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Everything else

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

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

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

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Everything else

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

Less…

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

More…

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

 

 

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Everything else

Children’s literature and the great ‘oh’

This post marks the debut of a new series on this blog, namely a collection of longer and more in-depth pieces. Long-reads, essays, that sort of thing. They will be able to be read in sequence or in isolation, and I hope they’ll help to shed some light on children’s literature. And on tigers. 

Let me know what you think x 

 

I. Introduction

I’m in a taxi, on my way home from a conference, and we’re cutting through the streets of York. As shops blur past us, and tourists pause to photograph each other against increasingly antiquated backgrounds, he asks me, in that way that taxi drivers do, where I’ve been. A conference, I say, and then in that still somewhat disbelieving frame of mind, I add, Cambridge. Cambridge. I have spoken about my research at Cambridge and it is all still a little unreal to me.

Oh, he says, and what were you talking about? Children’s books, I say. Or rather, in my dizzy and deftless and exhausted manner, I fall back on the language of the weekend and refer to it as children’s literature. Pony books, I say, to be precise. Words. I struggle sometimes with them when all I want to do is talk about them. The knot of language in my throat, coupled with the weekend I have had, makes me fall silent. Makes me wait for his reply.

Oh, he says.

But this time his oh is different. It is a flat oh, a sort of dimly appalled oh, the oh that speaks of somebody who has entered a conversation that they do not wish to end.

It is the sort of oh I have heard before.

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Everything else

2016 : the year in children’s literature

“Wasn’t it good?”

The sound of Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson slide into my ears as I settle down to write this look back at the bookish year, and they’re more of an appropriate soundtrack than I originally thought they were.

2016 has been a year, a whole hefty stomach punch of a year, and yet Elaine and Barbara are right. Despite everything, this year has been good in bookish terms. And maybe, sometimes, when everything is horrible and unfathomable, bookish things are good to hold on to.

In January, the brilliant news came that The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge had won the Costa Prize. The whole thing. The whole damn beautiful thing.

In February, I reviewed the beautiful Mango and Bambang from Polly Faber and Clara Vulliamy. I am a fan of Vulliamy’s genuine, gorgeous art and after reading this from Faber, I was smitten. It’s not often you get books that read like joy, and yet this did. Faber has great things to come in her future.

In March, we lost the wonderful, epochal and beautiful voice of Louise Rennison. Rennison was a writer who got voice and got life and flung in Vikings for good measure. What a wonderful and sorely missed writer.

In May, I wrote about the brilliant Reading Well scheme from the Reading Agency. This list of publications, co-selected with young people, addressed a range of mental health issues and got some smart and considerate and great books to the shelves. In May, I also got to present my research at a conference in Cambridge and MEET KM PEYTON AND SERIOUSLY YES OH MY GOD SHE’S EXACTLY AS WONDERFUL AS YOU WOULD IMAGINE.

In June we witnessed the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals going to Sarah Crossan for ‘One’ and Chris Riddell for ‘The Sleeper and The Spindle’. The Carnegie ceremony is something rather wonderful, as is the participation of young readers, and this year also saw the introduction of the Amnesty Honours. We respond to darkness by shining lights, and this was a most welcome addition to the ceremony. June also saw Britain vote to leave the EU and the increasingly painful addition of ‘Brexit’ to everyday conversations (I voted to stay. I will always vote to stay.)

In August I got a bit obsessed with Enid Blyton and began to realise that she was something quite other than what she’s made out to be. Though critique of Blyton is often well grounded and justified, critique is not all she is. August also saw the publication of the first new Harry Potter story in a curious addition to the canon; Harry Potter and the Cursed Child hit the stage, but was also published in a play script format – something I suspect will remain quite unusual within the wider publishing world.

In September, I shared a map of 1000 points where children’s books are set  in England. Excitedly, I’m now submitting funding proposals on working more in this area so fingers crossed I can… (and if you want to talk about this on a professional level, please get in touch..)

In October, I reviewed the latest book by Robin Stephens. Mistletoe and Murder is another brilliant book in a wonderful and increasingly complex series and why these haven’t received all of the rewards, ever, is beyond me. I also reviewed Binny Bewitched by Hilary McKay, and a similar sentiment applies to this book. McKay is heavily overdue the freedom of children’s literature, she is so utterly, continually brilliant. October also saw me a book with awards in its future (I’m looking at you Piers Torday), and basically, it was a GOOD month.

In November, we returned to politics once more (as so much of this year has been defined by it) and I wrote about the dangerous space of children’s literature and  Teen Vogue continued to deliver some of the most searing and responsible and brilliant journalism I’ve ever read.

In December, I launched an appeal for Interesting People. I want to give you space to talk about the things you’re doing with children’s books and my response to the year is this. I will give you space to talk about the things you do and love (and all you need to do is get in touch….)

And so to the one final thing of the year that needs to be mentioned and that is you.

Thank you. 

Thank you for being a  part of this blog (because you are, you really are). I value, immensely, every contribution and response you give me. It is a pleasure to live in this corner of the internet.

Merry Christmas!

(wasn’t it good?)

 

Categories
Overviews

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

1. bravery is not what you think it is

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

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

2. it’s all about the journey

Image result for buffy travel gif

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

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

3. you matter

Image result for buffy kind gif

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

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

4. be kind

Image result for buffy kind gif

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

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

5. love is love is love

Image result for buffy love gif

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

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

 

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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.

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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.

 

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Everything else

The books I don’t review

Oh, that title makes me think of some sort of bookish elephant graveyard! Rest assured, that’s not my intention; this post is to talk about all the books I don’t review. I read a lot of books (a lot, seriously, it’s like my superpower) and I don’t even begin to review half of them. A handful, really, and I thought it would be interesting to share a few of the reasons why the ones that Don’t Get Reviewed, um, don’t get reviewed. I am a horrible reader. Consider these my confessions!

  • Really horrible front cover. I thought I could get past it. I couldn’t.
  • You know that habit of making the first letter fancy and a different font in a paragraph? Like This? That.
  • That thing where people don’t use speechmarks and instead use – or nothing. I can’t deal.
  • A stain on one page. A mysterious, please GOD, don’t make me talk about it any more stain.
  • Not being able to say much about it. “This book is good” doesn’t make a review.
  • Being able to say too much about it. “This book is everything that’s wrong with the world” makes the review too much.
  • Books represented by my agent or her agency. A conflict of interests and super weird for me to review them from a critical place.BUT. I will talk about them on Twitter because it is nice to talk about nice books.
  • Oh my god, I stopped one recently because it had horrible feeling pages. Forgive me!
  • Boring book. It took about 300 pages to get anywhere and by 301, I’d had enough. Other things to do, people to see.
  • It dealt with an important issue BUT didn’t deal with it in a way that felt I could use it and talk about it. A difficult one, but any inkling of doubt is something that I take very seriously. Gatekeeper, I know, and that’s something I’ll talk about at a later date.
  • It had an awful pun in.
  • I couldn’t add anything to the critical discourse around it.
  • Forced rhyme. The sort of rhyme that works with a very particular type of English and not, quite, with everything.
  • Bad binding. Forgive me!

 

Next time : a list of the reasons I do review a book. It is a lot less embarrassing 🙂

 

 

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Everything else

The drum

I am good in libraries, in bookish spaces. I understand how they work and I’m comfortable in them. It’s a skill honed over many, many years of being bookish. A commitment to the spine, to the folded edge.

I am equally conscious that those spaces that I inhabit are, quite often, full of privilege. A library can be an intimidating space. It should never be, and we should stand against such demarcation of public spaces and fight against the barriers established therein. But it can be intimidating.

Every new is new, until it’s old. Every fear is fear until it’s known.

I’m a writer, a critic, a student, and yet I find myself defending that too much in some spheres. I research children’s literature. I find it an important worthy topic. I find it fun, relevant. Exciting. And yet: pauses.

Somebody told me the other day that there are only two things which never let you down: music and books.

I think they’re right, but I think that statement needs something else adding onto it. Music, and books, and story. That last word, that great intangible edge that defines our lives. That we perform, every day, with ever step we take and whether we choose to go to Asda or Tesco, the bus or the train.

Story is in everything, quite clearly. Define a story for me, quickly, loosely. Your first instinct. For me, I return to the idea of beginnings. Endings. A start, an end. Something in between. It’s a structure that was taught to me in junior school. It’s a structure that left me in tears once, in front of the class, as I wasn’t able to follow it.

Instinct. Patterns. Returning to what you know, even when it’s not comfortable. Even when it’s not right. Yours. Familiarity. A regularity of rhythm, of expectation. The prince needs to find his one true love. The evil needs defeating. We need our patterns. Our familiar spaces.

Narrative; that great drum beat. We march to it, we echo to it, we search for it. We love, lie, live to it.

I study children’s literature because it is the drum. It is the first drum, and often the loudest. The most present. The most recurrent. The story that’s passed down through the ages, from parent to child, from shelf to hand. These are the beats which define us, which make us. And when we know them, we know them intimately. Lovingly.

I had an argument about a film once. Independence Day. Aliens, explosions and Will Smith. It’s a film made by numbers, almost, if you break it down to the morphological level. The level of breath, of beat.

Doesn’t make it a bad film though.

The narrative of Independence Day is one that fills the gaps. Same with a thousand other films, novels. Story. The constancy of story, the way it fills us and edges our bricks with a neat and solid mortar. Being given the skills to recognise those narratives is a gift; and one that I live to share, every day.

Learning how to read is a superpower. Learning how to read the markers of story; the tropes, the archetypes, the figures that make the story what it is, is also a superpower. Sometimes learning to read isn’t enough. It takes you to the edges, the ring fenced space of books that are suitable for you and the great morass of those that aren’t. The tempting otherness. The wild beyond.

We look for patterns as humans; we exist for rhythm and pattern and structure.

Working with, talking about, living with children’s literature allows us to interrogate what those patterns are and to enable readers with the strength to challenge them. Us. Everything.

Defy the fears.

And change the world.

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Everything else Overviews

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Everything else

On facilitating children’s literature

There’s two pieces I want to draw your attention to, as I think they’re worth a read. Firstly this piece talking about bedtime stories for very young children. It makes some interesting points about the word-image cognitive process taking place and links to some other useful pieces.

Secondly, there’s a report out from Scholastic on what kids want in books. As ever, remember that every survey has its positives and minuses, but bearing all that in mind, do take a look. I sort of suspect there’s some useful data in this one that a librarian can seize on and repurpose in a productive sort of manner. (And do, seriously, do this. Numbers and data are there for you to wield and use. Don’t let research die in some precious removed place from reality)

Both pieces are now making me think a lot about the importance of facilitation. We hear a lot in children’s / young adult literature about the ‘gatekeepers’. It’s an interesting term that to me because, in a way, I think we sometimes hear more about the negative connotations of the role rather than the positives. So here’s the point where I acknowledge the positives.

There are a thousand, thousand people out there who specifically want books in the hands of teenagers and children. I’ve met a lot of them. They want passionate, complicated and provocative books read by people who deserve the very best in literature. Children’s and young adult literature isn’t silo-bound any more. It is out there and it is is bold and it is brilliant and these people recognise that. They fight every day to allow and to faciliate those books to be read by the right and the wrong people. They exist really, I think, for freedom and for empowerment. Being a librarian, a teacher, a parent, a critic – it’s not just about the position of authority that you hold. It’s not about you. It’s about the books. It’s always about the books and facilitating the access to those books and empowering the reading of those books.

So here’s to the gatekeepers that get that, and fight for that to happen each and every day.

You’re great, you are.

Categories
Theory

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”

Well.

Ish.

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.)

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Everything else

Finding Alice at Harlow Carr

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The Mad Hatter

As part of my PhD, I’m exploring and thinking a lot about the commercial implications of literary tourism and children’s literature. What texts do people use? How do they use them? What do they hope to get out of it? How is the text transformed as part of that process?

Or, to phrase that a little less ‘head in the thesis’, I go to places that are doing children’s literature related things and check out what they’re doing. And then I have cake.

RHS Harlow Carr, one of the Royal Horticultural Society gardens located in Harrogate, currently has a series of Alice-in-Wonderland themed events going on until the 31st August. There are costumed characters going on, special craft events, storytelling and a band on Sundays playing music. (The band played Frozen. THEY PLAYED FROZEN)

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This way!

Harlow Carr is a large site and it’s one that I’m familiar with from many trips there with family over the years. The Alice-in-Wonderland trail runs around the whole site – it’s quite a walk, so any small children may need to take advantage of the benches on route (or the quite fabulous playgrounds that are available). I say small children, but also means PhD students who went and said “Crikey, this is farther than I expected.”

So. The practicalities of the trail are really well done. Children get a small booklet which is covered with activities (there’s a pen fixed at every key stop for them to mark off things in the booklet – some canny thinking there on the part of the authorities) and at each of these moments, there’s a character from the series for children to put their head through and get photographed. Again, I say small children, but this could also mean PhD students and pretty much everyone (I mean, who doesn’t want to masquerade as the Cheshire Cat occasionally?)

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The Three of Clubs

One particular note about the signs that marked each key stop; they had more activities on, a contextually relevant activity (can you identify the trees that these leaves came from?), a little fact about the relevant character (Cheshire Cats love to sit in trees. They have a habit of disappearing and leaving their smiles behind). I loved this. It’s clever stuff, to pull something like the Cheshire Cat out of a book and situate it very firmly in a real world context. The ‘made up’ elements of the text sit next to the practical elements (you can see them in the pink section of each sign in the photographs) and there’s nothing splitting the two, nothing that says ‘imagine’ or ‘make up’. Now, whilst imaginary play has its intense validity, there’s something quite delicious about this practical insistence of the fictional being the real. It’s work that speaks both to the adults and the children and to the space around the sign. As far as that sign goes (and therefore, by implication, anybody who’s reading it), Harlow Carr is Wonderland. And that’s a brilliant, brilliant thing.

I love this … intervention? This exhibition? This performed reading? I’m not sure what to call it, but I know that I am nothing but thumbs up for organisations who both sponsor this sort of thing and organisations that allow their space to be redefined and moulded by readers who are recreating texts with every step they take. These sorts of activities build readers. They make readers.

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Everything else

“We don’t bury ourselves in books – books bury themselves in us” : finding ‘sequels’ for children’s literature classics

“We don’t bury ourselves in books – books bury themselves in us”

Let that just hang for a moment. It was something that I heard today at the York Festival Of Ideas. I was at a talk about the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland and Professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst was discussing the idea of how a text can survive and thrive over such a long time frame.

Now, this got me thinking (partially because he also mentioned the great glory that is Rooftoppers), why do we expect that of certain books? Why do we, for want of a better phrase, stick them so firmly in their context – but then bring them along to ours. I’m not sure that makes sense so let me explain a little. Something like The School at the Chalet is very dear to me. It was originally written in 1926 but for me remains a beautiful snapshot of issues we still deal with today. Issues that affect my attitude towards my own work and writing: identity, selfhood, responsibility and growth. Eternal issues. But this book is very much not a book that would thrive if written today (forgive me for sweeping sweepingness). I bring it to a present day context with my reading but in the same reading, I’m reading it ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. All of those reads captured and recaptured every time I read this book. An ocean of readings, from the now, the past and the futre, and one that I navigate each and every time I read. That’s what happens when we read. We’re occupying a position in space and time between ourselves and a text and that position is madly unique and transformative on both sides. Every time. Every single time.

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Everything else

From Black Beauty to the Amber Spyglass

(It’s time for a little taster of some of my PhD research ….)

Ever fancy driving from Black Beauty to the Amber Spyglass?


Black Beauty to the Amber Spyglass
How about a trip from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone through to Malory Towers?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to Malory Towers

Or maybe you’d like to journey from The Whitby Witches to Swallows and Amazons?

The Whitby Witches to Swallows and Amazons

(Research is FUN!)

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Everything else

Remember that list I keep of children’s books set in the UK?

Did you know that I keep a few reading lists here and update them when I come across something relevant? One of those lists was a list of titles set in the UK. This all came from one of those late night conversations on Twitter where I and a few others wondered whether you could read your way around the UK. Turns out you can. You so can and should. Really, there’s some splendid books out there. We’re so incredibly lucky with what’s out there.

Well, that was then and this was now. Today, I’m letting you know that that list has evolved. Basically, it was once a Pikachu and now it’s gone all Raichu. As part of my PhD (I’m doing a Phd, have I mentioned it? 😉 ), it’s evolving into a much more specific and user friendly sheet. The data on this sheet is free of duplicates, of typos (there were a lot…), and all those lovely white gaps are going to get filled in with some very specific data – such as full citation details, actual specifics of locations features, and their real life equivalents where applicable.

And I thought I’d let you have a look at it now in a sort of covert, sneaky peek sort of manner. Shush. Keep it under your hat. Don’t tell anyone. 🙂

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Everything else

A Garden for Torak (Wolf Brother : Michelle Paver)

A brief introduction.

My mother’s a garden designer (Gold Medallist at Chelsea – I’m very proud) and I was chatting with her about gardens and children’s books and then the below came about – it’s a mood-board for A Garden for Torak. Torak is the hero of the ineffably beautiful Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver. The plants are Aconitum and the tree is a Yew and the stones are, um, stones :). It’s all drawn from the book and, I hope, shows how children’s books can translate (and should!) into other mediums. The text as garden! The garden as text!

This is hopefully the first of a sporadic series featuring a very wide and diverse range of books. I hope you like!

Collage

CC Images courtesy of Aprilly, Tim Sheerman-Chase, Randl Hausken, Paul Stainthorp and Heike Ba.

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Book Reviews

Where was Wonderland? A Traveller’s Guide to the Setting of Classic Children’s Books : Frank Barrett

Where Was Wonderland?: A Traveller's Guide To The Settings Of Classic Children's BooksWhere Was Wonderland?: A Traveller’s Guide To The Settings Of Classic Children’s Books by Frank Barrett

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My reading of the slim canon of children’s literary tour guides (the others I’ve come across are listed here) continues with ‘Where Was Wonderland?’; a quick, problematic and yet strangely appealing read.

Written in 1997 and suffering, awfully, from the passage of time (the chapter on Dick King-Smith offers the painful titbit that tourists may be able to see the author at his local agricultural shows), Where Was Wonderland is structured in a similar manner to its contemporaries. Each chapter deals with a specific book – ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, ‘Watership Down’ and so on before deviating wildly from this established UK based discourse with two chapters on ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and ‘The Little Prince’ respectively.

Each chapter offers a recap of the relevant story, a brief biography of the author and then a suggested tour for readers to follow. Quite charmingly, the tours themselves are usually accompanied with hand-drawn maps which are probably the book’s biggest selling points. It’s a quick, transitory read without these maps but with them, gains an oddly appealing element that distinguishes itself from its peers.

‘Where was Wonderland’ does adhere quite ruthlessly to the rules, if we can call them that, established by its contemporaries in the genre. The selection of texts is consciously established as being of, and dealing with, classic children’s books but then includes chapters such as ‘Rob Roy’, ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Cider with Rosie’ which slightly sit at odd with this. It’s interesting in that with guides of this nature they do tend to reflect a very personal agenda (I know, for example, should I write one, I’d be tempted to do it all in Austria and be terribly self-indulgent about it all).

Whilst acknowledging that is vital and quite understandable, it’s also worthwhile considering the impact of that bias upon the book itself. What is this a guide too? Is it a guide to the classic children’s books that can be ‘found’ in real life? Is it a guide to texts that have an established geographical context? Or is it, rather, a guide to texts that have impacted upon the author and thus created this situated response of their own, manifested in the geography of our lived-in existence? Or is it me, perhaps, who’s reading these from my own context and affixing this personal context and subtext to these guides in a way that I’d never do with, say, the Rough Guide to Paris?

I don’t know, yet, but I do know that these odd niche tributes to children’s literature and their roots in the real world remain vividly appealing to me in a way that perhaps not many other books are. They feel symptomatic, somehow, of our hope in literature and of our faith in reading and that will never not call to me.

View all my reviews

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Everything else

Facebook’s Book Club : Children’s Literature edition

You may have heard of Mark Zuckerberg’s declaration that 2015 will see him read a new book every other week with “an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.”.

Well, Mark, here’s your chance to add some children’s literature to the mix. Children’s literature changes worlds, each and every day, and you should seriously think about adding one or more of the following titles to your list. I guarantee that they’ll teach you about the world in ways you never thought possible.

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Everything else

2014 : The year of the paradigm shift?

Was 2014 the year children’s literature made itself known?

Whilst there’s an obvious issue in such a grandiloquent statement (viz. children’s literature has always been ‘known’, etc, etc) I do think there’s something in that idea and this is going to be the blog post where I attempt to unpack that sentiment. In other words, it’s an end of year reflection post ladies and gentlemen, hold onto your hats.

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Everything else

#kidbkgrp Christmas in Children’s Literature

Last night, #kidbkgrp met to discuss Christmas in children’s literature and came up with what is officially a mahoosive and rather amazing list of Christmas book recommendations. You can catch up on the chat here  and here’s a link to previous chats.

This is usually the bit where I tell you about the next chat, but that’s it for 2014! My thanks to everyone who’s chatted this year, you’re all awesome 🙂 Same again in 2015? 😉

 

 

 

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Everything else

A question of fit

I have been thinking about fit for a while now, that idea of fit and of absence of shape and of completion.

I have been thinking about books. About reading, to be precise, about the hunger of it and the twisting aching longing of it.

We read, I think, for completion. Not always and sometimes not consciously but I think that this need to feel completed, to have the shadows of your being explored and split open for the light to shine through, this need is something that is at the heart of what we do as readers. We read to escape, yes, of course we do, but in that, we’re reading to complete. We read to find our edges. We read to discover what they are and what they could be and we read to push our selves against the edge of that world and find out where we fit. We read to find out the shape of ourselves.

The idea of shape, that idea of knowing what and who we are and of finding that out, that’s why we read. But isn’t it why we do anything? Everything? It’s why we select Bulbasaur instead of Squirtle, why our heart burns at the sight of the ones we love, why we eat the chips first instead of the fish. We are finding the limits of ourselves and understanding that and rationalising it and learning that we can and we may love that.

And that is a fight, an argument, a hard fought for thing, and it’s something which happens everyday in this alchemical space between reader and text, between eyes and words printed black upon white upon the page. We accept that fight. We long for that fight. We want to split ourselves open before a book, we let it burrow inside of us so we can remake that book inside our head. So we can see Shantih, or Manchee or Charlotte and recreate them inside our mind and hold them to us, in that space where they fit and that space that they make themselves fit in to. We read to find ourselves and once we do find ourselves, we don’t let that go.

We come back to a text, we reread this story that we read weeks ago, years ago. A different life. A different us. And then we have the best of things, that magical thing, that heartbreaking, world shattering, perfect perfect thing. We realise that that space inside us, that space that the book fit in, so softly, so comfortably, it still exists. And the book still fits in it. In you.

Reading is coming home, always, ever.

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Everything else

Let’s talk a little bit about adults and children’s literature

I’ve been doing a PhD (is that the right phrase? Do you do this sort of a thing?) for nearly a month now and so far my brain has resembled one of those Stretch Armstrong dolls I always wanted but never got for one reason or another. You can sort of feel the moments when everything starts to come together, just a little bit, but then you realise that that coming together is somewhere far and distant in the future and what you actually thought was coming together really isn’t, but it sort of maybe is and maybe could if you do this certain thing.

Basically books, man, knowledge and books, like whoah.

And as part of this erudite conversation I’ve been having with myself, I’ve been thinking a lot about adults and their relationship to children’s literature. (If you’ve got time, I’d get you to have a look at this by Dr Matt Finch where he talks about Alice Munro and the notion of what actually is a ‘suitable’ (my emphasis) read for young adults.)

Yesterday, I met with my supervisor again and whilst talking about everything in the world, we touched upon the notion of adults reading children’s literature. This came from a book I’m reading which seems to sort of disregard everything that made the author who they were today. “But when I grew up, I put away childish things”. That sort of thing. 

Which is fine, but it’s not a complete view of the way we get to be who we are as adults.

It’s not acknowledging the building blocks of our selves.

Our readerly journey begins as children and sometimes I think we forget that (and I’m using we in a spectacularly global manner here, please forgive me for the inherent generalisations in such usage). Sometimes I think that people sort of think they came out full formed as readers, that what they read as children does not matter. That what it was was childish. (And oh, how I twinge with that term). That what is was as a temporal experience that cannot and should not be revisited or even, in some cases, acknowledged.

And I don’t know if that’s right.

I don’t know if it’s fair, even, to those books or to us.

We are all made and shaped by literature, by the text that our society is as a whole. By the textuality of our worlds. By the textuality of our existence, our own personal narratives. I love the fact that I read, write and get to research children’s books. I love the fact that I am part of this narrative, this hugely important narrative that shifts worlds and builds people. (Every time you read your books with your kids or take your grandkids to the library or whatever, you are buying into that narrative of change and potential and brave new worlds and I think you’re all world-changers and rather brilliant for doing that).

Children’s literature, young adult literature, picture books, non-fiction, apps; everything that comes under that increasingly umbrella-like term is something that is incredibly vital and something that has made and continues to make who we are. We give it to our children, we share it in schools and libraries, and we do that because we believe in it. We want it to say certain things, to share certain things, to be certain things to the child of today.

The child that we once were.

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Everything else

A few thoughts on reading out loud

Now that I’m an official PhD student, I am officially researching children’s literature. It is terrifying, awe-inducing and a privilege, all at the same time. It’s letting my mind race, hugely, nervously, tentatively, into odd places and to self-indulgent places because I’m able to do what I enjoy. And what I enjoy is talking about books. Children’s books, in particular. (I know, for those of who have been following my blog for a while, I hope you were sat down for that revelation 😉 )

So let’s talk a little bit about reading out loud.

Why? Well, why not. But, what I sort of want to do with this post is tell you a little bit about what reading out loud is, and what it can do, and what we’re engaging in when we do this thing that we sort of tend to accept as just what we should be doing and because of that, it’s so ingrained in our consciousness that we don’t really pause to see the great wonder of what it is that we are doing..

(I’ve just had a Twix. Can you tell? Let’s do this!)

Okay. So. Reading out loud to our children, with our children, is a beautiful thing. It is a shared act of reading. It is us introducing them to literature, framing it through our presentation of it to them (oh look at this! isn’t this exciting!) and it is our way of helping literacy develop in our children. It is not the only way, but it is one of our big ways. We bathe our children in words, we let them wash over them from day one, we name our children and we talk, talk, talk to them and with every word, we’re pulling them into the world.

That’s one of the things that reading out loud does (and to be fair, it’s not just one – there’s a multitude of things to be unpacked in that paragraph above), but it’s not the only thing that it does, and this is the part where it starts to get interesting for me. Interesting-er, if you will.

When you read, you’re bringing a story to life. One sentence: “We’re going on a bear hunt”, uttered in real time, to a face or a crowd, and you’re affirming literature. You are bringing the imaginary into the real world because, for that brief and glorious moment of reading the story, you are the story. The story is you. The text in the page doesn’t exist on the page any more, it exists in you.

How amazing is that? It’s like a superpower that we all have: we can be story. 

It’s through that speech act, that simple click and furl of your tongue, that you do it and you do it every day. You bring story to life. You say to your kids, or the kids you look after, or the kids you teach, or the kids that come into your library, that stories are real. You take the time out to go – look at this artefact, look at this thing that I believe in so much that I’m taking time out of my day to read it and let it live, and here’s the thing, here’s the utterly brilliant kicker, you can do it too.

You can make this story happen. You’re making it when you mouth the words along with me, or when your finger runs along the page. You are story and the story is you. 

Every time we read out loud, we’re letting the imaginary live. We’re making it real. We are affirming our belief in the necessity of literature in our world. We believe in fairies. We believe in magic. We believe in words. 

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Awards and children’s literature

Last night #kidbkgrp talked about awards and children’s literature. It was a very brief and quiet chat as there weren’t many people online (my thanks to those who were around!). I therefore decided that the chat as a whole wasn’t worth storifying but, as I do think this is a topic worth pursuing, I decided to blog. Voila! Cogito Ergo Blog!

Photo courtesy of  daverugby83 (Flickr)
Photo courtesy of daverugby83 (Flickr) https://www.flickr.com/photos/daverugby83/3893586483

A brief check of Wikipedia reveals that there are a minimum of 31 children’s book awards in the UK. Now, as per the nature of WIkipedia, that’s not going to be a complete list. And it isn’t. There’s no UKLA award on there and I expect that’s not the only one. Wikipedia is a brilliant resource but it’s not infallible. (Do I sound like I have my librarian hat on? I surely do. It’s a sombrero btw).

Children’s book awards in the UK range from those voted for solely by children, such as the Red House Children’s Book award, administered by the FCBG, through to those selected by professional bodies such as CILIP who look after the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway awards. As I’m a member of CILIP, I get to nominate which is exciting and also rather a huge privilege.

So what does this mean? Why do we have awards?

Well, I think one reason is that we’re sort of honouring the presence of literature in our lives. We’re saying to our contemporaries, our peers and those readers yet to come that these books are wondrous. They are life-changing, vivid beasts and they are good and great and should be read. As previous Carnegie winner Philip Pullman says: “Once upon a time lasts forever”. Stories are forever and they should be and we’re memorialising these books by entering them in a sort of joint record (like a societal bibliography, if you will) and we’re trying to give them a sense of longevity. Just looking at the previous winners of the Carnegie is like looking at a distilled vision of perfect, wonderful (and occasionally intensely challenging) British children’s literature. And it’s right to be proud of that, I think. It’s more than right.

Another reason, as mentioned last night, is to give books by new authors a chance of being read. Did you know that over 10,000 books were published last year in the UK? (At least 10,000 books – some reports go way, way higher than that). Proportionally speaking, the number of children’s books that get published in one year is basically tons (technical, I know, but have a look in your bookshop at the number of new titles and you’ll see what I mean). It’s hard to get read out there. And it’s hard to find books. I read a lot (this is a safe space, right?) and so many of my books are found through browsing and happenstance. A good cover. The librarian reshelving it just in time for me to see. There is so much luck about this. And awards help! They do. They give people a chance to catch their breath and go – wait, this is supposed to be good, I heard about this, let’s give it a chance. Awards can do that signposting towards literature and almost ‘remove’ that risk element of reading. Nobody wants to invest time of their own in reading something rubbish. And when we’re talking about children’s literature, with that always tricksy contextual element that it no doubt has, that’s two fold. You don’t want your kids put off by accidentally reading say War and Peace instead of Where’s Wally.

As it’s always good to do things in threes, here’s a third reason why I rather love what awards can do. They can make statements. They can set out and articulate issues that need articulating.  The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award came into being in 2013 with the aim to “to recognise a rich tradition of radical publishing for children in the UK”. Radical is, they say “include[s] books informed by inclusive/anti-discriminatory concerns or those which promote social equality or social justice”. In an increasingly diverse world, they’re making the statement that diverse and brave literature matters for juvenile readers. And that’s brilliant because it is such a statement. It’s proud and it’s lovely and it’s desperately vital. I believe in the right of children to see themselves in literature and awards that celebrate that right are a good and great thing.

So here we are. As you’ll gather, I’m in favour of literary awards. I do acknowledge that they can be problematic beasts at time but as a whole, I think I’m rather proud that we have them. Here’s to us and our continued celebration of children’s literature. Long may it continue.

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I registered this blog five years ago today

When I started this blog, I started it out of a sort of desperate urge to do something with children’s literature. I wanted to talk about it, to someone. To anyone. I wanted to share this great love of books and find others that loved the same sort of thing. I wanted to connect,  I think, really, and continue the journey that I was on as part of my MA.

It took me a while to find my groove. What to talk about? What to say? How to say it? My early reviews and posts are less than brilliant, but I’ve kept them there for a reason – I want to track the growth of my thinking. I want to track the growth of my reading, too. I think how you read changes, so much, throughout your life and it’s fascinating to look back at something that I wrote and look at the person I was then.

So what’s happened in five years? Well, a lot, and a lot I think comes from doing this blog.

  • I’m writing this in the University of York library where I just started a PhD in children’s literature and literary tourism.
  • I finished my MA in children’s literature and passed.
  • I’ve written a zillion (or near enough) reviews
  • I’ve met some amazing, utterly amazing people, as a direct result of this blog
  • I run a monthly children’s literature discussion group
  • And I have the great joy to be represented by Bryony Woods of DKW Literary Agency.

All of that, all of that, comes either directly or indirectly from blogging. Let’s just say I’m a bit of an advocate of what a blog can do. I think it’s great. And I think you’re all amazing too. Seriously. Books and reading and readers and literacy wouldn’t exist without people like you. You change the world each and every day and that’s a privilege to even be tangentially part of. Here’s to the next five years! 🙂

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News

This morning, I accepted an offer from the University of York for their full time PhD programme. I will be researching children’s literature and literary tourism. (Aren’t you all impressed at how calmly I said that? Let’s just say the reality involves lots of WOARGH and buying of new pencil cases).

I’m ridiculously excited about it and the opportunity to wallow, in depth, in some of my most beloved texts. I’m hoping to look at things like Robin Jarvis and his ridiculously wonderful Whitby books, Enid Blyton and Bourne End  and perhaps, just maybe, get chance to squeeze in some Chalet School books. There’s a chance for me to look at Noel Streatfeild and Madame Fidolia’s Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, or to read about the Jinny books by Patricia Leitch.

Basically, it’s a glorious, huge, topic and one that I’m very interested in (which is handy, as I’ve just signed up to study it for three years!). An opportunity to study this in depth is a great and exciting gift.

(And on a final note, if you’re a publishing / literary / heritage / museum type, who wants to be in on this research from day one, it may be worth us having a chat? One key driver of this research for me is for it to have practical, applicable and commercial interest. If you think I might be of use to you, please do get in touch. I’d love to hear from you

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The Boy Who Fell Into A Book : The Joy of Book-Based Theatre

Children’s books are a funny, beloved thing of mine. I love how they are so resolutely what they are; I love the shape and feel and taste of them, the way that they are so viciously of themselves and will not be of something else. But equally, I love the way that sometimes you get to pull these books out of their bookish state and make them something different from what they started their life out as. They are still story, but now they’re cake-formed story, or animated story or theatrical story.

This weekend I got to go and see The Boy Who Fell Into A Book at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. What’s special about the Stephen Joseph, is that it’s a theatre in the round. A theatre in the round is quite a lovely thing for it dispenses with the format that we’re perhaps more familiar with of an audience looking onto the stage from one direction only, and presents a stage in the centre of the action with an audience around all four sides.

It’s fascinating (and I imagine it’s really rather thrilling/terrifying) to work in because you are totally exposed. You’re part of the story as the audience because you are literally in it. You’re the edge of the building, or the back of the kitchen, and the actors have to give you everything because you’re there at every angle. There’s no escape from each other and it’s a space I’d love to write for some day.

The Boy Who Fell Into A Book is introduced here in the below video by Alan Ayckbourn who wrote the original, which has now been adapted into a musical.

There’s a great simplicity to this musical and it’s one that struck me as providing a great example of children’s literature and theatre working together. Lyrically, The Boy Who Fell Into A Book has a strong repeated motif of music and of echoes; the hero, Kevin, hums little melodies throughout his adventure and explains that these are to help him remember what happened where. That need to record our exploits, to memorialise ourselves and our story, is something very primal. It’s something that I think shows itself in the great love that children’s / young adult literature has for the first person narrative. We want to say that we were there. We want to say that we did these great and bold things.

It’s something that Frodo does when he starts to write his adventures down, it’s something that the Princess Bride acknowledges, it’s something that we do. We have our stories. And we share our stories because that’s what makes us human, that’s what ties us to each other.

The Boy Who Fell Into A Book does this, not just for dramatic purposes (or for the purposes of reminding an audience what’s happened and maintaining their interest in a narrative), but perhaps more from a genuine joy at being in a story. Kevin loves it. Even though it can’t be all kaboom, kapow (best song in the piece), it can be exciting. It can be terrifying, but it can be exciting. Stories live. Kevin made it happen and he’s in control. Reading. It’s the biggest superpower we have.

I love that. I love that a musical can exist where we roar through scenes from detective stories through to chess for beginners through to falling into one of Kevin’s younger sisters’ books – a book that features the terrifyingly Tellytubby-esque Wobblies. I love that we can live that journey  through Kevin’s books with Kevin, that we’re there in every step of the way and that there’s children in the audience yelling out to try and help Kevin back to finding his bedroom.

Theatre is a joy. The immediacy of it, the vitality of it, it’s a joy. Smart, funny and joyful theatrical adaptations of children’s literature? Well, to quote Oliver Twist: “Please Sir, can I have some more?” (And I will! I’m going to go and see The Wind In The Willows in August!).

Other theatrical productions, with a children’s literature twist, currently on around the country involve Matilda, Hetty Feather, The Tiger Who Came To Tea and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

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Shelves! Shelves with books!

I always love it when people share photographs of their bookshelves because I do the whole squinting at the page/screen thing and try to figure out what they have on their shelves. Seriously, I even do it on magazines when I’m meant to be focusing on who’s got married to who; all I’m interested in is whether they’ve got any books I recognise on their shelves.

So here we are. This is the current state of play at DYESTTAFTSA Towers. It’s not pretty. It’s not organised. (Dear god, it’s not organised). But they are OUT OF THEIR BOXES. The books live! The books live!

(Also – Bowtie gets to come out of storage as well! Suddenly I’m a six year old again!)
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DCIM100MEDIA

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Have you heard of #kidbkgrp ?

Hi! Do we talk on Twitter? If not, we really should (say hi, you know you want to). (But, you know, say it with some context and not just hi, because then I’ll just hi back and that will not be constructive in the whole beginning a conversation thing and now I’m digressing just a tad, so I’ll stop and move on to what I actually wanted to tell you about)

#kidbkgrp is a monthly chat group which meets the first Thursday of every month, 9-10pm on Twitter. We talk about a whole range of issues relating to children’s literature and everyone is welcome. This means you, specifically 😉

All you need to do to take part is tweet during that time frame using the #kidbkgrp hashtag (basically so I and everyone else taking part in the chat sees you). That’s it! You can view the schedule for the remaining chats of the year here and this Thursday (August 7th), we chat about Drama in Children’s Literature (particularly relevant in a post Carnegie climate, no?). We’ll talk about what children’s literature should and should not do and how to achieve this. It should be good – and I’d love to see you there 🙂

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The Wilderness of Children’s Literature

“Let the wild rumpus start!” 

– Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

What is children’s literature right now? Is it vile and dangerous?  Is it something that adults shouldn’t even be reading at all?

I don’t want to tell you about what you should and shouldn’t read. But what I will do is this. 

I will support you in making choices, and I will help you to make those choices, and I will help you to understand those choices. 

And I will stand where I am right now, on the ragged edge, and tell you about the wilderness that exists in children’s literature and why I am glad it is there. 

You find the wilderness in the moment which holds your heart still for an entire page. The moment when the author goes there, right there, and then goes that little bit further until suddenly you realise that you can’t see the word for the tears that are falling down your face. That’s the wilderness, right there, right then. That’s the moment where somebody acknowledges how wild, untamed and how uncontrollable childhood can be.

Teenage life can be full of such terror, and that terror has a right to be understood and explored.

The books that live in the wilderness make their own space in the world, hanging on the edge of textual conformity and stylistics, for they are strong wild creatures. Poetic, vivid, acute, heartbreaking. Brilliant, too. 

They matter, these wild untameable books. 

And so do you. 

You can’t navigate the wilderness without knowing who and what you are. And that’s something I believe in, I believe in choice. I believe in readers knowing who they are, why they react to something, and trusting their own judgement. I believe in empowerment. I believe in strength. I believe in literacy opening the door to the world.

But what if you don’t? 

What if you’re lost in the wilderness and can’t see the way out?

Well, my pledge to you is this: I will cut down the grass when it grows too high. I will take your hand and show you how to escape. I will bring you food and water, and I will sit with you and I will stay. I will weed the ground around you, and tear down the undergrowth when it grows too big, and I will help you to the other side.

I believe in the wilderness, yes, but I also believe in being able to stand in it, and being able to see the light beyond it. 

I believe in you. 

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You shouldn’t read this post

You shouldn’t read this post. You shouldn’t read this blog. You shouldn’t read this for the simple reason that I am telling you not to read it. Are you still reading? You shouldn’t. You shouldn’t have this tab open. You shouldn’t still have the internet. You shouldn’t have your device switched on. 

What I am telling you is that you shouldn’t read this post.

Ridiculous, isn’t it, even just looking at that paragraph makes me wince. And yet, here I am, on the ragged edge, telling you what you should and should not  be reading. Censorship. That’s what it is. It may be a highly dramatic word but that’s what it is, with all the connotations that come with that word, this is what I’m doing, right now. 

I am asking you to not read this post. 

But what if I said something different?

What if I said: look – I trust you. I trust you so much. I trust the innate power you have as a reader to make the right choices. And those choices might not be the choices that I would make, that I want you to make, but they are your choices. Books are dangerous, wild things, and that is their power. Learning how to manage that power is so, so vital. It is vital. And to block that through fear, or through prejudice or through wobbly hyperbole (oh, let’s say articles about how adults shouldn’t read children’s literature, anyone?), is not right. I won’t say it’s wrong, because, again, this is about people that have read things and they have made their choices. But what is wrong, is to impinge those choices upon others.

We are guiders, you and I, and we are gatekeepers, and facilitators and fans and readers and writers and people, people, people. 

And if you think about the trust and belief that we should have in people, that people should have in themselves, that people should be allowed to have in themselves, then you have done what I hoped you would do.

You have read this post. You have read this post, and you have made your choices and you have made them yours.

Thank you. 

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I swim to literature and grab it, finger-tight and breathless

I am moving house at the moment. Not literally, I hasten to add. I am not typing this from a laptop balanced on my knee somewhere on the M1. I am moving in a few days and I type this surrounded by boxes and bags and the remains of Things Which Should Not Be Moved And Really Should Go To The Tip For The Love Of God.

And I am surrounded, quite palpably, by the absence of my books.

It makes me twitchy this space-without-things, this new canvas of my flat where the type of the keyboard echoes and the TV seems too loud. It makes me twitchy because books are the weft of my life in so many ways, they are the binding between the cracks and they are the rock that I swim too when I am drowning and need something to hold on to.

I like books. Can you tell? I like what they mean, I like what they are, I like that the very concept of a book exists – stop for a moment and consider how wondrous that is. That we, as a people, decided to bind and create and collect our stories, our currency as people, our history and our culture, and we realised that was important enough that it needed to be kept. That it needed to be valued.

And that it needed to be

And so, this is where I tell you of my panicked comment to an estate agent: “What sort of an area are you looking for?” “Somewhere close to the library?”, and this is where I tell you why that still matters, why that always matters and why that will always matter. 

When we visit libraries, when we touch a book, when we sit and listen to mum or dad or gran or grandad read the first page of a new bedtime story, we are doing so much more than the reading of that book. We are reading ourselves in a way, we are engaging in the sharing of stories, and we are binding ourselves to one another. 

We are connecting. We are connected. We have a hook into the great weave of our world. We read to hear, to find, to be ourselves.  We are when we read. We read when we are. And we read when we are not, when we are lost in the great nothingness. Libraries open doors to other worlds. And to ourselves. 

I miss my books. I miss them because they are a part of me. . 

 

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#kidbkgrp 2014 schedule

So here we are. The first Thursday of every month, 9-10pm – let’s talk about children’s literature on Twitter with the hashtag #kidbkgrp. Do come along – I’d love to see you there 🙂

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#kidbkgrp is back!

So due to the whole necessity of having to a) find a new place to live, b) starting a new job, c) moving halfway across the country and d) writing a book, I had to put a few things on the back burner for a while. One of these was my beloved #kidbkgrp.

But no longer… *insert drum roll*

#kidbkgrp is BACK. If you’ve not heard of it, it’s a monthly Twitter chat under the hashtag #kidbkgrp covering a wide range of topics in children’s literature. It’s between 9-10pm (to allow the kids to be fed and bedded 🙂 ) and lasts for the hour (though you’re obviously welcome to chat afterwards!). It’s full of amazing smart and friendly people and I guarantee you will get some brilliant book recommendations and some thought provoking conversation.

I’m putting together a schedule for the rest of the year (to start sometime in June), and here’s the part where I’d like your input. What would you like to chat about? What do you want to crowdsource some thoughts on? Are you baffled by books for boys? Want to talk about gender in children’s literature or how about representations of sexuality? How about heroines, or historical literature, or the best horse books for your pony mad children? Do you want to learn more about theory or do you want to chat about studying children’s literature? Do you want to find some hidden gems, want to talk about what makes picture books so great, or are you trying to figure out what makes a bestseller so best?

Let me know your thoughts either here or on Twitter and I promise you I’ll add them in to the plans. And keep an eye here because in the next week or so I will produce a super lovely schedule full of dates and times and stuff. Exciting!

(and my thanks to @yayeahyeah for keeping #kidbkgrp warm during my absence! If you’re not following him on Twitter or checking out his lovely blogs, you should!)

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Do you wanna build a library?

Do you wanna fill it full of books? Do you wanna make it so, that every child who comes in won’t know where to look?

But where would you begin? It’s hard to know how to ‘start’ a library when there’s so much in the world of children’s literature and there’s so much of it that’s good. I used to work in a public library and one of the key things I did was help break down the ‘intimidation’ of literature. Because it can be intimidating – a sea of shelves, of spines – where do you start? And where are you allowed to start?

So prompted by this (and also through a chat with the splendid @yayeahyeah ), I decided to try and break it down.

You know that every summer you get those how to pack your suitcase articles? One top that does three hundred occasions, and one skirt that acts as both skirt, beach towel, parachute, etc, etc? Well this is the textual equivalent of that. Here are ten titles which I reckon could start off as a solid core for a library.

And for emotionally traumatising them, but that’s another story (badumtish).

One last thing to note is that I’ve presupposed a mixed sex, teenage, comfortable with regards to budget (ha, I know) environment for this library. I will hopefully do a picture book / early readers equivalent post in the future so look out for that!

1. David Almond – Slog’s Dad / The Savage. One of the great things about David Almond’s work with Dave McKean is the sense of rooted magic in the texts. That’s an almost contradictory statement, I know, but it’s accurate. These books are set in real life, in the streets that we walk home from school and in the benches that we sit on in the park, but then, because it’s Almond / McKean, we get the injection of magic. The look and look again of strange unreality. The realisation that magic, that imagination and fantasy can exist with the lives we lead. Not against them. With them. And that’s something great and amazing.

2. Michelle Magorian – A Little Love Song / Back Home. Magorian’s great gift as a writer is to give you a sort of pure warmth and great truth, and to often do so in the same moment. Her female characters are beautiful; Rose in A Little Love Song and Rusty in Back Home are brave and foolish and loving and real. And it’s so important to read about women, about girls, who are like that. Who don’t spend their lives being defined by others, who learn that it’s about being defined by yourself, about what you do, that matters.

 3.Gregory Hughes – Unhooking the Moon / Summertime of the Dead. If it’s important to read about women, then it’s also important to acknowledge that the reverse is true. Boys, young men, adults, they all need to read about people who reflect and refract their life and their choices back at them. Hughes writes eloquent, fairy tale-esque, brave stories about relationships and family and love, and the men in his books (for they might not start as men, but they certainly end as men) are outstanding and heartbreaking and perfect.

4. Mal Peet – Life : an exploded diagram / Tamar. I don’t think Peet is the easiest to read at times but he is perhaps one of the most rewarding of authors to read. These two books cover substantially different topics and periods but I think that one of their common factors is this: that they do not shy away from what the world can be. The characters in both are so real, so bluntly, hardly real in moments, that they almost fall off the page. Peet is one of those authors to read when you are straining at the edges of the world.

5. Sarah Crossan – The Weight of Water; Frank Cottrell Boyce – The Unforgotten Coat. Both Boyce and Crossan write with such elegance, such deft wordmanship, that these books about finding your way in the world are a moving and wonderful joy to read. Crossan’s debut novel is written all in blank verse, wryly humorous at points and painfully stark at others. Her use of language and her restraint in the use of that language is outstanding. I think restraint is a good word to use when describing Cottrell Boyce’s beautiful The Unforgotten Coat. It’s amazingly put together, from his subtle and empathetic word pla to clever design, and hits far beyond its weight.

I think one key thing all the above books share is that they reflect the potential of literature. They take the written word and they burst in a thousand different directions. They all show what can be done in the book space – and if that’s not a great thing to use as a kernel for a library, then I don’t know what is…

And now, here’s the part where you come in … tell me what you’d add!

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“Nobody needs me” – “I do.” A few thoughts on space, relationships and children’s literature

Catching Fire is one of those films that I fear I might be thinking about for a long time. It aches inside of me and I love it. I love the furious pain of Jennifer Lawrence in it (that end shot!). The layers beyond layers of story and doublespeak and intrigue. The beautiful honesty of Josh Hutcherson. Mags.

I am, as I was in the cinema, struck by this exchange between Peeta: “Nobody needs me.” Katniss: “I do.”

There’s so much there. This complex, difficult, pained relationship borne from bread and honed through the hunger games is something quite graceful and wondrous in both the books and the film. Better people than I have written about the complex wonder of Katniss as a heroine, but I want to take a moment and talk about relationships. The potential of them. The space of them.

I talk a lot about space, I know, and in a textual sense, I use it quite loosely. There are many different types of space. There is the space between you and the book; the dynamic of reading it, how you feel, how it changes throughout the reading, how you change and so on. There is the space of the book itself; the dynamics of the words in the text, how they play and shift and push against each other. There is the space outside of the book; the world that the book inhabits, the way that it relates to other books, to those that have come before and those who will come after it. In a way, when I talk about space, it can be one or all or none of these and instead that little, desperate clutch inside your throat as you realise that the character you care about will falter, will fall, and it will happen because this book is written and this book has an end and you are locked in with it now until the death.

That is space. The everything. The nothing. The heartbeat. The eye-blink.

This is the space of literature and it is a space new-formed with every reader and with every page turn. Think about the potential of that. The utter, endless potential of that. A new story given to every reader from one book. A new experience.

And that is where I think my interest in relationships and the potential of them in children’s literature comes from. I read this excellent piece about relationships and sexuality earlier. The final paragraph of that article is the kicker:  “YA literature has a responsibility to make a space for girls to think about sexuality on a broad spectrum. We owe it to girls to give them something we don’t have—more than one ideal Relationship Narrative. Open space where there used to be claustrophobic one-path hallways. A chance to decide for themselves what love looks like, and what sex looks like in all its forms

Boom. We owe it to readers to present a space where sexuality, where relationships, happen. In all of their messy, wild, heartfelt, angsty ways. We owe it to readers to give them the chance of seeing themselves in literature. We owe it to readers to give them the potential of seeing themselves and what they are, and were, and will be, reflected in the space of literature. We owe it to readers to give them the chance to find the threads of their life reflected in this mirror shaped in ink and paper, and we owe them the opportunity and the actuality to find that in whatever shape and whatever pattern that thread may take.

For it will breathe there, so comfortable, so quiet, so small, in the space of that book until it is found and it will ache with longing until it is given life.

Until it is read.

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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. 

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Everything else

Roofs in children’s literature

Let’s talk about roofs. Niche, I know, but something that’s sort of starting to needle at my imagination and what with a visit to Oxford yesterday, and my current reading of (the incredibly lovely) Rooftoppers, I thought it was an appropriate time to explore this.

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See, the thing about roofs is that they’re inacessible, usually. They are places that people can’t get to, not easily, and they’re everywhere. And I think sometimes we can miss that, because we’re simply so used to seeing them. They are always there. Every building has them. They are invisible through their visibility.

But, I think, not everywhere has them quite like Oxford.

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Everything else

Down the Rabbit Hole

Just a quickie heads up for you, but have you heard about Down The Rabbit Hole ? It’s a radio show whose pilot debuted this week, and you can read a bit behind the scenes here. And it is ACE. Seriously, go and listen to it and wallow in it. My congratulations to all concerned. It was a pleasure to hear your smart and passionate thoughts, and the legitimacy and respect with which you treated children’s literature was a genuine joy.

(PS – Laura Dockrill’s reading aloud is very, very splendid).

(PPS – And it features The Etherington Brothers! Excitement!).

(PPPS – And THE WORST WITCH)

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Everything else

A couple of children’s literature related posters

So I made some posters which you are now more than welcome to share. And if you’d like to play guess the quote, do feel free.

(All made through this website which is now my new favourite thing)

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Everything else

Words, wording, writing, making : thoughts on authoring

Before we get into this post, I’d urge you to go and read this by the estimable and muy excellente Clara Vulliamy. It’s a really interesting post on the terminology of writing ie: do you call yourself an author? A writer? Or a … something else? 

And it is the inspiration behind this post. 

I don’t know what I call myself. Some days it shifts, really, like the sky on a storm-driven day and other days it’s as clear and as bright as the untrod snow. Sometimes I can say it quite proudly: I am a writer, and then other times, when I fold up inside myself and forget how to do it, I known I am anything but. Those days I am hopeful, mainly, in my efforts to get the words to do what I want them to do and conscious that they will very rarely do so. 

I find that contradiction towards my writing fascinating (infuriating, too!) and often wonder about the behind the scenes process of many a writer. I remember reading Enid Blyton’s autobiography and being fascinated by the quite astounding artifice of it. I’ve never really read anything quite like it, and haven’t since. In my eyes, Enid Blyton was An Author, a stiff-backed, slightly terrifying, terribly conscious of it Author. This may be far from accurate (though on the other hand..), and yet, it is the impression I have of her for good or for bad.

I think a lot of that impression comes from the books I read, so I wonder, I truly do, what people who are going to read my book are going to think? I find that so exciting. (I also find it thrilling terrifying nuts and much more besides). For me, the writer is their book and their book is the writer. The book may not be who they are now, but it is a part of them, as they were, as they were at one point and that part has been shaped into the book. 

And yet, as I go through this process with my book, I now know that the above isn’t accurate. Not really. It’s hard to define, but I think the best way is to say that I am now learning how to write a book and as part of that process, I am learning how to treat the book critically and as An Other. I don’t think I knew that before. Writing this book has been an evolving, organic process where you wallow inside it and push at the edges and discover what they are. Before that, I knew how to write moments, I think, but not how to shape them into a glorious, soul-swallowing heart-breaking and heart-making whole which can be captured in print and on paper and held between your hands. 

And I think it is, because of all of that, that I am most comfortable with the concept of being a maker of stories. I don’t think I’m an author, not yet. I don’t think I’m a writer, not yet, though sometimes I think I’m almost there. When I can, I will tell you about my belief in stories and how they shift and slide and how they are human led and human centred and human ended, and I will tell about my belief that we all have them inside of us. That we are all makers and shapers and we all have our story to tell. 

I must tell you about that, sometime. 

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Everything else

How Children’s Literature Ruined My Life

Image 

This is a picture of the sky. It is very lovely. It bears very little relation to what I’m about to tell you but, I feel, it’s time to tell the truth. And so I start with a sweetener. The beauty. The glory. The light that stretches down to your fingertips. The joy of the infinite sunset.

And now the sadness. 

It is time, my friends, to confess something to you. A sordid truth. My hidden shame.

Children’s Literature has ruined my life.

Every day, I’m shuffling suffering from at least one of the following:

(You know what? I’m in love that I could carry on this list forever. God I love books. My life without them would not be the same. They have made me what and who I am.

And I would not have it any other way 🙂 ) 

 

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Overviews

Structurally speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Theory

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 🙂

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Everything else

Wales is done!

Breaking news of the breakingest kind! Remember that Read Your Way Around the UK project I’ve been working on? The one with a book located in every county of the UK?

Thanks to a suggestion from the amazing @yayeahyeah, the Wales section is now FINISHED.

You can view the spreadsheet here as it currently stands, but I am very, very pleased to say that you can now officially read your way around the whole of England and Wales. Come on Scotland and Northern Ireland!!

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Everything else

“Look back, but don’t stare” : what I want from the world of children’s literature in 2014

I recently got a copy of the Take That documentary Look Back, Don’t Stare from the charity shop near me. It’s an amazing documentary and one that, in a way, bears a lot of interest for me. In it, we see the boy-now-attractive-beardy-man-band Take That come to terms with working together as a five piece: Gary, Mark, Howard, Jason and Robbbie Williams, back in the fold after a kazillion years working solo. The documentary itself is languid and evocatively put together, featuring smoke wreathed sessions in the recording booth, some very beautiful moments where we see the creation of the reformed band’s album, and some searing behind the scenes discussions between the guys. 

It’s the title of the documentary that stays with me as I come to write this post. This is the time of year where you see a lot of this sort of thing, but I think, for me, the difference is that I’m in a different place then where I was last year. Every year, really, let’s not just narrow it down to last year. The newness of where I am now hasn’t changed me with my relationship to books. It’s changed my writing, I can’t deny that. I hope it’s made it better. I think it has. I think I’ve got braver in what I want.

And what is it that I want?

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Everything else

The best of 2013 : a look back

Hurrah! It’s that time of year when we look back at the most popular posts on DYESTTAFTSA. In no particular order, here’s the top five most read posts in 2013

1. I was so pleased to be able to share this post with you. It’s an interview with Allan Laville of the University of Reading, all about how children distinguish between fantasy and reality. His work is utterly fascinating, and if you didn’t catch the interview first time round, here’s your second chance.

2.  Following the departure of Amanda Craig from The Times, I wrote about the marginalisation of children’s literature. The full post is available here.

3. Read Your Way Around The UK launched this year! It’s a project that involves finding a book based in every county of the UK. You can read the introductory post here and view the current spreadsheet here. England’s done, and I’m working on the others!

4. In August, I found out the truth about Anne from the Famous Five. You can find out what I mean here.

5. And finally, there’s the post where I told you all some exciting behind the scenes news about me and that.

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Everything else

Love in children’s literature : the pain, the glory, the wonder

It’s a big old subject is love. Love changes everything. All you need is love. Love in media simply is. It’s one of the core tenets of our humanity, of our experience, and so we talk about it. We share it. We are inspired by it. We are made by, reshaped by and broken by love.

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Everything else

#kidbkgrp School Stories in Children’s Literature

Last night #kidbkgrp discussed school stories in children’s literature. Now, I admit that this one might have been a little self-indulgent as a topic (Team Chalet, yo), I was fascinated to see the range of reccomendations that came up. I think there’s something really interesting in how so many people plumped for say Chalet School in Exile and Prisoner of Azkaban as their desert island book – both books were spectacular highs in their respective series, and in the case of Exile, quite remarkable that it even got published.

I love school stories. I love what they are and what they can do. And I loved hearing all the chat last night. Thanks for coming along.

Here’s the storify of last night and here’s a link to the previous chats.

And that’s it for 2013! This is the part where I usually tell you about the next one that’s coming up, but I don’t know yet …. so I need your help!  Let me know what you want to chat about and how you want to chat about it (like, say, gender in children’s books or an open reccomendation surgery….). And finally, thank you for chatting! If you haven’t felt able to join in, but want to, let me know what would help you to join in? I would love to have you along for next time..! 🙂

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Everything else

The marginalisation of children’s literature

Amanda Craig has left The Times. For those of you who don’t know her work, she is a critic of children’s literature. She is very good. She was one of the few mainstream print media ‘presences’ of children’s literature.

I have been thinking about this. And other things like this, like this post on the future of public libraries, and the way that I desperately long for there to be a future and yet, somehow, wrapped up inside of all of that, I have a fear that they won’t have a future.

And I have been thinking about the marginalisation of children’s literature.

It’s weird, don’t you think, what we do with children and their literature? We are talked to about these books, we are graded on it, we pull it to shreds in school. We live our lives with these characters and then – suddenly – we “grow up”. And as as adults, we don’t seem to want to own it anymore We don’t really seem to want to have anything to do with children’s literature it unless we have to. It does not fit in our world.

Think of all the times that adult books touch our lives. Think of how they touch our lives; of the pad-tastic nature of the ‘I loved this so you will to’ Christmas reccomendations in the Sunday paper, of the way that these books are rooted, so heavily, in our conscience. They are given away with magazines, piled up in the shop at the station, part of our airport routine. We fit them in. They fit in. They are an accepted paraphenalia of our adult lives.

But do children’s books? Do they, well, fit? There are times when I don’t think they do and, to be frank,  I’m not sure if that says more about them or us.

Have a look at this. There’s something hideous about the ending to this piece at The Telegraph revealing the Costa Book Awards 2013 shortlist. Note the difference between the adult and the children’s books? Not one of the children’s books have been reviewed by The Telegraph. Now, I can’t claim the moral highground here having reviewed just one of the children’s titles but what I can do is tell you that  that one is one of the best books I have read all year.

Literature does things. When we read, we live, we love, we laugh. We long for worlds we can never know, learn how to understand the shadow of our selves and we yearn for the most perfect of loves and lives.

Children’s Literature does things. When we read children’s books,, we live, we love, we laugh. We long for worlds we can never know, learn how to understand the shadow of our selves and we yearn for the most perfect of loves and lives.

See the similarities? Good. They are there, there, there.

We ask the world of children’s literature. We ask it to be read a thousand times in the shape of a picture book, to be pulled apart in coursework, to be passed down from generation to generation. We ask it to keep the kids quiet, to make them clever, to answer the questions we are unable to let form in our mouths.

It would be behoove us to let children’s literature live a little.

It would behoove us to give it the respect it is due.

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Everything else

David Tennant’s Eyes

Nb: Spoilers.

The 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who ‘The Day Of The Doctor’ has just aired in the UK. This blog is not a place to discuss that, or all the – stuff – the – lights and the brights of it, but this blog is a place to talk about one thing. 

That thing was the quietest and most brief of moments, and it was the look on David Tennant’s eyes when John Hurt said two words. “Bad Wolf,” said John Hurt, “Bad Wolf” was all he said, and David Tennant’s eyes exploded with story.

And oh how, I crumbled.

I bent and I broke and I sobbed.

I was on the top of Torchwood Tower, reader, I was there and I was back. I was in the story of Ten and Rose and I was lost in it. And oh how, oh how I howled.

This is character, this is what makes me burn as a writer, as somebody who is interested in stories, as a person. Not the big, orchestral moments, not the moments that play to the crowd and to the audience, but the moments that just, for a split second, define who and what you are and the who you’re always trying to forget but always will be.

And it is moments like this that remind me of what I believe in and remind me why I write, and why I try and tell stories. It is not for the big moments. It will never be for the biggest of moments. It is for those tiny fragments, those moments where – we are. We are. 

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Everything else

Read Your Way Around the UK (England’s done!)

Do you remember that whole mad ‘can you read your way around the UK’ idea? We got England completed! Thank you so much if you’ve been a part of this!

You can view the current state of the spreadsheet if you click on the below image. Which, coincidentally, is all the England titles and authors word-cloud-i-fied. You can also see a map of all the books in England here!

(And here’s to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland!)

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Everything else

Book covers, oh my!

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Cover A

Design’s a pretty amazing thing in the world of children’s literature. I don’t think I’ve seen an ugly book for a long time. You know what I mean; the sort of book that looks at you and dares you to touch it. The sort of book that doesn’t, quite genuinely doesn’t want to be read.

I’ve talked before how I think we’re living in a golden age of children’s literature. About how the books that are coming out these days are rich, vivid, wild things that demand to be read. And I think it’s worthwhile to recognise the role that book covers play in that. So.

Cover B

A book cover is a brilliant thing. It’s the first part of the story that we, in a way, read. It’s the first thing we see and quite often our first interaction with the actual text.  And as such a thing, it needs to be something quite special.

It needs to stand out. It needs to be palpably of its book. There needs to be something there, on that cover, that says, quite irrevocably, you are about to read this book and I am part of that reading.

Cover C
Cover C

And I think, that sometimes, somehow, that the best ones don’t even need words. There’s an element, of course, of familarity to them – you understand the front covers because you’ve bought into that series. You are committed to the reading. But I think in a way that a good front cover is still identifiable without that actual reading of the book itself. It is an appetiser, if you will, the hors d’ouevres of what’s about about to come. And then, once you’ve experienced the world, it is the dessert, the icing on the cake, the sealing of the parcel. It’s got to be everything to everyone, before, after, and during the reading.So here’s a test for you and a bit of a nerdishly exciting experimentat for myself. Can you identify all of these covers in this post? And if you don’t know them – what do they suggest to you? What sort of book do they belong to?

(And if you do know them, are they the covers you’d have chosen?)

The answers are here. In Invisotext! (select and highlight from this point on). Cover A: The Kindle edition of the Hunger Games series (Suzanne Collins), Cover B: Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Hard Luck (Jeff Kinney), Cover C: The Hesperus Press reprint of The Railway Children (Edith Nesbit) 

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Everything else

“The more we invest in children, the more we destroy their future”

I’m reading a bit of Jack Zipes at the moment (Sticks and Stones  : The Troublesome success of children’s literature). It’s one of those books that I don’t know if I agree with it (in fact, there’s areas I’d love to wade into and pick apart) but my word, it’s a fiery, passionate and brilliant read so far. I’d urge you to have a look at this review by one of my estimable peers for more information on the book itself.

There’s a few particularly striking moments in the introduction that I wanted to share with you: “The more we invest in children, the more we destroy their future” and “We calculate what is best for our children by regarding them as investments & turning them into commodities”. Later he goes onto argue that we’re essentially making children’s literature what we want it to be, cultivating (inculcating?)  certain ideas onto children through our adult virtue of being the ‘elite.’ In a way, we are complicit in the “homogenization of children”. 

Now I want to share with you this incredibly thoughtful post about the future of sharing books with children. In it, another one of my equally estimable peers discusses the role of libraries, the future of them and how we can begin to addresss the fact that “the decision makers in this country [do not seem to]  value libraries enough to want to keep them.”

Why am I sharing these two things with you?

It’s because, I think, talking is one of the great skills we have as bloggers / readers / consumers of mass media. It is through the asking – and the provoking – of these questions (of asking the difficult Zipes-esque questions), that we start to gain answers.  It is through the reading of posts like Storyseekers’ that create thought and response and – realisation.

Libraries are very dear to me. Children’s Literature is very dear to me.  It’s only through understanding, and being able to contextualise and rationalise your relationship to something, that you’re able to understand it.

And it’s through that understanding, through that ownership of the role you play in the process. that you bring action.

So may I ask something of you this weekend, this week, this month? The next book you pick up, the next piece of printed media you consume, ask yourself why you’re reading it? Have you bought it from the library – the shop – from school? Do your kids read library books – do you know where your library is – would you go there from choice? And then – may I ask you to ask that of others? Blog it, talk it, tweet it, shout it. Let’s keep this discussion going.

Let’s keep it growing.

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Everything else

#readyourwayaroundtheUK – an update, a thank you and a challenge!

Just in case you missed it, I have been working on a project recently. I wondered whether it would be possible to read your way around the UK in children’s / YA books, and you know something? You pretty much can. After a busy, busy week of googling, map reading, and tweeting, the Read Your Way Around the UK spreadsheet is getting very, very full. (Which is AMAZING).

Thank you so much if you’ve given me a title suggestion or confirmed whether book  X is set in Village Y. Thank you also if you’ve tweeted me sympathetically and gone, “Yes, Bangor is in Wales love” when I’ve lost track of what my name is, let alone borders and counties and that. Thank you if you’ve helped me clear up my geography. Basically, thank you for getting involved in this fascinating project and for helping it out.

So here’s the first part of the challenge. I want to know if you’ve read / reviewed any of the books of the list. I reviewed my first this morning but I want to know if anybody else is having a go. Will you let me know if you are? I’ll keep an eye on the #readyourwayaroundtheUK tag on Twitter but if I miss it, let me know!

And here’s the second part of the challenge. We have gaps. Gaps are bad. Can you help with any of the below queries? Is there a county on there that doesn’t exist currently? Have I put Narnia in Wales by mistake? Are you an author who writes books solely set in Rutland?

Give me a bell or comment here or on Twitter. I would so love to be able to get a book for every county in the UK…!

Thank you! 🙂

England: Books still needed for Rutland and Hertfordshire

Scotland: Books still needed for Aberdeen, Angus, Clackmannanshire, Dundee, East Ayrshire, East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, Moray, Perth and KinrossSouth Lanarkshire and West Lothian

Wales: Books still needed for AngleseyBreconCaernarfonshireDenbighshire, DyfedFlintshireMid Glamorgan, Montgomeryshire, Powys, Radnorshire, West Glamorgan, South Glamorgan and Wrexham

Wales: Can anybody confirm the settings of the following books / series? Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs, Whistler’s Van – Idwal Jones, The Magician Trilogy – Jenny Nimmo, The Seeing Stone – Kevin Crossley Holland

Northern Ireland: Books still needed for Amagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry

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Everything else

Read Your Way Around the UK

You can blame David Almond for this. I was reading one of his rich nuanced books, that sing of love and of humanity and of life, and I thought wait a minute. Wait a minute, I thought, I wonder if these books that are so richly of his North (and not in the Game of Thrones style, of his Actual North), I wonder if there’s something in that.

I wondered if it was possible to read your way around the UK? And not just any old books. Children’s books. Anything from board book up to Young Adult. Bath books, even, whatever, as long as it had a suitably county-specific identity.

Firstly, I congratulated myself for thinking it in such a Seussical manner that I had a rhyming name for the challenge. And then I thought, wait, that’s a lot of counties.

And then I thought, well, I do enjoy a challenge…. 😉

This, therefore, is your official announcement of the DYESTTAFTSA READ YOUR WAY AROUND THE UK Challenge! The challenge itself is split into three parts; the sourcing of the titles (which will all live here in a handy spreadsheet), the actual reading of the books, and the posting of the review. I would LOVE it if people were to join in with this so please do tweet me (@chaletfan), comment or send a carrier pigeon with your recommended books and reviews.

So let’s begin, shall we? READ YOUR WAY AROUND THE UK begins today. (YAY) (HEY, HEY, HEY) (KALLOO KALLAY) (I SHOULD PROBABLY STOP RHYMING NOW).

(Also while I have your attention, may I ask ‘what are you and yours doing November 9th 2013? David Almond aka one of the greatest writers of children’s literature of our time is speaking in Birmingham at this festival and you really, really ought to be there to hear him and also spend the day wallowing in children’s books with some very like-minded folk. I am going. I am very excited about it.)

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Everything else

Darkness in children’s literature #kidbkgrp

If you’ve not heard about #kidbkgrp, basically it’s a Twitter based chat (using the #kidbkgrp) on various topics in children’s / YA literature. The schedule for the November / December chat is available here (and I’d love to see you along next time!)

So last night we talked about darkness in children’s literature. Darkness is a very umbrella term and one that I use to encompass a whole variety of ‘graphic’ content. In a way, it’s things such as violence, drugs, sex and more. The chat topic came about after I chatted with some other people online about the ‘Gone’ series by Micheal Grant, and also by my feeling that perhaps it’s easy for certain angles of the media to ‘brand’ a certain genre of YA literature as ‘dark’ and therefore ‘abhorrent’ and that’s far too simplistic an angle to take when we actually look at the book, at our actions as a reader and at our role in the entire process as gatekeepers / adults etc. 

Here’s the storify and here’s a link to the hashtag on Twitter.

See you on November 14th to talk about comics! I want everyone to be there! Let’s take over Twitter! 😀 

 

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Overviews

Best of British : is there such a thing as the Great British Children’s Book?

I’ve been thinking about children’s literature and what, you know, makes it what it is today. I’ve thought for a while that we’re living in a second golden age, with the quality of titles being published during and in the past few years. But then I thought that well, maybe there’s something in that but there’s also something in that if I ever think about what’s my British classic, what’s the book that embodies children’s literature, there’s a vast likelihood that it’s one of the classics I grew up with.

We’ve touched on this beforehand (most notably in one of the #kidbkgrp chats on classics) but I wanted to push it further. I want to reason out why I think this is such a Proper Good Time for children’s literature in the UK.  And I think the first thing I need to figure out is if there even is there such a thing as a classic British book? Because if I’m saying this is an amazing time in British children’s literature, I think I need to figure out where we’ve already been.

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Everything else

News and more from this week in the world of children’s literature

Hello! It’s your weekly roundup of Things Which May Be Interesting! As ever, if you’ve got anything that you think should be included, let me know? Enjoy!

1. Nosy Crow features a 20 month old retelling of one of their stories (not as in an old retelling, a retelling by a very young individual!). It’s a fascinating insight into developing literacy and well worth watching. You can see the video and accompanying blog post here.

2. Di Laycock talks about the changing (and unchanging) attitudes towards comics in the classroom. “Keep watering the rocks” also features a very useful looking bibliography if you’re needing to look at using / justifying comics in an educational context.

3. If you’re in Oxford / can get to Oxford on October 12th, you should be going to this conference. The lineup looks amazing, plus you get the chance to make me rampantly jealous. Frankly, it sells itself!

4. This is a lovely, proper lovely, interview with Hilary McKay.

5. I enjoyed this essay: “Disenchanting the fairy godmother : an exploration of the evolution of fairy godmothers in modern retellings of Cinderella.”

6. I am planning things for #kidbkgrp and would welcome your thoughts! You can see more about this here. I’d really welcome your thoughts (and I have great things planned 😉 )

7. This is ace. 22 times when Harry Potter’s bitch face was better than yours. Turns out that the chosen one? He sassy.

8. And finally, it’s very much not from this week but I loved it and wanted to share it, Viviane Schwarz talks about what it feels like to write a picture book. It’s beautiful.

Previous posts in this series are available here. See you next time!

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Theory

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 🙂

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Everything else

Sunday round-up of news from the world of children’s literature

Gosh, I need to figure out a pithier title for this series of posts! If you have any ideas do let me know? 😉 Here’s some of the things you may have missed from the world of children’s literature this week. Enjoy!
1. Alex T Smith was named as the illustrator for World Book Day 2014. This is genuinely the best of things and if you’d like to know why, have a look at my review of Claude In The Country, or Claude On Holiday or  Egg  Basically he’s really good at what he does. I, for one, am very very excited about this.2. Kate Kelly writes about the rise of ‘Cli-Fi’ (Climate Fiction) over on the Scottish Book Trust: “Cli-Fi : The Fiction of Climate Change”. If you’re after more books in this area, have a look at Playing By The Book’s blog carnival on books about green issues, and my reviews of Saci Lloyd’s climate-dystopias ‘The Carbon Diaries 2015’ and ‘The Carbon Diaries 2017‘.

3. In an article on the Daily Mail, Charlie Higson and Meg Rosoff discuss how to get boys and girls into reading: “Boys V Girls : it’s the battle of the bookworms”

4. There’s a preview of Catherynne M Valente’s new ‘Fairyland’ book: “The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut The Moon In Two” here.

5. BuzzFeed collated some of the best children’s book themed Halloween (or maybe World Book Day? 😉 ) costumes ever. Have a look at them here and adore the brilliance that is the Alice In Wonderland.

6. A new study suggested that the bedtime story was dying out. According to researchers, the average modern day child receives three bedtime stories a week.

7. Over on The Edge, Katie Dale asks whether YA girls are too skinny?

8. And finally, Women Write About Comics talks about female antiheroes here. Though the piece is focusing specifically on TV, there’s a lot of crossover to literature in it.

If you’d like to catch up on previous posts in this series, they’re available here. See you next week!

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Everything else

Favourites in children’s literature #kidbkgrp

12th September saw a super speedy #kidbkgrp chat happen. It was precipitated by my finishing A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson and remembering just how much I loved her. You know that feeling, right? The one where you come back to your favourite author – or book – and feel like you’ve finally come home? That buttery toasted crumpets on an open fire dog on your feet cat on your lap sort of feeling? That’s the one. That’s the exact one.

So we talked about what our favourite books were and why we liked them and as ever a massive amount of titles were suggested (which is something I love and send virtual high fives to all of those who gave them).  Here’s the storify and here’s a link to the previous chats.

See you at the next chat! 😀

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Everything else

Cover Analysis : The 100 most wished for books on Amazon

So, slightly prompted by this, and by my wish to revisit this, I took a look at the 100 most wished for books on Amazon and did a little bit of analysis.

The facts: I looked at this list on 9th September 2013, over a several hour period (ie: once in the morning before work, and once after). Therefore the actual order of items may have changed and will have changed if you look at it now. Also, remember that this is a list of those that are most wanted – not bestsellers.

So, with all that out of the way, I found this list ridiculously interesting.

100mostwishedfor

It’s in order (1-100) and does include duplicates. The obvious ones are Patrick Ness’ ‘More Than This’ and a couple of the Wimpy Kids. It was dominated by Cassandra Clare, John Green, Julia Donaldson and Veronica Roth. There were several ‘media’ books on there such as the One Direction annual, a Lego tie-in and an In The Night Garden boxed set. A couple of film tie ins featured – the Mortal Instruments books and also the Hobbit.

But have a look at the colours.

I was surprised, really, at the darkness of the covers and the preponderance of reds and blues. Note that this list covers comics and graphic novels as well as picture books, so it’s very much an umbrella view rather than drilling down to say the specifics of front cover design in middle grade literature.

So what can we tell from this (incredibly precise) research?

Firstly you can tell that I’m in love with John Green’s cover designs. Seriously. And I think Patrick Ness’ front covers are up there too for me.

Secondly, I think the importance of ‘brand’ needs to be recognised. Have a look at the Cassandra Clare front covers. I won’t tell you which they are because, I think, you can recognise them. They’re quite iconic in their styling and consistent – and they do bring your attention to it. This is branding, consistent and swiftly identifiable across the titles in the series. Once you know the branding of these books, you know them. Same goes for Ally Carter and her Gallagher Girls books.

Thirdly, I don’t think anything from children’s literature is *quite* ready to appear in Private Eye’s ‘Bookalikes’ column! The diversity in style is impressive. Though I acknowledge that the colours are, as mentioned, of a distinctly similar hue, I’m struck by the difference between say ‘Diamond’ and ‘Wonder – two front covers which bookend their respective lines. There’s a commonality in that they both feature faces looking out but where ‘Diamond’ has the vivid, almost childlike edge of Sharratt’s drawings, ‘Wonder’ has an incredibly dynamic and almost stark image.

Fourthly, I need to know more about book cover designers. I need to know their names!  I think we forget just how good they are and can be. Book covers are, in so many cases, the ‘entry point’ to a text and these have made me swell my Goodreads’ ‘Want To Read’ pile to mammoth proportions. Which is good. It’s very, very good.

And finally? Well, I’d be interested to see whether a similar sort of colour spectrum emerges from the 100 bestsellers (which obviously I shall be doing a post in the near future).

I’m also very, very interested in the absence of obviously gendered front covers on this list. I know through chatting with some of my excellent colleagues on Twitter that it’s very easy to view colours as a sort of semiotic shorthand for character attributes and preconceptions and that’s something I’m keen to avoid. It’s also easy to map these preconceptions and your own experience onto the world of literature (ie: you ‘see’ X, so you expect X to be everywhere – I’m aware this might not make much sense but I will be elaborating on it in the near future) so it’s useful to do an exercise like this to remind oneself of alternate perspectives.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and buy John Green’s entire back catalogue.

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Everything else

News, reviews and articles from the world of Children’s Literature

Good morning!  What better way to start a Sunday then with some interesting reading? As ever, DYESTTAFTSA is here to help with the regular round-up of things you may have missed this week from the world of children’s literature.  Enjoy!

  • This is a gorgeous review of Meg Rosoff’s latest – “Picture Me Gone”. Rosoff on writing: “”Be as adventurous as you can! Don’t aim for the middle!”
  • How Stories Help Sick Kids discusses the redemptive and positive power of storytelling. I was struck by the last paragraph (sorry for the spoiler!) where they say that realising “that you can have complete transformation from a single story almost seems too magical to parents, but we do it over and over again.” The skill and transformational impact of storytelling is something to be recognised.
  • Holly Bourne wrote about love in YA fiction for the Huffington Post. Her piece “Are Happily-ever-afters in YA Novels Bad for Teenagers’ Love Lifes?” is excellent. 
  • Birmingham Library opened – and it’s GORGEOUS. Have a look at the pretty here.
  • I know it’s a Daily Mail link (sorry), but the research it refers to is really interesting “Picture books DO boost literacy”, and the original press release is available here.
  • And finally, the BEST thing in the world is happening which I am VERY excited about. The Federation of Children’s Book Groups are holding a festival in Birmingham on November 9th. I am going. You should too! You’ll get to see Micheal Morpurgo, Clara Vulliamy, David Almond, James Mayhew, Emma Chichester Clark and get to spend the day with some very booky very amazing people. What’s not to love?

If you’d like to view previous posts in this series, they’re available here. See you next time!

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Everything else

Sunday catch-up (news, reviews and more from the world of children’s literature)

This is a two week special, as last week I was a bit busy being giddy. Normal service is resumed this week. Here’s some of the things you may have missed from the world of children’s literature.

*shuffles papers*

BONG.

  • A list of ten inspiring bookshops across the world. I’m moving into the one in Santorini, I hope that’s okay with everyone?
  • It’s nearly back to school time! Are all you parents taking a small sigh of relief? 😉 Here’s a back to school quiz from the Guardian on modern school stories, and here’s a list of some lovely reading recommendations from Waterstones.
  • The Guardian (quite awesomely) have a sample from Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead. You can read the first chapter here.
  • Following the last #kidbkgrp, @childtastic wrote this thought-provoking and eloquent post on strong female characters. If you’ve seen anything else on the topic, do let me know?
  • Also on a similar theme, Kate Mosse asks “Where have all the brave girls gone?”. As a sidebar, I’m really loving what the Guardian are doing in their children’s book sections at the moment – kudos to them.
  •  San Diego State University launched the Unjournal of Children’s Literature. The first issue is available here and features a really interesting  article on the place of female identity in the Stoneheart trilogy.
  • @storyseekersUK published a piece on the future of sharing books with children, covering the future of bookshops and reading. It’s really thoughtful and I’d encourage you to check it out. It also led me to this piece from Nosy Crow discussing what (and how) book reviews matter to you.
  • On a Nosy Crow kick, I found this piece from Elli Woollard very intriguing. In it, she discusses her family and their reaction to A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton. I was interested to see what other people were making of a book that I’d read and not really been blown away by (though don’t be misled, I did like it a lot).

BONG. That’s it for now! If you’d like to view other posts in this series, they’re available here. See you next time!

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Everything else

Sick of telling people that you like children’s books? Help is at hand!

Here is the official DYESTTAFTSA survial guide to those moments when people go “Wait, what, you like children’s books?”. In all encounters such as these, that alas the adult fan of children’s literature is somewhat prone to receiving, DYESTTAFTSA  reccommends calmness and clarity as your way forward. Or, alternatively, you can go Margot Maynard on them (which, fyi, DYESTTAFTSA  does not approve of nor endorse but would be fascinated as to your bookend selection process).

The official plan is as below:

Brief Encounters

  • Sit the individual down, very gently, and give them a copy of The Fault In Our Stars by John Green or A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Jim Kay.
  • When they’ve finished reading it, return to the room, rescue them from their tears and say “That’s why.”

NB: If the individual does not howl with tears at the end of this book, they are beyond help and DYESTTAFTSA  reccommends backing away slowly and returing to your copy of Eleanor and Park.

More Complicated Encounters

These are different and I’d advise caution in engaging on many an online piece, primarily due to the linkbait nature of a high proportion of these articles. However should you feel inclined to respond. DYESTTAFTSA reccomends the following and will cheer you on. Maybe by singing something from Bring It On.  (Who are we kidding, there is no maybe in this, DYESTTAFTSA will cheer you on wholeheartedly by singing something from Bring It On and probably something from High School Musical as well should the encounter prove longer than originally envisaged).

  • Elaborate on the quietly challenging nature of children’s literature, referencing the world building and powerful multilayered narrative of Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman. Perhaps dwell on how the apparent simplicity of something like Slog’s Dad challenges our attitudes towards life, death and everything in between and does so in a handful of pages.  Just maybe, just maybe, throw in an offhand mention to something like The Railway Children and mention how children’s literature has been questioning, challenging and conceptualising our attitudes and concepts of and towards gender roles – and has been doing so for centuries now? Just maybe, I mean, you don’t want to dazzle them straight off.

Now, often the above will work, but should the encounter prove more troublesome, DYESTTAFTSA  suggests something along the lines of the following.

  • Point out that literature is our communal expression of voice, children’s literature represents (in one sense) a societal expression of our hopes, desires and dreams for our youth and if that is not worth investigating, then what is? Perhaps also consider highlighting the fact that our literacy is built in these years and the methodology and means of building that literacy often influence our further life choices and paths and successes?
  • Mention that children’s literature is literature written by adults for a relatively unknown quantity that we can never hope to wholly understand due to the inability in many cases to comunicate effectively (viz. pre-literates / emerging literates), and that the nature of this dialogue creates something quite exciting.
  • Highlight how, very quietly, children’s literature authors are writing avant-garde, stylish and mind-boggling books that break, quite ruthlessly and quite spectacularly, every rule in the book. (Unhooking the Moon, Life: an exploded diagram, My Dad’s A Birdman, There are cats in this book..) and point out that should these books be picked up blindly, they would be indistinguishable from say a McEwan, a Coelho or a Martel.

And should none of the above work? DYESTTAFTSA  would remind you that you have better things to do with your time. Seriously. There’s a new Sarah Lean out, you know?