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.

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The legitimacy of critique : or, who am I?

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

 

“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.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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How many you’s are you a you to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Don’t be afraid of academic children’s literature

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

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

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

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

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

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