Wild Lily : KM Peyton

Wild LilyWild Lily by K.M. Peyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard, sometimes, to write about KM Peyton without descending into ‘ISIMPLYJUSTLOVEHERANDYOUSIMPLYJUSTSHOULDTOO’ and so, I’ve taken my time over this review of her latest: Wild Lily, a novel of the 1920s and beyond, and of airplanes, and of foolishness/bravery/lovelovelove. One of the most foremost reasons for taking my time, was an attempt to gain some sort of critical distance upon it. Sometimes writing about the beloved authors is difficult because it simply turns into something incoherent. Passionate, yes, but incoherently so. Passion is glorious, thrilling, but when you’re on the outside of it? A spectacle, nothing more.

And I don’t want that for KM Peyton. I wouldn’t want that for any of the authors that I write about because I write about their books to share them. One of the greatest things I believe about children’s and young adult literature is that it is for the reader, and everything I do – but everything – is to facilitate that moment of book finding reader and being read. Without the reader, we’d be nothing, and so I give myself distance because I want you to be part of this transaction. You, you, you, you’re vital. You’re powerful.

KM Peyton gets that, I suspect, and she writes outwardly; great swathes of beautiful, eloquent passages dominate this book with their almost physical urge to be read, to swell and grow out of the page and to live. This is a book about life and love, as so much of KM Peyton’s work is, and we follow the titular Lily from her youth through to old age; a life knotted together with people and animals and regret and love and wild, wild exuberance.

I found the blurb of the novel a little opaque and the opening was, I admit, slow. But I suspect a novel of this nature was always going to be slow and subtle to start, and when the narrative properly started to kick into action, I was rapt. I always am with KM Peyton because every now and then she will give me something perfect, something so perfect that I will stop and write it down or simply stare at it and will the day I get to write things like that. She captures love, I think, just love, and the great drunken infuriating joy of it, so well. Perfectly, really.

And this is such a good book, exultant in places, glorious in others, that I can forgive Peyton that slow start and the odd moment of being too deft with her narrative. I can forgive her those moments where she ties things up a little too neatly because in another breath she’ll give me the ragged edge; an unfinished moment where the story is something quite wild and quite beautiful and I feel it, I physically feel it, inside of me, always. A book of light and shade; of dazzling, dazzling light, and it is good really, it is beyond good at points, and I love her, I love her, I love her.

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Happy Birthday KM Peyton!

KM Peyton is my one of my literary heroes. (The others, fyi, are Michelle Magorian, Patricia Leitch, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Frank Cottrell Boyce. But it’s not their birhtday today, and it is KM Peyton’s so I shall save them for another time.)

Happy birthday KM Peyton! She’s a bit amazing she is. More than a bit amazing, she’s outstanding. (coughMBEHERALREADYcough) I’ve spoken before about how much I love her, about how she catches the pure soul-consuming nature of first love, or the way she handles the delicate painful shift of growing up, or how she catches that sudden realisation that you’ve got into situation that is over your head or how she says in such few words everything that ever needs to be said. (KM Peyton archive here. She good, yo.)

So this, really, is to say thank you KM Peyton.

Thank you for Ruth, brave stubborn and brilliant Ruth. Thank you for Sweetbriar, my first equine crush. Thank you for Pennington who wrote an entire section of my MA thesis all by himself. For Dick, gorgeous, wondrous Dick. For the sprawling, luscious and heartbreaking layers of Flambards. For everything, really.


I owe you.

Sunday round up and reflections

Happy Sunday! I hope you’ve managed to have an ice-cream this lovely sunny weekend and have had chance to put your feet up and enjoy things 🙂 Here’s the round up of things that caught my eye this week.

1. Zoe from @playbythebook pointed me in the direction of this excellent and powerful piece: “How to Really Read Racist Books to Your Kids” It’s one of those things you really need to read.  It reminded me of this other blog post: “How to be a fan of problematic things”. Both posts are really brilliant in how they approach the issue of reading difficult and problematic texts with a modern day perspective.

2. If you’ve not discovered KM Peyton (who is one of my utter author loves) have a look at this review of Fly-by-night. It totally sums up why KM Peyton is the wonder that she is. Also on a KM Peyton note, have a look at this beautiful piece from Meg Rosoff.

3. I *loved* this. One professor asked his students to do him a comic instead of take a final exam. Clearly the students chose the right option in comic-making 😉 and here are the results.

4. And finally, here’s some excellent posts on diversity with a lot of links in them that are worthwhile to take a bit of time in exploring: “Female Sexuality in YA Fiction : Exploring the range of experiences” and “Heck YA, Diversity! Pro-Tips Edition”.

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

A Pattern Of Roses : KM Peyton

A Pattern of RosesA Pattern of Roses by K.M. Peyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a great love for KM Peyton. She’s one of the authors that has defined my attitude towards children’s literature, to what it can and could be and to what it so very often is. And so it was with great, gleeful, giddy delight that I picked this one up.

A Pattern of Roses is a dual narrative story, balancing modern day Tim Ingram’s life against the story of Tom Inskip who lived in the same house many years ago. It’s a coming of age, timeslip, sort of story which plays the tensions of the boys lives against each others and it’s one that Peyton, as ever, delivers.

“A brief, flaming sunset was scorching the horizon, inked over by a mesh of old elms and black hedgerow and circling rocks.”

If you’ve not discovered Peyton yet, that’s how she writes. A sort of vivid understatement, a painterly writer that draws her images together with a very precise control and vivid skill. She is intoxicating to read for me because I always find something new in her work. Here, she catches that subtle beauty of falling in love when you don’t ever know what love is:

“[She] put out her hand and touched his. His own hand shied away, frightened, but hers followed and took it very firmly and held it. She still walked along, not saying anything, with the primroses round her neck, and he walked beside her, very carefully, feeling that the day had come to a standstill.”

She makes me cry does Peyton, and she makes me very envious. She makes me cry at how she can just – capture – things and hold them and make you see them. She’s one of, if not, the greatest writer of children’s literature that I’ve ever read.

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The New Normal : The Normalising of Creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works cited –

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

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

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

This is why KM Peyton is so great

This is a  quote from ‘Seventeenth Summer’, the debut appearance of Patrick Pennington. Pennington is an incredibly talented pianist who comes from a lower class social context. In this quote Pennington has just met the ‘Professor’, a gentleman who has offered to help teach him. And it’s a quote that says everything. It is a moments like this that make me remember why KM Peyton is just so outstandingly brilliant.

“[Pennington] knew that … the Professor was going to manipulate him, smoothly and cleverly. He was another of them, telling him what to do. But the Professor was more clever than any of the others. Penn sensed it, and it frightened him. He knew he could neither despise not disobey the Professor. He walked beside him in silence. The fact that he had got out of [Prison] meant very little beside the significance of what he had got into.” (p268/269)

The nature of inspiration

Image: gasboyben (Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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