The politics of children’s literature; patterns, voice, ideology

Where are we in this year, this year that’s seen the paradigm shift, this year of evenings where everything made sense and then mornings where it didn’t, this year of hope and of fear and of confusion and of sheer raw confusion, confusion, confusion, where are we now?

I have written about this before, fogged, pained, post-Brexit, and here I am again, reflecting on the political world we live in and exploring it through the frame of my love, of books and of reading and of children formulating themselves against a scaffold of words and images and ink.

Children’s literature is a politicized space; it is, always, driven by the ideological and cultural and personal instincts of those who write it and make it and publish it. A book exists because somebody wants it to exist, and that want is driven, always, by a need to speak. To say something, anything sometimes, but normally something. A vivid, bright, pointed something that can be said only by the writer of that book at that point in time, a message that only they can give.

I ran a creative writing workshop last week and told them of the theory that there are only seven stories in the world, and that what made them different was not the story they told but how they told it. Voice. Voice, always voice, identity and nuance and crafted, pointed, passionated voice.

Voice comes from context and context, sometimes, is forgotten. The superhero saves the day, the villain gets his just desserts, the world is righted, the girl gets the girl gets the boy gets the boy gets the girl, patterns. Always patterns.

And when they are jagged and broken, then it is hard to know where to begin again, where to find the fit in the shards of glass because patterns matter. We understand patterns but we also pattern ourselves; we turn left, catch that train, have a coffee at eleven, a sneaky extra drink on a Friday night. Structure. Pattern. Books fix those patterns within us at a young age because they are a mirror when we are doing nothing but looking and trying to figure out who we are.

Children’s literature matters, undoubtedly, always, indubitably. But it is political. It is a fought for space, from those stories which urge to be part of it and should never have a space within it, from those stories which are part of it and could never be anywhere else. But they are always political, perhaps not within themselves, perhaps not without themselves, but there is always, always, a discourse of politics around them. From the way they’re shelved, to the sex and gender roles of the children they represent, from the way they mask adult concerns around childhood, or from the way they reflect a dialogue around the idea of childhood, a collaborative attempt to understand this space, not through talking down, nor talking up, but rather, simply, talking; of articulating, of dialogue, of discourse.

Children’s literature is not a safe space.  This is not to deny that it can and should be safe, that children deserve and long for this space where their stories can be heard and understood, that to feel safe and complete is something that children’s literature should not do. Of course it is a safe space. But that is not all it is.

Children’s literature is dangerous, challenging, other. From the picture books which ask the single child to consider the presence of a new sibling in their life to the books which tell teenagers how to live when all around them is dark and horrific, children’s literature questions what makes us human.

To navigate that space requires an understanding of self, and the relationship of that self towards this sector of literature. To navigate that space successfully often requires an absenting of the desires of that self. It isn’t easy. But to participate within children’s literature, particularly as an adult, is to participate in a politicized and political space. To be that adult in this sector is to be transgressive, other. Powerful.

Unruly.

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

 

 

5 Life Lessons Children’s Literature Taught Me (with a little help from Buffy)

1. bravery is not what you think it is

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I think, in a way, this is one of the more important and perhaps the most important message that any book can tell anyone. As Buffy says in the above gif that sort of reduces me to an emotional wreck every time I look at it, the hardest thing to do in this world is to live in it. And it’s even harder to do that as a child with all of the power and control that you lack in that position. Life is horrible, sometimes, and to live in that – to be able to be brave within that? To show your reader that there’s a light in the darkness, however dark your darkness is? That’s a gift.

Reading suggestions: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, There May be a Castle by Piers Torday.

2. it’s all about the journey

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It’s too easy to shift life into a series of moments. Of goals. And they don’t get easier when you get older, but somehow they’re more sharp when you’re a child. Exams. Grades. Friendship. The shattering moment when your friend plays with somebody else on the playground or that moment when your social media is full of people having a better life than you. So this is where the books step in to show you that there is something else out there and that’s the journey. You may be all heading towards the grim inevitability of SATS or A-Levels or university or the first job, but these books remind you to enjoy the process of getting there. To party, to laugh, to love, to live. Sometimes your destination will wait.

Reading suggestions: Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson, My Name is Mina by David Almond

3. you matter

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You’ll see it on the front of certain magazines and you’ll know it, straight away. It’s that urge to mould a million faces into a concept of perfection that, often, bears a mad disconnect from reality. It’s in the urge to deny the voice of the individual. The urge to laugh at people who get upset when their favourite band breaks up. The urge to mock otherness, to deny otherness within the world. This is the point where young adult literature comes out fighting: it is the space for otherness to thrive. It is a space for that otherness to exist.

Reading suggestions: What’s a girl gotta do? by Holly Bourne, A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian

4. be kind

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Life isn’t about isolation but isolation is often a part of life. Anxiety, fear, terror; teenagers today face pressures that adults can’t often begin to fathom. I know it works the other way too (let me tell you about the wonder that is imposter syndrome some time), so these books work both ways. They talk to adults and to teens. Let’s phrase that a little bit better: these books talk to people. They make connections and ask you to see beyond the edges of your own world. To be kind within the context of yourself and to others. To be part of the world.

Reading suggestions: Girl with a white dog by Anne Booth, An Island of Our Own by Sally Nicholls

5. love is love is love

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The shape of love. To know what it is before you have it, to find it andto hold it. Questions that I still can’t answer, not wholly, not easily, but questions that exist. The limit of love. What is love? Who gets to love? How do I love? What can I love? Who loves me? What if I don’t want to love anything at all? Questions, questions, and sometimes we need to allow the space for those questions to be formed. And to not be afraid of that. The safety of the unknown is, I think, a rarity. We urge ourselves to answer the question, to find an answer and to not allow that silence. And we try to provide clarity to children, to others, to ourselves. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t. And this is where these books step in.

Reading suggestions:  I capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Unhooking the moon by Gregory Hughes.

 

16 ways to help yourself and your child make the best of your public library, books and reading

 

  1.  Sometimes I think we become afraid of challenges and the potential of failure, especially with reading. I hear the phrase “that book’s too hard for you” an awful lot. If you say that: ask yourself why you’re saying that. Unpack the statement and challenge yourself about it.
  2.  The journey to literacy has to start somewhere. Everything’s been too hard for a child once upon a time – but they haven’t stopped. I acknowledge the potential of putting somebody off – but, that book’s been picked up for a reason. Maybe this time work through the illustrations together, or use it as a bed time story. Don’t make the book a source of intimidation.
  3. Hard books become easy books. Help that happen.
  4. Make sure you have more time to spend in the library than you think you need, and conversely, be prepared to leave early if things aren’t working out for either of you. Come back tomorrow. There’s still time.
  5. Don’t make reading A Thing That We Fight About And Talk About In Capital Letters. If it’s becoming a flash point, time out. Step back.
  6. Acknowledge how much reading your child really does. I suspect that we forget this, but reading isn’t just about books. It’s about shopping labels, instructions, video games, it’s about the language that’s embedded in our everyday world. So if the library is a place where neither one of you want to be, that’s fine (for today, not forever, you get back there asap please 😉 ).
  7. Make the most of the textual resources you have at your disposal. Read those. Help your child master the texts that are already in their world.
  8. Don’t be scared of the library. I get that libraries are scary places. I’ve been put off a few in my time. But here’s the thing : they are your space. You are welcome in this space, it is here for you, and if you’re scared or nervous there, than your child will get that.
  9. Model the behaviours that you want your child to see. Perform the associations that you want them to have with a space. Kids are savvy, savvy creatures. If the library is a place where you’re not comfortable, then they will know and they will consciously or unconsciously react to that. Fake it until you make it. Make the library space somewhere where they will choose to be. Why would they want to go if you don’t?
  10. Pick up a book yourself. Non-fiction, fiction, poetry, whatever.Bring it home and read it in front of the child. Read obviously. Weave books into the world. Make books something that the child will see
  11. Don’t be afraid of books. Ask for help if you need it. Seriously.
  12. If you don’t know what your child should or could be reading, ask one of the librarians. Ask them about the most popular authors. Look at the gaps on the shelves. Head to the books that the other children your child’s age do. It’s a rough guide, yes, but sometimes we need those rough guides where we don’t know where to begin.
  13. Encourage your kids to talk about reading and books. Ask them if this is the breakfast cereal that a Gruffalo would eat. Tell them you spotted Gangsta Granny on the way to school.
  14. Get your kid involved in the library. Come up to the desk with them if you can’t find what you’re after. Get the child involved in the conversation. Reserve books that the child actively asks for. Allow them the time for a long chat with the librarian.
  15. Let the child babble about books. Don’t cut them off. There is nothing better in the world than children who are almost breathless with love over a book. Passion is such a driver. Allow the time for those conversations to happen. They are perfect, perfect moments.
  16. Pat yourself on the back every once in a while. You’re doing so much better than you think you are at this. You really, really are. I have such admiration for you. Keep it up.

54 places to begin with when thinking about children’s and young adult literature

A manifesto, of sorts, for those who are interested in children’s and young adult literature but don’t know where to start. Start here. Somewhere. All of them. One of them. Just start.

  1. Read something you remember from your childhood. Read it now as an adult. Be aware of the differences between that read.
  2. Read The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan and revel at the precision of her language.
  3. Subscribe to this blog. And this blog. Also this blog.
  4. Read Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman.
  5. Lurk (or even join in) a Twitter chat. Have a look at #ukyachat and #ukmgchat for starters. If people aren’t talking about what you want to talk about, be the one who does.
  6. Read The Green Grass of Wyoming by Mary O’Hara. Fall in love with the wilderness.
  7. Sign up at your library to help with the Summer Reading Challenge.
  8. Go to The Story Museum.
  9. Read reviews on Goodreads. Decide whether you agree with them or not. Work out why.
  10. Ask your young relatives, friends, pupils what they’re reading. And then read those books.
  11. Read Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill. Let the words scald you.
  12. Start a blog. Make it private, make it public, find your voice.
  13. Read one of the Miffy books by Dick Bruna. Any of them.
  14. Read this blog. And this blog.
  15. Give somebody a book. The idea of the giving of children’s literature is an important thing.
  16. Read Alfie Gets in First by Shirley Hughes.
  17. Go to Seven Stories.
  18. Read The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac. Practice them.
  19. Write something. Doesn’t have to be good, doesn’t have to be bad, doesn’t have to be imaginative, but flex your imagination. Start to understand the space of the children’s book. Start to understand your contribution to that space.
  20. Read The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. Understand how a book can be great and complex and challenging.
  21. Go to a bookshop. Stare at some books. Look at the colours, the descriptions, the arrangements of them. Understand the shape of these books and the contrast between them and others.
  22. Read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Push your fingers through the holes.
  23. Go to the library. Get some books out. If you don’t know where to begin, ask. Librarians are your friends. They are there to help.
  24. Read Artichoke Hearts by Sita Brahmachari.
  25. Experience The Game of Sculpture by Herve Tullet. When you’ve finished, experience it again.
  26. Set up a Twitter account and follow a lot of people in the sector. You don’t have to necessarily engage, but do follow. Educate yourself in what’s going on.
  27. Read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
  28. Visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.
  29. Have some cake. And then read something. Read indulgently, selfishly, wholly. Stop the clocks. Lock the door.
  30. Read I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith.
  31. Read Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.
  32. Send a book on an adventure. Track its progress.
  33. Read The Chalet School in Exile by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer.
  34. Visit Daunt Books.
  35. Attend an author event. It’s one thing to read the book yourself, but it’s quite another to hear it being read and talked about by the author.
  36. Read some Eloise.  Any of them. Sink into the exuberance of them.
  37. Read A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian. Fall in love for the first time.
  38. Read Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill. Think about his use of colour and scale and scope.
  39. Attend Alice’s Day in Oxford.
  40. Read Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens.
  41. Read Max’s Wagon by Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson. A short one this, but something quite brilliant.
  42. Go to Whitby and read The Whitby Witches series. Sit in the abbey. Walk the beach. Tread the steps of Ben and Jennet and Aunt Alice.
  43. Read My Name is Mina by David Almond. Sink into its language.
  44. Go to the woods on a bear hunt. I’m quite serious about this one. Think about what you’d need and then pack it and then go. Don’t come back until you’ve found one.
  45. Read Cowgirl by GR Gemin.
  46. Read Dog Ears by Anne Booth.
  47. Talk about books. To everyone, anyone. Don’t be ashamed. Don’t be reticent. Be passionate and vital and interested in the power of this sector of literature.
  48. Visit Barter Books.
  49. Read a book out loud to yourself. Somewhere silent, if you can, and let yourself hear the words.
  50. Read Looking at pictures in picture books by Jane Doonan. Apply some of her ideas to the next picture book you read.
  51. Read Unhooking The Moon by Gregory Hughes.
  52. Attend a literary festival. (Oxford Literary Festival‘s children’s programme is particularly wonderful).
  53. Read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.
  54. Read Pea’s Book of Holidays by Susie Day.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that every rainy day requires a very good book”

I wish I wrote this sitting in the kitchen sink but I don’t, I write it upstairs and I write it staring out onto a grey and rain spotted day. The sky’s a smudge of sadness and the roofs are slat-dark with the rain that’s pounded on them since first thing this morning.

So what do we do on such days? We read. Books are made for rainy days; for days where the only thing that matters in the world is you and a blanket and a sofa and time, time, time to wallow and read and to lose yourself.

Here’s five of my favourite recommendations for such days.

1. Roland Barthes – “A Lover’s Discourse”

A dipping book this, one to pond-skim and then to dive in wholly and hold your breath until the text releases you. This is a book that reminds you of the quality and power that language can yield. It is a book of constant inspiration for me; a book for breathing, in and out, and realising just what words can do.

2. Frances Hodgson Burnett – “A Little Princess”

There is a part of me that could populate this list with just repeated references to this book. Rainy day reads are reads that should transport you, that should take you to other worlds and times and places, and do so quite ferociously and fiercely and vividly. The tale of Sara Crewe and her attic is that book.

3. Dodie Smith – “I Capture The Castle”

Grace, bold and lovely and heartfelt and awful, this book is full of grace and of heart and of romance and of love. Read it slowly, read it richly, read it slowly and selfishly and when you’ve finished reading it, read it again and remember how perfect a book can be.

4. Michelle Magorian – “A Little Love Song”

To talk of Michelle Magorian and her work, is to talk of a writer who is simply very very good. A Little Love Song is lesser known, I think, than ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’ but it is, I think, better. Can books be better when they are all so good? I think so, yes, I think Rose and her seaside coming of age story is one of the most perfect books to ever dawn the world of children’s literature.

5. Susie Day – “Pea’s Book of Holidays”

A classic in the waiting, this series ; all of them are written so beautifully that I fall in love with them afresh each time I read. Day’s books and this one in particular sing of life and of warmth and of love and of people. What better to read on a rainy day than this book of sunshine and of humour and of Enid Blyton and of adventures and wish fulfillment in every sentence? These books are a constant, constant joy and ‘Pea’s Book of Holidays’ is a book that I am feverish with love for.

An introduction to the school story – ten titles to begin your reading journey

So you know I have a bit of a thing for school stories, right?

Just in case that comes as a bit of an awful surprise to you, you’re either new (in which case, hi!) or haven’t been paying attention (in which case, remedial prep for you and Antoinette will bring ‘anchovy’ toast to your study later).

So, to clarify, I do enjoy the school story and the girl’s boarding school story genre in particular. Here’s a thing I wrote about why you should read the genre itself but what I want to do in this post, is tell you about a few titles (nb: in no particular order) which I think will serve as an excellent introduction to the girl’s school story.

I’ve picked titles from The Dawn Of Time and also some very contemporary books and over a fair few differing age groups and I have, I know, omitted a few very popular authors. It’s one of the problems and joys of lists of this nature. What does, however, unite all of these titles is that they are great and lovely things and I have hugely enjoyed them all. I hope you have the chance to do the same.

And do let me know what you’d add as number ten?

(My thanks to @nonpratt for inspiring this post! She wrote an excellent book btw, fyi and all that.)

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Structurally speaking

Structure in children’s literature, heck, literature in general, is an odd tricksy beast. If I think of structure, one of the first examples that come to mind(though everything is an example of structure, this one comes first) is Tristram Shandy. Though it still remains not the most readable of books for me, and nowhere approaching children’s literature, I am always fascinated by the structure of it. Sterne’s book, madness, flirtation with order and sentence, is something quite extraordinary. That, coupled with Enuonia, remains one of my great reminders of what books can do and what the form of a book can be.

And to be specific with an example in children’s literature; that flirtation with form, that embracing of what is, is something that Room 13 by Robert Swindells does quite brilliantly. It is a gothic story set in the heartland of gothic-onia, Whitby, and the book itself possesses no chapter thirteen. Chapter Twelve exists. Chapter Fourteen exists. Chapter Thirteen does not.

I can’t tell you how much this thrilled me when we had it read out to us at school. I still remember the way that the entire class let out a low, stunned, “Ooooooh” when the teacher showed us the blank pages. It’s such a brilliant, clever stylistic touch which adds so much to the story. It is the story inhabiting itself (lord, how I hope this makes sense) and being more than the words on the page.

And that’s what we want, as reader, as writer, we want these stories to live and to burn in our hearts. We give ourselves when we read, when we write, and there’s nothing more pained than finishing something and feeling – nothing. Just the turn of a page and a blank, emptiness inside you.

I don’t want that. As writer, as reader, as big old book nerd, I do not want that. I want literature to mean something. Art should give you something, whether it’s something you understand or don’t, you should be able to recognise (lord, not even recognise, just feel ) something different about yourself at the end of it. The closeness of reading is particularly potent. You are in somebody else’s headspace for the entirety of that encounter – and that’s amazing to me. It always has been, it always will be. The transformational power of a text.

That’s why structure’s so important. It is the shape, the framework of that encounter, and it has to be accessible. Every book wants you to unlock it and to be part of it. There’s no fun in something which doesn’t want you to be part of it. I am a selfish reader sometimes. I need to be needed. I want to feel like I am actualising this story and if I sense that it doesn’t need me, that the structure is too tight and too dense to let me in and doesn’t care about that, then I feel like I’m missing out.

(And I think, I think I have found my structure for my book. It is not what I expected but if I had expected it then I’d have been eating chocolates and watching DVDs for these past few weeks rather than slash, slash, slashing with my red pen. What can I tell you about it? Well. I will tell you this:

Every book is a performance, I think, and mine is no exception).