Everything else Theory

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.


Annotated: Sabre The Horse From The Sea by Kathleen Herald

My research has been recently turning towards juvenilia – stories written by girls, for girls, and what that tells us about being a girl – and it bought me to an extract of Sabre The Horse From The Sea by Kathleen Herald (in: Where Texts And Children Meet, eds. Bearne and Watson). It is an extract that stopped me in my tracks and one that I do not think I’m quite over yet. Or maybe ever.

Kathleen Herald is perhaps better known under her married name of KM Peyton. Still writing today, Peyton is a remarkable figure. She is perhaps even more remarkable when we consider that she wrote Sabre… when she was fifteen. Fifteen! Forgive me but I’m going to have to shriek over that a little bit more before we continue. When I was fifteen, I could barely write a coherent sentence let alone deliver something as sophisticated and as fiercely wonderful as this.

Sometimes when I am obsessed over something like this, I have to investigate it. It pays for me to dig beneath the surface of what a story is and how it’s been presented. It’s my first stage of understanding – I need to figure out those intertextual points of reference, those beats that connect to another story in the world, and figure out why this story works the way it does for me. Whether that’s punctuation, or sentence structure, I can only figure it out when I burrow into the text itself and make it my own.

I also thought it might be something fun to share …

Book Reviews Theory

Tales Out Of School by Geoffrey Trease

Tales Out of School: A Survey of Children's FictionTales Out of School: A Survey of Children’s Fiction by Geoffrey Trease

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Epochal at its time, this book sought to locate children’s fiction as an object of serious critique. It came during a powerful point in the history of British children’s literature, that mid-twentieth century that saw so many of the classics we refer to on a daily basis take their first breath in the world. Trease, now somewhat lost from popular knowledge, wrote powerful historical fiction for children which merged historical accuracy with characters designed to appeal to both sexes. He wrote for children – not just for boys or girls. Tales Out Of School sees him turn his hand towards theory, and attempt to deliver a critical survey of the last hundred years of children’s fiction, to figure out how it does what it does and why that matters.

It’s interesting to me how many of the books he references as totemic are now relative unknowns, and how some other titles have endured. I suspect that there’s a discussion yet to be had about the great patriarchies that dominate and construct classic British children’s literature, but let’s save that for a day when I’m feeling grumpier. What’s worth celebrating today is Trease’s attempt to rationalise children’s fiction not only to himself but to others. This is a book that looks outwards, incorporating feedback from readers, parents and educationalists. It does so a little stiffly at points, as Trease seeks to relocate his authority as ‘A Writer’ but in the whole, it’s an interesting piece. He’s arguing, essentially, for discussion and action; to try and locate the ‘best of one’s self’ within children’s books, and to write, promote and sell and read the books that do such.

On a side note, there’s a fabulous moment in his chapter about the school story (Chapter IX : Midnight In The Dorm) and forgive me for quoting it at length. He acknowledges a letter he received from the ‘joint-principals of a London school’ who write that “We have looked through several schoolgirls’ annuals… and find they give a very false view of school life. The fourth form seem to run the school – the head-mistress is generally a dignified but distant figure-head, and the assistant mistresses either young, very girlish and so popular, or middle-aged caricatures. In one a party of girls were allowed to go for a picnic some miles from the school without any mistress. Among them was a ‘Ruritanian princess with a gang of international crooks after her. She had been sent to the school for safety and was naturally kidnapped on the picnic.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I take two things from that. Firstly that book sounds an awfully lot like The Princess Of The Chalet School, and secondly those joint-principals sound amazing.

View all my reviews

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.

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 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 Theory

Who are you if you are afraid? : On mediating complex content in children’s literature


“If I have the agency to read texts for young people critically, then might not young readers have this agency also?”

Nodelman, Perry (2016) The hidden child in the hidden adult Jeunesse : Young People, Texts, Cultures 8 (1), pp266-277


I have been thinking about this post for a while and how best to approach it. It was thrown into sharp relief by a few conversations I had recently, and some online activity I watched, which made me realise that I was thinking about the books I study and work with and read, madly, feverishly, selfishly, and had some ideas around content that were worth exploring in a post like this. I am self-indulgent on this blog, I know, but things like this matter immensely. Literature is a building block, a superpower, and once we understand how it does what it does and how we influence that doing, we are warriors.


How many you’s are you a you to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Don’t be afraid of academic children’s literature

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

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

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

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

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

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


A spectrum of choice : Girlhood and Enid Blyton

“Shall I tell you what I want? What I really really want?

I really really really want to see a recognition of the diverse modes of femininity and girlhood presented in Enid Blyton’s school stories zig a zig aah.”

Whilst I’m conscious that these aren’t the exact lyrics for the Spice Girls classic, I want you to imagine that for a second they are. Wait. No. I’m a step too far ahead already. Let’s go back. Twist the sky and push the sun down over the horizon, let the night fall, let’s go back.

Let’s start here; and with Anne and George and Dick and Julian and Timmy. The Famous Five. I’d hazard there’s not many of us who haven’t met them, whether through the series itself or through the cultural shorthand that Blyton has come to represent. Racism. Sexism. Outmoded sterotype-ism. Slightly rubbish writing every now and then-ism. We know Enid Blyton, even when we don’t. She’s cultural shorthand; an icon wrapped up in sensible shoes and fanciful stories about blackbirds and some chap with a saucepan on his head. She’s part of our world.

Yet, equally, she isn’t. We know a construct of Blyton. We know an idea of her, a shape to be filled in with our concerns and our needs and our fears. It’s the same for every public body, maybe, they become a politicised space that can be written over with our needs. We don’t know Benedict Cumberbatch, but we do. We know and unknow. The paradox of knowing. The paradox of knowing that you don’t know. The paradox of increasingly complicated sentences!

So let’s go back to the simple points, to Anne, to George, and the way they are both girls and not girls, the way that they are shorthand for all that is bad and good for Blyton, all that they are and were boiled down to this – simple – dynamic.

And I am the first to find Anne complex, challenging, but she exists with George; not opposed, not the other, but rather an other. Girlhood is a spectrum; not all girls this, not all girls that – , this girl is – . Not these girls are. Not all girls are. Boil this down to pink and flowers, I dare you – girls are more, beyond that, they are not one word nor one action, and they exist, co-exist, share space in the world –

they do not cancel each other’s space. Not one for the other, but rather both as an expression of girlhood, neither as the distinct representation thereof –

Anne thrives in the domestic, the control – the limited expression of power, perhaps, because that is all she can control within that environment? The domestic space; not a subspace, not a second space, but rather space; Anne’s space –

George, the girl of action, the girl in the wide, wide world, the girl who adopts masculinised vestments and behaviours because , perhaps, she cannot exist in that wide wide world without doing so? A Cesario in the world –

Simplistic readings, perhaps – but contrarily simplistic. Deliberately so. Blunt, hardheaded readings because I rail.

I rail against readings that reinforce ideologies, that deny the shifting nature of critique and selfhood, that deny these texts relevance, that belie them –

Girls as girls as girls. A thousand figures of girlhood stretch themselves against Blyton’s canon; girls that yearn for the domestic, girls that would rather die than touch it, girls that embrace careers, girls that embrace maternity, girls that embrace a spectrum of potential – a spectrum of choice

I choose to read Blyton like this, I choose compexity, I choose, I choose –


Further reading

Empowering girls? The portrayal of Anne and George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series


The urge for the classic : on children’s books and those eternal surveys

Another day, another survey that says what children can and should read. The click bait nature of most of these articles aside (and note, I say most and not all), there’s something interesting here worth teasing out. I suspect that something might centre on the historic constructions of children’s literature itself; the nature of age and growth for our interpretation of the sector, and the nature of the adult within that construction and interpretation. That’s a horrible sentence, but I hope it implies one key thing amidst the grammatical morass : children’s literature is complicated.

So, she says nonchalantly, just what is children’s literature? It’s a question that devours great swathes of research and one that bears particular weight to this blog. I focus on children’s literature. I broaden that to include young adult and picture books, but I do not review or talk about works for adults. So maybe we can start there; children’s literature is a space that exists in opposition to adult literature? And yet, even there, in that trembling starter, I find myself arguing with myself. Children’s literature thrives on the adult; they are vital within picture books, they’re vital in the purchase of literature (kids get money from somewhere, right? they don’t get to the library by themselves…). The adult is the silent presence within children’s books; the child themselves is defined by otherness from the adult. The Victorians had a field day (Arcadian pun intended) with the idea of the precious child; the cult of the child saw the great purity of the child fixated upon and maintained. The child as child as child. 

Maybe then we argue for children’s literature to exist not in opposition but in phase; in sequential space within each adults journey towards literacy, but transforming for each and every adult. Children are the great unknowable; we are not children, though we once were. Our childhood is past, but it was there; it was experienced, and now we are through it. We are grown, we are adult (excuse me whilst I go and panic fly a kite and contemplate my aged existence). We look back on childhood. We don’t look on or in. Childhood, our state as child, exists in a backwards, historic state. We have travelled through it.

So, surveys, I suspect, about what children read, will always be historically tinged and somewhat retrospective precisely because of our distance from childhood. We are people who read backwards, and who drive the demand for literature backwards. Of course we read contemporary fiction and we yearn for the new, sharp hit of wonder, but we yearn for stability. Like I said, children’s literature – it’s not simple. There’s a reason that Enid Blyton is one of the fifth most translated authors in the world, and it hinges on that idea of stability. Our childhoods are safe, golden spaces. We are trained to see them as that, regardless of the truth. School is the best time of your life. Holidays become golden tinged. We remember the good. We choose books which will construct that idyll and transfer it onto a new generation.

Sometimes I think these surveys don’t reflect the books at all.

Sometimes I think these surveys reflect the ideologies around these books.


Further reading:

Read Samantha Shannon’s lovely piece in the Guardian on this topic.

Non Pratt’s series of gorgeous tweets  delivers a list of reccomendations I’d be thrusting into the hand of every person ever.

Everything else Theory

Good books, bad books : discussing value in children’s literature

I  had an interesting chat earlier this week with a colleague. She asked me to show her an example of good illustration, versus an example of bad, and whilst I could easily fulfill the request for the former, I struggled with the latter.

Bad. Bad books. We think about that a lot with children’s literature; it’s a space of competing agencies and ideologies. It’s a sector of publishing that has to be almost everything and nothing, all at the same time. For a book to work within children’s literature, for it to even get to the child, it’s got to pass a thousand boundaries.

Author. Agent. Editor. Publisher. Marketing. Libraries. Teachers. Parents. Child.

A thousand steps; a thousand leaps. There’s more in that journey, I know it, but I think the point is made. That book in your child’s hand, that book on the shelf at the library, it’s come a long way baby. And seeing it there says something quite distinct about both itself and also the process which has enabled its presence.

Somewhere, somehow, that book has been given value.

It’s not a cheap process publishing, nor is it swift. Ditto having the book in the library, in school. It’s taking space that could be used up elsewhere, always. Each book in the library, each book on the shelf in the bookshop, they are all on their notice. At some point, their space will be used for something else. Stock rejuvenation. Circulating titles. Value being given to this book that might find another usage somewhere else.

I keep coming back to that idea of value, when  I think about the good / bad dichotomy. I argue, a lot, for the good books. For the books that deserve to be revelled in and loved, and yet, can these exist without the ‘bad’?  Can good exist in isolation or does it always need the ‘bad’ before it can be understood as good?

Think of a chair with four legs. And now, think of a chair with two legs. Is it still a chair?

I think, perhaps, I’m talking about relationships and about the dialogue of books between books.The way that no book exists in isolation, the way that even the bad book (for what that definition is worth) holds value. Importance. Weight.

There are good books out there that I will not touch, for I do not see them as good, but I recognise their value. They are not bad books then for me, but rather they are other books. The chair with three legs. The chair with two. They are still books, but books which exist in an other space. A space that is laden with value and ideologies and agencies, but not a space in which I find myself.

Bad. Good. It’s a simple sequence, and yet, maybe I think it’s the hardest one out there.

And I suspect that maybe, that the bad book might not exist at all.



“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive”

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”

I bet you know where that comes from.

I bet you remember the first time you read it; maybe not the precisions of it, the exact thing you had for lunch, or what colour socks you had on, but I bet you remember that moment. I bet you remember how it felt.

For me; Leeds, and a nondescript shopping centre. WHSmith, maybe. One of the high-street stores; one of those that look like something you’ve seen a thousand times before. We were passing through. I had a book token.

(Book tokens, oh my lord book tokens, the eternal love of the bookish child)

The shelves were at the back of the shop; tucked away. I bought the first three titles in the series, titles twisting on my tongue. Familiar. Unfamiliar.

I have a habit of being late to things; I am a library lover, a librarian, I read what the library has, and sometimes some libraries are more prompt than others. I picked up His Dark Materials in Totnes, all three of them, another deal, more clean-edged spines; the crisp, indulgent pleasure of newness.

Of a book that has never been read before; a book waiting for you.

Only you.

I am rereading this book now, this book that begins with a suburban couple in a suburban street, perfectly normal thank you very much, and I am thinking of those moments and the way that first read contrasts with the second. The third, fourth, fiftieth.

We read; we connect. That first read, that self-making read.

We read again; we reform, we reconnect, we rediscover. We affirm those bonds of ourselves, hard fought and hard forged.

And sometimes; we rediscover a classic. A book that aches with resonance, with sentences that sound a note something far beyond that which they sounded so many years ago.

This is rereading; this is us, this is the story of who and why we are. This is your first love, your first kiss, first loss, first – moment.

And it all comes from


this tiny, tiny thing

this book.










Everything else Theory

Turn Left : on serendipity, shelving and selection of children’s literature

In beginning this post, I want to take you back a step. I want to take you away from books themselves and back to the word.

I want you to think about these sentences. I want you to think about how you know that they’re sentences. I want you to think about what tells you that this is a sentence. Same for this. And this? This too. What is it about them that makes them sentences? Is it the capital letters? The phrasing? The full stops (or periods, if you’re that way inclined)?

Maybe it’s the sequence. Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve read one sentence and you know that another sentence usually follows. Language is sequential, collaborative. It feeds off the moment before it and the moment after it, even if those moments are unsaid and unformed things. There’s always the presence of the other when you think about language. It’s not a singular beast. It is a many-headed pluralistic thousand-tongued thing.

And I want you to keep that in mind as we talk about shelving and serendipity and ideas of choice in children’s literature.

Have a look at these delicious photos, which tell the story of a bookshop in Rio ordered by colour. Then have a look at this, where a library in Ipswich wrapped up books in neutral paper which showed the first line and the genre of the book. And finally, here’s a library which organised its fiction section by genre.

There’s an element of practicality of course with classification systems and order; we expect them. We are trained to find order, to seek patterns and to make the irregular regular. We seek sequence and we seek the symbols that cause that sequence. Think back to the sentences. The capital letters. The full stops. The structure of them. The systems of them.

We need that. We seek that. We make the world systematic; we get up at a particular time, get the same bus, eat at the same table. And in the context of libraries and bookshops where others are experiencing our systems and classifications, we need to make those systems transparent and clear enough so that others are able to grasp them and utilise them. Stock is for reading, books are for selling, issues are needed and readers are wanted, and so an insight into the classification used is needed and wanted and deserved.

But sometimes, I wonder if all of these systems signify something else and I wonder if that something is fear of the unknown.

Children’s and young adult literature is subject to a lot of labels, names and classifications (do you know of cli-fi and sick-lit for example?). Whilst acknowledging and understanding the marketing urges and practical reasons which drive such descriptors, I do wonder if these and the other classification systems perpetuate a linearity of thought. A specificity of readerly choice.

I wonder if sometimes we are so blinkered by these labels that sometimes we miss that serendipitious moment, that  that swift twist of fate that makes us turn left instead of right, guided by the vivid kingfisher-blue flash of a cover that catches our eye in the morning light.

I wonder if there’s the literary equivalent of Turn Left, being made every day, every second.

I wonder if there’s a whole world of what could have been


The library of things (with thanks to Bachelard and Barthes)

I’m moving books; placing Coram Boy against Drama, The Whitby Witches against The Three Musketeers. This is my packing and these are the boxes of texts pressed together in their fleshy book-bound bodies, and they are full of my life and a thousand other lives. This is my library; a library of things, of books, of boxes, of moments. As Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space: “Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space”, and so these books are not indifferent spaces. They are loaded and weighted with the space of myself and of my life lived and yet to live, aconjunction of moments and thoughts and dreams and sadnesses, trapped between the pages of The Secret Garden and Looking into the Middle Ages and Jasmine Skies.

This is my library of things, a library of loneliness and of desire. These texts exist singularly, ferociously so, but when they are like this, they are together-texts, and I return to Barthes in my thinking of them: “Language is a skin: 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.” It is my love, this quote, always, and the desire here manifests itself as connections; spines pressed up against other spines, covers pressed against covers; words running from one to the other, leaping the gaps to colonise the in-between spaces. Books do not exist in regimented isolation, in ordered magnificence. They are wild and chaotic and living things that seek these moments of cross-pollination, of blurred edges, of spaces where connections can thrive and react and exist.

I think that the more I write and the more I read and the more I know, the more I think of texts as not being book-bound at all, but rather existing as a world; as a subspace that exists in our world that we enter and exit and a space that sometimes, I think, we never ever leave at all.


Let’s talk about sequels in children’s literature

A couple of articles and new titles have caught my eye this week and they’re all about sequels to classic pieces of children’s literature. ‘Katy‘ by Jacqueline Wilson is out now, ‘Return to the Secret Garden‘ by Holly Webb is due in October and ‘Five Children on the Western Front‘ by Kate Saunders has been out for a while (brief segue: this latter title is terribly, hideously perfect). The Telegraph wrote about this ‘plum period of classic novels being reinvented, updated or given sequels’ – and, whilst I appreciate it’s a spoiler, the last lines to that piece struck me: “Let’s encourage children to reach into the past and discover those delights for themselves”



So here’s the piece where I talk about sequels to children’s literature.

Firstly, a little bit of background. Technically, every story has already been written. There’s a school of thought that says there are only seven different plots in the entirety of literature. I rather love that bald statement; the challenge of it and the blunt truth of it. There are only seven different plots in the world. So what’s the point of writing? What’s the point of creating literature where every piece of literature has already been done before? These, perhaps, are questions for another post, but for here, I want to pick up on the idea of repetition and connectivity. The intertextuality of it all, if you will.

If every book has already been written, then logically every book is a sequel. Every book is connected. No book is an island sort of thing. I’ve talked before on this blog about how books co-exist and how to seek a sequel is perhaps to misunderstand what children’s literature actually is, so here,I want to extend that a little and talk about the fear that comes with sequels.

We fetishize the book. We do. We really do. I love books. If you ever see me at a book fair, I’ll be the one crying in front of the beautiful Chalet School hardbacks and going ‘BUT WHY CAN’T I HAVE THEM ALL’. And that’s a great thing (the crying, maybe, not so much). We should understand and respect and, to be frank, love the book because it is such a beautiful art form. The cover, the binding, the printing – the everything. There is a reason that the book has survived for so long and continues to thrive – it is perhaps one of the most beautifully and perfectly designed things that exist.

But maybe we misunderstand a little bit about what it is.

To think of a book as the limitations of a text is wrong.

(To clarify: when I’m referring to a ‘text’ I’m talking about the actual words that construct the story – the ‘Once Upon a Time’ through to the ‘Happily Ever After’)

A text exists pre-book and post-book. It exists in those moments when a small child runs through the park and imagines themselves in Gotham, fighting crime. It exists in those moments when you’re on a bus through Red Lion Square and imagining yourself off to the Dominick Ballet School. It exists for those moments when you hunt a Gruffalo in the woods, or whisper ‘We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it’ when you see some tall wavy grass.

The book is a moment in the life of a text.

The text is not solely the book.

And that’s how it should be. A book does not begin with page one, nor does it end with the final page. Fanfic tells us this, literary tourism tells us this, our imagination screams it as us every time we walk down a road and imagine ourselves somewhere else.

We get scared, I think, of what will happen to a book when a sequel is written. I know I do. But here’s the thing : we’re writing sequels to everything, every day, all the time. There are only seven stories. And that’s the point : if there are only seven stories, then everything we do, every day, is a remix of those seven. There is no preciousness about that, it’s simply how it is.

A text does not exist in isolation.

And neither do readers.

Sequels don’t exist.

(Oh – can I end this there? I think, maybe, I can. I think, maybe, that’s the point that I’m trying to make : sequels don’t exist. Texts are texts, stories are infinite, everything is everything, and books exist in dialogue, literature is a conversation, a dialogue, and without such conversations, we would be so very much poorer.)

Everything else Theory

An A-Z of Picture Book Terminology

I’ve been thinking about these posts from Sarah McIntyre and how I work with picture books.

I could talk, quite happily about picture books all day and I’m very conscious that when I start going on about recto and verso and page turns and white space that it’s a language quite foreign to many. So, in an effort to address that – here we are. I’ve had a go at putting down an A-Z of picture book terminology. It’s not exhaustive, nor is it perfect, but it is a reflection of all the things I think about when I’m looking at picture books. It is, perhaps, a conversation starter. Please feel free to adapt and utilise if you think it’s of use for yourself and your purposes (ps – I’d be v interested to hear if you do use it!).

Have a look at the #picturesmeanbusiness tag on Twitter for more about this campaign.

Book Reviews Theory

A Children’s Literature Tour of Great Britain : Mark West

A Children's Literature Tour of Great BritainA Children’s Literature Tour of Great Britain by Mark I. West

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

West’s tour of Great Britain from a children’s literature perspective both satisfies and frustrates in fairly equal measure.

What interests me about this book is the palpable tension between the nature of such a guide and the literature it concerns. The blurb on the back cover comments that: “Many of the sites on West’s Tour are geared toward children, while some are clearly intended for adults. All will add depth and delight to your next excursion into the fantastic (and fascinating) world of British children’s literature.”

There’s a lot to unpick there, so let’s begin. The initial sticking point for me is this distinguishing between sites for adults and sites for children. This is a tension which surfaces quite often critical work around literary tourism as a whole. Fairly early on in The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic and Victorian Britain, Watson comments that: “[visiting] places with literary associations is essentially an adult vice” (2). Other theorists suggest how literary tourism allows us to regain our childhood (therefore suggesting that the ‘regainee’ is old enough to have had a childhood) or stating that literary tourism is an attempt to memorialise (or to commercialise?) creativity (therefore suggesting that the memorialisee (sp!) is able to validate and register the value of creative cultural capital).

I grant that many of the points in the previous paragraph are cherry picked, but I hope to share with you my rationale and that is this: all of these schools of thoughts presuppose an adult tourist.

Whilst juvenile tourists most certainly do exist, they exist within certain parameters and these are mostly adult defined. However these defining parameters do not define the experience of the juvenile tourist. They also do not obliterate the experience of the juvenile tourist and it is vital to remember that, when discussing literary tourism and children’s literature, that these tourists exist and that, whilst we may not understand their interpretive strategies or their communication strategies, we need to understand that they exist.

So, now that that is said, West’s book is problematic due to this nature of partial audience erasure but also, I think, because of his selection of authors / topics to feature: King Arthur, The Rev W. Awrdy & Christopher Awdry / JM Barrie / Michael Bond / Frances Hodgson Burnett / Lewis Carroll / John Cunliffe / Roald Dahl / Ian Fleming / Kenneth Grahame and Thomas Hughes.

The gender split of these chapter headings is obvious, as is the temporal split. I was surprised to read the publication date for this book being 2003 as, from the selections of authors chosen, I had read a much earlier date for the research. Whilst the entries for each author / topic are interesting, they are brief. Each chapter picks out a relevant attraction for tourists to attend and sometimes the rationales for selection are somewhat oblique. In addition to this, the practicalities of West’s book have suffered due to time as books of this nature often do. Several of the attractions he references are now closed. Certain other details, such as the prices, have also inevitably been affected.

I do laud West’s commitment to his subject throughout this book. Children’s literature and literary tourism is a rich, rich topic and work that focuses on it is welcome and overdue. However, I think if I were to be asked to reccomend a specific guide to Britain for children’s literary purposes, I would put West’s tome aside and head over for the infuriating and yet wildly magical How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books (a book I originally reviewed here), primarily because of Bodger’s itchingly vivid stylistics when compared to West’s more practically inclined tome. And yet, I wonder why I make that decision, why I ache for that wilderness of text that sings of its subject and I wonder if that is to do with my hope, my love, my fervent belief in the space of children’s literature, and of allowing the reader, of whatever age that reader may be, that space to breathe in and to bring their own story towards.

I wonder, perhaps, if that is at the heart of this issue of children’s literature and literary tourism. I wonder if that distinctly un-academic edge is necessary.

I wonder, perhaps, if I need to stand outside a house in London and clap my hands and believe in fairies.

View all my reviews

Everything else Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what it does. 


New beginnings, New Year’s resolutions, and a shiny quarter

The thing about the children’s literature online community (CLOC – patent pending) is that it’s full of brilliant and smart people writing brilliant and smart things. And I think that’s vital. I think questioning and examining and rootling into the heart of what we read and write is such an important thing. It’s through that  rootling that we discover where we stand in life and what we believe and how to map that belief system onto literature which then can either reflect, react or refract those beliefs back on us.

Basically children’s books are brilliant, and if you fancy learning a bit more about them (and about yourself), then here’s some of my top tips for book learning in 2014.  I know, I know, you’ve read a bazillion New Year’s Resolution sort of posts by now. But here’s one that you can a) do, b) enjoy and c) be a big book nerd over. Seriously, what more do you need?

  • Ted Talks. Each talk lasts fifteen minutes and are, more often than not, amazing. The splendid Zoe at Playing By The Book collated some of the best children’s literature related talks here and here.
  • The Book Wars. This is an excellent group blog by students studying for an MA in children’s literature (hey, you should totally do that and ask me all about it). There’s very rarely a post on here that doesn’t make me think very deeply about things.
  • Women Write About Comics. I have a lot of love and respect for WWAC. Comics aren’t my speciality by any means (unless they feature 1950s schoolgirls and Jolly HiJinks) but this site tells me what I should be reading, why I should be reading and why it matters.
  • Talking of visual media, here are two book recommendations on the topic. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is perfection. Hugely accessible and interesting, he explores what a comic is and does and can be. It’s one of those books that justifies itself a thousand times within the first page. A book which does the same thing but for picture books is Looking At Pictures In Picture Books by Jane Doonan. Again, this will teach you everything about picture books and change your perception of them forever.
  • Time for another blog, but this time it’s an individual’s blog and that individual is Maria Nikolajeva. Her wonderful work on children’s literature made me have those cartoon lightbulb moments and her blog is no exception. Her elegant, exploratory posts in diverse topics of children’s literature are wonderful things to read.
  • And finally, are you on Twitter? If you aren’t, you’re missing out on some outstanding and diverse groups of people freely sharing of their expertise and knowledge. And they are experts and brilliant, that much is clear. Have a look at people like @letterboxlibrary, @novelicious, @rookiemag, @bookishbrits, @projectUKYA, @SDSUCHildLitGSA for starters and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve focused on organisations – if I were to list amazing people, then I’d be here all week.

Do you have anything you’d add to the list? What’s your top tip for learning more about children’s books (other than, you know, reading them) ?

PS: I know I mentioned a shiny quarter for you. Here you are 🙂

Girlsown Theory

A 21st Century Chalet School Girl

I’ve mentioned this previously on Twitter but I thought I’d share it with you. This, the below, is part of my Great Project . I am writing a book about the Chalet School series. (I know, right? Joyous nerdery abounds) And these are the two introductory chapters. They’re subject to change, naturally, but I thought I’d share them with you. Because they do, if nothing else, give you an idea of where my thoughts lie on the series. And also how much I dislike Mary-Lou. 😉

Book Reviews Theory

Rhythm and Rhyme in Madeline

Rhythm is a comforting thing in picture books. At a stage when the reader is pre-literate, or developing their literacy, and the book is being delivered in the norm by another, literate, individual, the aural nature of language comes to prominence. Or, to be less wordy, rhythm and rhyme are deliciously divine.


How children distinguish fantasy from reality

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


So here’s the part where you make a choice

We live in exciting times. You know that, right? Right now, the dialogue and the productivity and the talent that forms the world of children’s literature is amazing. Outstanding, even. I’d argue we’re living in a new Golden Age Of Children’s Literature. We really, really are.

I’ve been reminded of that recently when following the debate inspired by this (outstanding) article: “I hate strong female characters”. In it, the author talks about how male characters get – well, for want of a better phrase, facets. In comparison, female characters get to be strong . Lucy Coats responds to it over on An Awfully Big Blog and asks “Do you hate strong female characters?” (Sidebar: we’re discussing this topic on Twitter this Thursday 22nd Aug @ 9pm. Join in with #kidbkgrp ).

I don’t think I have answers to this discussion (and I don’t think I should have answers). But I do have questions and thoughts.

So here they are.

  • “It’s about power – who’s got it, who knows how to use it.”
  • There’s a moment in Persepolis, a book wrapped in war and puberty and angst, that makes me catch my breath every time. It is when Marjane’s  parents send her out of the country.  Sometimes strength is about smiling when your heart is breaking.
  • The thing is, sometimes, we forget (and sometimes we’re scared to remember)  that language is here to serve us. It is ours. And controlling it, shaping it, is probably one of the greatest superpowers you’ll ever have. Period.
  • Is there such a thing as a Byronic heroine? I want a heroine who’s sad, who’s broken and yet still underneath it all, powerful as hell. And sexy, and brave, and enigmatic, and just – different and bold and strong and faceted. 
  • Maria Nikolajeva describes all young adult literature as a “bildungsroman”. And as part of that saga of growing up, we face our demons, our piteous fragile three am fears, and our exultant joys. I want big books. Big, bold books that go to the sadness and take you with them. I want Daphne Du Maurier wrapped up in a YA jacket. God I’d love a Daphne Du Maurier YA.
  •  Strength isn’t just about physicality. It’s about words, using words when they’re the only thing left to you in a world that’s gone mad. It’s about falling in love, in hate, in raging raging indifference. It’s about falling, about picking yourself back up again.
  • Words are what we make them.

(Do you want to know something?

You’ve got the power. Right now, in this connected world, in this online instant world,  you have the power. You had the power ever since you opened that book, ever since you picked it up off the shelf, ever since you opened your eyes this damn morning. And my GOD, how that excites me. The way people, out there, are constructing stories, are shaping stories, how they are living their life with a Maureen Johnson at their side or a Patrick Ness, and how they’re navigating the streets of Oxford and when the light hits at the right angle they can see their daemon, and how they’re playing Quidditch at the uni, and how they’re Nerdfighters and how they’re engaging in clever, smart dialogue on Tumblr and owning their world and understanding their world and planting two feet square in the middle of it and saying I matter and you matter and we all damn well matter.

I love how people  are stories, and how they own stories and how they make stories every damn day.

I have questions. But I think – no – I know that you’ve got answers.)

“So here’s the part where you make a choice. 

Are you ready to be strong?”

Book Reviews Theory

The eyes have it : “Hugless Douglas” by David Melling

Front cover
Front cover

Can I talk to you about Hugless Douglas?

Firstly, I need to give you a bit of background. This book is not one to read when you are feeling remotely hormonal. I read it, and I sobbed. Hugless Douglas broke me in a very good way. It’s a simple, emotional and beautifully told story.

And it’s one that, I think, is all about the eyes.


Learn to question, learn to love

I read something last night over on headguruteacher which has got me thinking. He talks about the difference between knowledge and skills, and the way they interplay and whether one is useful without the other or if, in fact, it’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s a post well worth wallowing in, and one that I think bears a lot of weight through the ‘questioning’ nature of it. Questioning something is, I think, a skill (ability?) I did not learn until I hit university and spent my days contemplating the poetics of dahlias.

And if I think anything about reading, about children’s literature, about textual based narratives, about literature in general, I think this: question it.

Questioning something, pushing in and around and touching something makes you know it. It makes you understand it. It makes you get the feel of how it’s cut, how it’s shaped, and the longer you spend with it, the more you realise how beautifully (or hideously) it’s been put together. That care has been taken over each and every element of it.

Over the curve of the comma, or the way that a sentence ends

and begins.

Or the way that a dash – keeps you – just – a – little – bit – on – edge

(or the way that parentheses can sidle up to you with a confidential wink and a covert statement).

Learn to question – learn that you CAN question them – that stories are not some precious, pristine thing to be viewed from a distance, untouchable, unapproachable. Stories are messy, human things, full of hope and light and shadows. They are scrappy, perfect, wondrous things.

It is through learning that I could question words, that I have the right to question words, that I learnt to love them.


The use of paratexts in Egg by Alex T Smith

” Fig. 1: Front Cover

This is ‘Egg’ by Alex T Smith. It is very very lovely (as is all of his work) but what makes this one shine (and inspired this post) is the use of paratexts in this book.

“Paratexts?” I hear you say, “What are these paratexts you talk of?”

Take a seat my intrigued friend!

Girlsown Theory

Fat, the Chalet School, and a bit of a rant

The other night, I had a dream.

I woke up and I had a book idea, formed, whole in my hands. This book was to tell the story of girls in a genre that I love, that of the Girls’ Own Novel. The turn of the century boarding school story. The jolly japes and the high-jinks. The tomfoolery and the Playing Of The Game.

The following piece is a first thought at that. Apologies that it’s a little quote-light, a lot of my books are currently in another country. But in all honesty, I don’t need quotes at this time. I just need to get my dander up. And trust me, it’s up.

The Girls’ Own book was epochal. These books were the popular culture of their time; the Just Seventeen, the Tumblr, the Myspace, and they defined girlhood for so many readers. This is what these girls saw, this is what they read, these were the titles that said what they were, what they could or should be.

Whether it was Elinor M. Brent-Dyer telling her readers that not all Germans were Nazis (my God, the nature of her work during World War Two still stuns me), or whether it’s Angela Brazil teaching readers at the dawn of the century that they need to know how to work for their living because the future of the country rests in their hands, these books inculcated values and bravery and goals to a world of readers.

That’s what books – comics – pamphlets – our socially constructed narratives do for people. They are a shared voice, a shared construct, which we accept as a voicing of some part of our day to day culture and that which we accept as a receptacle for us to imbue them with our culture. They are both empty vessel and brim full cup. They express the glorious, the inexpressible, and the unimaginable. They are our voice, our spoken, unspoken and unknowable voice.

So this is what this is about. It’s about girlhood, it’s about how these books constructed and presented the experience of girlhood, of developing into womanhood, and it’s about how they did it and the role of the reader in that process. It’s about what they said women could be, it’s about how they presented the world of girlhood to readers across the world, and it’s about their lasting impact today.

But before that, it’s about Sophy Hamel.


I didn’t finish a book today

It’s rare that I don’t finish books. But today, I have made the decision to step away from a book.

It feels sort of wrong, as though I’m cheating on it, and insulting the writers and everybody who’s worked with it, and everybody else who read it. It feels a bit like maybe I read it wrong somehow, like I’m missing the bit that made everybody go “Oh.”

But this book sits uncomfortably with me. The key twist is one that I cannot, really, stomach.  I won’t precis it because, to be honest, you’ll all figure out the title and I’m not for spoiling what may be the best book ever to somebody else. This post isn’t for that.

It’s so strange that this book has left me so … blind. I’m even struggling to write this, to formulate my thoughts and feelings about this strange taste in my mouth. I don’t like it. I don’t like the feeling and I really don’t like the book now.


Uncomfortable, too-close, oddness.

Book Reviews Theory

Children’s Literature Studies : (eds) M. O. Grenby & Kimberley Reynolds

Children's Literature Studies: A Research HandbookChildren’s Literature Studies: A Research Handbook by M.O. Grenby

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the book I’d have wanted before I did my MA in Children’s Literature. That’s not to cast aspersions on my MA (which was, to be brief, one of the best accidents that ever happened to me), but rather to illustrate the differences that occur when researching children’s literature as opposed to, say, interrogating Romeo and Juliet.

Split into six parts, with several chapters in each, this book covers a substantial amount of ground. It discusses children’s literature research skills, looks at how to best utilise and find resources in libraries and archives, how to work with and manipulate visual texts, how to carry out historical research before delivering a penultimate introduction of key theoretical concepts and summing up with a brief but potent section on the changing form and format of children’s literature which is, as Reynolds states, “potentially the area where the greatest change in what constitute’s children’s literature will in the next decade” (206).

That quote is a particularly useful one to frame discussion of this book due to its awareness of the malleability of the nature of children’s literature. It’s spectacularly necessary for researchers who are beginning to work in an area, whatever that area may be, to understand the context of their creative practice. We stand on the shoulders of giants in whatever we do, and you need to know and to be able to comprehend and to rationalise where your point of view fits into this world. That’s something this book does very well; it introduces and frames a fluid, changing world, one that changes substantially depending on whichever reader may read the source text, and it also validates the necessity for us to engage in that dialogue.

There’s an inevitability in the world of research to see reference to the books of Judith Bell for research guidance. Whilst something like Doing Your Research Project: A Guide for First-Time Researchers in Education, Health and Social Science certainly helps to prepare you for the experience of research and dissertation / thesis writing and does so with classiness and verve, the generalistic nature of it cannot hope to address the subject specific nuances of children’s literature. As this book states: how do you transcribe a quote from a picture book? How do you reference a cut out teddy-bear? How do you rationalise the adult vs child reader and how do you understand the role you play in both instances?

It may not have all the answers here, but it helps you in figuring out how to frame the question. And that’s one of the greatest skills you need when you start to question and look at children’s literature, you need to be able to understand what and why you’re doing what you’re doing. Children’s Literature Studies : A Research Handbook is an excellent start in that process.

View all my reviews

Overviews Theory

The use of Framing and Composition in Ellen and Penguin : Clara Vulliamy

I’ve spoken before about how much I love Clara Vulliamy’s skill with picture books. She’s got an awareness and respect – and love – for the medium that translates into some very good and very smart books. It was with some excitement when I discovered Ellen and Penguin and the New Baby nestling on the bottom shelves of my library.

Ellen and Penguin and the New Baby is a very sensitive and  charming book that is practically a lesson in frames and composition. So I thought I’d share some of that with you by looking at how Ellen is treated throughout the book.


The New Normal : The Normalising of Creativity

Recently I’ve been thinking about doing a PhD ( Me! A PhD! Me who didn’t even get her GCSE Maths!), and as part of this I’ve been considering what I’d do it on. There’s a part of me that yearns, genuinely, just to get buried in the books and occasionally pop up and produce a paper on the Freudian significance of Hilda Annersley’s changing eye colours … or something.

Anyway, my big passion remains the Chalet School, but my other thing is the treatment of creativity and talent in stories like this. You know my thing by now, I hope, but if you don’t, my big book loves are pretty much: school stories (Chalet School / Malory Towers / St Clares), dance books (Drina! Veronica! Inordinately sexy Angelo!), horses (Jill! Shantih! Ruth!), KM Peyton and every Angela Brazil where she’s not racist or doesn’t bang on about nature. Something’s been striking me recently which is a sort of confluence of a couple of these divergent strands.

And that is this:  these stories tend to normalise creativity.

Creativity / talent / giftedness is, at its heart, a symbol of difference. Plucker and Stocking (2001) talk about this in their work. They state that students have two key schools of thought and influence by which they compare themselves against : the “internal comparison” whereby the student compares their ability at carrying out task X with their ability at carrying out task Y, and the “external comparison” of the ability of their immediate peer group (537).They also discuss the phenomenon that gifted children, once placed in gifted and talented programmes, regularly suffer a fall in grades (538) because they are then surrounded by other gifted and talented children. The initial gifted child is no longer ‘gifted’ when surrounded by their peers who are of a similarly talented nature as their gift has become normalised through context; the gifted and talented child is no longer unusual and different to their peers.

This is a sort of inverse scenario, the normalising of creativity because creativity itself becomes the new norm. The uncreative – the ungifted – become the oddities. That is what I’d argue swiftly happens in Lorna Hill’s Sadlers Wells books. Dance, artistry, creative expression becomes the norm and those characters who do not achieve an appreciation of this remain ‘out of the loop’. We do not empathise with them because our empathy is based on this mutual code of contextual appreciation and that context is the Arts. Dance. Caroline, gorgeous cake-loving Caroline, practically becomes a new character by the time of the events of No Castanets at the Wells. She becomes normalised within the context of these books.

To survive is to adapt, to fit in is to remain part of the dominating ideology of the narrative – even Grizel Cochrane from the Chalet School series finally gets her doctor and finally fits in, over fifty books since her first appearance in the books . “It’s time for you to eat white bread at last,” says her sagacious, doctor-having, best friend. (shut up Joey). The Collège des Musiciens from The School by the River normalises the creativity inherent in its purpose by only playing host to creative characters – therefore almost neutering the moments of great artistic achievement. There’s a curious sense of flatness to great parts of The School by the River for me. Jennifer’s brilliance, the whole ‘revolution in the city thing’, it’s all just a little bit too run of the mill which is a curious thing indeed for a book solely focusing on gifted and talented characters.

There’s an argument though that the school story (particularly in the era of Girlsown) has this normalising effect by the very fact that it is a school story. The school story genre is one which thrives on nominal equivalence between the characters. Difference is celebrated when it is in forms understandable to the genre: sport, academia, art – but this difference is ultimately subsumed by the needs of the school – the community. The individual matters to an extent, but the greater weight is and always will be the needs of the school.

But then again, there’s an element of normalising talent – of neutering talent – outside of the school story. One of the great examples that strikes me is in Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey books. Maidlin, as a child, is lovely. She burns from the page. And then, when she grows up, she becomes, well – deeper. “You know how love and marriage have developed Maidlin, who was far too much the artist at onetime [sic]. She’s still an artist and a much finer one than she would have been if she hadn’t met Jock. She’ll be singing again in public in the autumn … and everyone says how much her voice has deepened since she married” (1959:66). So here we’ve got a character who is gifted, intensely so, and one who has been ‘improved’ by her marriage. Her voice has deepened (therefore losing the presumably more girlish higher notes of her youth) and become rounder due to her life experience. Maria Nikolajeva in her excellent  The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature talks about marriage  as an archetypal enclosure suggesting that marrying off a female character allows them to be subsumed into a feminine archetype. (2002:45) If we think about Maidlin, society has effectively normalised and in a way neutered her talent because the gifted wife is more acceptable than the gifted talented, tempestuous and socially abjected teenager. Don’t even get me on to talking about Damaris and her whole marriage episode!

Do you know what? I think I might have an idea for that PhD after all…

(And is traditional here in the land of DYESTTAFTSA, here’s a ‘you made it to the end’ Pikachu. Congratulations! )

Works cited –

Nikolajeva, Maria (2002a) The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature Scarecrow Press Inc: Boston

Oxenham, Elsie (1953, this ed. 1959) A Dancer From the Abbey Wm Collins and Co: London

Plucker, Jonathan; Stocking, Vicki B (2001) Looking outside and inside: selfconcept development of gifted adolescents Exceptional Children Summer 2001: 535-548

Book Reviews Theory

How to be a genius : Paul Barker

How To Be A Genius: A Handbook For The Aspiring Smarty PantsHow To Be A Genius: A Handbook For The Aspiring Smarty Pants by Paul Barker

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I can see where this is coming from, I really can. Essentially it’s a Horrible Histories-esque spin on how to be a genius, covering topics such as ‘The Evil Genius’, ‘Fields of Genius’ and ‘The Legacy of Genius’. And, as a whole, it succeeds. There’s some fun in it and a lot of nicely put together sections. I really enjoyed the genuine love of the subject – and it is a fascinting subject. I mean, who knows how we achieve genuius? There’s so much here to play with.

And, in parts, it succeeds. It is incredibly useful in many ways in that it provides a taxonomy of genius for the younger market. This is a rare and unusual thing and one which I salute wholeheartedly. I also approved how they didn’t remain on the ‘positive’ angles of genius and, even though it was brief, discussed individuals such as Stalin and Hitler. It’s an interesting and challenging angle to take.

What I also enjoyed was how it dealt with the pros and cons of extreme talent. There’s also some really smart (and lovely) illustrations throughout, particularly in the genius case studies that occur at regular intervals. These illustrations are vaguely cubist in style and sort of quirkily cool.

As a whole though this book struggles and I found it very problematic. It’s one of those books that rather over-defines certain terms whilst neglecting others and ultimately loses the wit and irreverence it started with. There’s a lot of fun at the start of this and then, somehow, it rather gets lost.

Both in the case studies and throughout the book, there’s a tendency to gender giftedness as masculine. Whilst I quite accept the point of this book that the lack of women geniuses is due to the “patriarchal culture” (39) I do not accept that this is a view that we should be promulgating. Illustrations such as the leggy blonde with the tiny bespectacled gentleman(96), the seduction tips (“Wear low-cut lab coats”, hang out in galleries, fainting occasionally” – 102), are, whilst clearly intended humorously, deeply troublesome to me.

And this is a massive shame because there are areas where this book is brilliant and superb at describing the signs and nature of genius between the sexes. I loved the biography of Marie Curie and his section on the ‘genius gender’ (p39) is intensely promising, mentioning several interesting artists I’m keen to find out more upon. But then that’s the first and last time we hear of them, which sort of confirms the point that women can only achieve genius ‘when allowed’.

There’s a lot that’s good about this book, and a lot that’s less good, and I think the problem lies in the question of audience. At present this book is trying to be everything to everyone, at least superficially, and I think underneath it’s a rather different matter.

View all my reviews


The nature of inspiration

Image: gasboyben (Flickr)

I recently went to see the Jersey Boys in London and was struck in particular by the story of Bob Gaudio. Gaudio was the songwriter behind some of the greatest and most enduring songs in 20th century music – ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘Rag Doll’, ‘Beggin”, and so many more. There’s a moment in the musical where, in a moment of pure theatricality, Gaudio steps out of the narrative and tells us about how he wrote the song Sherry only fifteen minutes before a rehearsal. In this video he talks about it just popping into his head and having to catch it with ‘silly’ lyrics that eventually stuck.

And that was something that made me think. I’m very interested in genius, creativity and talent and how it’s represented in children’s literature. In particular, I’m very much  interested in the nature of inspiration. The moment where something clicks and somebody creates something superb. Whether it’s a physical thing, a chemical thing or something other worldly – that’s the bit that fascinates me.

I decided to look into it. From my list of books featuring gifted and talented characters, we have a variety of circumstances that push the protagonist into the full exploitation of their talent. By this I mean, those moments where the individual  In no particular order, and from the three books / series’ I know the best:

  • Nina Rutherford (Chalet School) writes her first ‘adult’ piece as a tribute to Joey’s newborn daughter, Cecil. There’s a long note (no pun intended!) in the text where Nina, Joey and the author all realise that ‘the promise of Nina’s future’ is written in this piece. Nina is ‘dazed’ by this, physically feeling the delivery of the piece. 
  • Veronica (Sadlers Wells) reaches her great heights initially through reacting to the Northumbrian countryside. There’s a particularly lovely quote in A Dream of Sadlers Wells where the connection between her dance and her surroundings is made explicit. Veronica is able to read and interpret this beauty through her movement and that’s when she starts to develop as a dancer.
  • Pennington (Pennington series) achieves his greatness through a sort of permanent defiance against a society that seems convinced to stereotype him. His talent is further developed through the benevolent / paternal influence of both Ruth and The Professor, but still retains that initial sense of anti-establishmentism.

So what’s this tell us? Primarily that a sample of three titles isn’t representative of the whole, but what they do tell us is that these books feature a very distinctive form of ‘literary’ genius. The genius in these books doesn’t quite reflect stories such as Gaudio’s. The genius in these books reacts and acts in the context of being book-bound. There’s a tendency to reason from cause to effect (let’s all guess where I got that phrase from 😉 ) and a tendency to ‘explain’ the talent of the protagonist through logical / rational influences.

I do wonder though if there’s a book out there that explores the fragmentary, intangible nature of genius, and seeks to do so without this ‘rationalising’. I look forward to finding it if it does exist!

Book Reviews Theory

The Child and the Book : Nicholas Tucker

The Child and the BookThe Child and the Book by Nicholas Tucker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although now somewhat dated in parts, and in others somewhat debateable, The Child and the Book is an epochal classic in the world of children’s literature criticism. Taking a psychological and reader-focused approach, Nicholas Tucker explores the differing attitudes of the child reader throughout growing up. His age-bracketed chapters finish with literature for older children (ages 11-14) and stand solidly against three more general chapters: one on fairy stories, myths and legends, another on selection, censorship and control and a final chapter on who reads children’s books.

Academic writing can often be spectacularly difficult to penetrate both to those in and out of the club, and it is to Tucker’s credit that he has produced a stylishly accessible – and fabulously intriguing – book. His chapters on the reader aged 0-3 particularly appealed though I’d love to have an argument over some of the generalisations posited here.

One thing to note is that The Child and the Book is now over thirty years old and, as is inevitable in such cases, has elements that have now dated. I’d welcome a revised edition taking in light some of the more current research – particularly in areas of emergent literacy and comics. Even with these faults however, Tucker’s work remains fascinating – and madly exciting.

As an introduction to the world of children’s literature, and a sympathetic look at reader-response theory, it’s hard to beat this. I’d recommend this alongside Maria Nikolajeva’s excellent The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature and also Perry Nodelman’s The Pleasures of Children’s Literature because these are books and authors that can’t help but excite you about the potential – and the depth – of children’s literature.

View all my reviews


When you read one book, but can’t stop thinking of another

It’s an act of literary bigamy. That moment when you pick up your new read but can’t help but contrast it against that other book you read.

And it happened to me this week.

I’m not going to review the new read because I don’t think I can do it objectively. I’ve got no bones about doing a ‘bad’ review, but I do have issues when I know that I’ve read one book in a spirit of heightened critical awareness.

So what can I do? Well, I can tell you all about the book that I couldn’t stop thinking of and some thoughts this process has triggered in me. The original book was War Horse by Micheal Morpurgo. It’s an inestimable book and one that’s repeatedly defined my attitude towards children’s literature as a whole. I don’t think I’d be far off if I described it as nearly wholly defining and creating a genre of its very own. There’s a totality to War Horse that few other books have achieved. Harry Potter, yes, and Twilight and  probably The Hunger Games also make the list. They’re all books that have transferred successfully to another medium and been integrated into our social consciousness. I’d imagine there’s not many people out there who haven’t heard of War Horse, whether that’s from reading it, seeing it, or witnessing Joey rearing on top of the National Theatre during the Jubilee boat thing on the Thames.

I know there’s another instance where I do a similar thing. With Elinor M. Brent-Dyer reaching such stupendous heights of creation in The Chalet School in Exile, I know I’ve read books from Angela Brazil (published during a similar timeframe in World War Two) and done nothing but compare them against the stunning polemic in Exile. 

There’s a theory that there are only seven plots in the world, so if you subscribe to that school of thought, in a way we’ve already read every book that’s been written – and we’ve also read all of those that haven’t been written. So maybe what I’m actually doing here, when I read something and compare it sharply back to a previous book, is that I’m actually trying to replicate the way that previous book made me feel. Maybe I’m trying to subconsciously recreate the ‘hit’ of that book and experience an inevitable disappointment when it does not occur.

(Maybe this is just all part of the addiction, the curve and cycle of your reading habit, how you long  to recreate that moment when you broke and wept and cleansed your head of all the pain and darkness in your mind just because of the way a stranger ordered some letters on a page).

So I put my other book down, I step away from it and I make a decision to read it in the future when my mind is less clouded.

And I pick up my copy of War Horse.

Everything else Theory

Identifying geniuses in children’s literature

Genius is one of those almost unidentifiable things. You either have it, or you don’t, and until you become able to manifest it in ways we understand and can legitimise (ie: through a Mensa Test) , it may remain a relatively hidden talent.

It’s a difficulty faced by geniuses in children’s literature and one that I’m going to explore in this post. I’m going to focus on female characters this time round and write an accompanying post when I finally get my hands on Simon Mayo’s “Itch“.

So. How do we recognise the female genius? How do we treat her in the context of the narrative? Is it as something precious – something cliched – or something resolutely Other? How do writers handle difference – difference so manifestly extreme as Genius?

Angela Brazil in a splendidly airy manner tended to give her characters a ‘certain indefinable something’ and then promptly went about describing it. It’s particularly interesting to compare and contrast her (elaborate) descriptions of Mildred Lancaster and Lottie Lowman in The Girls of St Cyprian’s.

The two class-mates who entered the room at that moment were certainly entirely unlike as regards personal appearance, and the dissimilarity went deeper. Lottie Lowman, the elder by six months, was a brisk, alert-looking girl with a fresh complexion, a rather long, pointed nose, a thin mouth, and a square, determined chin. Her forehead was broad and intelligent, her light hazel eyes were very bright and sparkling, and her brown hair held just a suggestion of chestnut in the warmth of its colouring. Lottie’s general effect was one of extreme vivacity. She loved to talk, and could say sharp things on occasion—there was hardly a girl in the Form who had not quailed before her tongue—and above all she adored popularity. To be a general favourite at once with mistresses, companions, and the Lower School was her chief aim, and she spared no trouble in the pursuit. Her flippant gaiety appealed to a large section of the Form, her humorous remarks were amusing, even though a sting lurked in them, and if her accomplishments were superficial, they made a far better show than the more-solid acquirements of others. She could do a little of everything, and had such perfect assurance that no touch of shyness ever marred her achievements. She knew absolutely how to make the best of herself, and she had a savoir faire and precocious knowledge of the world decidedly in advance of her sixteen years.

Mildred Lancaster, though only six months Lottie’s junior, seemed a baby in comparison, where mundane matters were concerned. She was slightly built and rather delicate-looking, with a pale, eager face, a pair of beautiful, expressive brown eyes, and a quantity of silky, soft, dull-gold hair, with a natural ripple in it. The far-away look in the dark eyes, and the set of the sensitive little mouth, suggested that highly-strung artistic temperament which may prove either the greatest joy or the utmost hindrance to its possessor. Mildred was dreamy and unpractical to a fault, the kind of girl who in popular parlance needs to be “well shaken up” at school, and whose imagination is apt to outrun her performance. Gifted to an unusual degree in music, at which she worked by fits and starts, her lack of general confidence was a great impediment, and often a serious handicap where any public demonstration was concerned. The feeling of having an audience, which was like the elixir of life to Lottie, filled Mildred with dismay, and was apt to spoil her best efforts.

It’s a long quote and one I feel worthwhile in indulging in because there’s a lot here. There’s a certain level of nuance at play which is rather unusual in a Brazil (I love her but she’s not subtle). Lottie’s ability with music is obviously of a lesser quality than that of Mildred. Mildred possess a ‘sensitive little mouth’ whilst Lottie’s is merely ‘thin’. Mildred is ‘gifted to an unusual degree’ , Lottie doesn’t actually have any direct comment on her talent whatsoever. It goes on throughout the book and essentially suggests that giftedness manifests itself in the (repeatedly mentioned) sensitive bearing and appearance of Mildred. Basically Lottie’s got no hope for achieving ‘high’ art after that rather waspish introduction.

I’ve spoken before about how the treatment of Maidlin in the Elsie Oxenham books strikes me as hideous. In a way, she’s neutered by her marriage. Her wild, tempestuous, Italianate nature disappears and in the few post marriage books I’ve managed to find, she’s described less by her physical appearance and just as Primrose (her Queen colours). It’s narratorial consumption. Now admittedly this is a fate that befalls a lot of the Abbey girls (womanhood? Nope, not for you petal), but it always strikes me as awful with Maidlin, the vivacious child tempered and subdued by adulthood.

From a more modern perspective, one of the key female geniuses in children’s literature has been Hermione Granger. Although Hermione faces a suppression of her academic ability in the early parts of Philosophers Stone, her skills and intelligence rapidly become lifesaving. She’s a vital part of the trio. Debuting with ‘a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth’, this changes later on in the books due to a variety of factors:

It was Hermione. But it didn’t look like Hermione at all. She had done something with her hair; it was no longer bushy but sleek and shiny, and twisted up into an elegant knot at the back of her head. She was wearing robes made of a floaty, periwinkle-blue material, and she was holding herself differently, somehow–or maybe it was merely the absence of the twenty or so books she usually had slung over her back. She was also smiling–rather nervously, it was true–but the reduction in the size of her front teeth was more noticeable than ever; Harry couldn’t understand how he hadn’t spotted it before.

It always struck me as painful (and yes, this is over-identification, what of it?) that by removing the manifestation of her skills (ie: the books), she achieved beauty. There’s a sense of the resolutely academic brilliance of the early Hermione softening as she becomes more rounded and integrated into Hogwarts society. Yes, she is brilliant, and remains so, but it’s not the first thing we identify about her (or at least, it wasn’t for me).

So is it even possible to identify the genius and the gifted in children’s literature or is the entirety of this post based on a conceptual fallacy? It’s hard to identify genius when the author doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge it. Elinor M. Brent-Dyer backs away from labelling her darling Joey thus, negates any sense of Jacynth being a genius and ultimately affixes the label solely to Nina Rutherford. Nina, being the only genius in the Chalet School, is a rather unique achievement considering Brent-Dyer’s affinity for the concept of musical talent.

I think that , rather than distinguishing the physical characteristics of ‘actual’ genius and sliding into Angela Brazil “Oh the Lady!” style worship,  it is possibly to distinguish one of the stages of genius – the pre-integration stage. The awkward, inwardly focused stage where the character is so locked into their talent that they’re not even responding to the whims of the author let alone the reader. The stage where the character is so locked in their own narrative.

And I think that’s maybe why we can identify that stage rather than the appearance of a genius because that stage  appears in nearly every book featuring genius. Geniuses are different – regardless of their talent – and it’s the ‘management’ of that talent which then forms the rest of the story and that conflict is a necessary driver for the story. Now the question of why that management usually results in a ‘normalising’ of the talent is a question for another post..!


Gendered books in children’s literature

There’s been an interesting debate on Twitter over the last couple of days about book design, marketing, and packaging in relation to issues of gender. Princess books versus Digger books. Construction of identity. Audiences. It’s been an interesting debate and it’s one that I’ve found particularly thought-provoking and incredibly complex. One comment on a post acted as a sort of incendiary thought for me because it essentially wanted the research – the facts – behind our presumptions.

And I’m not sure I know where or what they are.

One of the areas I have done a lot of research in is on gifted and talented characters in children’s literature. I can tell you that one of the rough results of my research was the realisation that genius is quite often gendered. Essentially (and this is based on a lot of reading on texts published throughout the twentieth century), different sorts of talent are applied to differently gendered characters. Dancers in children’s literature were usually female. Pianists, male. Academically gifted individuals tended to split between the sexes but again faced a ‘dilution’ of their talents when the inevitable integration into the status-quo occurred. Additionally there was a definite issue with allowing ‘gifted’ female characters to remain a) single or b) gifted post marriage but that’s another post which will basically involve me railing at Elsie Oxenham for about fifteen paragraphs.

All of this is narrative based gendering – that is to say, gendering that is occuring in the story and in the story world between the covers. What happens when we discuss the book as a whole?

Well, firstly, we pay homage to Gérard Genette. Genette was the individual who defined the term ‘paratext‘. Paratexts are the elements that accompany the text but are not the text – so, in plain speak. things like endpapers, front covers and blurbs etc. In a way they’re the liminal space of the book; that which we do not stop in but passing through is obligatory. Ultimately paratexts are our first entrance into a book. They are the first ‘thing’ we read in the book.

When we discuss front cover designs, the pinkness of this or the blueness of this, we’re discussing paratexts. And, to be frank. there doesn’t seem to be much research about the impact / affect / effect of them. There’s research about peritextual elements from a conceptual level – shifting into things like intertextuality and reader response theory (which I admit is relevant but not for the purposes of this post) – but what is there on the actual result of colour X versus colour Y on the developing psyche is something that is very hard to find.

I did a brief literature review on this topic. One of the more interesting papers I found was this which focuses on a group of children, playing in response to Disney Princess branded media. I was struck by Wohlwend’s suggestion that gendered design and branding may be a case of ‘anticipating identities’. Are we then branding and designing our books in a sense of anticipatory gender definitions? I wonder if there’s an element of imposition occurring that we’re all colluding in? I’m not even sure if that’s the best way to describe it, but I think that’s what I mean. That’s the thing about this topic; it’s a knot of thoughts and feelings and I can’t help but wonder if I’m over-thinking it?

But then I think yes, I am over-thinking this but that’s good – because that’s what consumable media is – it’s put out there and it’s the Enterprise saucer separation all over again. A book is published – a story is made public – and it’s completed by the reader – and it’s irrevocably separated from the author. I’m not sure I wholly subscribe to the death of the author thing but I’m not far from it.  I, as reader, I complete the book. I bring to the pinkest of books all my preconceptions about pinkness; about being bullied, about never quite understanding how to wear skirts, and about still not quite knowing how to do the whole ‘woman’ thing. And I’m a gatekeeper. I mediate and share children’s literature with a lot of people of all different ages. Sometimes I disengage from the personal and achieve objectivity of a sort. And other times I don’t. So my preconceptions on design are huge and I sort of think it’s borderline impossible to achieve or critique ‘art’ without subjectivity. Oof. That’s a massive statement, but I’m going to let it hang because perhaps it needs to be out there.

But one thing I have, regardless of my own issues and colour preconceptions, is the faith that the child of today is brilliant. They’re smart, savvy individuals. From the boys I met who told me all about their obsession with Lian Hearn, through to the girl who lectures me on the amazingness of Agatha Christie, through to the smartest of boys who conceptualises un-genderable Pokemon creations of his own with powers ranging from being able to throw cheeseburgers at people through to being able to rub out exam mistakes; these children are consumers of media.

Maybe then now’s the time for somebody to pay tribute the work of Dorothy White and chronicle the journey of literacy with their child? For researchers to get right in, right at the start of literacy, and start to figure this out. I’m an idealist but when it comes to things of this nature, I can’t even begin to assess the situation without some sort of facts. My story, my personal background, irrevocably influences my attitude towards design even when I try to not let it.

All of this comes from me. Grumpy, grown up, still figuring it out, still confused, me.

So – if the research is happening or has happened – let me know. Are you working in this area? Do you have facts and figures? Shout about them.  Because I think we need something like that  in order to even come close to resolving this discussion.

Girlsown Theory

The Chalet School and Sickness

Once upon a time there was a fictional school with a predilection for near-death incidents. These ranged from the understandable (clinging onto a precipice in the middle of raging floods, climbing a mountain and er hanging off a precipice, or falling into a frozen lake – no precipices involved in that one) through to the sublimely fantastical (standing in a draught, staying up all night, the hiccups).

The Chalet School, were it to have existed, would have been in possession of both massive PR bills and massive insurance liabilities. Brent-Dyer managed to rationalise a lot of her incidents by reinforcing the links between the school and the sanatorium but by the end of the series, there’s definitely a sense of illness overload and a vast amount of deja-vu on the part of the reader. We’ve done this a thousand times already and so, it’s sad to say, the later characters and the more dramatic incidents just don’t have the same impact if they would have occurred in the Tyrolean years.

So what’s the actual point of having these illnesses, this intense urge to throw oneself over the nearest precipice / into the nearest lake (I’m looking *right* at you Emerence Hope)?

A lot of it I think initially rose from historical context. Brent-Dyer was born in 1894 and so was witness to the flu epidemic of 1918. At the age of 24, after having experienced all the first world war had to offer, she then witnessed an epidemic that swept an already weakened world.

Additionally, and I’d recommend you read Helen McClelland’s excellent biography of Brent-Dyer for more on this and her life in general. Brent-Dyer lost her brother to meningitis – an incident which comes across as horrific as by all accounts it was only days from diagnosis through to death.

In a way, Brent-Dyer was writing what she knew; that slim line between health and illness, life and death. Death is something she can’t have ever been far from. There’s a dreadful poignancy in some of her earlier deathbed incidents. I’m thinking of the one where Joey gets sung back from the dead by Robin and The Red Sarafan. Despite the awful schlock of the singing, you can’t help but read into Brent-Dyer’s near forensic description of the sickroom and wonder if a lot of this came from her own personal experience. It’s in the way she zooms right into the detail, the one little thing that sticks in your mind (the orange handkerchief of Dick comes to mind) that speaks of experiencing these situations. The episode is, as a whole, a little bit heartbreaking.

The other element I find incredibly poignant in the Chalet School and it’s treatment of illness is the lack of death that occurs. We have some very, very severe incidents and accidents which occur and to be honest it usually just results in a bit of character redemption or a doctor husband (which is pretty much the same thing tbh).

The only explicit deaths which do occur in the series (and I think they can be counted on one hand which in a cast of several hundred characters is sort of bonkers) occur because of prolonged invalidity / illness. I think the main death which impacted on me, one of the few *big* deaths which occurred  was Mademoiselle Lapattre. There’s an intensity here which doesn’t ever quite reoccur in the series; perhaps only briefly when talking about Jacynth and her Aunt. Consider how Mademoiselle’s death is treated in comparison with Luigia di Ferrarra who died in a concentration camp during the war. Luigia gets a retrospective couple of lines in the CS and the Island delivered with a think about it kids attitude, whilst Mademoiselle, quietly sliding away from life, gets a heartfelt and intense and huge part of the story. There’s something scary about the bigness of normal life continuing amidst all of the madness of the war and it combines to deliver a huge book that punches way above its weight.

So I wonder if Brent-Dyer maybe scared herself with Mademoiselle? Maybe she got scared by how big it got – and how much it dominated her books which had heretofore only ever flirted with this sort of thing. Maybe there’s something in how Brent-Dyer only flirted with going that far only a couple of times ever again? The Joey incident in Exile is stunning; grey, heart-breaking, but it’s not just the reader who lets out a big sigh of relief at Jack’s eventual reappearance  it’s the narrator as well. I find it fascinating how he pops up nonchalantly at the end of the book with a sort of ‘I’m just here for the last few pages’ attitude. And I wonder if somehow, someway, it all boils back down to Brent-Dyer realising something fairly amazing about writing.

She could kill these characters. But she could also save them. These books were where she was in control. Not the outside – not the illnesses that swept down the streets of South Shields – nor the bullets of the battlefield. I wonder if her treatment of sickness (and also her decision to directly address Nazism in her work) was something to do with power. Writing is the ultimate act of power – and also of redemption. The love she had for Joey is evident, and paralleled with that she clearly felt for her real-life ‘little sister’ Hazel Bainbridge. Perhaps these books were the only place she could actually be in control and save her characters from the harshness of the world outside.

Everything else Theory

Location, location, location

On the long drive back from Scarborough (everywhere seems MILES away when you’re a kid), we used to pass this house.  It was a perfectly innocent house but in my head it was where Jill, from the books from Ruby Ferguson, lived.

For some reason this innocent house in my home county, on the way back from the supermarket, became incomparably linked with the Jill stories. It was Pool Cottage in Chatton. It was where Black Boy and Rapide lived. And it was where Jill’s mother wrote her stories. It just was these books. I don’t even know what originally started this idea but it’s something that’s stuck with me for nearly twenty years. Seriously. I thought about doing this post and then I thought about that house and within minutes I had found it on Google Maps.

But that’s the power of location in books. Sometimes, when you really love a book, you can’t help but map it onto your local surroundings to make sure that feeling never leaves you. And that’s exactly what I used to do. This house, for example, is the house at Green Knowe. It bears very little relation to the actual house but it had a garden that just sang of magic to me.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit places that some of my favourite series were actually set. The early part of the Chalet School series is set, indelibly, in the Austrian Tyrol and in particular at the Achensee near Innsbruck. What’s particularly vivid about this memory is my gran and I accidentally mountaineering (“What’s this? A short cut?”) in the middle of the day and then practically breathing in the biggest serving of Weinerschnitzel I had ever seen. And then there was the moment where I paddled in the Achensee and almost collapsed from over nerdiness.

Locations make books. Who can think of Hogwarts without it being, well, Hogwarts? I know for me that my image of Hogwarts was solidified and made something incredible after watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner Of Azkaban. Alfonso Cuarón took what had felt a relatively flat location in the first film and gave it shade. He made it something superb; translating his concept of Hogwarts to the screen. But he’d have had nothing to build with were it not for the gorgeous amount of detail delivered in the book. I’m not a Harry Potter fan, not really, but I can’t deny the superbnosity (thankyou Georgia Nicolson) of Hogwarts.

Locations pay off books. I’m rereading Sarra Manning’s Fashionista books (as a massive massive treat to myself), and Manning knows her London. I’m a yokel, country bumpkin through and through, but even I’m thrilling at the tightness of the model flat and the descriptions of the underground. Manning knows and loves her London very much.

So maybe that’s it? Maybe books with vivid and long-lasting locations, real or reader-impinged, rise from love? Maybe that’s the way to make it – and keep it – real. Maybe you just need to fall in love with your location, real or imaginary, and have to share it with others. Maybe that’s the superpower behind books – that want, that need to share this story and all its colours, shades, lights and darks with somebody else. Maybe that’s how it works.

(Images : Google)


Getting unstuck

Image: Princess Toadie (Flickr)

I have a bit of an uneasy relationship with literary criticism. There are times when I can pull a text apart and take utter joy in sounding out nuances of meaning and thought; and then there are other times when I think of The Color Purple and Sylvia Plath and think I’d rather do nothing of the sort.

What did these two books do wrong to deserve such a disparaging attitude? They were part of my A-Level curriculum at school, analysed to the level of practically studying the grain of the paper they were published on. And I think, somehow, somewhere along that process I lost the love of these texts. I lost it to the extent of writing ‘oh look another poem about death’ on my copy of Ariel …

How do you become unstuck? And more importantly why?

The why is simple. Because if you learn to actively dislike one book, you learn to dislike much more than the book you started off with. There was a point during my schooling when I couldn’t bear to look at a book because I knew I’d have to rip it to shreds. I only really regained the ability to really engage with a book, wholly and purely, when I went to my amazing and life-changing university.

So how did I get unstuck? Well, in between all the Appalachian clog dancing, and the wide-eyed wandering around the gardens and going “OH MY GOD THEY’VE GOT A HENRY MOORE HERE”, I rediscovered writing.

I rediscovered my love of words:

  • After being dragged up in front of the class and being berated for not knowing a beginning, a middle and an end to my story.
  • After being told off for knowing the answer to a question because I’d read the book and not figured it out contextually.
  • After being asked if I copied my work because it was “university standard” and not A-Level.

And this is how I did it:

  • Step away from the books. Don’t worry; you’ll come back. What you’re trying to do, in a way,  is rediscover the word and shape of language.
  • I have a strong belief that readers must be writers. Not necessarily to the extent of cracking out a Booker prize winner, but to the extent of knowing how words feel and how they act. So write – but not with anything traditional. Get out, get down, get dirty. Write with your hands in mud, masking tape on walls, ketchup on bread. Anything that resembles a traditional writing medium is forbidden.
  • Breathe. I had no confidence in my own skills til I got to uni, and even then it wasn’t til the second year really. The first year involved me being a bit WTF and YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?. Breathe. Take time and trust your instincts.
  • Challenge yourself. Are you reading the black marks on the paper or are you reading the white space around them? Turn your books upside down. Take the first word of every other paragraph. Take the last sentence of every chapter. Get stuck into the language. Language serves you, and not you it.
  • The pure act of creating something isn’t something that should ever be critically assessed. Everybody is creative and we’re just so used to it being immediately assessed that we block ourselves in both when thinking about our own abilities and others. I love Julia Cameron’s idea of treating your inner child to something stimulating. So do. Take yourself – with / without others – to somewhere cool. My treat of choice was Paignton Zoo. It was right next to Tesco’s so it was dead handy.
  • It’s okay to hate something – as long as you can verbalize why. Don’t be afraid of not conforming. Easier said than done, I know, and it’s something I’m still working on.

It’s so easy to become stuck  and I think it’s incredibly difficult to become unstuck. I think a massive point of understanding books, and literature as a whole, comes from having confidence in your own critical faculties. Confidence is such a hard thing to get, so once you have it, hold onto it with both hands and don’t let other people tell you how to think. Have faith in yourself and your instincts.

Don’t become the person who pushes other people into the mud.

Book Reviews Theory

hello baby : a high contrast mirror book

hello baby : a high contrast mirror book is one of the new titles (September 2012) from Priddy Books designed specifically for newborn babies. My thanks to Priddy Books for sending me a copy of this to have a look at. It’s part of a wider range of books for newborns and the other items can be viewed here.

Before children become literate, they are pre-literate. The process of becoming literate is known as emergent literacy. It’s a massively fascinating area primarily because of the rapid developmental that occur. You can read a more in-depth post I did on this topic here and another interesting paper here which illustrates some of the key developmental shifts.

What’s the state of play with these books at the moment? I did a very informal survey of my local ASDA to see what was easily available. I know it’s not technically a bookstore but bearing in mind that Tescos, for example.  is pretty much heading straight on to confront Amazon, I think discounting the reach and impact of supermarkets (no pun intended) is something we should be very careful of doing.

So this is what I found. Baby books are genuinely brand-related, and part of a wider media profile. We had Peppa Pig, The Lion King, various other Disney franchises and a few of the more ‘traditional’ baby books along the lines of ‘is this my bear’ and ‘press here for sound X. Whilst I obviously don’t take this informal survey to be indicative of the wider market, I do think that based on the uniformity of supermarkets, there’s definitely a place in the market for the ‘hello baby’ books and I’d welcome them being actively promoted as an alternative to the above books, some of which really didn’t impress me.

I have a lot of love for this book. hello baby is a conceptually exciting and visually pleasing book, reminiscent at points of Black and White by Tana Hoban. Produced in thick, solid, chewable board, it has a central cutout throughout the book with a mirrored panel on the final pages. This title is priced at £4.99 which seems about right (I note it’s already on Amazon at half price from some retailers).

Consisting of five spreads (ie: ten pages), it has no words and instead focuses its impact on a series of abstract images from a colour palette of black, white, red, yellow and blue. Each page has a separate image with a hole in the middle, and the final page has a mirror inset in the hole. It’s a fun, gorgeous and very visually stimulating book. I can imagine there’s a lot of fun to be had just looking through this and using it as a springboard for colour, shapes and self-recognition.

This is a really solid and very gorgeously designed book and one I’d massively enjoy sharing with babies as I think there may be a lot of pleasure to be experienced on both sides. You never know what may happen, they may grow up to be the next Miró..!

Girlsown Theory

The nature of genius in GirlsOwn Literature

Margia Bettany. Maidlin di Ravarati.Mildred Lancaster.

Three characters, from three distinctly different authors. The one thing they have in common (apart from starting with the letter M..)? They’re all gifted and talented characters in their respective books.

Genius in GirlsOwn Literature is a curious thing. It’s almost precluded to be gender specific due to the dominance of female characters in these books. Being female in a GirlsOwn book tends to mean you’re part of the status quo. You fit in. You’re part of the dominant species.

But then, when you’re gifted, when you’re a genius, you become something very different.

You become something quite incomprehensible in a literary construct full of parity and equality. You become something very dangerous indeed.

You become Other.

Consider Veronica Wells. A dancer of incredible ability, prima ballerina assoluta, she’s skilled in an art which involves a curious dichotomy. She has such an intense passion for simply living and being, and yet her lifework is to obey an artform which consumes that individuality through asking practitioners to maintain the rules and standards and movements set in stone by a host of dancers before them.

The gifted dancer in GO literature is a contradiction. She is both controlled and uncontrollable. She is action and music; woman and dancer, line and note.

 “…there’s only one Veronica. She lives every role she dances. She possesses such extraordinary musicality that she can tell by the way a note or chord is played exactly what it means. She’s – she’s just the essence of music!” Jane Leaves The Wells (1989b:70)

Veronica is everything, and she sings from the page.

Until, one day, she stops.

“Whether it was that her life was dedicated to her art – even her marriage coming second – or that she naturally couldn’t lead a gay, sophisticated life, but must practise every morning, and go to bed early each night when she wasn’t on the stage, the fact remains – the pale oval face, with the big dark eyes and sweet sensitive mouth, was still that of a child.” (73)

There’s a tension here, an immediate distancing of her gift from her marriage. Veronica Weston, the dancer, is not Veronica Scott, the wife and mother. Her life is a series of roles and, as the series progresses, there’s a strange feeling that she’s comfortable in none. Is this the impact of her genius? To be permanently a child, longing solely for a daughter (viz. the Vicki / Nona swap)  who can continue her artistic legacy?

Veronica’s experience, Hill’s patent discomfort with letting her character “grow up”,  is in severe contrast to the fate of Damaris, the titular dancer of A Dancer From the Abbey. Damaris is marriage fodder, nothing else, and the brunt of what always seems to me to be a very severe attitude from Elsie Oxenham.

“’I should say that she would be wrong to deny her gift its full expression just for the sake of ease and comfort; to settle down at home and enjoy herself [comments Mary-Dorothy, a friend of the family] But if she loved some man, I’d say she was right to give up even her dancing for him. I’d think it was wrong to let her career spoil the happiness of two lives … ‘You can’t deny that Damaris is one-sided. At present only her artist part is being developed. We shall see where she ends.’” A Dancer From the Abbey (1959:65)

I still can’t read that without my jaw dropping. Even the un-named narrator joins in at one point: “Would Damaris really be strong enough to turn from her career, if Mary Damayris had a great triumph?” (1959:222)

The novel is concerned primarily with whether Damaris marries and leaves the stage. To be frank, it’s obvious where she’ll end up and sure enough Damaris quits dancing to get married.

So is that it? Is that all giftedness is?

Not in a Noel Streatfield novel. Streatfield allowed her gifted and talented characters to use their gift in a practical setting and explore alternative options to a more traditional career path. Ballet Shoes sees Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil achieve highly in the fields of dance, acting and engineering. Circus Shoes sees Peter and Santa find a home for themselves and their abilities in the circus.

Children in a Noel Streatfield novel are viewed at the same level as adults. The preponderance of orphans (and therefore the absense of parents) allows the child to engage in adventures without adult authority. Talent is a positive catalyst for development upon both the individual and the wider world.

So are there moments when talent is a distancer? When it pushes the child away from others, and forces them into isolation?

I think so, and I think The School by the River by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer provides one of the most cogent examples of this.

“…I think that, if God prospers the work, we may give two more such [geniuses] to mankind in Tamara and the little Jennifer. Theirs [sic] is the divinity that makes the difference between Talent and Genius. They will pay for that divinity again and again in bitter tears, deep sorrows, and griefs [sic] such as are known only to the few. It must be so, or they could not have the gift. For most of us, there is steady work, and a lesser knowledge of woe. But none of us can make the most of what God has given us unless we do our best to live as he would live … no man – nor woman either – has ever been great who did not yield up self and evil. No one has ever been great who has not first suffered greatly. And no man comes to greatness except another hold out to him first a helping hand?” (1999:221)

Brent-Dyer was never one for beating around the bush and here she is perhaps at her most coherent and emphatic through the mouthpiece of Signor Mirandos as he addresses one of the “bad” girls at the school – Emily. Signor Mirandos mentions Jennifer Craddock, central heroine of the novel, and refers to her gift in a most intriguing manner.

Jennifer is not gifted. She is a genius. But she is not gifted in her own right. She is gifted from God. Brent-Dyer’s very clear about the role of religion here and it’s clear that the giftedness is not owned by the child. They are merely caretakers of the gift. These children have achieved Godhood and therefore become worthy of worship in their own right. They’re no longer children and indeed, as the book processes, the difference between “gifted” Jennifer, and “normal” Jennifer, become near-palpable.

This ‘divine giftedness’  is something which is made explicit in  The Girls of St Cyprians by Angela Brazil. Mildred Lancaster, playing at a public occasion, is described thusly: “She had got at the heart of the musician’s meaning and those who listened felt that throb of pure delight which can raise common-place lives for the moment to the level of the skies.” The Girls of St Cyprians (1969: 70)

Mildred comes to a moment of realisation about her talent (and, to be honest, it’s a realisation that only Angela Brazil could have written): ” [She had] a rare and special talent such as God gives to but very few in this world – a talent to be taken humbly, and rejoiced in, and treasured zealously, and cultivated carefully … it seemed to her that, in spite of her lack of lands, she was not
quite portionless [sic]. God’s gifts to His children were not all alike…to another the genius that has the power to create for itself. Which was the nobler bequest she could not tell, but she knew that after all she, too, had an inheritance.”


So Giftedness, if we mention God, seems to shift into a sort of indentured servitude where the “holder” of the gift spends their time trying to repay and live up to the divine gift upon which they have been bestowed. There’s also an element of rationalising the gift; the child is no longer “other”, they are merely blessed and can be effectively managed within society providing we are all aware of this gift.

So what’s the point of genius? Why even have it in your GirlsOwn book at all if it’s such a difficult beast to manage?

Because this is reality. These characters, with their furious anti-establishmentism force us to question who we are. We define ourselves in relation to others. Joey Bettany, when presented with Nina Rutherford, vehemently defines herself as “not a genius”. Joey is “normal” (LOL). She fits in to the world she is a part of.

And that’s what they do. Mildred, Margia, Maidlin, Nina, Damaris et al, they make us question and realise who we are. We read their great giftedness, their talent and their skills, and we define ourselves alongside them. GirlsOwn Literature is at heart about growth, about becoming who you are and not “spineless jellyfish”.

Some of us sing songs. Some of us play music. Some of us do an arabesque that can bring tears to your eyes.

We’re all human.

And the warped literary mirror of giftedness, genius, talent, whatever you may call it, allows us to realise that to stunning effect.


Digital children’s literature – values and validation

The presence of the adult mediator / facilitator in children’s literature is without question. Children, whether they’re in the emergent literacy, pre-literate, or literate stages of their development, have one constant in their reading experience – that of the adult. The child does not come across texts which have not been tacitly approved or purchased by an elder adult individual.

That was, I think, until the internet and the development of digital literacies. I always think of a boy I know as an example of this sort of thing; he’s smart, quick, incredibly literate online and distinctly apathetic towards the physical format of the “book”. He is superbly literate but he’s found his own parameters of literacy – and these have been mainly online. Being a digital native, he’s developed his reading and decoding skills primarily through the internet.

I thought of him as I read this article. It’s an interesting piece which discusses the work of several academics and how they created an assessment tool for digital texts. This terminology covers e-books, apps, and other online books.

What strikes me as interesting about this research, is the air of attempting to legitimize a de-regulated space. I like their statement that: “Currently, publishing in digital spaces emphasizes producers, rather than consumers”. It feels solid and references the paradigmatic shift towards self-publishing and indie publishing which has both characterised and catalysed the publishing market over the past few years.

What I didn’t like as much is the section where they discuss the rationale behind this research:

“Traditionally, publishers of children’s literature have played the role of selecting quality stories, editing and drafting and supporting children’s authors through the process to create children’s books. This function does not exist in the digital space, so we set out to develop a tool for exploring the quality and value of content provided in a digital book, while also addressing issues of spelling, grammar, and punctuation.”

I read this and immediately thought: “HMM”

I don’t feel comfortable with this because  it starts to place the onus of reading upon the adult. The adult is choosing this book, not the child.  Another area which disturbed me is the concept of a book having “quality” spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I’d be interested to see how a more avant-garde text (something like this) would thrive under these criteria.

Whilst I accept the necessity to make care-givers and adults confident in discussing books with their wards (which can be done in so many different ways), I am ridiculously uncomfortable with the suggestion of giving them an implicit list of tick box criteria in doing so.

Being a strong reader involves developing a critical faculty of your own. You decide what you read and why. It’s about confidence, it’s about developing your decoding strategies, and it’s about learning about your language. Your mother tongue is something that should serve you, instead of you serving it. Learn the conventions for your language but then don’t be afraid to break them. Shakespeare invented words so why can’t you?

And then I thought of this boy I know, this boy who would throw a fit if I gave him an “appropriate” book. He’s capable of making decisions about texts and language that fascinate me. He makes up imaginary words for things and gives his speech regularity in  syntax and structure. He can discuss at length the complicated familial structures of Yoshi, Mario and Luigi. This boy, might I add, is seven.

Digital texts don’t need assessing. Digital texts are already being read by digital natives who can assess and judge information spectacularly quickly. They’re more than capable of judging a good / bad book – because they’re doing it already.

We just need to step back and let them work.

I note with some approval though that the authors of the original piece state that they’d like their article to not be an end-point in this discussion and that it will spark conversation. I hope that they accept this response in the spirit of such a statement.

I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on this issue! Does quality matter? Should we care about mediating texts? Does this worry you? Could you care less?

(And, as will now become a tradition on this blog for whenever I go off on one, here’s a cute Pikachu Gif as a reward for reading this far 😉 )

Everything else Theory

Everybody sometimes a Yoda needs


Everybody a little life in their Yoda needs hmmmmm? As part of the thought process began here, I wanted to briefly explain who my inspirations were in relation to my writing / blogging about children’s literature, language and literacy and hopefully (she says, sliding back into art-school vocabulary) contextualise my critical practice.

Maria Nikolajeva 

If you read one book about critical theory, make sure you read Nikolajeva’s “The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature“. It is genuinely a game-changer. She discusses how everything from speech tags through to names combine to create character – and it’s all done in a madly readable and fascinating style.

Roland Barthes

I first came across Barthes at university and I’ve remained in love with him ever since and it’s all primarily because of one quote: “Language is a skin: 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.” (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1979)) Oh. My. God. He gets it. He gets the raw physicality of language and the blunt, near-primal sexuality of discourse. He gets it so right.

KM Peyton

Because, I think, nobody quite writes love like KM Peyton does.

“’What will the Prof say?’ [Pennington] whispered, smiling, moving his face against hers.
‘He’ll say I’m bad for you.’ [said Ruth]
‘Good for me. I need you.’
‘I love you’
‘Yes.’ Pennington’s Heir (1973:12) 

Barbara Kruger

Everybody needs a piece of art that they can just – just breathe. This is mine. Always.

Image from:

So who’s your Yoda? I’d love to hear them! 🙂


On critiquing, reviewing and writing about children’s literature

“At a time when unpaid bloggers online are gaining influence at the expense of professionals, we need to convince the public that good reviewers exist, and are still worth listening to. Otherwise, our readers will continue to look to the internet for news, and the art of the book review will join the typewriter in the trashcan of Time.”

Criticism is fine : But do you have to spoil the plot? Joanne Harris: The Independent, May 15th 2012

Superbly put right? Regardless of how you may feel about Harris’ point (and, for the record, I think that she’s talking a lot of sense and that also the Trashcan Of Time needs to appear in the Tardis in the near future), I think there’s something here that bears wider weight and is worth unpicking.

I’ve recently embarked upon one of the steepest learning curves of my literary career. I write, for myself, and now I am learning how to write for others. Constructing a story is easy. Constructing a book is hard.

I respect anybody who can do that. I massively, massively respect that. And when I write about literature, I try to respect that. I am in awe of writers. Ultimately when I review, I review from the perspective of a fan. A fan who loves books, pure and simple, and I love being able to share that with people. I’d not refer to myself as a “professional” and that, I think is something more related to my superb ability for self-deprecation rather than anything else and especially not related to working online as opposed to traditional media.

I do wonder though what “professional” is in the context of literature critique?  Traditional media, of paper and print, is perhaps one of the most mutable cultural landscapes out of there and I’m not sure where the professional critic – or even if there is such a thing – lives any more. I could name you a number of superb children’s literature academics – but I’d struggle to name a “professional” children’s literature reviewer. I read a host of individuals who review children’s literature but I struggle to read more than a couple of pages of the literary supplement in the newspaper.

Ultimately I think Harris’ piece is raising more questions than it’s answering – which is precisely what it should do. I can’t comment for the art of the ‘adult’ literature review, but what I can do is, if you’re looking for children’s literature reviews you can “trust” and “respect”, that you really have no need to worry.

There’s a world of superb, critically astute, technically brilliant, beautifully artful, passionate bloggers out there. The only thing we need to be concerned about is what happens when they all decide to stop.

And er, if you’ve got this far and coped with this moment of self-reflexivity, thank you. Here’s a Pikachu being awesome.

Girlsown Theory

On Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

“The world of juvenile literature is made the poorer by the death on Saturday of Miss Elinor Brent-Dyer, whose 56 “Chalet School” stories, set in the Austrian Tyrol, attracted a huge readership from all over the world – not only of children but adults also.” 

(The Times : 1969)

Poorer. I like that. It speaks of riches lost and a genuine, palpable sense of something being taken away. Brent-Dyer was pretty awesome. Yes, she slunk into self-parody at the end of her career but when she was at her full strengths as an author, her books stand squarely in the camp of world-class.

I’ll be the first to admit that the later books in the Chalet School series are sort of  hysterical. I’ve just read the Summer Term at The Chalet School and the list of incidents are as follows: randomly running into your guardian whom you’ve never met before on Oxford Street, some eeeevil modern girls who just need a good wash,  a  train crash, fire, adopting a potential orphan, a girl trips over which leads to a broken bone in her foot, a bee-perfume swarming thing, a sort of meteor strike, a violent storm, a  landslide / earth opening double whammy, and a DISAPPEARING FRINGE.

(Amazing, right? And I’ve not even got to Althea Joins The Chalet School where Miss Ferrars goes all Terminator and backflips from speedboat to speedboat… )

I read the later books with a kind of loving attitude. I give them leeway. And a lot of that is due to the heights Brent-Dyer achieved in her earlier work. I will forgive a lot from an author who produces some of the most ground-breaking work of her generation – one of which I’ll discuss at some length here as part of my entry into the Girls’ Own Blog Carnival.

The Chalet School In Exile is outstanding. First published in 1940, it slammed into a heavily suffering world. The impact of the Second World War was massive at this point and being felt by everybody. Exile provides a complex, provocative and frankly challenging counterpoint to the events occuring in the wider, non-Chalet School world. It addresses reality and it makes no bones about it.

“I’m afraid of Germany’s demands on Austria. I think she’s going to try to bring Austria into the Reich. It’s very likely … I doubt if Miklas and Schuschnigg would involve their country in what could only prove to mean appalling bloodshed” (1951:18)

“Hitler is speaking of including all the German-speaking peoples on the continent in the Reich … you’ll never get a monomaniac to see anything he doesn’t want to see. And I distrust his methods.” (1951 : 19)

You can see by those page references that it doesn’t take long for Brent-Dyer to start making her point. And it’s subtle, and delicate and bloody brave to be doing this in the middle of wartime. Her point is careful and comes to emphatic clarity during the next few pages.

“The girls themselves had held a meeting … they had solemnly formed a peace league among themselves and vowed themselves to a union of nations whether they should ever meet again or not.” (1951 : 33)

This is the birth of the Chalet School Peace League. And I can’t even begin to fathom how stunning it is to be writing this when she was writing it.

 “We, the girls of the Chalet School, hereby vow ourselves members of the Chalet School League. We swear faithfully to do all we can to promote peace between all our countries. We will not believe any lies spoken about evil doings but we will try to get others to work for peace as we do. We will not betray this League to any enemy whatever may happen to us. If it is possible, we will meet at least once a year. And we will always remember that though we belong to different lands, we are members of the Chalet School League of Peace.” (1951:35)

A couple of things to note about this. Firstly an equivalent to this these days might have been something like JK Rowling pausing to acknowledge the invasion of Iraq or 9/11. Secondly this is, what people in TV call, breaking the fourth wall. It’s a term which harks back to the theatre where people performed in a three walled space (ie: the stage) and the audience formed the fourth wall. Acknowledging the presence of the audience is when you “break the fourth wall”. Here Brent-Dyer, through careful usage of gender-free language (note how only the first sentence is gendered – remarkable for a series with a distinct female bias ), and the usage of ‘We’ as opposed to ‘I’ creates an all encompassing effect to the Peace League vow. It is a statement that is as much addressed to the reader as it is to the Chalet School girls.

The Peace League was a way for women to ‘fight’  – and for children to ‘fight’. Brent-Dyer is clear throughout Exile that women, and the school, are at the mercy of masculine power. Madge Russell expresses this succinctly:

“Must I finish it [the school] just because a set of men have gone quite mad?” (1951:64)

The subtle differentiation of power continues throughout Exile. Jack Maynard, Brent-Dyer’s perhaps most perfect man in that she allows him to marry her beloved Joey, refers to the Peace League quite specifically as “your League” (1951:189) despite only moments earlier having heard his wife refer to it as “our League” (1951:189) Jack fights with his physicality on the front line and Joey fights with her words and ideology. Women fight with words and men fight with fits. Nowhere is this more clearly stated then by Joey Bettany upon the safe arrival of old friends who had escaped from a concentration camp.

“they had contrived to escape, thanks to the help of three men whose names they flatly refused to give. ‘Oh, why not?’ cried Joey. ‘I wanted to pray for them, seeing it’s the one thing I can do in the circumstance” (1951:186)

The subtlety of Exile does not end there. Brent-Dyer also explicitly draws a difference between Nazism and Germans. Not all Germans are Nazis and not all Nazis are Germans.

‘Gottfried! It isn’t you : it’s the Nazis. We don’t blame you ; we don’t even blame the German people for all this.” (1951:84)

“‘It isn’t the Germans who are doing it,’ said Robin. ‘It’s the Nazis.'” (1951:118)

“‘You see,’ said Gertrude … ‘I’m not English. I’m a German – I was a Nazi. You can’t want me here when you know that’. The man grinned cheerfully. ‘We don’t war with women and kids,’ he told her” (1951:145)

“I don’t hate Germans – I’m too sorry for them, poor wretches!…” (1951:169)

Perhaps the most subtle message of all in Exile is the  experience of Gertrud(e) Becker. She joins the school as a spy, tasked with discovering their secrets. Her Damascene conversion into Real Chalet School Girl  is inevitable and occurs with an elegance that is superbly handled.

“…the Chalet School atmosphere was working more and more strongly in the German girl. She noted how careful the girls were to speak as kindly as they could about her country. She saw how they did everything in their power for peace, hushing the younger ones when they talked about ‘horrid Germans’ and, by word and deed, setting an example in tolerance that could not fail to have an effect” (1951:137)

‘I’m not [a Nazi] now-I couldn’t be. Not after they torpedoed us like that. Besides, the School made a difference’” (1951:145)

Gertrude is iconic rather than realistic. Once she is converted her story is complete. Gertrud provides us with an empowering cipher – an image of a redeemed Nazi and hope for ‘British’ ideals being triumphant.

The Chalet School in Exile possesses an impact and an immediacy distinctly lacking in any others of the series.. It represents a distinct shift in school story writing and the adoption of an ideology which bears resonance and weight to the present day.

And that’s why I’ll forgive Elinor M. Brent-Dyer marrying off Len to Reg. I’ll forgive her for the whole torturous “You can eat White Bread now” maxim to Grizel (SHUT UP JOEY WE HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME). I’ll even forgive her for bloody Mary-Lou.

When she was good, Brent-Dyer was world-class. Game-changing. And so very very brilliant.

(Even if she did do that whole OH NOES WE HAVE A PINK WORM IN THE ENGINE thing in Althea).



I’ve become curiously obsessed with the confession trend that populates Tumblr. A brief definition of these is that they allow a place for fans of a genre (be that the Gilmore Girls, the X Men or Harry Potter) to express anonymous opinions.

I think there’s an intriguing potential for some research here (maybe along the lines of the community reading experience, fandoms or some sort of sociological discussion type thing) and that’s something I hope to do some more work on because I love that sort of stuff. The treasure hunt of research and being a big old nerd has a lot of appeal for me. But for now I thought it might be intriguing to share some of the confessions that have proven particularly moving and intriguing for me – and the last one is the one that started this whole thing.

All credit is naturally due to the relevant blogs (and whoever came up with that middle confession is genuinely my new hero).


Lights, camera, action : The role of the Book Trailer

I first discovered video-editing when at university. I loved it. There’s something arcane and primally satisfying about creating a coherent whole from a bunch of disjointed clips. Film has such a potential. Every moment of an image of screen says something, good or bad. When you’re working with film (particularly in the post-production stage), you’re working with a thousand voices and the art is to try and make every element say what you want it to say.

It’s not easy. I’m an awful cameraman. I get bored and slide the camera up or lose focus or forget about my white balance. Or I get obsessed with the feet and forget that, probably, people might want to see a face every once in a while. But what I do love, and I never realise how much I miss it until I sit down to do some more, is video editing. The art of shaping something. The act of creating something very new.

It’s because of this dual interest in video and children’s literature that the rise of book trailers has fascinated me. I’ve seen a constant rise in quality, production values and quantity. I decided to have a more in depth look at the topic and hopefully start to work out what sort of impact (if any!) the trailer has upon the reader.

Initially I turned to Wikipedia which provides a useful summary of the topic. Wikipedia is incredibly useful in that first stage of research – confirmation that you understand what you’re looking for. One notable fact was that, upon reading, I discovered that the first “accepted” book trailer came out in 2003. (2003!) In addition to the information on Wikipedia, there’s a fascinating article in the Guardian which discusses whether the trailer has ever influenced you to buy the book. As ever with the Guardian, the comments are as worthy of as much interest as the actual article itself.

A brief search on Twitter for the terms “book trailer” produces an equally interesting result. It updates at a ferocious pace (not quite on the level as say “Justin Bieber” or “One Direction”) but it’s notably fast. What is intriguing is the rate of transference. I recently read a study (unfortunately the reference escapes me) which discussed how information disseminates on Twitter. The key thing to note is that it is swift (as any gaffe prone politician may know!).

I think the best analogy for this spread of information would be the game: Six Degrees of Separation. Information can continually disseminate and be shared providing the connections between individuals remain valid. And, if you engage with people online be that via blog or Twitter, we all have our own network of information to spread links and receive links from. You act as the ‘Connector’ (in my mind, I’m envisaging a sort of spider-web effect) between potentially disparate groups.  The below is a visual attempt to map this somewhat sprawling thought. Bear in mind it’s a snapshot of an infinitesimally greater pattern and subject to being done in a distinctly low-tech manner.

In the hope of remaining on topic, I’d argue that this ‘word-of-(virtual)-mouth’ and the way we now interact with the internet (viral video forwarding and information sharing) has a positive impact on anything which finds it’s way onto the screen of a ‘Connector’. This, and the increasing popularity (and ease of access to) of video equipment means that people can video without specialist skills or specialist kit. All you need is inclination and a phone or a webcam.

The book trailer manifests our need to communicate our passions. We are storytellers, we strange and complicated people.  From the paintings at Lascaux through to the latest fan video on YouTube, we have a compulsion to engage in the collective discourse that shapes our society.

Of particular relevance to our modern-day societal context, the previously near-finite definitions of a book (it has pages, it has a spine) are no longer dominant. The book is now online, kindled, animated, filmed, AR’d, QR’d … the only thing that remains constant is the very fact that the book is approaching a near-undefinable entity. Book trailers are a natural evolution of this fluidity. They are a tribute to the passion a text can instill in a reader and the ‘buy-in’ that that particular reader then has to the ‘brand’ of the book.

This then is the modern children’s literature internet. User-curated, visually stunning and constantly re-defining and defying the conception of what children’s literature is and who it is for. The book trailer does this in spades. From the fan production through to the “official” publisher’s video, the book trailer hides children’s literature in plain sight. And that’s a brilliant, brilliant thing.


App – Jailbreak the Patriarchy

I have been looking at Google Chrome Apps recently with a lot of interest and I’ve come across some excellent things. Jailbreak The Patriarchy is very simple and it’s curiously addictive as The Mary Sue discovered. What it does is swap every gendered word on a website for the opposite. An example of this would be – He sat down and picked up his beer changing into She sat down and picked up her beer.

It’s actually particularly revealing if you hit something like a news story as you can see how the language is structured in order to create an impact. Gendering language is something we all do instinctively. It’s something I do as a writer and it’s something I do as a reader. I really recommend this app as it’s genuinely eye-opening stuff.

Everything else Theory

CFP : Stranger in a Strange Land: Exploring Texts and Media for Young People Across Cultures and Continents

Oh my god, Canada, please will you stop with your clarion call of “come live in me and attend my awesome sounding conferences”

If you’re based in Canada, do have a look at this conference and the CFP. It’s April 2012 which gives you plenty of time. Just don’t send me gleaming reports of how lovely it was 😉

Everything else Theory

Children’s Literature : why?

The official news of my MA came through last week so I can now put the letters behind my name. I am now officially MA, BA (hons). In all honesty it it was an odd moment. All I could think was ‘thank god’ and ‘No seriously, thank god’ and ‘right, so I don’t have another module to do? This is weird’. I don’t think it’s properly sunk in yet. As I shared the news with my friends and family, I got one reaction from somebody that made me stop to think: “Why children’s literature?”

Now, in the past I’ve trotted out some fairly trite cliches at this point. Something about fun, about books (woo yeah), and about my Chalet School obsession. But in my post-MA daze, I realised that actually my reasons for studying this topic – and hopefully devoting my professional career to it – were much deeper than I’d realised.

So, if you’ll humour me, I’d like to take a moment and explain why I study children’s literature and will continue to do so.

It all stems from my family. One of the key memories I have as a child is sitting on my father’s lap, with my brother, and listening to him read us the Chronicles of Narnia. Not the quietest of books, not the simplest, but he knew we’d like it. He threw that story at us and we swallowed it whole. My mother comforting me after a teacher ripped to shreds a story I’d been working on. Her reply, so simple, so matter-of-fact, “There’s always somebody jealous of talent,” sticks with me til this day.

I learnt that stories matter and I learnt that from my parents and their words. Their conjuring with words. Their fervent belief that the ‘before’ mattered; our histories, our culture, the myths, the legends, and why those little doors appeared in the walls of every chateaux we visited. They took me to the tombs of kings, and to the birthplace of emperors. Everyday my world slowly grew that little bit more. It all dates from those moments with my parents. All of it.

Books make people. Stories show us how to be brave and how to be bold and how to face the darkness when the world comes calling for you.

Children’s literature taught me how to live my life. Sure, I didn’t have a pony in the pantry or the Tiernsee on my doorstep, but I learnt how to tell right from wrong, how to do the right thing, and how to make sure I put the correct type of cloves in an apple pie. I learnt about death, about the awful pain-guzzling void of death, and the emptiness it brings. I learnt not to be afraid of being hurt, of loving people and loving life. I learnt that sometimes the bravest thing is to ask a question, to admit that I’m scared, to wait for the right woman, the right man, to believe in myself.

Children’s Literature, I shall tell my insouciant questioner, matters. The right story told to the right person at the right time can make them move mountains. What more of a rationale do I need?

Comics Theory

Emergent literacy, graphic novels and picture books (oh my!)

I’m planning to do a series of posts in the near future on Graphic Novels. This will include a couple of reviews and also some more theoretical posts such as the following on Emergent Literacy.

I first fell into graphic novels after the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I longed for a way to carry on the story which had defined so much of my life beforehand. I couldn’t let these characters go. Graphic novels allowed me to continue to experience the Buffiverse, and then, when I exhausted these stories, I was able to discover some of the most astounding pieces of literature I’d ever experienced in the wider canon of comic book literature.

This series of posts will pay tribute to my journey from bemused onlooker to active advocate and I’ve decided to start with a discussion on emergent literacy for a reason. When I worked in a public library, I noticed that graphic novels were often derided by parents / guardians and / or tucked away in the darkest depths of the adult section.

I thought this was wrong.

Graphic novels and comic strips allow an individual to become acquainted with the art and act of reading without being intimidated or alienated through difficulties in language, syntax, context or any other reason which hinders the reading process. And, as we all know, we’ve built an entire industry around the concept of providing picture books to children in order to engage and develop their reading skills. As far as I’m concerned, graphic novels build on that process begun at such a young age – the stage where a child is pre-literate and can be defined as an “emerging literate”.

Emergent literacy came to wide notice through the work of Teale and Sulzby (1986). It believes that the acquisition of literacy is an evolutionary process which happens from birth. Sulzby and Teale emphasise that they utilise the term emergent in several different senses: “emergent connotes development rather than stasis; it signifies something in the process of becoming” (1986:xix) . Later they state “it is not reasonable to point to a time in a child’s life when literacy begins. Rather, at whatever point we look, we see children in the process of becoming literate.” (xix). The child does not begin to learn to read or write at school as the ‘process’ has, in fact, begun many years beforehand.

Goodman highlights several key characteristic stages of the emerging literate and notes that 2-year olds “typically believe that when adults read … a story, they read the pictures in the book, not its text. They … have little or no understanding of letters, words and sentences. And they think that each page of a book tells one story, independent of the rest of the pages. Yet even these 2-year-olds understand what a story is, and that somehow the adult gets the story from the page.” (Wells,1988:20/21)

The emergent literate therefore has a unique point of view when “beholding” (Doonan, 1993) a picture book and this view is contrary to that of a more literate reader. Sipe (1998) refers to a “synergy” between text and picture, the combined effect proving greater than the individual. Graham refers to illustrations as “cobwebs to catch flies” (1990:8), suggesting that they act as individual enticements to a reader. Nodelmann reinforces this concept of referring to word and picture as individual elements being mainly concerned with the learning that the elements incite in the reader. None of these critics acknowledge the unique position of an emergent reader – that is, the inability or unwillingness to distinguish or designate a difference between word and image. Very young children judge text and image fluidly giving first dominance to one element and then the next. This is supported by Goodman who notes that “children learn between the ages of 3 and 5 that print carries the message. Younger children believe that pictures carry the message in the book.” (1986:9). Within a relatively short period of time there has been a seismic shift in the interpretative strategy used. This also emphasises that when the child learns to read – becomes literate – this development in their ability directly affects their processing of a picture book. They have learnt the “contract of literacy” (Snow and Ninio, 1986: 116)

Picture books have a unique role in this learning process. Until the child becomes confident / competent in interacting with a book alone, there will be the presence of a mediating other who supports the child in a joint meaning-making of the text. This dual readership can produce striking results and have a direct impact on the literacy process. Snow and Ninio comment that “children have to learn that books are for reading ,not for eating, throwing, chewing, or for building towers” (1986:122) and note that this lesson is taught primarily through the adult mediator. Their transcribed interviews reveal that the lesson is enacted as part of the reading: “don’t eat it … don’t be so rough… let’s start at the beginning …” (123)

 It is clear that to develop literacy the child must learn what he can do and also what he can’t. Pierroutsoukas and Deloache comment: “one of the earliest steps in coming to understand what pictures are is learning what they are not,” (2003:154)

Bruner believed that children go through several ages of cognitive development, proposing that there are three different modes of thinking – enactive, iconic and symbolic. The enactive stage takes place approximately between the ages of 0-1 and involves storing information through physical movements. (Tassoni, Beith, Eldridge, Gough, 2002:198). Children try to understand through physicality and they expect the picture to react as the ‘real’ object would. Pierroutsoukas and Deloache reference a previous study of theirs where children attempted to lick images of apples, being unaware of the difference between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ image, and comment that: “infants can perceive the two-dimensional nature of pictures, they do not understand its significance; that is, they do not understand the crucial difference between depiction and reality.” (142). Snow and Ninio (1986) witnessed children trying to hear a clock ticking or licking the image of a banana. It is only the picture does not taste or sound as the real object, that the difference between depiction and reality becomes explicit. Bruner’s concept of physical learning also reinforces that at this stage of development through physically interacting with a book the child explores, develops and store information around the object and catalyses their personal learning process.

This forms a key necessity for board books to have elements which incite physical interaction from the reader. Inviting the child to touch and pull and question the very status of a book forces the reader to develop knowledge of the medium and come to understand it through this interaction. Age and social norms diminish this interaction, as Pierroutsakos and Deloache note, “they had … learned … important lessons: the futility of trying to manipulate pictured objects and the culturally appropriate behavior towards pictures.” (2003:142).

Works cited and others of interest :-

Ganea, Patricia; Pickard, Megan Bloom; DeLoache, Judy S (2008) Transfer between picture books and the real world by very young children.” Journal of Cognition and Development 9:46

Goodman, Yetta (1988) ‘Children coming to know literacy’ in William H Teale & Elizabeth Sulzby (eds) Emergent Literacy: writing and reading. Ablex Publishing Corporation: Norwood

Graham, Judith (1990) Pictures on the page NATE:Sheffield

Graham, Judith (2005) Reading Contemporary Picturebooks in ed. Reynolds, Kimberley. Modern Children’s Literature: An introduction Palgrave MacMillan:Basingstoke

Nodelman, Perry (1988) Words about pictures University of Georgia Press: Athens

Pierroutsakos, Sophia ; Deloache, Judy S (2003) Infants’ manual exploration of pictorial objects varying in realism Infancy 4:1

Snow, Catherine; Ninio, Anat (1988) The contracts of literacy : what children learn from learning to read books in William H Teale & Elizabeth Sulzby (eds) Emergent Literacy: writing and reading. Ablex Publishing Corporation: Norwood

Sipe, Lawrence (1998) How picture books work : a semiotically framed theory of text-picture relationships. Children’s Literature in Education 29:2

Tassoni, Penny; Beith, Kate; Eldridge, Harriet; Gough, Alan; (2002) Diploma in child care and education Heinemann: London

Teale, William, Sulzby, Elizabeth (1986) Emergent literacy: writing and reading Ablex Publishing Corporation: Norwood

Wells, Melanie (1988) The roots of literacy Psychology Today 22:6

Whalen-Levitt, Peggy (1981) Making picturebooks real: reflections on a child’s-eye view Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 6:4


Series’ly appealing

I’m reading a lot of series fiction at the moment and it’s taken me a little by surprise. The thing of it is that I don’t expect it when I read what looks like a one-off, but then, when I reach the inevitable cliff-hanger of an ending, I know that some how I’ve stumbled onto yet another series. I think I can count on one hand the books I’ve read which are stand alone novels. This isn’t a new trend but I think it’s become more prevalent throughout the last few years. It’s become more obvious and common in my reading for sure.  Why?

Series fiction is a curious beast. Firstly, a definition. It is fiction which appears in a series of multiple novels, usually following some rule of having character / location / thematic parallels throughout. There is often a palpable sense of time passing throughout these novels. Books return to the characters throughout their lives, building on the experiences gained in one, and developing the central characters story some more. Examples that immediately come to mind are Grace Dent’s beautifully written Diary of a Chav series, E Nesbit’s books about the Bastable children (still remarkably readable and witty after all these years) and my personal favourite whom I am determined to shoehorn into every post I write, Elinor M Brent Dyer and the Chalet School series. This last one is particularly amazing as somehow we travel through over 60 books and see characters play in the most epic game of kiss chase ever that must ultimately span a good half decade (Oh Nancy and Kathie and your forbidden love!).

The appeal of series fiction is obvious. Once a reader engages with the conceit of the series (be that vampire slayers or ballet dancers), they are much more likely to return to that title when they see it on the shelf. There is no need to ‘re-engage’ the reader; they already who know who the lead characters are, the premise of the world, and the style of the story. They come to the second book with expectations that are distinctly different than the moment they engaged with the first book. This time they expect the second book to reinforce their impression of the first, to represent the characters they fell in love with the first time, and to progress their story to an effective conclusion. It’s a difficult balancing act and one I do admire. You’re telling a story to the new reader but also to those who have, in a way, read it before. Writers of series fiction have my admiration and respect. It looks simple. It’s really not.

If we look at series fiction in a very dispassionate manner, it’s also very business orientated in a way. Once the consumer enjoys the product, they will return to it again. Simple. This is obviously a key factor in economically aware times and one that publishers must love. If you’ve got a big hitter, such as Harry Potter, it’s enough to propel your business through some very lean times – and when the series finishes, profits inevitably suffer.

It’s intriguing as well that series fiction is quite dominant in the children’s market as opposed to the adult market. I recently had a look around my local library and tried to work out how many ‘adult’ series I could find. Nothing much but the Dan Brown and the Game of Thrones type sagas in the fantasy / sci-fi sections. Now this may be due to the fairly ferocious budget cuts currently hitting the library system but I still found this quite a notable discrepancy. And I think it’s partially to do with the ‘parent’ factor. Children have to buy / select their books with a parental / adult mediating influence present. Until they become proficient readers, the books they select are read together with an adult / other. Therefore the series fiction that is already accepted by the adult as an ‘appropriate’ item for their child to read, will be inevitably more popular than the undiscovered title.

Series fiction therefore will remain a concept that is distinctly appealing to all involved in the act of reading. I just wish that the books that are destined to form series were a little more obvious about it.

PS – My apologies for the hideous pun which titled this piece 😉


Post MA thoughts

I’ve finished my MA in Children’s Literature. And now, a few days after passing my dissertation to the lady in the post office (MAKE THEM SIGN FOR IT WHEN THEY GET IT PLEASE IT’S VERY PRECIOUS ER YES IT IS JUST PAPER BUT PRECIOUS PAPER), I feel able to look back on the degree that I fell into by accident but loved every second of.

I started the degree in 2007, a few days after it had officially started. I caught it on a random google (I think I was looking for jobs) and said to my parents (with whom I was living at the time) that this looked amazing.

And lord love my dad but he said “Go for it”

Cue a slightly frantic stream of e-mails including a personal statement and a pdf of my precious Buffy undergraduate dissertation being sent off to the admissions tutor with the plea of “Am I too late?” Thankfully I wasn’t. I got accepted (still slightly stunned at the fact that somehow I’d decided to do a Masters) and that acceptance heralded four years of solid distance learning which culminated last week with the receipt of my dissertation.

What have I learnt? I’m a damn sight more confident about a subject I previously worshipped at a distance. I’ve learnt that my opinions have validity and I’ve learnt that I still don’t quite get on with Jungian theory. I’ve learnt that this subject is important and continues to be. I’ve learnt that I can commit to something and follow it through. I’ve learnt that I can write academic essays and they can be good. I’ve learnt to have faith in my abilities as a researcher / academician / writer.

My top five tips for those considering a Masters via distance learning?

  1. You have to enjoy the topic. That’s the only thing which will sustain you through those long hours of self-paced working. If you don’t enjoy what you’re studying or reading, you will sack it off and fall behind before you’ve even noticed.
  2. Set yourself realistic targets. I am a freak with deadlines. I write them in my diary and then give myself a fake deadline of two weeks earlier. That means I can push to get it done and then have that little breather at the end to pick up errors. This came in particularly handy with my dissertation recently when I picked it up from the printers. My title: “The gifted and talented child in British Children’s Literature” My bibliography: several texts from New Zealand …
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your tutor is here to help you and you need to make the most of this. Learn how to communicate with your tutor in the way that best serves you. I never once had a tutorial via phone despite that being freely on offer. I knew that if I did, I’d hang up and promptly forget everything we just talked about. Plus I also get very self-conscious talking about my work in public so I knew that wouldn’t necessarily be the most fruitful activity. I had all my tutorials via e-mail as this allowed me to have feedback and comments in writing and also allowed me to refer back to them.
  4. Use. The. Library. Use it early, use it often and get used to the distance learner service. Ask them questions. Find out the key names. If you can’t afford postal loan rates or if your institution doesn’t do postal loans, make friends with your local public library or find out about the SCONUL scheme. I was very lucky in that I worked at a university whilst studying at another so I was able to utilise the library collection at work (which had a spectacular children’s literature section) to support my degree. And make sure you know how Athens works fairly early on as you will need articles at some point.
  5. Understand how you study and how you study best. Early mornings? Late at night? By yourself? In a cafe? I tended to take the part of the module I was working with at that particular point of time and snatch fifteen minutes at lunchtime to finish off a chapter or make some notes. I study fairly well by myself but occasionally took myself off to the uni library and told myself I couldn’t come home until I’d written 2k worth of words. That in particular worked wonders during my dissertation.
It’s scary. It’s complicated. And you need to change how you think. A Masters is all about you leading the learning (obviously within certain parameters). You decide your essay titles and you decide what to write upon. You decide how to study and you decide to skip a little bit over that section on Freud but focus more upon the section on Iser. You lead your learning. That’s quite a step to take after being spoon fed throughout school.
But god it’s good. I’m so proud I’ve done this and I’m so proud that I’m (hopefully) going to be a MA, BA (hons) soon. Admittedly I’ll have to stop doing a sheep impression on the BA bit but you get the picture.
The thing about this degree is you think you can’t do it. You think that’s not going to work out for you. But then you realise that actually this is one of the best steps you’ve ever done. It’s all so blinking fab.
(And, you get to read the most amazing  books whilst going “For RESEARCH darling RESEARCH!).
What’s not to lose?
Everything else Theory

Call for Papers: ‘From the Garden to the Trenches’

Suddenly my plans to emigrate seem a lot more worthwhile….


From the Garden to the Trenches:
Childhood, Culture and the First World War
9-12 May 2012

Part of the Leverhulme International Network on “Approaching War”

Brock University, The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books
& Trinity College, University of Toronto, Canada

For children growing up in the nineteenth-century ‘Golden Age’ of children’s
literature, childhood was characterized as an enclosed, nurturing space, “a
child’s garden,” or “kindergarten” as Wilhelm Froebel christened it in 1832;
a place for cultivating imagination and play as in, for example, Robert
Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885).  Garden mud and puddles
were for planting and for playing – how difficult for the children growing
up in those gardens to anticipate and imagine the muddy trenches of the
First World War.

From the Garden to the Trenches – the second of three Leverhulme-supported
conferences, marking the approaching centenary of the First World War – will
focus on childhood, culture and war from the perspectives of the Americas
and the Caribbean. The first conference – Sydney, Australia in December 2011
– will focus on the global south, and the third – Newcastle, UK – on England
and Europe. Our aim is to produce a digital archive out of materials
assembled during the three conferences.”

We are delighted to announce that so far our confirmed keynote speakers
Deborah Ellis, author of The Breadwinner and other war stories
Linda Granfield, author of Remembering John McCrae
Margaret Higonnet (Connecticut), author of Nurses at the Front: Writing the
Wounds of the Great War
Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse (the play of which is in Toronto in
Spring 2012)
Paul Stevens (Toronto), author of Winston Churchill’s Military Romanticism.

Suggested topics may include, in relation to the war and the Americas and
the Caribbean:
●      National and global ideas of childhood and nationhood
●      Empire and its impact on recruitment
●      War in art, fiction, drama and music
●      The intersection of cultures of war and childhood cultures
●      War, empire and the colonial encounter
●      Lives of girls and women in relation to war
●      Concepts of ‘home’
●      The Boy Scout Movement and the call to war

We are tentatively planning for plenary-only sessions (panels and keynotes),
and will give preference to panel proposals.  Ideally, panels will consist
of four speakers, each giving a 15-minute paper.  Individual proposals are,
however, also welcomed. Please submit 200-250 word abstracts. Some travel
bursaries are available – see for
more details.

Deadline for abstracts: 15 September 2011
Notification of outcome: 30 September 2011
Abstracts should be submitted via email to

Everything else Theory

Call for Papers: Potterwatch

Harry Potter and Crossover Audiences
the 2011 PotterWatch Conference
at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte
October 1, 2011
Charlotte, NC

The Harry Potter series has been translated into more than 60
languages, inspired a multi-million dollar theme park, and prompted the
creation of an International Quidditch Association comprised of hundreds of
teams.  What began as a British childrens book became an international
best-selling series.  Much of the success of the novels can be attributed to
crossover appealhow Harry is loved by audiences of a variety of ages,
genders, and religions.  How do the books speak to so many different,
sometimes opposing, audiences? Why do we love Harry so much?

Together, PotterWatch, the official Harry Potter club of UNC
Charlotte, and UNC Charlotte’s Children’s Literature Graduate Organization
will be hosting an academic conference focusing on the theme of audiences
within the Harry Potter series and fandom.  We invite submissions of paper
and panel proposals that address the theme of audience and crossover appeal
in relation to the Harry Potter series, looking at reader response from a
variety of academic perspectives.

Suggested topics include:
?  Harry Potter from an international perspective
?  Religious responses to the series
?  Generational appeal (the crossover novel)
?  Group response to Harry Potter (fan clubs, Quidditch, book/movie
premieres, etc.)
?  Gender response to Harry Potter (Is Harry Potter a “boys book”?)

To be considered for presentation, please submit a 500-word abstract for
individual papers or panel proposals to by
September 1, 2011.  Please include the paper title, your name (and names of
all panel presenters if applicable), your institution, and your affiliation
(faculty, student, other). Individual presentations should be 10-15 minutes
in length, while panel presentations should last for 45 minutes. Graduate
and undergraduate students are encouraged to submit proposals.

For more information, please visit:

Everything else Theory

Call for Papers : British Children’s Literature in the 21st Century

Interesting CFP here and if my brain wasn’t just going DISSERTATIONDISSERTATIONZOMG I’d be submitting for sure. Info taken from here.

We invite submissions for a Special Issue of Bookbird to coincide with the 33rd IBBY International Congress to be held in London in 2012. As guest editors for this issue, our aim is to celebrate and investigate the current state of British children’s literature. Proposed papers should address one of the following areas in the context of 21st-century British children’s literature:


  •  Developments and trends
  • London or the ‘regions’
  • Multiculturalism
  • Genre, form and themes (including, but not restricted to, fantasy, realism, young adult fiction, visual texts, poetry, controversies and taboos)
  • Single author focus
  • View from the outside – representations of the UK in non-British children’s literature

Abstracts of 250 words should be sent to both editors by 1 September 2011.

Liz Thiel (
Alison Waller (
National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (NCRCL), University of Roehampton, London, UK.

Girlsown Theory

Chin up, chest out – hold on a minute

I’m a little peeved. There’s a line which I’ve just read in Mary Cadogan’s Chin up chest out Jemima which is rankling with me. I’ll quote it here: “Of course I moved on from DFB, through Elsie Jeanette Oxenham and Elinor Brent-Dyer and others, eventually to adult literature.” (2004:15).

Now I’m genuinely a fan of Cadogan’s work. You’re a brick Angela which she co-authored was fascinating (even though it ripped religion in the Chalet School somewhat ruthlessly apart). I learnt more about Angela Brazil and her work then I ever thought I would. And I’ll be one of the first to read more by Cadogan.

But this sentiment in Chin up chest out Jemima (and I appreciate it’s an isolated sentence) has really suddenly got my goat. I’ve come across a few comments like this recently. Confessions of adult fans. Embarrassed articles on why they still love children’s literature. Comments in otherwise highly excellent academic articles about the inevitability of “moving-on” from children’s literature.

Well, I’m out of the closet and staying out there. I will not be apologetic about being a fan of a genre which I love and want to make my career.

I have a passion for children’s literature – and in particular –  the girl’s school story. I describe it somewhat high-churchily on my CV as a genre specialism. And I hate hate hate that people expect me to view it as a transient phase. Something that I picked up as a child and then let go as I moved on to the more appropriate adult literature.


What did happen was that my appreciation of it changed and grew as I learnt to read the nuances of genre fiction. I learnt to see the subtle side-commentary on political, moral and social issues. I re-read The Chalet School in Exile and realised it was one of the bravest and best second world war books that I’d ever ever come across (and it is amazing and destined for a future blog post).

I’ll accept that some of the less brilliant examples of children’s literature are spongily written, and awkwardly put together. But that’s not a unique phenomenon; I’ve read plenty of adult texts which felt as if they’d been written by numbers.Give me a detractor of children’s literature, somebody who says they have nothing to learn from it and I’ll give them Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce which will teach them more about love, loss and heartbreak then they could possibly imagine.

I feel like I need a banner to unfurl at this point and maybe some stirring music from Les Miserables. I love children’s literature and I’m not afraid to say it. Who’s with me?

Book Reviews Theory

The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature

The Rhetoric of Character in Children's LiteratureThe Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Spectacularly readable and accessible, I love this book and it’s defined a lot of my attitude towards character theory. Worth hunting out – and hanging on to.

View all my reviews


The influence of children’s literature on adult literature

Just got back from a really enjoyable evening at the University of Reading where I attended a lecture called The influence of children’s literature on adult literature. Delivered by the excellent Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, she talked about intertextuality and asked whether the dynamics of intertextuality between adult and children’s literature were subject to value judgements depending on their intertextual influences. It drew heavily on her experiences of research and writing around an article (of which a vast amount is available here).

The example she gave was an episode in the Mill on the Floss by Eliot. It’s the moment where Maggie cuts her hair. There are other moments in the story which supports her points but this was the key illustrative moment. You’ll have to excuse me if I make any errors here – these are all based on my interpretation of the lecture and with no experience of reading any Eliot.

This incident is accepted as being based on Eliot’s own childhood. This acceptance springs from the general consensus of scholars on Eliot – probably initially coming from Eliot’s biographers.

However there are striking similarities to this particular passage (and many others in Eliot’s text) in Holiday House by Catherine Sinclair.

Lesnik-Oberstein published on this topic, proving pretty darn conclusively that there was a connection between the texts. Her experiences around how this was received by the academic community provided a lot of her content. I’m paraphrasing here but there was a distinct apathy and reluctance to her findings – a certain “so what” attitude. What also came clear was that there was a certain value judgement applied to this connection between the texts. A retrospective connection between an “adult text” and a “children’s text” was somehow deemed less worthy of interest than a “child’s text” being influenced by an “adult text”.

The question she proposed was “why”?

I don’t think it’s a question that can be answered at all swiftly or even conclusively. But I do think that perhaps some of the following maybe play a part in formulating an answer. I’ll apologise in advance if I become a bit disjointed!

When we read books as children we engage in a collective, transitory reading experience. Literacy is something we develop – both through formal education and informally through our personal contexts. Every child reads. Every child is actively exposed to a text – be that as an animated cartoon, a nursery rhyme or a book.

Children’s literature plays a vital – and transitory role in this reading journey. Adult literature is the destination. Children’s literature is (perhaps!) viewed as a transitory step on this journey. You read children’s books and then you grow up and read adults. Therefore if an adult book actively references a child’s book, it will actively trigger memories of the readers own personal reading experience as a child. And this isn’t something we promote as a society. We are always encouraging children to read bigger and “better” books. We package Harry Potter under Adult covers to make it “okay” to be read. Because as a kids book it’s not. You’re meant to be “past” it.

I love talks like this that throw up more questions than answers. And I’d love your points of view. What do you think? Is children’s literature the poor cousin of intertextuality or is this balderdash as far as you’re concerned?


Call for Chapter Proposals – Hermione Granger as Feminist Model

There’s been an interesting call for chapter proposals for a book entitled “Hermione Granger saves the world”. Whilst I have to confess that Harry Potter leaves me cold and bitter like a literary version of Gollum and that my contribution on the feminist aspects of Hermione would mainful consist of a doubtful “Hmmm” , the collection itself should be an interesting read. If you’re interested take a look at the proposal. You’ll have to be quick though – initial proposals need to be in by Jan 28th.

Girlsown Theory

“We want to make strong, helpful women of them – not spineless jellyfish!”

Jo returns to the Chalet School sees the beloved headmistress, Mademoiselle Leppâtre, discovered unconscious in her room and rushed to the Sonnalpe for an emergency operation.

If it fails she’ll die.

It’s not the first time that the reader of the Chalet School series has been presented with illness. In fact there are times when the early Tyrolean books verge on pastiche with their regular occurrences of severe illness, life-changing accidents and death-defying moments.

However this is the first time that an adult becomes ill with such stunning and heart-wrenching effect. You see, adults in a school series are secondary creatures. They are rocks around which the story is built but the story is not about them. It’s about the new girl, or the girl with the secret or the antics of the lower fourths. Adults tend to populate the background.

Not so in the Chalet School. It’s a revolutionary series in many ways (the ground-breaking anti-Nazi polemic of The Chalet School in Exile being one example) and pushes the boundaries of what series fiction as a form can do.  It presents death, illness and the troubles of life with a candour which is rare to see.

And, most intriguingly, the Chalet School tells us of the adults. You can read the early books in many ways. The constant joys of Anne Seymour putting her foot in it. The growth of Joey from an obstreperous middle to a woman that even the author fell in love with a little and couldn’t let go. But then, with an even-handed touch, we learn about unsure Ivy Norman and her personal history that makes her so nervy about dealing with Joyce and Thekla. We follow the journey of Hilda Annersley from a young mistress into one of the cornerstones and – in some ways – the heart of the series.  We learn their names. I can’t stress how important this was, and is, to me as a reader. We learn that the adults – the teachers – they’re real people.

And I think that’s why the illness of Mademoiselle Leppâtre catches me every time. And it’s why, when Jacynth learns of the death of her Aunt and Miss Wilson comforts her, I sob each and every time I read that scene. Because I know Miss Wilson’s backstory – I know about Cherry –  and that adds to the moment in ways I can’t quite comprehend. It makes it real. I know how much everyone loves Mademoiselle because I love her too. And I love Miss Wilson in that moment. And I love Miss Annersley when she advises that the children should know if a family member is ill. Because I know that she’s lived through it.

It’s a series where it’s not about pure blunt didacticism. It’s not “do as I say”. It’s “do as I do”. As Matron says, when discussing whether to tell the girls about Mademoiselle, “We want to make strong, helpful women of them – not spineless jellyfish”.

And she’s not just talking about the pupils at this point. That’s a message to the reader in a book, first published in 1936, which still bears resonance today.

Girlsown Theory

Elsie Oxenham, the Abbey Girls and talent vs marriage

Elsie Oxenham (EJO) and the Abbey books is one of those series I fell towards following my love-affair with Brent-Dyer. EJO is an odd writer; one who’s dated greatly and then, in some queer little moments, not at all.

I’m reading my Abbey books at present with a view towards gaining research for my dissertation – Representations of Gifted and Talented Children in Children’s Literature. Unfortunately I don’t have many EJO and those that I do need a roadmap in between them to figure out what’s happening. What with Joy and Joan and Jen to start off with and then there’s Rosamund, Rosalin, Rosabel and then there’s adults and babies and marriages and deaths and it’s a bit of hard work to figure out what’s going on at times!

But there’s a curious charm in these books and a very feminine feel to them. The few men that do appear either die or disappear swiftly, leaving the Abbey girls to form their supportive sisterhood without them. And it is a sisterhood. It’s a fascinating – and quite beautiful – example of how women support women and also – when Joy puts her foot in it – how women can bring each other down and then build each other up. The books, at their heart, are about love and how it can sustain a community through thick and thin.

And yet, EJO doesn’t hesitate to marry off her characters. Marriage is the natural evolution for them. Mary Damayris, a powerful and beautiful ballet dancer, leaves the stage for love in A Dancer from the Abbey. It’s interesting how clearly this is presented throughout the book. It’s a natural evolution for her. She leaves and her dancing becomes better because of her love. There’s a pull between the stage and her husband-to-be, explored briefly and then dispelled as the cast accept that love will make her dancing better and stronger. It’s clear though that she’s now a wife first and a dancer second.

A similar thing happens with Maidlin. Again, this is based on limited exposure to the books, she is a tempestuousItalianate artistic child with a beautiful singing voice and then she turns into just another run of the mill adult. I can’t tell you how much this made me wince upon first reading – the appealingly complex and frankly unusual child falls into a clichéd mother and adult. I’m looking at getting a copy of a few more EJO titles in the near future and will be deeply intrigued to learn if this is just a misconception of mine or whether my feelings of disappointment continue.

So is this it in the Abbey series? Is talent a childish thing? Is a gift given up when a husband appears on the scene? Is a gift a gift and never your own talent? Do you have to give it back when marriage calls? Does marriage conquer all?


Gifted and Talented children in children’s literature

I’m working on my dissertation at present and am discussing the representation of Gifted and Talented Children in children’s literature. Following both a plea on Twitter (thanks Tweeps!) and Mailing Lists (thanks, er, Meeps?), I now have a fairly healthy list of G+T characters / titles which I thought I’d share. Anybody else you think should be on there? Let me know! (EDIT 25/03/2013: This list is now available here where you can edit / amend as necessary)

  • Ann Pilling’s “The Big Pink”
  • Lorna Hill’s Sadlers Well’s series – Sebastian (music) , Veronica, Caroline, Rosita etc etc (all dance)
  • KM Peyton’s Pennington (music) – various titles
  • Anne Digby’s Trebizon – Rebecca Mason (tennis)
  • Tol the Swimmer by Sidney Hedges
  • Constance M White
  • Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers – Amanda (sport) Irene (music) Belinda (art)
  • The Janis Project by Nancy Rue
  • The Runner by Cynthia Voigt
  • Drina Ballerina
  • Elinor M Brent Dyer – Kat Gordon, Margia Stevens, Jacynth Hardy, Gay Lambert
  • Coram Boy – Alexander
  • Piggy from Lord of the Flies
  • She Shall Have Music by Kitty Barnes
  • The Marlows books by Antonia Forest
  • Mina from David Almond’s “Skellig”
  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Artemis Fowl
  • Ender’s Game
  • Christopher from the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
  • Elfrida Vipont’s Lark in the Morn books.
  • Bagthorpes
  • L’Engle, A Severed Wasp
  • The Servants of Arakesh
  • Elizabeth Bernard (Satin Slippers)
  • Hermione Granger
  • Mildred Lancaster from Angela Brazil’s “The Girls of St Cyprians”
  • The Mozart Season by Virginia Euwer Wolff (child violinist)
  • The View from Saturday by EL Konigsburg (intellectually gifted children)
  • The Magnificent Nose and Other Marvels by Anna Fienberg (stories about
    children with remarkable talents)
  • Clair de Lune by Cassandra Golds (ballet)
  • The “Evil Genius” books by Catherine Jinks (criminal mastermind turns good)
  • Making the Most of It by Lisa Forrest (swimming)
  • The Samurai Kids books by Sandy Fussell
  • Born to Bake by Phillip Gwynne (cooking)
  • Getting Somewhere by Jenny Pausacker (maths)
  • The “Alex” books by Tessa Duder (swimming)
  • Casson family children in Hilary McKay’s novels (Saffy’s Angel etc)
  • Louise Fitzhugh’s ‘Nobody’s Family is Going to Change’
  • Jean Ure has a number of books about gifted young dancers: ‘Hi There Supermouse’; ‘Nicola Mimosa; ‘A Proper Little Nooryeff’; ‘Dazzling Danny’.
  • L M Montgomery’s ‘Emily’
  • Jane Gardam’s ‘A Long Way from Verona’.
  • Tim Kennemore’s ‘The Fortunate Few
  • Cynthia Voigt’s Tillerman series
  • Pamela Brown’s books, ‘Swish of the Curtain’ and sequels
  • ‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Robyn Bavati
  • Jean Richardson’s Moth books (dance)
Girlsown Theory

“Gosh, odds bodkins!” expostulated Jemima : The very curious tale of the British Boarding School story