(I wrote a book).
(Honestly, I’ve never been more on brand).
I am no translator. My French is passable, in that ‘I cannot remember the precise word but can vaguely approximate the sense of what I am trying to describe to you’ sort of manner, but it’s not up to translating prose. My English, however, is and so over the past few weeks I’ve been translating a classic children’s book (which I won’t name just yet) from prose into feminist blank verse. It’s one of my more niche experiments, and yet also something that’s thrilled me deeply because it touches a lot on the things that interest me.
My MPhil thesis, for example, partially discussed the notion of the Golden Age within children’s literature, that is to say the conceit of referring to a particular time of publishing as such – and viewing all since in relation to that Golden Age. I argued for Golden Ages to run on thematic distinction as I did, and still do, view the temporally discreet idea of periodization as something inherently complex. (“I’m sorry Mr Smith, but the Golden Age finished last Sunday…”).
I looked at the school stories located within the first Golden Age, and argued for subsequent Golden Ages to run more or less contiguously. I looked at the school stories, and stories of schooling, for they are my jam, but I also thought a lot about that wider context. The idea of how the quality of children’s books is always assessed by adults, and how popular fiction rarely plays a part in such a thing. (Perhaps we can call this Blytonphobia I don’t know.)
I realised that girls and women don’t often get an easy ride within these Golden Age stories, and I started to wonder what does it mean for our discipline, our sector, to cleave back to these books as gold standard. What do these choices reveal about ourselves and our idea of childhood? How do these stories fit in the contemporary rebel girl phenomenon sweeping children’s publishing? What part do they have to play in contemporary discourse?
So that’s the what, and here’s the why; I decided to rewrite one in blank verse because it gave me the leeway to answer those questions and to redress the balance. I don’t ever argue for the suppression of books, but I do argue for the considered reading of such. The questioning of standards. Challenging the absences.
And here’s the first line:
This is the story of a girl
I attended a talk the other week, one of many that came all at once as these things to do, and whilst I was there I took some notes. I take notes often at this sort of thing, because my brain often reaches a point of fullness that means I can’t take anything else in. I write the words down, let them sit there on the page, and then I come back to them later and reread them. I don’t often think about what I’m writing, but sometimes a phrase hits me and I am blinded by it.
“Not just a children’s book,” they said, before moving onto another point. The phrase was throwaway, careless, and I suspect that the ramifications of what it meant were barely considered. But it’s a phrase I hear often at talks, and it is one that has come to concern me.
Language, you see, is a precise and clean thing. We make it inept, we make it fuzzy, because we are inept and fuzzy individuals. We bring a thousand different interpretations to a word because we have lived lives. Stories. A ‘cat’ is a ‘cat’ but it’s never just a cat. That ‘just’ is almost redundant there, do you see how? A cat is a cat but it’s never a cat.
Nothing is ever just anything.
A children’s book is never just a children’s book because it’s that ‘just’ that colours the object with a sense of distaste. It’s an apologetic just, an excuse to escape the label of ‘children’s book’ and to apologise for what that might mean for the content of the talk. But to do so, to explain that your topic is not ‘just’ a children’s book implicitly denies the value of the term itself.
Am I about to try and define what children’s literature is? I’m not sure. A part of me wants to slide towards that age old cheat of defining what something is not; a definition of exclusions and oppositions. But perhaps I can cheat that desire as well and instead tell you that quite often, I simply think of the idea of an intended reader. An intended reader is that fuzzy individual for whom a book is intended to be read by. For children’s books, that intended reader is a child. And note the looseness of that phrase; intent, child – they are immense terms and one’s which I have used deliberately lightly. What is a child? What is intent? What is language? Do we even exist right now?
Excuse my hyperbolic self-questioning, but I’m trying to make a point. Labels come from people as much as they do from the language itself. A word is a half-formed thing, to paraphrase Eimear McBride, and without the reader to provide some form of concretization (cf. Wolfgang Iser), the thing remains unformed. Does a word make a sound if it falls in the forest?
So: to children’s books, and the way they are not ‘just’ children’s books. It is that just that rankles with me; an individually placed value judgement on that which follows. Not just a “children’s book”. But what is? What isn’t? How are you so uncomfortable with that book being intended for a juvenile readership that you feel the need to absolve it of that labelling? What do you do to the books that you leave behind?
In writing about the mystery genre within children’s literature, Adrienne Gavin and Christopher Routledge suggest that “perhaps because adulthood is a mystery to children and childhood has become a mystery to adults and neither can ever ‘solve’ the other state, mystery has a particularly strong presence in children’s texts.” (2001 : 2). It’s a quote I’ve been wrestling with for my thesis, but one that holds relevance here. If a book is “not just a children’s book”, then that’s a perspective that comes from adulthood. It suggests the awareness of some sort of other book that may exist, a wider taxonomical understanding of literature, and also the awareness that you – as an adult – are supposed to not read this books.
To call something “not just a children’s book” is a deleterious act of adult appropriation that damages not only the very idea of children’s books but also, indelibly, the subsequent critique of them.
Like I said, I find it problematic.
It was dark, the early all-consuming blackness of a November evening. It was raining, the sort of rain that glitters and rests on the edge of a building like coy midday frost.
And I was crying.
Not fully, not half-consciously, but still, it was there. That edge of not understanding what had just happened to me. That slightly overwhelmed, dizzy, uncomprehending, state of being unable to fathom the world and the twists of circumstance and life.
I had just held Catherine of Aragon’s bible.
How ridiculous is that sentence? How – other – is that sentence? To even formulate those words, to have that connection to another world and another time, captured in literature, and so innocently, so silently there and waiting to be found by another –
The darkness in the park, the unseeing eyes.
all books wait to be read, all books are to be read, yet all books exist without reading, yet all books need a reader. The concave twists of interaction. The moebius strip of reading.
The darkness in the park, the rain on the shoulder.
Books. A singularity in the world. An incision. A blade from now to then, from today to yesterday, a world of intent and hope and sadness and joy caught in the frame of this tiny, ridiculous object. This venerated, venerable thing.
The darkness in the park, the world slipping away.
I had just held Catherine of Aragon’s bible.
What a remarkable and wonderful and blinding world this is.
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).
Hello! How was your Christmas? I hope you had a lovely few days and are enjoying the weirdness of ‘That Bit Between Christmas and New Year Where Everybody Doesn’t Quite Know What To Do With Themselves’.
I thought I’d share with you an update of what I’ve been working on over the past few months and in the process show you a little bit of my book. Do excuse me if I call it ‘my book’ rather than the actual title. The title it has at present is a working title which may change and if it doesn’t, then, it’ll be a cool little shenanigan to share in the future with you all. (As a special treat, you can try to predict how many exclamation marks I will use in that post!).
The big thing that I’m doing with my book at the moment is editing it. Editing is something that you all probably know and understand as part of your own life either at school, at work or with your kids. It is, to be very simplistic, the bit where you have something and you start to make it better.
I’ve never been able to write stories with conscious beginnings, middles and ends and if a teacher tells you that that’s the right way to write a story well, (and say this next bit very tactfully to them) that’s wrong. It is a way to write a story but it’s not the only way to write a story. The following is my way.
My editing process is based around the terms: thick and thin, and firstly I think need to tell you what thick and thin means when we look at a story. Here’s an example (and do note, my book isn’t about any of what follows, for it is an example wotcha geeza innit): The girl walked into the cave and found the treasure chest. Now, that, as it stands, is thin. It’s spectacularly thin. It’s a sentence which does nothing other than join the sentence before it to the sentence after it. It is words that connect the dots. It doesn’t tell me anything about the girl or the cave or the treasure chest (which I’ve called ‘the treasure chest’ instead of ‘a treasure chest’ which suggests the treasure chest is the destination of the story), and it doesn’t do anything other than fill up space and get me from one point to the next.
And that’s okay in a first draft. Sometimes it’s more important to keep going and thicken the story on the second pass at it. You can have these sorts of moments as long as you come back to them and make them earn their keep.
So I’ve come back to that sentence about the treasure chest and I want to change it. The first thing to do is to understand the state of the story at that point. Maybe the quest to find the treasure chest is being told by the girl’s grandmother who’s all “Ohhhh this quest is so hard, you’ll be eaten by dragons and zorsacorns*” and the kid’s all “er, I just got it, get a grip yeah?”. So it may be that a bit of thinness in the story is what’s required at this moment to undercut the histrionics of her gran. Think of a piece of music. There’s light and shade in it, delicate moments and powerful, heart-stirring moments in it. That’s what I’m aiming for. A book that can pull you in and make you breathe with it.
The second thing that I need to do is to take the text out of where I’ve been working with it. I need to be able to look at the words objectively and sometimes that’s not possible if I’m editing on a laptop that I’ve been writing it on. I print out the book and do a paper edit, working through every page (double line spacing is your friend) and pulling it to shreds. I doodle, I draw and I write on it with felt tips and pens of every colour. I make that manuscript something lived in and something that I know I’ve considered every word in**.
And the other thing I do is I abandon it entirely and pick up a different something. In the case of Unnamed Book With A Working Title it’s been paint. I doodle, I paint, and it helps me to start figuring out the heart of my story. The big moments. The, if I was making a film of it, DVD front cover moments.
(And here’s one I made earlier with an actual, almost maybe staying in the story but definitely sorting out those commas sentence!)
*zorsacorns = Zebra Horse Unicorns (blame my nephews)
** It takes FOREVER but it’s proper worth it.
So I think I need to come clean, though I think some of you know it already.
I am one of Those Bloggers Who Would Like To Be Published.
I’ve always written. I love it, really.
I love really how writing can tell you things; how it can unpack and spill things open for you to stare at and realise it was like that all along. I love how writing can hold your hand through the shadows and bring you to the light. I love how writing can let you shape and mould and play with words and then suddenly, sharply, fling them into combinations that never quite worked before but now, somehow they do. I love how writing can be unpacked, how the position of a thought or a statement and the way it’s presented can mean a thousand thing. I love how writing people lets me understand people and admire people and have faith that somehow we’ll sort it out.
And one day I’d like to be published. I’d like to be published.
It is a big thing for me to put this here, the biggest perhaps.
I am so very careful to keep this blog about books and reviewing and about critique, but this is my birthday weekend and I am indulging myself and I will press publish before I will let myself think twice about posting.
So that’s that.