impossible. Love that brings pain and love that brings strength, love that brings hope and understanding and heartbreak and joy. Love that is love and love that is given freely, hopefully, tenderly, painfully. Love, love, love. Always love.

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Harriet Takes The Field by Catherine Christian

Harriet Takes The Field

Harriet Takes The Field by Catherine Christian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this, even though I knew nothing about Catherine Christian before I saw it. Turns out she was a prolific author with credits spanning over fifty years and topics as diverse as Arthuriana, Guides, and Egyptian history, and that’s an achievement in itself. I’m ashamed I’d never heard of her before, but better late than never.

The Harriet of Harriet Takes The Field is Lady North and for some reason or another, she’s been lumbered with some ungrateful Guides. Inevitably she manages to turn things around, and they soon worship her in a rather Angela Brazil-esque fashion. Yet Christian manages to shy away from simplistic narratives of hero worship, and instead delivers something complex, deeply political and rather radical. It’s not often you have people discussing how women give birth in a 1940s children’s book for example. Of course the detail is skirted around, but the discussion is present. It’s such a radical, bold move.

These moments of radicalism persist throughout the book. As the war progresses about them, Harriet and her girls become increasingly present participants in a narrative of war and strife. Though much of it remains distant, Harriet herself suffers from the stress and is called up. Again, a lot of this happens off screen, but the effect of it is very much within the text. She’s moved to tears by a child confessing that he wasn’t alive during the last war; she talks to the girls about how to find security within themselves when all is lost, and the suffering of those in mainland Europe is foregrounded to a heartbreaking extent. England must survive, and everyone must do their part.

Much of this is directed towards the reader, and some of it has dated. That’s a caveat you must always apply to books of this nature, but equally you have to recognise those moments when it does something rather brilliant and rather utterly wonderful. There’s a lot of Harriet Takes The Field that slightly misses the moment, but every now and then it gets it. It really, really does. Take the below quote where Harriet muses on the teenagers that she knows:

“They’ve been fine,” she thought, “Fine, all of them. It isn’t for my generation to be proud of them. We’ve thrown our dice and lost. We had twenty years to build a wall against the floods, and we failed. Now these youngsters are fighting knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder with us to save what can be saved. It isn’t for us to condescend to our peers.”

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Merry Christmas!

It’s been a pleasure talking books with you this year. Let’s do it all over again in 2019?

A dog wearing a Santa suit
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A look at Young England (1914-1915)

My speciality is Girl’s Own, but sometimes my interest gets caught by those publications intended squarely for boyish readers. Such it was with Young England, a compiled annual of a ‘story paper’ for boys. I picked up copies of the 1914-1915 and the 1909-1910 editions for an absolute song, intrigued by the size of the volumes and their other-worldliness. These aren’t small things, nor are they subtle. Each is very much orientated towards the boys of the Empire, and ensuring their place in the greater scheme of things. And for somebody who’s fascinated by historical children’s literature, and the way that it can reveal everything about the world, these books are an absolute gift.

There’s an interesting breakdown of the 1914-1915 edition of Young England here [link removed 1/9/2019 as no longer valid], with details of the relevant stories in the volume and also a good luck at the images. I want to offer a slightly different review, focusing instead on the tone of the annual and some of the key themes that come across in it. I also want you to imagine yourself as a ten or eleven year old child reading this. Some of the content is rather remarkable, and Young England certainly makes no bones about the fact that it it sees it as noble to fight a war and noble to give yourself for your country. It’s a difficult read at points, preparing as it is a whole generation for military service and sacrifice, and some of the passages are almost incomprehensible.

This is one such passage. It’s from A Good Samaritan on the Battlefield by Margaret Watson, and it made me stop in my tracks. As with many of the ‘real life’ contributions in this volume, it borders on the edge between truth and propaganda. This definitely steps over towards propaganda, telling the story of a young private named John Smith and how he was looked after by ‘Johannes Schmidt’ when injured. The German keeps John and his colleagues alive, feeding and watering him, until he’s forced to retreat and abandon his wards. Upon subsequent rescue by their own side, the Englishmen pay tribute and thanks to Johannes. I got a little lost in the nature of the tribute itself, as it involves something to do with a cairn and rocks, and I couldn’t work out whether these were metaphorical rocks, actual rocks or indeed some weird ‘I say this but actually mean something quite different’ tic of language back then. I kept coming back to this passage however and wondering over it. Worrying too, I guess, sensing at something beyond the words that I couldn’t ever hope to grasp and trying to figure out the impact of that. As a reader. And as a writer.

I tried to find out something more about Margaret Watson, but she’s not an easy one to find. I wondered if these odd little fables, these morality plays of great and deep import, were all she’d written or if she’d ever looked at doing something else. And, I suppose, I wanted to know how she’d felt being part of this collection that urges young boys so gleefully to a war and to a noble, awful death.

It’s wrong to throw all of this at Margaret’s feet, because she’s one voice out of a hundred here. Young England is dominated by these voices which want players in this great narrative of the Empire and of Plucky Britain Doing What’s Right And What’s Honourable. Many of the stories here involve protracted negotiations of honour, redemption, and I was particularly struck by one serial which sees a young family redeem their father who’s been set up by his business colleagues. There’s another which sees the boys of a nondescript public school sacrifice themselves (metaphorically) so that the other man may benefit from their action. It’s not hard to see the attitude here about the war being a Great Adventure – but it’s also not hard to see why a whole generation of boys believed that.

The war underpins nearly everything in this book. Take a look at this game suggested for the boys to learn. It’s called BUCKET DRILL and it involves being able to throw a bucket of water on anything. Not just throw – actually hit that thing with force. As fires are “in these days” inevitable things, the boys can then help to put out a fire if needs be. They can do their part. (They can also do it by throwing water at a “stodgy, good-tempered boy”, and win points “every time you knock the wind out of him or bowl him right over”, which is a remarkable sentence if ever I saw one). BUCKET DRILL is the subtext becoming text. It’s the palpable fear of invasion being made flesh, and the fact that war is coming to their doorstep. Not if – but when. It’s important to recognise that this was a worldwide publication – as evidenced by stories featuring New Zealand, Canada and China – and so many of the children reading this magazine, and indeed the young adults it suggests that you send it onto – were probably already caught up in the war at some level.

I suspect that hindsight and a fairly liberalistic attitude makes me uncomfortable with what this volume says more than anything. There’s a question to be asked of whether it was actually kind of doing something great. I believe intensely that children need to learn of the darkness of the world in a safe space and in a controlled way. One of my favourite books of all time shows girls a way to fight against the horrors of Nazism and a world determined to eat itself. Why should it be any different for boys?

I’m not familiar enough with the boys juvenilia of this period to answer such a question so I’ll leave that hanging. Suffice to say, this is a powerful volume with some rather moving qualities and should you come across a copy, I’d highly recommend you picking it up. Young England is like a little time capsule of who we were, and what we wanted our children to be. And honestly, it’s rather remarkable.

Reading Young England also reminded me of something I’d read a while back. It took me a moment to dig out the connection, but here it is. Back when he was eleven, George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) wrote a poem called “Awake! Young Men of England” and had it published in his local newspaper:

 OH! give me the strength of the Lion,
The wisdom of Reynard the Fox
And then I’ll hurl troops at the Germans
And give them the hardest of knocks.

Oh! think of the War Lord’s mailed fist,
That is striking at England today:
And think of the lives that our soldiers
Are fearlessly throwing away.

Awake! Oh you young men of England,
For if, when your Country’s in need,
You do not enlist by the thousand,
You truly are cowards indeed.

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Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright

Return to Gone-Away (Gone-Away Lake, #2)

Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s always a little difficult coming to a series ‘second book in as it were’ as you do tend to miss a lot of what’s gone on. It took me a while to figure out who was who, and what was what, and then I simply gave up and enjoyed the wild richness of Enright’s writing. This is a summer like no other, as all the best children’s books are, and full of some absolutely beautiful moments. I have to say I struggled with some of this as it’s not the quickest, nor most ‘open’ of books, but it is rather utterly beautifully done. Enright is a Newbery award winner (indeed, for the prequel Gone-Away Lake), and this book is full of rich quality in every word.

It’s rather interesting to parallel Return To Gone-Away with an author much more familiar to me, somebody like Philippa Pearce and Minnow On The Say for example. Both books have this rather thick, lovely quality of heat about them, and share a distinctly child-orientated eye. And maybe that’s it, that’s the mark of a good book wherever it may be found or whenever it appears in the series, that concern for the childish perspective and making that way of seeing be seen. Maybe there’s more to it, this ability to make your writing actually be felt … I don’t know. I suspect I’m wandering a little here, so I’m going to move on. Suffice to say, language is rather an amazing thing isn’t it?

Anyway! It was the artwork that caught my eye. I found this in a second hand bookshop that tends to have some super interesting stuff in, and I was entranced. I managed to pick up a UK Children’s Book Club edition (published by Heinemann in 1963, and for sale at 12s. 6d). It’s illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush and my goodness, they know how to handle a line. Every page is full of interest, life and movement. It’s rather fabulous. You can see some samples of their work here.

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“Rosa” – Doctor Who, and Malorie Blackman

I’m still shaking after last night’s Doctor Who episode. Written by the illustrious Malorie Blackman, a legend in the world of children’s and young adult literature – and former Children’s Laureate to boot, Rosa was set in Montgomery, Alabama and concerned the equally illustrious figure of Rosa Parks.

It’s sometimes difficult to understand story when you’re crying on the sofa. When you’re made breathless by it, and you can’t look away. When sentences make you sick and horrified at the world and then, in the next breath, make you laugh out loud. Emotions matter. They’re a total asset. And when a story triggers them, whether that story’s rendered on a television screen, written in a book or stuck onto the back of the HP bottle, you know you’re onto a good thing.

Malorie Blackman is a good thing. Rosa broke me and remade me and it reminded me of the utter power of story. It’s an unrelenting episode, stark and unflinching and with a remarkably final ten minutes or so. It’s perhaps more remarkable in that the agency of Rosa herself is never affected. She changes the world. She changes the universe. And she does it herself. There’s no machinations, no zapping of an alien to make her sit in the seat, it’s just the circumstances of history and the power of an individual voice. Beyond that, yes, there’s a Doctor Who episode but there’s also one of the lead characters being threatened with a lynching. There’s a moment where two of the leads reflect on how they face modern day racism. This is raw, horrific, outstanding storytelling and it felt like a statement of intent, not only for the show but also Malorie Blackman’s work. She is a storyteller of intense power.

If you’d like to discover more about Blackman’s work, I’d suggest starting with the outstanding Noughts and Crosses series. I review the first one here.


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The Ink House by Rory Dobner

The Ink HouseThe Ink House by Rory Dobner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spectacularly produced, somewhat slender in the story department, and full of some rather intensely beautiful artwork, The Ink House is somewhat of a paradox. It’s beautiful, first and foremost; written and illustrated by Rory Dobner, an artist with a substantial and impressive commercial portfolio. His work hovers somewhere about the Neil Gaiman / Frances Hardinge side of things; a wild evocation of otherness, coupled with a firm belief that that otherness may in fact be true. His work is careful, and his lines are richly and subtly done, finding magic in the white space of the page and using that as a springboard towards some beautiful spreads.

Now, the paradox. This isn’t a story, at least not yet. The Ink House is a mansion built on a magical pool of ink. One a year, the artist goes off on an adventure, leaving the house free for animals to move in and have a great party. The artist comes back, the animals leave. That’s a great and eloquent frame, but I struggled with the episodic nature of the moments that hung in between. They felt a little isolated, occasionally disjointed, and I’d have welcome another eye over sentences such as “Panic ensues as the animals prepare to leave” (I’m not sure anybody prepares in a panicked fashion?)

Yet, this is beautiful. Even the line I’ve picked out comes with the most delicious spread of horses cantering through a tiled and pillared corridor in an image that made my heart sing. That’s what I mean about paradoxes; this book is full of them. Lines that don’t quite sit and work, and a story that isn’t quite there yet, but some of the best and most convincing black and white artwork that I’ve seen for a long while.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy

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How to pitch your book for review to a book blogger

I’ve been wanting to write a brief guide on how to pitch your book for review to a book blogger for a while. It seems to be one of those things that a lot of people can’t quite figure out, or get intimidated by, or just sort of blindly hope for the best with. And, really, it’s not rocket science. Pitching your book for review involves a little more than ‘please will you review my book’, but it really does involve a lot less than you think. Here’s my top tips in no particular order.

  • Know who you’re talking to and what they tend to review. There’s no point in emailing a person who blogs about children’s literature if your book is adult crime. It’s a waste of everybody’s time. Be strategic in your efforts.
  • Related, tell me why you’ve come to me. Personalise that standard email a little bit and tell me why you think your book and me will click.
  • Be polite and nice. Niceness on the internet is a good thing. We should all work towards it a little bit more.
  • If the blogger has guidelines for submission, work to them. In all likelihood they’re not getting paid, so respect their wishes. Don’t repeat email if you don’t get a response.
  • Respect time frames. Books don’t get reviewed immediately and maybe never. Sending a copy for review does not guarantee a review.
  • Be prepared for a negative review. Simply thank the reviewer for their time and move on. Don’t burn your bridges in a small community. Don’t make the blogger blacklist you.
  • Be realistic. This is a hard business, and nine times out of ten, you won’t get a response. If you do get a response that says no, thank them for their time and move on (sensing a theme here?)
  • Be passionate, honest, and know your market. YA is not just about vampires (and hasn’t been for about three hundred years). Picture books are not an easy option. Tell me about the heart of your book. Tell me why that matters in today’s publishing world.
  • Don’t pay somebody to do the dirty work for you! I can’t stress this one enough. There are a thousand websites out there that will give you lists and contact details for bloggers. This is usually public information and can be found via a quick Google. Don’t pay. Seriously, don’t pay for public domain info. It’s awful and a blanket email tells me you’ve done no research about who you’re talking to.
  • Do, however, pay for reputable services done by reputable people. There are people out there who can advise you on marketing or promotion. This is a complex thing, and there’s no shame in paying for services. Do however check their credentials, ask to see a sample of their work, or speak to former clients…
  • Don’t be afraid. I want to write about good books. I want to share books that have something important and relevant to say about the world. I want to hear from voices marginalised from that discussion. If I think I can help you out, or give your book a review, then I will.
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A Hidden Treasure : ‘The Child’s Guide To Knowledge’ (1861)


I’ve been visiting some of my favourite bookshops over the last few weeks and picking up some utter treasures. These are books that wouldn’t and won’t make a fortune if I sold them on, but to me they’re priceless in what they say about our ideas of childhood and children many moons ago. I’m going to introduce a couple of them to you over the next couple of weeks, The Child’s Guide To Knowledge (1861) is the first one up.

It’s a slim, small little thing, the sort of book that could fit easily into your pocket. I found my copy of it in a charity shop at the seaside, and it was dwarfed by the books about it. This is a copy that’s lived a life, and that’s no wonder when you consider the age of it. 1861. The American Civil War was happening, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died, and on March 12, this book was being held by somebody called Richard. He wrote his name in it too.

(I wonder, upon investigation, whether it was this Richard? I’m not sure about the dates, or even if I’m reading his name correctly, but the area feels about right. I’m not sure people would have travelled far from their point of origin, particularly on a fairly prosperous coast(?)).


I had a little bit of a moment when I found it. I don’t know much about books like this, as they’re about fifty or so years before my specialist area, but I love them. These little collections of lessons and facts to be recited by some poor child in some schoolroom somewhere are fascinating. They tell us what adults thought children should know, and the way that they thought they should know them. This, for example, is onto talking about macaroni by page three. Macaroni! Macaroni comes before the lesson on the constitution! It’s so weird!

A final thing to note is the authorship. A Child’s Guide to Knowledge is written, rather coyly, ‘By A Lady’. (Coincidentally, this sentence tickles me so much, I used it as the background of my Twitter and might never change). The lady herself is never named throughout the text, except refers to herself as the authoress and refuses to add wood-cuts or engravings into the book as they ‘might take off the attention of children’. Seriously, what’s not to love?

Well, I can answer my own question straight away here and refer to the fact that she’s not named. Some of that is obviously due to convention, the status of writing for children at that time, and the blessed patriarchy that we all hold so dear (!). That can be rectified with the benefit of hindsight, and so here’s to you Fanny Umphelby and thank you for giving me so much joy with this peculiarly, brilliant little book. I particularly love how you finished the last page off with a good review.





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The NCRCL Open Day 2018

I had a lovely opportunity the other weekend to revisit the University of Roehampton where, seven (!) years ago, I studied my MA in Children’s Literature. It’s a course that changed my life, not only through the legitimisations of the interest that I had but also through the groundwork it gave me to explore those further. It is also a course that I fell into somewhat by accident; I found it a week before the course launched, wrote an essay that basically said “I QUITE LIKE BOOKS”, sent them a copy of my undergraduate dissertation, and Bob was my proverbial Uncle.

Selfie with the University of Roehampton Sign
I made it to the University of Roehampton !

I was invited to share a panel with the lovely Mat Tobin of Oxford Brookes, to talk about potential career paths after the degree, and it was a genuine pleasure to do so.  In a way, it took me a while to find what I do now because I did not realise it was an opportunity. Does that make sense? I’m not sure it does so let me try to explain a little. I come from a background where academia was never really part of the conversation. I was not the first member of my family to go to university, but I have been the first to work towards this as a career. As a choice. And finding that break, realising the procedures that led towards it, it took a while. Practicalities. Paying the bills. Little things.

So, now I have a portfolio career. I write, I research, I teach. I temp. I blog. I run my own publishers (scream, etc). I sell articles. I pitch. I poke, in a very Britishy fashion, at every door that might be happen and though I might have to screw my courage to the sticking post, I do. It’s a work in progress, and there’s things I could do better and things I could do more of, but I am happy. I am, I really am.

University of Roehampton Library at Night
University of Roehampton Library at Night

And visiting Roehampton gave me a delicious opportunity to reflect on that. I stopped the night before the talk, and managed to spend some time on campus that evening. It was a peaceful, hot evening and it was only the second time I’d ever been there.

That’s the curious dichotomy of being a distance student; you study, intensely, with somewhere and maybe never visit. But when you do, you get refreshed. You get, in a way, a metaphorical shot of thoughts and creativity and recognise the agency that you possess as a student. Students are powerful creatures and I think that sometimes, when you’re a distance learner, it’s easy to forget that. I’ve experience of being one, but also of supporting them in a professional context so trust me, I know what it’s like from both ends. You work in isolation, connecting through forums and online media, and maybe that’s about it. Your host institution remains a name. Opportunities like the NCRCL open day, and the wide range of lectures and events that Roehampton do (some of which that made me very jealous!) allow you to connect to the community that you are a part of – a community that you’ve always been a vital part of. There’s a way to be a distance learner but also to be a part of the world of campus, and I think they’ve got that really nicely figured out.

Manifesto For Learning
Manifesto for Learning

The Open Day itself was lovely. I got to chat with a lot of the current students, and get very envious of their poster skills (seriously, I belong to the ‘just whack a picture up and hope for the best’ school) and also to hear Dr Zoe Jaques of the University of Cambridge speak. She’s great, and her talk reminded me that you’re always learning. There’s always something to be found in the research of others that will apply to your own. I celebrated this by having a very indulgent late lunch and writing my own personal manifesto for learning. An affirmation of sorts, I guess, but also a reminder that I can never remember yourself/yourselves until it’s too late. But then, isn’t that the thing about learning? You’re always in a dialogue, and even if it’s just with yourself, then it’s enough. Because, at the end, you’ll be something more than you were before.

Many thanks to Alison, and the team at NCRCL for such a lovely day. Here’s to the next.

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A quickening of the heart : life as a book collector

I had a bit of a lovely moment the other day. I found a clump of the books that I collect, and I bought them all because it was one of those rare occasions where I could actually afford all of them. And now, several days later, I’m still riding that wave of delight that only comes when you find the thing you love and are, due to circumstance and the twists that life gives you, able to make that thing your own.

Book collecting is a curious thing. I have been doing it for long enough now that I’m able to walk into a bookshop and scan the shelves within minutes. The books that I collect are distinct enough in cover and spine to make themselves known to me, and if they’re not there, then it’s a different sort of visit. One where I wallow in familiar names and new ones, and maybe take something different home. But if they are there, then, it’s something quite perfect. The heart quickens, and you tell yourself to stay calm because, inevitably, you won’t be able to afford the one you’d like.

But sometimes the stars come together, and you’re able to take one or more home. And that moment of connection is such a potent and precise kind of energy that I suspect, were it able to be harnessed, would power a thousand cars for a thousand days. The thing is, you do not collect stories without having a story of your own. Each book that you collect, each title that you invest yourself in, each author that you find a little bit more about yourself, becomes part of your own story.  And so, when you find these titles in the shop or a new book by that author that you’ve been collecting, there is a little part of yourself located in the finding. You find yourself, and all of the other selfs that you’ve ever been.

There’s a parallel here for any sort of collection; that sense of knowing the story of each thing and how and when it came into your life, but it always feels a little bit more powerful for me because I collect books and books are powerful things. Books endure, and have done so in a fairly recognisable form for centuries. I suspect, for example, if you were to place a 1990s brick phone against an Apple Watch and presented both to an individual from the 1600s you would have substantial difficulty in persuading them that they were the same thing. But a book, with its recognisable form and shape and intent, has that coherence pretty much whenever, wherever and however you find it.

I keep returning to that notion of the finding, for I am as fond of that as I am of the having. The finding is the chase, you see, and it is a rather beautiful thing. Being a book collector means that you have that peculiar need to just check a bookshop that you’re passing, or to pause when you are on holiday somewhere to pop in a bookshop that you’ve never been to before. You learn to accept that books may make themselves known in the most inopportune of moments; when you are walking back to the train station after a conference, or indeed backpacking across a country on the other side of the world. This is what it is, this integration of the find into your life.

That’s what book collecting does; it slides away from that semantic precision of ‘collecting’, redolent as it is to me of Boy’s Own trips to the Amazon and butterflies pinned in tragic horror to cases, and instead becomes something rather more embedded. Something closer. Something lived, lived and learnt.  Something felt. Something felt deep down inside of you, where feelings lose their precision and instead become raw and un-edged and indescribable things. That’s where book collecting lives, there.


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The NCRCL Open Day 2018

Just a quick note to say that I will be speaking at the NCRCL Open Day 2018 (June 2nd, University of Roehampton). I know that London might not be an option for many people but if it is, and children’s books are your jam, I would urge you to come along! Studying for the MA changed my life in innumerable ways and I’d reccomend it to anybody (and I’m also happy to answer any questions about it). It’s a free event but you do need to book ahead; and do say hi if you get there!

(That was a lot of exclamation marks for one post, do forgive me… 🙂 )

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Translating classic children’s books into feminist blank verse

(Honestly, I’ve never been more on brand).

I am no translator. My French is passable, in that ‘I cannot remember the precise word but can vaguely approximate the sense of what I am trying to describe to you’ sort of manner, but it’s not up to translating prose. My English, however, is and so over the past few weeks I’ve been translating a classic children’s book (which I won’t name just yet) from prose into feminist blank verse. It’s one of my more niche experiments, and yet also something that’s thrilled me deeply because it touches a lot on the things that interest me.

My MPhil thesis, for example, partially discussed the notion of the Golden Age within children’s literature, that is to say the conceit of referring to a particular time of publishing as such – and viewing all since in relation to that Golden Age. I argued for Golden Ages to run on thematic distinction as I did, and still do, view the temporally discreet idea of periodization as something inherently complex. (“I’m sorry Mr Smith, but the Golden Age finished last Sunday…”).

I looked at the school stories located within the first Golden Age, and argued for subsequent Golden Ages to run more or less contiguously. I looked at the school stories, and stories of schooling, for they are my jam, but I also thought a lot about that wider context. The idea of how the quality of children’s books is always assessed by adults, and how popular fiction rarely plays a part in such a thing. (Perhaps we can call this Blytonphobia I don’t know.)

I realised that girls and women don’t often get an easy ride within these Golden Age stories, and I started to wonder what does it mean for our discipline, our sector, to cleave back to these books as gold standard. What do these choices reveal about ourselves and our idea of childhood? How do these stories fit in the contemporary rebel girl phenomenon sweeping children’s publishing? What part do they have to play in contemporary discourse?

So that’s the what, and here’s the why; I decided to rewrite one in blank verse because it gave me the leeway to answer those questions and to redress the balance. I don’t ever argue for the suppression of books, but I do argue for the considered reading of such. The questioning of standards. Challenging the absences.

And here’s the first line:

This is the story of a girl

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My experience of Choose Your Own Story apps

I’ve been looking a lot recently at some choose your own story apps available on Android. This methodological restriction is primarily to the fact that an Android phone is what I have, and I was interested to see the sorts of stories that were available for it. I’ve never really looked at choose your own adventure story apps before, because I’ve always preferred a more self-led narrative. The sort that puts the onus upon the reader, rather than the reader reacting to a preset list of choices. This is something that I seek for across all sorts of literature, and not just those that you find on your phone. Reading is – should be – an active experience. I want to be needed as a reader. I want to be wanted.

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The allure of forgotten notebooks

I am one of those people who has legitimate and primal and fundamental personal needs for stationery. Good stationery is a human right. Notebooks make everything better. One of the first bits of advice I will give anybody beginning a research degree is to buy yourself all the stationery that your heart desires.

The only problem with this is that some are too pretty to use. And of those that you do use, you reach a point when you do not wish to break their backs nor rip pages out of them, and so let them slide towards the back of the shelf to the fog of forgotten things.

The one benefit of such a loosely functional system is that you tend to recover them at some point, and find the work of the once-you inside these pages. These are photograph albums in their way; delicious little snapshots of the thoughts and feelings of a time once forgotten, and that is the allure of the abandoned notebook. They will always be found again.

I am opening up a brown notebook today, unlined, and with a slim purple ribbon to mark its pages. I found poetry and bare, sparse pages that sang to be used.

I shall.


to be

the other

is more powerful

than you’ll ever know


the butterfly

that lands

with the weight of bricks


to be selfish

is an affirmation



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“Help, my child isn’t reading!”

I had a couple of really interesting chats recently with parents concerned about their children’s reading habits. They weren’t reading. They don’t read. They don’t read challenging books. They won’t pick up a book. And when all you see in the media is reports about how children don’t read, and this means your child in particular, that’s a tough subject to deal with.

So, here’s some advice on what to do in those situations. I don’t have children, but I’ve helped a lot in a variety of situations. More to the point, I don’t have any ties to advanced reading schemes or organisations who’d like you to purchase their product to help you read better. I’m in this for you and your kids, and let’s do this together.

Any tips you’d like to add, do let me know.

  1. Model good reading behaviour in the house. Have books present and as part of your daily lives. Make sure that you read visibly in front of your child.
  2. Sign up to the library, and go there as part of your routine. Don’t worry if they don’t pick up books the first time, just have a cup of coffee or something and pick up a book yourself, and then head home. This isn’t about getting stressed.
  3. Stop talking about the subject. If you’re worried that they aren’t reading, and keep having a go, then I know I wouldn’t want to read in the slightest. I know this is hard, and I have my utmost sympathies for those going through this. We want the best for our kids, but badgering and flashpoint conversations aren’t going to do that.
  4. See what they’re interested in and embed reading around those opportunities. For example, if they keep watching you cook or want to help in the kitchen, get them to help plan meals and read recipe books. Help you write out a shopping list. If you’re putting together shelves or something and they want to help, get them to read out the instructions.
  5. Take them for a visit to a comics shop, or to a comics festival. Again, this isn’t about ‘reading’ per se, but rather the exposure to literature and formats that they’ve maybe not particularly recognised.
  6. If they’re into computer games or coding, recognise that these are pretty valuable reading experiences in themselves. Quiz them about the games narrative, or get them a non-fiction tie in.
  7. Talking of tie-ins, if a kid is interested in a subject then they’ll tend toward reading the tie-in. Check out books by Youtubers, books about Minecraft, books about Warhammer 3000.
  8. Explore alternative reading formats. Audio books whilst in the car (captive audience), or spaghetti letters on toast. Something weird, something interesting. And again, if the parents aren’t interested, then why should the kids be? Make reading a full family act.
  9. Read out loud wherever you can. Even if it’s just to your partner, or to gran and grandad; this is about modelling good reading behaviour and showing the benefit of literature. Plus, it’s fun.
  10. Your child is probably reading more than he or you thinks. Celebrate the moments where you connect, and make reading a treat. Have a bun, have some time together, and don’t worry. You got this.
Everything else

The circularity of debate

I have become increasingly conscious of the circularity of many debates within children’s literature, and the way that, so often, these feel as though they’re pushing against an echo chamber. Does it matter to talk about such things when it feels as though nobody’s listening? Of course it does, for words are weapons and vital moments of truth. Disrupt the narrative within the space that you exist, yes, always do such a thing.

But I think, as well, that when a debate hits the wall with such thudding regularity, and nothing seems to change, then questions need to be asked. The debate needs to be reframed. The question itself needs changing.

I need to problematise statements. Statistics, as we know, can say anything we want them to say. One in five people do this, but four in five do not. Read them from the left to the right, and then from the front to the back, and you’ll find a different story.

This is why, when I read a headline about what children’s literature is, and is not, I ache to see the data. I want to know what books you read, and if you think young adult is all about sparkling vampires. I want your credentials

(I also ache to examine our need to understand the absences and shortcomings of children’s literature in a way that, I think, we do not do with ‘adult’ literature. Related to that, I want to examine the cultural ownership of children’s literature. I read very of certain genres. I do not, generally, find myself writing about the deficiencies of such genres. Yet with children’s literature, we own it, and I suspect this is simply because we have all experienced a form of childhood. Were there a form of age after adulthood, I suspect we would look back on ‘adult’ literature and similarly question what it was and what it was not).

In response to all of this, I have made several decisions regarding my approach to reading and writing about children’s literature. I’ve been putting these into practice over the last few months. Here they are:

I don’t, and will not, write about tokenistic attempts at representation, but rather recognise those books that present the world as a rounded and diverse space. I do not seek tokenism, or knee-jerk attempts at diversity, but rather a simple questioning of the decisions and the defaults that are made and perpetuated throughout a book’s production.

I shall question the narrative  around certain issues where I can, and in the space that I can. I have, for example, become increasingly frustrated at how certain issues are represented and have begun to actively seek alternative perspectives. Whether that’s reading outside of my genres or looking for more translated fiction (for which I’d welcome reccommendations), I am trying to challenge the defaults that I cling to.

I am a researcher, a blogger, a writer and a librarian. I wear a lot of different hats depending on what day it is, and I think it’s vital to question the assumptions that I make. And perhaps that’s the way to disrupt the narrative, right there; to understand your place in the system and to question that. To problematise it, to ask – what if? I am interested, for example, that with one of the more recent ‘children’s books do this’ newspaper pieces, the only negative responses I saw were from male authors. I’m not calling out names but rather asking for a shift in perspective.

Perhaps, as Ice Cube would have it, it’s time to check yo self before checking the work of others.

It’s only through self-questioning that you can start to figure out the position that you play in the system and once you’ve figured that out, you can change it. Maybe just a little bit, but it’ll be enough. It’ll be a point that, when the debate rumbles round one more time, makes the track skip just a little bit and have the world pay attention to what you’re doing.

No more yelling into the echo chamber.

Everything else

An interview with Bessora and Sarah Ardizzone : two-thirds of the creative team behind Alpha

One of the highlights of Pop Up Lab this year was hearing Bessora the author, and Sarah Ardizzone, the translator, deliver a key note about their graphic novel Alpha. Alpha is a fascinating project; originally published in French and republished in English by the team at Barrington Stoke. At a conference that discussed the importance of visual literacies, the book had a deeply relevant part to play – and I’m grateful to both Bessora and Sarah for answering my further questions about it.

If you’d like to read more about the conference itself, here’s an interview with the founder and I also wrote up some notes about the day here – these will be of particular interest if you’re looking at visual literacy in your work (I hope!).

And of course, it’s important to emphasis that Bessora and Sarah Ardizzone are only two-thirds of the team behind Alpha. The third, Barroux, worked on the art and did so quite stunningly. You can view his website here and I’d urge you to do so. Alpha is a remarkable book. 

Bessora and Sarah talking about Alpha
Bessora and Sarah talking about Alpha

Why do you think it’s important to visually represent the story of Alpha? Do you think the story would have changed if you’d have told it in a mainly prose format?

Bessora: I usually write novels, in which I take all the space:  in novels, images are either described and/or suggested so that the readers can build them through their own imagination. Alpha is graphic: I had to leave room for the imagination of Barroux, who introduced his drawing as a second language. The result is an immediacy – images are an intimate language and the first element one reads as a child.

What sort of opportunities for conversation do you think Alpha prompts?

​Bessora: Alpha is an opportunity to talk about an incarnated man, who could be our brother, our cousin, our friend, our neighbour’s husband, or ourselves.

It is about an intimate who experiences an unbelievable adventure, an intimate that the media makes a foreigner, while the story concerns us intimately.

With Alpha being written originally in French, and translated into English, do you think it reads differently? How has the translation – or has the translation – affected its message?

Sarah: The message remains the same. With the subtle difference that Alpha is an undocumented economic migrant travelling from Ivory Coast in francophone West Africa to Gare du Nord, Paris, France – so Anglophone readers are removed from this story in comparison with French readers. This, in turn, may spark a more empathetic (but also more romanticised?) response to the personal tragedy and human crisis depicted. Otherwise, I would hope that the ‘everyman’ quality of Bessora’s writing – the diary jottings of a person with a simple education, a man who is occasionally naïve, but whose insights affect us all – communicates just as powerfully in English. It’s also worth pointing out that the text looks different. The UK edition is published by the independent Edinburgh-based publisher, Barrington Stoke, whose priority is making stories accessible to every kind of young reader. This means that Barroux’s handwritten text (French handwriting can be difficult for UK readers to decipher at the best of times) has been replaced by a serif font.

Alpha was subject to some very specific creative constraints, such as the diary format and within the artwork. Can you talk a little bit more about these and the impact they have on the story?

​Sarah: As the translator of a graphic diary, my job is to translate the words and the pictures. Bessora wrote the original text before the artwork had been created by Barroux. But now that both exist, I have to marry them in my word choices – capturing Bessora’s tone and Barroux’s palette. Barroux’s creative constraint this time around was the idea of a cheap notebook (perhaps bought in a corner shop in Abidjan) and a kids’ pack of felt-tip pens: my words needed to communicate that non-precious approach to “getting it down” or putting the words on the page, while at the same time conveying the poetic, resonant touch with which Bessora infuses her writing.

Alpha’s a story about people, and I’m interested in how this was reflected in its collaborative production. Do you think this has impacted upon the story itself?

Bessora: First there was the meeting with Barroux, who desired a book on this very large subject “‘immigration”. My role was then to refine the subject, and to embody it. I constructed the story by myself, with the leitmotif of making Alpha, a person (a somebody), and not a thing (a nobody) as migrants sometimes appear. Barroux grafted on the text, which he enriched and nurtured with his images. Then the process was extended through Sarah’s translation. It is a collaboration … not simultaneous, which is reflected in the way the collaboration is established between the protagonists of the story: to survive, Alpha and his pals must be in solidarity.

Sarah: I couldn’t agree more with Bessora – particularly when it comes to the sense of solidarity this book sparked.

One of the many things I love about Alpha is that this story doesn’t ‘belong’ to any single person.

It was inspired by an undocumented economic migrant who frequented the artists’ squat where Barroux had his studio: and Togola’s story is the greatest human story of our times, that of a desperate exodus and a thin welcome. The story was researched by Bessora – but in a sense we have all “translated” it, and the wider public continues to do so. The book was acquired by Barrington Stoke, when they spotted it at the Spectacular Translation Machine (STM) that we staged at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015. An STM is live, collaborative translation at its most exciting. It involves displaying all the images (but not the text) from the book, as if at an art gallery, and then encouraging the general public to choose an image that speaks to them, collect the text that goes with it from the volunteers manning our “reception” and set about translating the words – with help and support from on-tap expert translators. Together we translated most of the book in a single day, but what was most inspiring about this process were the conversations that were struck up between participants, as they talked about what it is that we think we’re doing when we translate.

Alpha is a story that deals with challenging topics. Do you have any tips on how to approach or manage such topics when reading books of this nature with children?

Sarah: Two words come to my mind: simplicity and truth (even if it’s a truth from a fiction).

Children must be protected, but it is useless to lie to them about the state of the world.

And finally, what’s your favourite book?

Bessora: It depends on the day … At this moment, it’s Zoonomia, because it’s the only one I can read since I’m trying to correct it. It’s being published in February!

Sarah: Texaco by the Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau – who writes about the fallout of slavery and makeshift housing on his volcanic island. His style makes for a Creole epic that is fabulous (in the literal sense of the word) and searing, and it is exquisitely translated by Val Vinokurov and Rose-Myriam Rejouis. It is also one of the only novels I know dedicated to an urban planner.

Thank you Bessora and Sarah! 

Everything else

Conversations with Dead Authors: Angela Brazil

2. Angela Brazil 

She insists on us going for a walk. “It will do you good,” she says. “Physical exercise isn’t something to be shirked from. Consider it part of your duty towards yourself.”

Everything else

Merry Christmas

The Head Girl of the Chalet School

Thank you for being part of the smartest, most interesting, and kindest parts of the internet. I’ve loved hearing your thought and chatting books with you this year. Here’s hoping you get a St Bernard in your Christmas stocking x

Everything else

Things I would like to see less (and more) of in the world of children’s books in 2018


  • Strong Female Characters Who Are Strong In One Way Only.
  • Strong Female Characters Who Are Violent And Thus Strong And That Is About All You Get.
  • “I read Harry Potter once…”
  • Looking into the mirror scenes.
  • Lists from headteachers of Approved Literature saying that they read Boccaccio when they were two days old, and why haven’t you?
  • I Write For Print Media And Bloggers Are Killing Critique.
  • Sexual agency being used as a negative character trait (tbf, this applies to pretty much all the media I consume).
  • Woe, The Children Are Not Reading articles.
  • Woe, The Children Are Not Reading What I want Them To Read articles.
  • Critical comment being legitimised from those who do not engage with what they critique.
  • The male gaze.


  • Thicker paper quality.
  • Exploitation of endpapers.
  • Festivals paying authors.
  • Authors, in general, getting paid a realistic wage.
  • Regionally influenced content.
  • Illuminated first letters in chapters (my god how I love this).
  • Diversity, particularly with focus towards race, sexuality and social class.
  • Recognition of what is done well, when it’s done well.
  • Debut books.
  • Risk.
  • Poetry.
  • Public library advocacy.
  • Big, ambitious, world-shaking stories.
  • Alternative family structures.
  • Connection between the academic world of children’s lit, and mainstream publishing.
  • Unconventional heroes.
  • Pony stories.
  • Disruption of the canon.
Everything else

Fanfic : M*A*S*H / Chalet School

I had one of those days recently where I wanted to write something different. That different turned out to be fanfic and, in particular, the oddly specific pairing of M*A*S*H and the Chalet School. I was interested to see if I could make it work, if I could scratch that odd little tingle of an idea and turn it into something else. Fanfic has always had that appeal to me of being a stretch in language; and this proved to exercise some peculiarly distinct muscles. I’ll add it in at the bottom of this post.

Here’s a link as well to an appropriately seasonal, and somewhat fanfiction-esque, story that was in the news this week. Turns out JRR Tolkien was also Father Christmas in his spare time.… If you’re in Oxford, between June and September next year, I suspect this might be an exhibition to visit. If you do, please tell me ALL about it.

Here’s the piece I wrote:-

‘And all around me, they die’

Everything else

Joey Goes To The Oberland : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

(Forgive me, but I’m on a Chalet School kick at the moment… 🙂 )

Joey Goes to the Oberland (The Chalet School, #33)Joey Goes to the Oberland by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s not my favourite this one, and yet it’s still oddly hypnotic and occasionally rather lovely. Set outside of the school, Joey and her family are moving house. They are to set up in Switzerland and inevitable highjinks will occur before they arrive there. Some of the highjinks are a little more convincing than others (oh my gosh they forgot the macs! wait, they bought some macs!). There is a special place in my heart for the fifteen hundred pages discussing the bathing arrangements in an antiquated French chateau, and yet it’s still delightful. Tedious but delightful. Ridiculous, yet beautiful. Inane, and yet delightful.

This is just past halfway in the series and we’re not far enough into the madness for the wonder of those early books to have been lost. Miss Ferrars and her speedboat remains on the horizon, and sometimes, suddenly, when Simone pulls rank on Joey, or when Robin’s around, everything in this book absolutely sings. Talking of Robin as well, she gets palmed off to the convent a little too quickly for my liking. There’s a lot that happens ‘off-stage’ in this book, to be reported back to the reader after it happened, and I can’t decide whether that’s awful writing or, having not read the unabridged edition, the distinct skill of the Armada editing team.

Also, the language here is peculiar; every other chapter title features the word ‘Surprise’, and Joey’s family is repeatedly referred to as the ‘brats’. Forgive me if I’m forgetful here, but I honestly don’t remember this reoccurring in any of the other books and it’s an odd choice here. Jo’s a lot of things (she says, backing away slightly from listing them all) but I never have her down as somebody who’d call her kids brats.

Also, then there’s the sandwich thing. *looks at camera*

View all my reviews

Everything else

Visual literacies, comics and Mark Twain : An Interview with Dylan Calder of Pop Up Projects

I’m lucky enough to be attending an event tomorrow which focuses on something very dear to my heart – visual storytelling. As you’ll know from my picture book reviews in particular, visual literacy is an important and powerful thing that is, so often, misunderstood or denied its critical relevance. Pop Up Lab, the brainchild of Pop Up Projects, is looking to address that in a day devoted to the topic, with contributions from some really exciting people working in the area. 

Pop Up Projects was founded by Dylan Calder, and I’m very excited to say that I have an interview with him to share with you today. I asked him a few questions about his organisation, visual storytelling and the role that comics currently – and should – play in the classroom. 

Dylan Calder of Pop Up Projects
Dylan Calder

Did You Ever Stop To Think : What prompted the organisation being formed and why focus on children’s books in particular?

Dylan: We are driven by a desire to see children from all walks of life access and enjoy literature – not just as something to be studied and deconstructed in school examinations – and, fundamentally, to encounter author role models – people who write and illustrate for a living. Children’s authors, in the main, have this extraordinary ability to show children what’s possible, what you can achieve, what you can strive to be through the writing, drawing and making of stories. We’re not here to sell books to families who already read widely; we’re here to bring literature to life in ordinary, mundane, diverse, deprived and isolated places. We want to tap into that audience of readers who are yearning for great literature but due to curriculums, budgets, closed libraries, family economies, and teachers who don’t know what’s relevant and contemporary, aren’t accessing it.

Why have you chosen to focus on visual literacy now, and what you see this as covering? How would you define visual literacy to the interested onlooker?

Visual literacy is the most inclusive form of reading and writing you can do. It’s simultaneously complex and accessible, and children of all abilities and needs can read and tell visual stories. Visual stories are – in my words – narratives told in sequential images, although individual images can in themselves contain single narratives.

How do you think comics currently function in a classroom? What role do they play? And, in an ideal world, what role should they play?

I don’t think they even feature. I think teachers who have a pre-existing passion for them would use them; probably most would go down the superhero route – which is great as it’s the route many kids take into reading enjoyment. But comics can be truly complex things – wonderful in the expanse of their narratives, often breaking out of the frames to challenge and disrupt form. They’re the perfect things with which to study sequential narratives, pace and cliff–hangers, and – most importantly of all – that writers’ rule of ‘show not tell’. Comics are collaborations too (writer, illustrator, colourist, letterer, editor, art director) – and they have restrictions (format, dimensions, number of pages, colour schemes) – which help structure the stories. Comics have a lot to teach about writing– and, let’s not forget, comics are written; they’re not in any way some lower form of literature. I’m not at all into literary hierarchies, but if I were then I’d put comics – great comics – right at the top. And by comics I also mean graphic novels, graphic reportage, graphic memoir – all those ‘higher–brow’ ways of saying ‘serious comics’. Comics are where diversity is happening more. Check out the multicultural cast of characters in something like The Wicked and The Damned (and it’s the rule, not the exception, in many comics publishers) and tap into the world of comics memoirs to learn all about growing up in Iran, Kashmir, Palestine.

Is there one tip you’d give people who want to help children develop their visual literacies?

Give them illustration at every age. Don’t tell them they’re too old for anything. Encourage them to draw; to mimic illustrators and their styles; to draw as much as write stories. Look for the complexity in illustrated books and comics. Explore comics with children, explore comics yourself; there’s a lot of seriously incredible stuff out there.

And finally what’s your favourite children’s book?

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn – it’s not considered a children’s book anymore but was so radical and beyond it’s time; the first novel in the dialect of a poor illiterate kid; and the story of an abused boy forming an incredible, beautiful bond with an abused man would be radical event today. I’ve read it six times.

Images courtesy of Pop Up Projects. Thank you! 

Everything else


A quick note to say that I am launching a Tinyletter! You can sign up here or below. This Tinyletter will be all about bookish things and buns; a delicious combination, no? Basically nice things, and if you think it is your bag, then please come and join me 🙂

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Conversations with dead authors : Enid Blyton


  1. Enid Blyton

“Can you write a biography of somebody without ever knowing the true facts? Why, you barely know anything about me.”

She’s bored and not trying to hide it. I suspect that she never hides the way that she feels. I saw the little flash of irritation when they took a little too long to bring her tea and I watch her now as she bites down on her cake to discover jam inside of it.

“Jam,” she says, with tight fury, “Jam should never be unexpectedly found in things. It should always be obvious. It should be announced and spread lavishly on bread thick with butter, and it should be on scones,” – she draws out the o, rounding it with feeling – “but never, never, unexpectedly on a cake.”

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So I found my first subject

So I’m currently down in Cambridge, working on the #a14stories project, and I spent much of yesterday outside. The grounds at Madingley Hall are free to enter to the public, and the gardens are beautiful. There’s influence here from Capability Brown, but also from something rather distinctly English; topiary hedges, and striped lawns.

I wanted to spend some time outside in paticular because true writing, for me, doesn’t always come from staying inside and being locked up in a room. That’s where the words come from, don’t get me wrong, but the story, that comes from experience. From watching, waiting, listening and talking to people. It’s about finding that headspace where stories can happen and then, later, remembering that and punching out the words when it’s just you and the computer, that’s the work.

One of the things that I’m starting to come across in this project is the impact of the road upon the immediate, local landscape. It’s one of the first things that people tell me when I mention the project. They tell me that the redevelopment and works have gone on for so long that, in a way, they don’t ever think that it’s going to be finished. I’m not here to promote the redevelopments nor to take a side, so it’s important for me to listen and try to understand these perspectives.

And so I went to the trees.

I started to map the treeline.


And after a while, I found my first subject to write about…


Everything else

Listening to the wind

I’m writing this with the windows open; a rare thing in England, even during the Summer, but it’s one of those nights where you can’t not do such a thing. It’s cold, don’t get me wrong, but in a way that’s perfect. I don’t want to be warm. I don’t really want to be inside, and in a second I won’t be. But for now, I have to tell you this : it’s my first night at Madingley Hall, as the A14 Writer in Residence

Birds! A shadowy wheel of them, one of those huge dark swarms that black out the sky, swallowing the blue with their wings –

(Oh, I wish I could write quicker to catch this, I wish words could fall from me quick as breath, because the birds have already gone, they’re distant, and the world has stilled again.)

Madingley has air like glass, clean and clear and sharp. It breaks, sometimes, and refracts, letting something through before sealing up again.

I am going to write here. I am going to hear stories from people.

My favourite one today has been from a gentleman who drives 400m along the A14 every day before turning off. I rather love the idea of being so familiar with one, tiny, precise piece of landscape.

My own story has been fifteen minutes of mild panic when the junction my satnav wanted to take me down was a junction no more. A friend has told me about a murder mystery game she had which was set at Madingley Hall (trust me, I’m going to find out more about this). And as I sit here, staring out of the window. I know I’m going to go for a walk in the grounds tomorrow and figure out the connections between this place and the villages behind it and the shifting, sinuous line of the A14 that lurks beyond the line of the trees.

Tell me your A14 stories? Memories? (Murder Mystery Games?)

Everything else

I’m going to be a Writer In Residence at the University of Cambridge

I’m trying to be coy but I rather think that title has given it away a tad. So without further ado, I have some rather exciting news to share.

I’m going to be working with the University of Cambridge for six weeks this Autumn, as the A14 Writer In Residence. 

I’m going to be based for three days a week at Madingley Hall, near Cambridge, where I’ll get the fantastic opportunity to work with users of the A14 and help them develop their creative writing, alongside developing my own writing in response to the area. During the residency, the wonderful team at the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education will also be leading several creative writing courses and pop up events. We will also be launching an anthology of all of the best work written during the residency, including a special piece by me.

What all of this means is that if you’ve ever driven the A14, or connected with the landscape around it, we want to hear your story. 

(We really, really do.)

I’m going to share as much as I can with you throughout this process, whether that’s writing, interviews, or behind the scenes information,  because that’s incredibly important to me and also, because, one day you, or your kids, are going to see an advert for a wonderful opportunity and wonder if you can or even should apply. (Here’s the thing. You should. The world needs your voice. I want to hear what you’ve got to say.)

I’m also going to talk a lot about children’s books. 😉

So now’s the time to let me know if you’re in the area, or have connections to the area? Are you a business owner? Do you fancy getting you and your employees on board? Are you a parent? Would you like to get your children involved? Do you commute – work – live anywhere near the A14? Do you work with children in the area? Have you always wanted to write but never known where to begin?

Are you none of the above but know somebody who is?

Please let us know! You can make contact with ICE and myself on Twitter, leave a comment on this post (please let me know if you’d like it to stay private and I won’t publish it), and we’d love to hear from you!

Now, let’s get going .. 🙂







Everything else Theory

The legitimacy of critique : or, who am I?

(This is today’s post – a long read touching on criticism, the internet, and also distant reading. There’s a bit of theory, but I hope it’s worth the effort. If you’d like to read other longer posts in this series, here’s the archive of long reads.)

I have a friend who’s researching narrative autobiography, and every now and then, when we’re out, it’s fun to talk about the great self-questioning nature of her research. Of course all postgraduate research is self-questioning and often far too much so. The question of one’s mental health during research is something I’ve covered elsewhere, but I want to talk here about the legitimacy of critique. Or, to be more specific, the legitimacy of critics.

I’m reaching the end point of my research and am working on making it a springboard into something else. This requires talking to a lot of people, and pitching a lot of ideas, but I’m doing it with the realisation that I am a new person now. Research – this period of frantic question, determined typing, and ferocious passion – has changed me. It’s made me more confident (more argumentative, as my family will point out) and it’s led me towards questioning everything in my sector of children’s literature. I am moving into better and greater things but I will do that reflexively. I don’t leave readers behind. You, and the people I work with, the people I share texts with, all of you will come with me for the ride because literacy – power – doesn’t work when it’s in the singular. This is a collective effort, a collective strength, and the ability to question – to realise – to challenge – and to understand – is vital.

This has never been a blog for me, and my children’s books, it’s a blog for us.

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Bad Book Article Bingo

Here’s a little something to turn to when you read that next badly written article about children’s and young adult literature. Cross them off when you find them mentioned!

Vampires Computer Games I blame the parents
Youtube Twilight CLASSICS
I blame the children Television I blame education
“When I was young…” I blame the authors NOBODY READS THE CLASSICS
I blame modern life Hollywood I blame everything

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How famous were the Famous Five?

My thanks to Nikesh Shukla for the tweet that unknowingly prompted this pleasant and super nerdly distraction from my thesis …

  • The Famous Five are Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog. humans and dog. For the purposes of this post, we’ll discount Timmy (as much as it pains me) and thus work with individuals.
  • With their respectively privileged circumstances, let’s say everyone has a fairly high life expectancy where they all hit seventy eight or so and thus meet approximately 80,000 people each.
  • (There are other numbers around, but this is based on each of them interacting with 3 new people a day. Which is a big and ambitious number, but I imagine, something that socially thrusting and somewhat irritating Blytonian characters are more than capable of. “Here’s your paper Miss.” “DID I TELL YOU ABOUT THAT TIME ON KIRRIN ISLAND?”)
  • 80,000 people x 4 gobby souls =  320,000 individuals met in total. 
  • The books were published between 1942 and 1962.
  • UK’s population in 1942 = 48 million (ish)
  • UK’s population in 1962 = 55 million (ish)
  • So let’s, roughly, say an average population of 52 million (yes, roughly, I know, shut up, this is the most maths I’ve done in years…).
  • And that through their life the Famous Five meet approximately 320,000 people
  • We can therefore conclude that the Famous Five are Famous for almost 1% of the population of the UK.
  • So not very famous.
  • Ta-dah.


(Thank you to the lovely @yayeahyeah for helping me check my maths! I am no mathematician … can you tell?!)

Everything else

‘Roads’ in children’s books

As I’m sure you’ll know, I have a particular interest in the representation of landscape in children’s books. Landscape tells you everything, and yet it’s often one of the more forgotten elements when people talk about a book. Consider the difference between the two sentences below.

The cat sat on the mat in a field.

The cat sat on the mat in the ocean.

Two entirely, viscerally different scenarios and all of that comes from adding a little bit of context. Location. Landscape. Setting.

I’ve been thinking about roads at the moment, and in particular stories where roads form a key point of the narrative. I don’t want books where roads appear in the background or as a vague element in the illustration, I want them to be centralised within the text. Characters, if you will, in their own right.

So this post is essentially to ask for some help! Do you know of any children’s books – picture book through to YA – that might fit the bill? If you do, please let me know in a comment below and I’ll collate the results into a reading list . Thank you!

Everything else Theory

Learning how to be not afraid

I was asked, the other day, in the middle of a conversation: “what has life as a research student taught you?’.

And my answer was: “it’s taught me to be not afraid.”

I was a little bit surprised as to where that came from and more so, perhaps, in how I phrased it. I think that language reveals a lot about people and that the unguarded utterance, the blurt, the interruption, they say perhaps even more.

I have learnt to be not afraid. Not unafraid; not that, because to be ‘not afraid’ or ‘unafraid’ are two slightly different things. Two fine, finely similar carvings in the tree of life but one with a line that slightly moves to the left instead of the right. Fear, I think, is always there in life. It is pronounced, it is shadowy, but it is almost always there. Doubt. Shadows. Light. Darkness. We don’t live wholly in one space nor the other, but flit between the two like a moth seeking a flame.

You might be asking what this has to do with children’s books; after all, this is a bookish blog to talk about bookish things and bookish things are always worth talking about and understanding in depth. And that’s precisely what being ‘not afraid’ is all about, I think, especially as an adult who engages in children’s literature. I am transgressive. I am other. I am not the child. I am an adult. Does my presence erode the very thing I love? That, perhaps, is a question for another day – but the question for today is this: how do you learn to be not afraid of the things you love?

(A memory from school : a discussion of Snowball from Animal Farm. How did we know he was a pig? Because I have read the book, I wrote, but because I had not referenced the quote we were given, I was marked down)

I have learnt to be not afraid of children’s literature. I don’t think, maybe, that I ever was palpably afraid (and indeed, how difficult to quantify such a sentiment), but I was afraid of the discourse around them. I was conscious of the conversations and questioning of my space within that dialogue. The space. I am, I was, I will be forever bookish, but the bookish world is a difficult space to navigate even then. And if you are not bookish; if you have been halted at one of the barriers that we adults are so keen to place in your way, then how do you navigate that? How do you defy that fear and learn to live and survive and thrive ?

(A memory of a reading competition in school. I read “too fast” for the rules and was quizzed as to whether I was cheating).

I have learnt to be not afraid of thoughts, of thinking, and of stating that opinion. We seek to silence opinion so easily, and to hold onto yours is the greatest thing. I attended a conference recently where we spoke of how a conversation of certain authors became gendered as masculine because only the male authors in this discipline were talked about. And thus because the discourse became gendered as masculine, more male voices were privileged, and others were forgotten and silenced.

I work for children. Not, perhaps, in a literal sense, but they are centred in everything that I do. A consciousness, an awareness, that my subject and its application exists in bedrooms and at bathtimes and at storytimes. That it can be fought over in the pram or on the bus or with your friends discussing who writes the best pony stories. That it is a subject driven by passion, by love, and that to participate within it is a privilege.

I have learnt that the barriers we place in front of literacy are made to be questioned, challenged and – quite often – broken.  And I have learnt that that journey is no fun unless I bring others with me along for the ride. These are your books; our children’s books; their children’s books; humanity’s books.

I have learnt to be not afraid of telling the world of what I love.



Everything else

Thank you Michael Bond

I’m supposed to be editing my thesis, and yet here I am trying to hide my tears because of the death of a man I never met. Michael Bond has died, and I am beyond words and yet words are what I turn to. How do you express your grief? How do you express your grief when you know that it will never, remotely, hit the kindly grace that Michael Bond hit in every sentence?

You begin, perhaps, by saying thank you. It is a simple sort of thing to say and yet one that I keep coming back to over and over again.

Thank you.

Thank you Michael Bond for your stories; for Olga Da Polga, Monsieur Pamplemousse and for Paddington. Thank you for your genuine and kind and warm and rich stories that defied their apparent simplicity to cut deeper, deeper than anybody may have ever expected.

Thank you for marmalade sandwiches. Thank you for making children the centre of your stories, thank you for trusting that that story was worth telling. Thank you for bears. Thank you for overly ambitious guinea pigs. Thank you for Pommes Frites. Thank you for honesty. Thank you for gentleness. Thank you for seeing the best in people, whoever they might be.

Thank you Michael Bond.

We were so very privileged to have known you.

Image result for sad paddington bear

Everything else

Losing my marbles (or the day I visited the Miffy Museum in Utrecht)

For those of you who don’t know of her, Miffy is a joy. She is a small white rabbit created by Dick Bruna and I love her greatly. Dear Grandma Bunny, for example, is one of the best picture books that have ever been made and The Little Bird isn’t far off. Miffy is one of the points that I include on my 54 places to begin when thinking about children’s and young adult literature, and I hope that by now you’re starting to realise how important Dick Bruna was. His art was precise, beautiful and incredibly eloquent. We are a poorer world without him, but we are so, so lucky to have had him.

dick bruna.jpg

Born in Utrecht, and beloved by the city, Bruna and his work are now memorialised in every inch of the town. From a pair of familiar ears peeking out from a shop window, through to traffic lights that offer red bunnies for stop and green for go, Utrecht is rightfully proud of its artistic son.

I took a day out from a week in Amsterdam to go over and visit; and oh, it was glorious. This blog is a safe space to confess such things and so I confess this to you: I lost my marbles and I loved it. There is something madly joyful about being unabashed in your loves, and when I sat in the reconstruction of Bruna’s studio in the top floor of the Centraal Museum, I cried.

bruna miffyThere is something very religious about this sort of thing for me; this travel to pay tribute to somebody, and it’s not a sensation that I can easily verbalise, but I can recognise. It comes when I love something and I do, frankly, love what Dick Bruna did for the world. He drew sensitively and smartly and warmly and to be a part of that story, even at this late and painful moment when you know it can’t continue, is a gift.

If you’d like to visit Utrecht on a similar pilgrimage, here’s some useful information for you. It is very easily accessible from Amsterdam station (literally half an hour train ride and then about twenty minutes walk from the sation). There are two points you’ll want to go to, the Miffy Museum and the Centraal Museum where Dick Bruna’s studio is in situ until 2025. You can buy a combined ticket for the two. The Miffy Museum itself is, I’ll grant, somewhat scant on the museum aspects but it’s oddly joyous to see a horde of little children racing around and enjoying themselves in that intense, whole-body, way that little children do. It’s a beautiful tribute and one that, in its way, left me as moved as visiting the recreation of Bruna’s studio did.

Here’s to you Dick Bruna, and thank you for your work. You made my heart break, you made it whole, and you made that happen with such unconscious finesse. You were – you are – you always will be – a gift. Thank you.

Everything else

Talking Empathy with Sita Brahmachari

I am immensely proud to be able to share a guest post with you today. I won’t ever deny that I’m picky about this sort of thing but that’s because I know you and I take this seriously. Children’s books are important, statuesque things and even more so in the frail and friable world we live in today. It’s with great pleasure then that I bring you this guest post, on Empathy Day, from Sita Brahmachari.

The topic of empathy is a subject close to the heart of Brahmachari’s new novel, Tender Earth, and it’s something which has characterised much of her other work. I have a world of time for the eloquent, graceful and kind Kite Spirit, Artichoke Hearts and Jasmine Skies and look forward to reading and reviewing Tender Earth in due course.

A final note: I was lucky enough to hear Sita speak at a conference a few years ago. I still remember her generous and inspirational words. My thanks to her for this.


Tender Earth by Sita Brahmachari

‘A coming of age story for young protesters everywhere.’

Tender Earth is endorsed by Amnesty International UK because it illuminates the importance of equality, friendship and solidarity, and upholds our right to protest against injustice.’

Tender Earth is one of Julia Eccleshare’s picks of the month

‘A sharply observed and warm-hearted story about change and transition in adolescence, Tender Earth also carries a powerful message to all young readers about tolerance, integration and the need to stand up for what you believe in.’ Julia Eccleshare/ Good Reads

June 13th sees the first national empathy day and it feels to me like we need to see and feel greater levels of empathy on that day and every day. As a mother I worry about the impact of the often heartless, reactive words and actions that young people hear and experience every day. I have a thought a great deal about this when writing Tender Earth. How are young people navigating their way through the trials and conflicts of this time? How can we help them?

Many characters in Tender Earth feel that the things they hear and see on the news, as well as exchanges on social media, lack a common humanity but there are also moments when my characters step inside the shoes of others and get an insight into each other’s way of life. Sometimes these insights begin with a small conversation at a bus stop or in a school corridor but they can be like a door opening just a little crack to let you in …. But because we are inquisitive, questioning beings we want to open that door wider so that we can see and experience what’s behind it and try to understand another’s experience no matter how hard that might be.

‘Laila I really want to invite you to where I live, but it’s nothing like your house! I don’t ask people back usually,’ Pari says as if that’s a good reason not to invite me.

‘I don’t care what it’s like’


‘What… you’ve never had anyone back from school, not even in primary?’

Pari shakes her head.

In Tender Earth each character who feels true empathy for another finds themselves having to ask some searching questions of themselves about what they can and should do to help each other.

World events impact on Laila, Kez, Pari and their community just as they impact on you and I and they are stunned and saddened by some of the hateful actions of people in the their own city, but the thing about empathy is it demands an action no matter how small or seemingly insignificant this action might seem to the world. Even a small action, like laying a flower on a memorial for the children of Manchester, lighting a candle or a minute silence can be a powerful reminder of our human ability to feel deep empathy for each other.

The fact that through stories, through fiction and non-fiction we can step into another person’s life even when they may be so different to ourselves is something that gives me hope in Tender Earth that young people might change the world for the better.


In the words of the late Jo Cox MP

“We are far more united than the things that divide us”

The artichoke charm that appears in all three of my Levenson stories Artichoke Hearts, Jasmine Skies and Tender Earth is for me an empathy symbol and a metaphor for the process of writing. The outside leaves symbolises the guarded, protected layers we all often show to the world, it’s only in unpeeling the layers by getting to know someone’s story that we get to the softer more expressive heart of a person and in discovering that heart we ourselves are moved and changed to act differently.

If you are looking for articles and information about working with young people to extend empathy or sharing where young people can go to explore this further. Here are some links that I used in my research…

Everything else Theory

“Not just a children’s book”

I attended a talk the other week, one of many that came all at once as these things to do, and whilst I was there I took some notes. I take notes often at this sort of thing, because my brain often reaches a point of fullness that means I can’t take anything else in. I write the words down, let them sit there on the page, and then I come back to them later and reread them. I don’t often think about what I’m writing, but sometimes a phrase hits me and I am blinded by it.

“Not just a children’s book,” they said, before moving onto another point. The phrase was throwaway, careless, and I suspect that the ramifications of what it meant were barely considered. But it’s a phrase I hear often at talks, and it is one that has come to concern me.

Language, you see, is a precise and clean thing. We make it inept, we make it fuzzy, because we are inept and fuzzy individuals. We bring a thousand different interpretations to a word because we have lived lives. Stories. A ‘cat’ is a ‘cat’ but it’s never just a cat. That ‘just’ is almost redundant there, do you see how? A cat is a cat but it’s never a cat.

Nothing is ever just anything.

A children’s book is never just a children’s book because it’s that ‘just’ that colours the object with a sense of distaste. It’s an apologetic just, an excuse to escape the label of ‘children’s book’ and to apologise for what that might mean for the content of the talk. But to do so, to explain that your topic is not ‘just’ a children’s book implicitly denies the value of the term itself.

Am I about to try and define what children’s literature is? I’m not sure. A part of me wants to slide towards that age old cheat of defining what something is not; a definition of exclusions and oppositions. But perhaps I can cheat that desire as well and instead tell you that quite often, I simply think of the idea of an intended reader. An intended reader is that fuzzy individual for whom a book is intended to be read by. For children’s books, that intended reader is a child. And note the looseness of that phrase; intent, child – they are immense terms and one’s which I have used deliberately lightly. What is a child? What is intent? What is language? Do we even exist right now?

Excuse my hyperbolic self-questioning, but I’m trying to make a point. Labels come from people as much as they do from the language itself. A word is a half-formed thing, to paraphrase Eimear McBride, and without the reader to provide some form of concretization (cf. Wolfgang Iser), the thing remains unformed. Does a word make a sound if it falls in the forest?

So: to children’s books, and the way they are not ‘just’ children’s books. It is that just that rankles with me; an individually placed value judgement on that which follows. Not just a “children’s book”. But what is? What isn’t? How are you so uncomfortable with that book being intended for a juvenile readership that you feel the need to absolve it of that labelling? What do you do to the books that you leave behind?

In writing about the mystery genre within children’s literature, Adrienne Gavin and Christopher Routledge suggest that “perhaps because adulthood is a mystery to children and childhood has become a mystery to adults and neither can ever ‘solve’ the other state, mystery has a particularly strong presence in children’s texts.” (2001 : 2). It’s a quote I’ve been wrestling with for my thesis, but one that holds relevance here. If a book is “not just a children’s book”, then that’s a perspective that comes from adulthood. It suggests the awareness of some sort of other book that may exist, a wider taxonomical understanding of literature, and also the awareness that you – as an adult – are supposed to not read this books.

To call something “not just a children’s book” is a deleterious act of adult appropriation that damages not only the very idea of children’s books but also, indelibly, the subsequent critique of them.

Like I said, I find it problematic.





Everything else

Courage Mountain, or the one where Heidi falls in love with Charlie Sheen

It’s been a while since I read Heidi but I have some fairly solid memories of it. Mountains. Goodness. Goats. That sort of jazz. It was with interest then that I came across a film called Courage Mountain which was a sequel to Heidi, but involving an Italian boarding school and the advent of World War One.  Naturally, I watched it to save you all the bother….

(spoilers ahead!)

Now boarding school stories are one of my greatest love (this might not come as a surprise to many of you but I thought it was worth putting out there) and this one starred the wonderful Leslie Caron and, uh, Charlie Sheen. As Peter. Peter the goatherd with whom Heidi has a romance, and I can’t quite write a sentence that conveys how much my toes curl at remembering this. Sheen can be good. He can be blinding. He is woefully miscast in this role and it’s quite the thing to hear Heidi in her cut-glass English accent chatting to Sheen, about four hundred times her age and size with his American accent wholly intact, on the mountain surrounded by goats. And there’s panpipes. Did I mention that? Lots of miming to panpipes, and when Charlie Sheen gives Heidi his panpipes to remember him by, reader, I died.

So. Heidi has money now and has been invited to an Italian boarding school run by an Frenchwoman who was bought up in England (or something, there is a terribly convoluted line to explain Caron’s accent) and she must decide whether to go or stay. Naturally Heidi and her Beautiful Hair That Never Loses Volume leave. She encounters cockney urchins in the train station (there is a lot you just need to accept in this film), and ends up at the school. Heidi is an Innocent Urchin and thus comes across the staples of these stories; the mean girl, the girl-who-will-be-friends, and then Leslie Caron leads all the girls in skipping across the verandah and Heidi wigs out glamorously at the gramophone because She Is An Innocent Urchin With Beautiful Hair.

Oh I forgot, whilst at the station Heidi comes across the panto villain of the piece who is nattily dressed and practically twiddles his moustache at her (Not a euphemism….).

The school section is relatively brief, before the house is requisitioned by the Italian Army who throw in the odd ‘Signora’ because They Are Italian. Most of the girls are sent home save a handful whose parents or Noble Mountain Grandfathers can’t be reached. Heidi and her fellow Beautiful Haired Urchins With Artful Smears of Grease end up at the workhouse where the moustachiod villain and his paramour (sister? Factotum? lover? the film is very unclear about this) put all of the urchins at work making soap. Heidi glowers at everyone (and never once loses the volume in her hair) before escaping down the drain with her school friends. The other urchins are basically forgotten about at this point.

This is the bit where the film gets spectacular (more so). Heidi points at some mountain in the distance and goes “That’s Switzerland over there” and so the girls decide to go there. On foot. Through World War One.Whilst being chased by the moustachiod villain from one side, and noble Charlie Sheen coming to save the day from the other. It’s handy, really, that there’s only one mountain between Switzerland and that Sheen’s a bit of a dab hand on his skis (the ski sequence is, in itself, outstanding. It’s a James Bond rip off done by Channel Five…).

Everything ends up well though! Charlie Sheen skis the villain off the mountain, Heidi and him get together, my toes curl so far that they practically fall off my feet, and Leslie Caron ends up shacking up with Noble Grandfather and the Urchins Are All Safe And Their Hair Is Spectacular.

Here’s the trailer. It’s pretty much the whole film in two minutes.  I hope you enjoy every single thing about it.


“Their climb to freedom will be their greatest adventure”