“Not just a children’s book”

I attended a talk the other week, one of many that came all at once as these things to do, and whilst I was there I took some notes. I take notes often at this sort of thing, because my brain often reaches a point of fullness that means I can’t take anything else in. I write the words down, let them sit there on the page, and then I come back to them later and reread them. I don’t often think about what I’m writing, but sometimes a phrase hits me and I am blinded by it.

“Not just a children’s book,” they said, before moving onto another point. The phrase was throwaway, careless, and I suspect that the ramifications of what it meant were barely considered. But it’s a phrase I hear often at talks, and it is one that has come to concern me.

Language, you see, is a precise and clean thing. We make it inept, we make it fuzzy, because we are inept and fuzzy individuals. We bring a thousand different interpretations to a word because we have lived lives. Stories. A ‘cat’ is a ‘cat’ but it’s never just a cat. That ‘just’ is almost redundant there, do you see how? A cat is a cat but it’s never a cat.

Nothing is ever just anything.

A children’s book is never just a children’s book because it’s that ‘just’ that colours the object with a sense of distaste. It’s an apologetic just, an excuse to escape the label of ‘children’s book’ and to apologise for what that might mean for the content of the talk. But to do so, to explain that your topic is not ‘just’ a children’s book implicitly denies the value of the term itself.

Am I about to try and define what children’s literature is? I’m not sure. A part of me wants to slide towards that age old cheat of defining what something is not; a definition of exclusions and oppositions. But perhaps I can cheat that desire as well and instead tell you that quite often, I simply think of the idea of an intended reader. An intended reader is that fuzzy individual for whom a book is intended to be read by. For children’s books, that intended reader is a child. And note the looseness of that phrase; intent, child – they are immense terms and one’s which I have used deliberately lightly. What is a child? What is intent? What is language? Do we even exist right now?

Excuse my hyperbolic self-questioning, but I’m trying to make a point. Labels come from people as much as they do from the language itself. A word is a half-formed thing, to paraphrase Eimear McBride, and without the reader to provide some form of concretization (cf. Wolfgang Iser), the thing remains unformed. Does a word make a sound if it falls in the forest?

So: to children’s books, and the way they are not ‘just’ children’s books. It is that just that rankles with me; an individually placed value judgement on that which follows. Not just a “children’s book”. But what is? What isn’t? How are you so uncomfortable with that book being intended for a juvenile readership that you feel the need to absolve it of that labelling? What do you do to the books that you leave behind?

In writing about the mystery genre within children’s literature, Adrienne Gavin and Christopher Routledge suggest that “perhaps because adulthood is a mystery to children and childhood has become a mystery to adults and neither can ever ‘solve’ the other state, mystery has a particularly strong presence in children’s texts.” (2001 : 2). It’s a quote I’ve been wrestling with for my thesis, but one that holds relevance here. If a book is “not just a children’s book”, then that’s a perspective that comes from adulthood. It suggests the awareness of some sort of other book that may exist, a wider taxonomical understanding of literature, and also the awareness that you – as an adult – are supposed to not read this books.

To call something “not just a children’s book” is a deleterious act of adult appropriation that damages not only the very idea of children’s books but also, indelibly, the subsequent critique of them.

Like I said, I find it problematic.





I just read my first ever Jane Austen – and this is what I learnt in the process

Reading’s a funny old thing isn’t it? (She says, lighting a pipe and putting on slippers). You find your groove; you find the sagas or the mysteries or the girls who write stories sitting in the kitchen sink, and you find yourself in the finding of these spaces. It’s a sort of chicken and egg thing; a circular, self-reflexive process. You read yourself into spaces, spaces which don’t exist until you read yourself into them. Jo and her chopped hair. Daddy, my daddy. Bernhilda tipping the ink all over herself (this last one is a bit niche, but I’m aware there’s a substantial amount of you who will get this and I admire you all greatly for that). All of these moments exist in a sort of limbo until you read them and give life to them. And it’s through your reading that you find out who you are. You find the moments that matter to you and that make you who you are. And those moments start to cumulatively work inside of you; they swell and grow and help you to become the person that you always had the potential to be. It’s just that those books gave you a little bit of a shove in the right direction.

So what happens to the books that you don’t read? What happens to the authors that you know of – Hardy, Beckett, Atwood – authors who hold a very specific cultural place in the world and figure in your world and yet  – don’t. Goodnight Moon. Green Eggs and Ham. Anne of Green Gables. All books that I know and don’t know. And, in the case of Anne of Green Gables in particular, books that I’ve tried but just – haven’t – worked for me. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it but I couldn’t even get past the first chapters of Anne. And what does that mean? What does that do to me as a reader?

Until fifteen minutes ago, I’d never read a Jane Austen.

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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.

So here’s the part where you make a choice

We live in exciting times. You know that, right? Right now, the dialogue and the productivity and the talent that forms the world of children’s literature is amazing. Outstanding, even. I’d argue we’re living in a new Golden Age Of Children’s Literature. We really, really are.

I’ve been reminded of that recently when following the debate inspired by this (outstanding) article: “I hate strong female characters”. In it, the author talks about how male characters get – well, for want of a better phrase, facets. In comparison, female characters get to be strong . Lucy Coats responds to it over on An Awfully Big Blog and asks “Do you hate strong female characters?” (Sidebar: we’re discussing this topic on Twitter this Thursday 22nd Aug @ 9pm. Join in with #kidbkgrp ).

I don’t think I have answers to this discussion (and I don’t think I should have answers). But I do have questions and thoughts.

So here they are.

  • “It’s about power – who’s got it, who knows how to use it.”
  • There’s a moment in Persepolis, a book wrapped in war and puberty and angst, that makes me catch my breath every time. It is when Marjane’s  parents send her out of the country.  Sometimes strength is about smiling when your heart is breaking.
  • The thing is, sometimes, we forget (and sometimes we’re scared to remember)  that language is here to serve us. It is ours. And controlling it, shaping it, is probably one of the greatest superpowers you’ll ever have. Period.
  • Is there such a thing as a Byronic heroine? I want a heroine who’s sad, who’s broken and yet still underneath it all, powerful as hell. And sexy, and brave, and enigmatic, and just – different and bold and strong and faceted. 
  • Maria Nikolajeva describes all young adult literature as a “bildungsroman”. And as part of that saga of growing up, we face our demons, our piteous fragile three am fears, and our exultant joys. I want big books. Big, bold books that go to the sadness and take you with them. I want Daphne Du Maurier wrapped up in a YA jacket. God I’d love a Daphne Du Maurier YA.
  •  Strength isn’t just about physicality. It’s about words, using words when they’re the only thing left to you in a world that’s gone mad. It’s about falling in love, in hate, in raging raging indifference. It’s about falling, about picking yourself back up again.
  • Words are what we make them.

(Do you want to know something?

You’ve got the power. Right now, in this connected world, in this online instant world,  you have the power. You had the power ever since you opened that book, ever since you picked it up off the shelf, ever since you opened your eyes this damn morning. And my GOD, how that excites me. The way people, out there, are constructing stories, are shaping stories, how they are living their life with a Maureen Johnson at their side or a Patrick Ness, and how they’re navigating the streets of Oxford and when the light hits at the right angle they can see their daemon, and how they’re playing Quidditch at the uni, and how they’re Nerdfighters and how they’re engaging in clever, smart dialogue on Tumblr and owning their world and understanding their world and planting two feet square in the middle of it and saying I matter and you matter and we all damn well matter.

I love how people  are stories, and how they own stories and how they make stories every damn day.

I have questions. But I think – no – I know that you’ve got answers.)

“So here’s the part where you make a choice. 

Are you ready to be strong?”

The Secret Life Of Anne

I’ve been reading a lot of Enid Blyton recently. From her gloriously mad autobiography through to the Famous Five, her mark on children’s literature remains arguably unsurpassed. And when I was on holiday in France recently, I was startled and then greatly pleased to see rows and rows of freshly issued Blyton books in the supermarkets.

I’ve been reading a lot of very excellent articles recently on the nature of women characters. Zoe Marriott is very interesting on the topic. In a post titled “REAL GIRLS, FAKE GIRLS, EVERYBODY HATES GIRLS”, she talks about the nature of female characters in children’s literature and the reaction to them in comparison to the male characters. It’s a heartfelt, passionate read and one worth dwelling on.

It seems to have been a bit of a week for passionate oratory. In “I hate strong female characters”, Sophia McDougall talks about how male characters such as Sherlock Holmes get to be  “brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”

And all that leads me to think about Anne.

TVTropes defines her as The Chick and the official website refers to her as being “a little bit absent minded but loves to look after the other members of the Famous Five especially if it involves making them a delicious picnic!”.

Want to know the truth?

It’s all lies.

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Superman, heroes and heroines (or: how literature lets us make heroes)

I saw Man Of Steel earlier (don’t worry, no massive plot spoilers.) Suffice to say I didn’t really like Russell Crowe as Jor-El but I adored Henry Cavill as Superman. I felt he really got the farmboy wholehearted goodness of Superman and made it big.

Man Of Steel has left me thinking about the nature of heroes and heroines, and how these come across in literature, and why we have them, and what they mean.

And I think that, in the world of children’s literature for this is a children’s literature blog and it would be somewhat eccentric if I suddenly started analysing Fifty Shades of Grey, that heroes are something quite special and that thinking starts with some heroes in particular.

The first is Bastian Balthazar Bux. Bastian is the hero (occasionally anti?) of The Neverending Story. He’s a bullied, withdrawn child who reads a book and is drawn into a fantastical land which can only be saved by a human. (On another note, my God, were we all scarred for eternity by what happened to Artax in the film? Yes? It’s not just me still sobbing is it?). The second is Tom of Tom’s Midnight Garden by the glorious Philippa Pearce. (For an excellent review of this, I’d point your attention here.)

These are different characters from vastly different genres and vastly different mediums but they are, I’d argue, all heroes. And I think their heroic commonality comes from this.  Somebody believes in these individuals, whether it’s Lois Lane, the guy who gives Bastian the book, or whether it’s the friend that comes when you least expect it. So it’s the expression of faith, the supportive sidekick or love interest, or simply the onlooker who says “I believe in you” – that’s a lot of what makes us heroes. Belief. Hope, really. Hope that these people can find the greatness within themselves.

And I think, perhaps, with books, we make heroes everyday through the very act of reading. We input our belief and hopes onto the page, we turn the page in the hope that what we hope will happen, and we map our emotional state onto a story until it is done. We activate the story, we call the hero to arms, and we cheer them on their way simply through being in their story. We activate the text, and we become part of the text, and we share their journey towards and achieving heroism.

The act of reading is a bit amazing, really.

It’s a bit like a superpower when you come to think of it.

(We can be Heroes)