Translating classic children’s books into feminist blank verse

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s the first line:

This is the story of a girl

Children’s Literature – why it matters

The thing is, every now and then, in mainstream media, we see mention of children’s books. They’re usually rather intermittent mentions, reminiscent of birds caught on a pocket of hot air. They spiral fleetingly, gorgeously, temptingly, and then they wheel away. Children’s books don’t get covered in mainstream media, not easily, not comfortably. Julia Donaldson talks about it here. And she’s right, in so many ways.

The other thing is, as the comments on the bottom of that piece show, children’s literature is mis-perceived. Often foolishly so, because to disregard this genre is to disregard work being written for one of the great tribes of our time.

Children are wild, unfathomable creatures. For a long time they don’t talk, they don’t verbalise their feelings. They are the great unknown, the last great tribe of humanity that could, quite easily, turn the world upside down if they wanted to.

And they’re great; wondrous, passionate, funny and smart, being shaped every day that sees them progress through childhood. How can you not see the literature that guides, aids, abets and challenges that progression as being worthy of import?

Everything comes from children’s literature, everything comes from stories. Your words that you write now, the way you look at a teddy bear in a window, the way you suddenly long to fly a kite on a windy hillside, the need to hold somebody tight when you feel sad. It is all part of our humanity, and our humanity is built on stories and storying and the undeniable need to understand who we are. And we do this through words, through questions, through throwing our belief against the world and seeing if it sticks.

We do this through stories. We do this through expressing what we are, who we are and what we want to be. And children’s literature does that, does that and more. It holds our hands through the darknesses and it brings you towards the light. It tells you that things can be okay, that things can be sad, that things can hurt, and it gives you a power through that telling.

It tells you that you are not alone.

How can you even begin to say that that does not matter?

(Edit: I wrote this to explain why I studied children’s literature. It still stands.)

If you love them, let them go

Books are full of magic and pain. Of heartache and sorrow and (in the case of certain novels featuring the manliest of men making their manly way across Middle Earth – ILOVEYOUFARAMIRDON’TEVERGOCHANGING) unbridled wonder/lust.

But sometimes you have to let them go.

Space, place, shelf; all of these get too tight, too full, too crammed left-right-and-up-side-down with books. You lose titles in the madness, the glorious madness of titles that say nothing to the stranger but say everything to you; the title which made you realise you could love somebody, the title which made you weep, the title which you read curled tiny-small underneath the duvet clutching a torch and praying that your parents wouldn’t discover you were still awake. You paid for these moments of course, these moments which left you bleary-eyed and waking in Gondor but having breakfast in the cold damp light of day, but god they were worth it.

But sometimes you have to let them go.

These books, these books that speak of an era in your life, these books that stamped their presence on your daily existence. The horse books, the multitudinous horse books; the Pat Smythes, the sisters P-T, too much K.M Peyton to handle and that glorious glorious Encyclopedia of the Horse with photographs that satiated your desperate longing for a horse during those awful dry years of frugality and hope.

Sometimes you have to let them go.

You realise that it’s not the book, it’s the memory. It’s what the book symbolises, rather than the book itself. You’re holding onto the feeling, the memory, the days where you Jo-sat on the windowsill with an apple and had nothing else in the world to do but readreadreadread.

Sometimes, and sometimes hurts more than you may ever realise, you have to let them go.

You move out of home. Your parents move house. Your flat only has room for one Billy or two at the most. You want to live in a castle, all Beauty and the Beast ballroom wrapped in books, but you don’t. Not yet. Not yet. It will come but it’s not yet.

So you share them out. Make piles. Awkward wobbling Guggenheim-esque piles of books and literature city-threading across your bedroom floor. You donate them to charity shops, to the kids next door, to the school where they’re desperate for books, to anybody who can let these books live again.

And then, maybe fifteen or twenty years later, there’s that wonderful moment where you stop and you look and you see the photograph of your bookcase as a child and you see the title, you see the spine of a Follyfoot or the edge of a Bunty and you know. You want these books back in your life.

It’s a self-flagellating experience, book-collecting. But this moment. This moment when you remember it all, crystal-clear clarity, love pure and vivid rises in front of you and your fingers itch to read them again.

And you know what? You’re going to get them back.