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Everything else

Lockdown Libraries

I had the sudden realisation the other day that due to the *gestures vaguely* everything of everything, this is the longest I’ve ever been without going to the library. Eighty-two days. Or, as the internet has helpfully informed me, eighty two days is the equivalent of over 22 % of this entire year.

Libraries matter a lot in my life, and the absence of them has been a strange and tender bruise. When I was looking for somewhere to rent, I would look for somewhere near the library. When I moved somewhere new, I would go and sign up at the library. I have worked in them, I have laughed in them, and I love them because they symbolise so much of what we can be.

This period has seen my approach to reading change, not only because of the absence of library visits but also because of the (forgive me for gesturing vaguely again) everything. The first few weeks saw a frantic tidy up of bookish things, a purposeful addressing of the TBR pile – a pile more ambition than stability – and then I threw things away. A reaction to it all, I suspect, but also one of those long needed jobs. There were certain rules of course (I’m not a monster). Anything that’s a tentative throw and is still in print can be thrown. Anything that I’ve not looked at for a long time and can be replaced can go. The Elsie Oxenhams must be placed in a bag to go and then they must return for they have a peculiar and quite lovely staying power.

I packed up six bags of books. And the books stayed in the bags.

They didn’t come back out again. I didn’t have that moment of doubt. I didn’t tearily smuggle something back upstairs at midnight promising never to leave it ever again (not that I’ve, errr, ever done that). The books stayed in the bag and even though they still haven’t gone (circumstances!), they are going. And I don’t really remember what’s in there, but they’ve already left my little library.

And nothing has yet replaced them. No library books, no secondhand hauls (I am aching to head back into my favourite cobwebby auction rooms let me tell you that), no charity book shop bonanza. Just that light and tender bruise, the space on the table that looks fine but – if you touch it, if you recognise what isn’t there, if you see it – then it hurts.

Eighty-two days. It’s weird, right? The moments where you realise just how strange this process is. The moments where you think – this is embarrassing. I should have more than three books on my account but three is all I have. It means that I’m going to be spending the first weeks of a pandemic with a biography about a Nun, an emotional look at the cultural life of American immigrants, and Elton John’s autobiography.

And inevitably I read them all in minutes and thought – what now? what now?

(Of course in the scale of things, all of this is small. So small. I do not want my library back – or indeed any library – to return to public service until it is safe, feasible and realistic for them to do so. I especially want the needs of library staff made paramount during this process and I recognise that many of you will have been working wonders through this entire period through online services and support and distanced working. I will go another eighty days, another hundred, if it means that library staff remain safe and healthy and able to do their jobs without fear. It also goes without saying that I wish you well if you are a member of library staff, and that you have my utmost support and love and respect at this time.)

A tender and most peculiar bruise this whole thing, but the thing about bruises is this: they heal. And the books shall wait, and the reading shall come back, and I shall comb the secondhand bookshops once more.

This is only how we live now.

And now is not forever.


Two quick updates: this blog shall no longer be covering Harry Potter nor any of the related media. It has been a while since I have covered any and it has never been a particular focus, but this is how things shall lie from this point on. It is also worthwhile reaffirming that I welcome authors from diverse backgrounds and under-represented cultures getting in touch if they think my work – both here and on BookRiot, where I write a weekly newsletter of new children’s book releases and also co-host a fortnightly literary fiction podcast – may be a good fit for their book. I want to know you. Here’s my contact form or you can reach out to me on Twitter. Thank you.

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Book Reviews Everything else

Trials For The Chalet School, an audio review

I’ve been contemplating doing some audio content for a while (I feel like I need to hashtag that liberally but I honestly can’t bear it, so forgive me). The current situation in the world has given me that opportunity and so, here we are with a review of Trials For The Chalet School – a short and somewhat eccentric (play to your strengths, I know) look at some of the most intriguing aspects of this fascinating book. Forgive me my neophyte audio-editing ways, but I hope you enjoy!

Trials for the Chalet School (19:07)

(Music: Xylo-Ziko, used under creative commons).

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Everything else Theory

Cynthia Voigt, Americana and the texture of literary things

“Dicey looked out over the tall marsh grasses, blowing in the wind. If the wind blew, the grasses had to bend with it.”

I don’t remember the first time I read Cynthia Voigt. I do, however, remember what it was that I read. A book called Homecoming. A title that bore little resonance to my rural childhood, more concerned with ponies than proms, but it stayed with me for years. And it stayed with me in a particular kind of way; I would struggle to tell you much of the plot now other than a brief precis, but I would not struggle to talk to you about the way that book felt. Not how I felt when reading it, but the way that the book felt. Books hold a quality about themselves, a texture within. Some are spikey, some are loving, and some sing of endless blue skies and a country almost too rich and too big to be understood. America. A land I had not visited but could feel within these pages, an introduction to another world.

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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

A quickening of the heart : life as a book collector

I had a bit of a lovely moment the other day. I found a clump of the books that I collect, and I bought them all because it was one of those rare occasions where I could actually afford all of them. And now, several days later, I’m still riding that wave of delight that only comes when you find the thing you love and are, due to circumstance and the twists that life gives you, able to make that thing your own.

Book collecting is a curious thing. I have been doing it for long enough now that I’m able to walk into a bookshop and scan the shelves within minutes. The books that I collect are distinct enough in cover and spine to make themselves known to me, and if they’re not there, then it’s a different sort of visit. One where I wallow in familiar names and new ones, and maybe take something different home. But if they are there, then, it’s something quite perfect. The heart quickens, and you tell yourself to stay calm because, inevitably, you won’t be able to afford the one you’d like.

But sometimes the stars come together, and you’re able to take one or more home. And that moment of connection is such a potent and precise kind of energy that I suspect, were it able to be harnessed, would power a thousand cars for a thousand days. The thing is, you do not collect stories without having a story of your own. Each book that you collect, each title that you invest yourself in, each author that you find a little bit more about yourself, becomes part of your own story.  And so, when you find these titles in the shop or a new book by that author that you’ve been collecting, there is a little part of yourself located in the finding. You find yourself, and all of the other selfs that you’ve ever been.

There’s a parallel here for any sort of collection; that sense of knowing the story of each thing and how and when it came into your life, but it always feels a little bit more powerful for me because I collect books and books are powerful things. Books endure, and have done so in a fairly recognisable form for centuries. I suspect, for example, if you were to place a 1990s brick phone against an Apple Watch and presented both to an individual from the 1600s you would have substantial difficulty in persuading them that they were the same thing. But a book, with its recognisable form and shape and intent, has that coherence pretty much whenever, wherever and however you find it.

I keep returning to that notion of the finding, for I am as fond of that as I am of the having. The finding is the chase, you see, and it is a rather beautiful thing. Being a book collector means that you have that peculiar need to just check a bookshop that you’re passing, or to pause when you are on holiday somewhere to pop in a bookshop that you’ve never been to before. You learn to accept that books may make themselves known in the most inopportune of moments; when you are walking back to the train station after a conference, or indeed backpacking across a country on the other side of the world. This is what it is, this integration of the find into your life.

That’s what book collecting does; it slides away from that semantic precision of ‘collecting’, redolent as it is to me of Boy’s Own trips to the Amazon and butterflies pinned in tragic horror to cases, and instead becomes something rather more embedded. Something closer. Something lived, lived and learnt.  Something felt. Something felt deep down inside of you, where feelings lose their precision and instead become raw and un-edged and indescribable things. That’s where book collecting lives, there.

 

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Everything else

The circularity of debate

I have become increasingly conscious of the circularity of many debates within children’s literature, and the way that, so often, these feel as though they’re pushing against an echo chamber. Does it matter to talk about such things when it feels as though nobody’s listening? Of course it does, for words are weapons and vital moments of truth. Disrupt the narrative within the space that you exist, yes, always do such a thing.

But I think, as well, that when a debate hits the wall with such thudding regularity, and nothing seems to change, then questions need to be asked. The debate needs to be reframed. The question itself needs changing.

I need to problematise statements. Statistics, as we know, can say anything we want them to say. One in five people do this, but four in five do not. Read them from the left to the right, and then from the front to the back, and you’ll find a different story.

This is why, when I read a headline about what children’s literature is, and is not, I ache to see the data. I want to know what books you read, and if you think young adult is all about sparkling vampires. I want your credentials

(I also ache to examine our need to understand the absences and shortcomings of children’s literature in a way that, I think, we do not do with ‘adult’ literature. Related to that, I want to examine the cultural ownership of children’s literature. I read very of certain genres. I do not, generally, find myself writing about the deficiencies of such genres. Yet with children’s literature, we own it, and I suspect this is simply because we have all experienced a form of childhood. Were there a form of age after adulthood, I suspect we would look back on ‘adult’ literature and similarly question what it was and what it was not).

In response to all of this, I have made several decisions regarding my approach to reading and writing about children’s literature. I’ve been putting these into practice over the last few months. Here they are:

I don’t, and will not, write about tokenistic attempts at representation, but rather recognise those books that present the world as a rounded and diverse space. I do not seek tokenism, or knee-jerk attempts at diversity, but rather a simple questioning of the decisions and the defaults that are made and perpetuated throughout a book’s production.

I shall question the narrative  around certain issues where I can, and in the space that I can. I have, for example, become increasingly frustrated at how certain issues are represented and have begun to actively seek alternative perspectives. Whether that’s reading outside of my genres or looking for more translated fiction (for which I’d welcome reccommendations), I am trying to challenge the defaults that I cling to.

I am a researcher, a blogger, a writer and a librarian. I wear a lot of different hats depending on what day it is, and I think it’s vital to question the assumptions that I make. And perhaps that’s the way to disrupt the narrative, right there; to understand your place in the system and to question that. To problematise it, to ask – what if? I am interested, for example, that with one of the more recent ‘children’s books do this’ newspaper pieces, the only negative responses I saw were from male authors. I’m not calling out names but rather asking for a shift in perspective.

Perhaps, as Ice Cube would have it, it’s time to check yo self before checking the work of others.

It’s only through self-questioning that you can start to figure out the position that you play in the system and once you’ve figured that out, you can change it. Maybe just a little bit, but it’ll be enough. It’ll be a point that, when the debate rumbles round one more time, makes the track skip just a little bit and have the world pay attention to what you’re doing.

No more yelling into the echo chamber.

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Everything else

Conversations with dead authors : Enid Blyton

 

  1. Enid Blyton

“Can you write a biography of somebody without ever knowing the true facts? Why, you barely know anything about me.”

She’s bored and not trying to hide it. I suspect that she never hides the way that she feels. I saw the little flash of irritation when they took a little too long to bring her tea and I watch her now as she bites down on her cake to discover jam inside of it.

“Jam,” she says, with tight fury, “Jam should never be unexpectedly found in things. It should always be obvious. It should be announced and spread lavishly on bread thick with butter, and it should be on scones,” – she draws out the o, rounding it with feeling – “but never, never, unexpectedly on a cake.”

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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

Writing outdoors

Sunshine makes me want to write outside. 17498869_10158391832070371_2801967951944888519_n.jpg

I remember the first time I figured out that writing did not have to be bound to the page, hunched over in ink and pen. I was at university, at a course I did not quite understand, and we were asked to write.

We were asked to write in anything other than pen and paper.

The liberation of it! The terror, too, because when pen and paper are nearly all that you know, to step away from them is hard. Illegitimate. Writing  – important writing – consists of paper and rules. Ink. Capital letters and full stops and precise nuance thought.

Writing is craft. Precision.

Writing is about knowing the rules – and knowing that you have the right to break them.

Maybe that’s it; really, that’s it right there.

Learning to write is about learning how to gain legitimacy for your practice.

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Everything else

Picture books, art, and the appreciation of things

I have a passion project. Thanks to Facebook, and my inability to hold onto a USB stick for more than thirty second without losing it, I have started to gather an album of picture book images. The curation method for these is simple, eccentric. I have to like it. I have to be able to talk about it.

(How curious it is that books are one thing when read privately, selfishly, but quite another when we talk about them.)

I did a talk the other day to some local sixth formers about life as a researcher, doing this. Books. Literacy. Trying to understand one of the most global, primal experiences.  Reading. Communication. Everything builds from books, I said, everything.

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More Katie Morag Island Stories : Mairi Hedderwick

I described research:

Asking why. Asking, always, asking why things are the way they are and what can we do to affect, address, challenge, question that.

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Cloudland by John Burningham

And I showed them Art.
Capital A, capital ART.

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Madeline in London : Ludwig Bemmelmans

Picture books are something which we treat, sometimes, too lightly.

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Five Senses : Herve Tullet

We’re driven by our sense of adulthood. Age based imperialism. A sense that we know better, that we shouldn’t be reading these things.

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A Brush with the Past: 1900 – 1950 The Years that changed our lives : Shirley Hughes

So sometimes, I asked them to just look at things.

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Refuge – Anne Booth & Sam Usher

Because looking – seeing – is where it all begins.

All of it.

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A Taste of Chlorine – Bastine Vivés

Us.

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Everything else Girlsown

“She has torn yet another dress”: Reflections on being a book collector

It’s hard to pinpoint where you fell in love with something when you have been in love with that something for a while. I don’t remember my first book, nor my first library, nor my first story. I remember beats in my journey of literacy, of reading; moments that echo in my heart and sing out, oddly, vibrantly, sharply, when I least expect it. Sitting on my dad’s lap in a great armchair. Telling the librarian what happened in a story. Passing round the salacious bits in a Jilly Cooper (wonderful, wonderful Jilly Cooper).

I don’t remember when I fell in love with the Chalet School. It’s been too long, really, and I can’t begin to unpick the stitch of this book inside of me. It simply is a love; a love I have for an eccentric Aunt that turns up at Christmas brandishing gift, or those moments when you see your favourite thing reduced at Waitrose. Simply, indefinable, truthful moments. Happiness. Satisfaction. Fullness.

But I do remember the moments within the series that cling to me a little harder than most; and one of them is in the below image. It’s a simple paragraph, part of The Princess at the Chalet School, and what I want you to do is read it it and then read it out loud. Slowly. Carefully. Dwell on that last little speech of Mademoiselle’s, and the way that it has so much effortless wonder in it. That final, round full stop of a sentence. It is a perfect paragraph, and perfectly ended.

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Now, there’s a part of me that could talk for hours about the thematic implications of that paragraph and the great symbolism it holds for the notion of feminine power within the series, but I won’t. At least, not now. Maybe later. I’m totally already planning it.

But, for now, what I’m trying to say is that there are moments within a text that make you find your home. I’d forgotten about this one but when I read it again yesterday, I realised that it was one of the best moments of the series for me. It is a paragraph that brings me home.

It is love, caught up in the tight ink curve of letters and of space on a page, it is love.

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Overviews

The politics of children’s literature; patterns, voice, ideology

Where are we in this year, this year that’s seen the paradigm shift, this year of evenings where everything made sense and then mornings where it didn’t, this year of hope and of fear and of confusion and of sheer raw confusion, confusion, confusion, where are we now?

I have written about this before, fogged, pained, post-Brexit, and here I am again, reflecting on the political world we live in and exploring it through the frame of my love, of books and of reading and of children formulating themselves against a scaffold of words and images and ink.

Children’s literature is a politicized space; it is, always, driven by the ideological and cultural and personal instincts of those who write it and make it and publish it. A book exists because somebody wants it to exist, and that want is driven, always, by a need to speak. To say something, anything sometimes, but normally something. A vivid, bright, pointed something that can be said only by the writer of that book at that point in time, a message that only they can give.

I ran a creative writing workshop last week and told them of the theory that there are only seven stories in the world, and that what made them different was not the story they told but how they told it. Voice. Voice, always voice, identity and nuance and crafted, pointed, passionated voice.

Voice comes from context and context, sometimes, is forgotten. The superhero saves the day, the villain gets his just desserts, the world is righted, the girl gets the girl gets the boy gets the boy gets the girl, patterns. Always patterns.

And when they are jagged and broken, then it is hard to know where to begin again, where to find the fit in the shards of glass because patterns matter. We understand patterns but we also pattern ourselves; we turn left, catch that train, have a coffee at eleven, a sneaky extra drink on a Friday night. Structure. Pattern. Books fix those patterns within us at a young age because they are a mirror when we are doing nothing but looking and trying to figure out who we are.

Children’s literature matters, undoubtedly, always, indubitably. But it is political. It is a fought for space, from those stories which urge to be part of it and should never have a space within it, from those stories which are part of it and could never be anywhere else. But they are always political, perhaps not within themselves, perhaps not without themselves, but there is always, always, a discourse of politics around them. From the way they’re shelved, to the sex and gender roles of the children they represent, from the way they mask adult concerns around childhood, or from the way they reflect a dialogue around the idea of childhood, a collaborative attempt to understand this space, not through talking down, nor talking up, but rather, simply, talking; of articulating, of dialogue, of discourse.

Children’s literature is not a safe space.  This is not to deny that it can and should be safe, that children deserve and long for this space where their stories can be heard and understood, that to feel safe and complete is something that children’s literature should not do. Of course it is a safe space. But that is not all it is.

Children’s literature is dangerous, challenging, other. From the picture books which ask the single child to consider the presence of a new sibling in their life to the books which tell teenagers how to live when all around them is dark and horrific, children’s literature questions what makes us human.

To navigate that space requires an understanding of self, and the relationship of that self towards this sector of literature. To navigate that space successfully often requires an absenting of the desires of that self. It isn’t easy. But to participate within children’s literature, particularly as an adult, is to participate in a politicized and political space. To be that adult in this sector is to be transgressive, other. Powerful.

Unruly.

(“Hope is a very unruly emotion” – Gloria Steinman)

 

 

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Everything else

Contributions towards a narrative of erasure

  1. I was driving the other day and listening to the morning show on Radio 2. Chris Evans. Chat. You know the sort of thing.  One of the recurrent items on the show is ‘Top Tenuous’ : tenuous claims to fame on a particular topic. They were celebrating the 70th birthday of BBC Woman’s Hour and had decided to make a Top Tenuous on the theme of Men in Woman’s Hour. Because they “wanted to be in on the action” as well.
  2. Mental illness has soared amongst the young women of the United Kingdom.
  3. “When you’re a star they let you do it”
  4. Five out of six Australian girls believe they do  not have the same chances in life as boys.
  5. “This year girls and young women told us that they feel held back by gender stereotypes, sexism, and anxiety about how they look”

 

I am so mad some days, so mad.

I believe in using your voice to make a difference where you can. Impacting the world where you can. Making a choice. Making a decision. “Activating yourself”

I am a specialist in children’s and young adult literature. It’s articles like this that make me determined to not restrict space on my shelves or on this blog or in the world. I don’t ban, I don’t restrict content, I don’t take books away from those who need them the most and can’t even yet verbalise that need. I facilitate access to literature. I facilitate access to liberation.

Don’t ever, ever, turn to me and tell me that children’s books don’t matter. These books build childhoods, shape them and make people out of them. Read whatever you want but read it critically, bravely, angrily, foolishly. Accept the problems but let yourself enjoy it nevertheless. Read books where you’re rescued or where you’re doing the rescuing. Read books by voices different, voices same, voices other. Read, read, just read, and never be afraid of being the bookish one, the one who reads. 

Reading and talking and articulating your narrative challenges this constant urge on the part of somebody to erase your experience. To erase your voice. To erase the validity of self, the importance of you, the wonder of you.

Reading is power, even when the world seems determined to not let you have it.

 

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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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Theory

How many you’s are you a you to?

It was my first year at University. I was sat in a room, surrounded by green fields and woods, and a man was talking about grammar and language. These were lectures that I didn’t, wholly, understand. They were lectures that I couldn’t and wouldn’t miss, not for a second, and I didn’t know why, or even what they were about half the time, but I loved them.

They were experiences. Everything about that University was. From the way the Henry Moore statue gleamed in the morning light, to the way the woods smelt of damp wild garlic after the rain had felt.

He was asking us to think about language. Naming. Identity. Branding. You’re a person. Let’s call you John Smith. How many people know you as John? How many people know you as John Smith? Or Mr Smith? Or that guy with the dark hair, or the guy who gets on the bus and always looks a little bit as though he can’t quite understand how it’s time to go to work again?

I’m a researcher of children’s literature. Identity, representation and the politics of self are intensely vital things within this sector. Read The Uncomfortable Truth About Children’s Books.

What are the you’s on your bookshelf? On the bookshelves you look after at work, or see in the library? I wonder, if perhaps, we need to be finding the ‘you’ more often, and actively questioning who and what it is we’re presenting to people as the de-facto ‘you’ of children’s literature.

I’m intensely suspicious of statistics as a rule. Statistics tell the story you want them to tell. And quite often, that’s not quite the story that the data represents. So maybe, we repurpose that narrative a little. Maybe we gatekeepers need to change the frame a little. Maybe we need to get that frame checked and challenged by others. Audited by the kids we work with. Questioned by our selves.

(A brief segue: read the challenging books, the scary books, the ‘other’ books, the books that you don’t know and the books that you do. Question representation, facilitate representation, understand the genre. Read more, always, read more)

Maybe it’s time to adopt the mantra of: “How many you’s am I putting into the world?”

 

Categories
Theory

Don’t be afraid of academic children’s literature

I bought a writing magazine really. I don’t do this often, because I’m a self-funded researcher and those magazines aren’t cheap. But every now and then, I dip in and see what’s going on. One of the ones I bought recently had an article in which the author discussed an academic text from 1963 and concluded that “if you seek practical guidance in the art of novel-writing, do not go poking around the shelves of the academic library”

This saddens me, really, because one of the great principles of academia for me is that it produces work with a global remit. It unpacks texts and ideas and shares them with readers. Personally, as well, I’d go so far as to say with children’s literature that there’s somewhat of an ethical responsibility to tie your work back to the reader themselves and that to work in a bubble, devoid of this consideration, is deeply problematic.

And I get the impression of academia seeming to be a place where you “undertake so-called research [and] in order to make their work look important, they often invent their own vocabulary for some very simple concepts”. I understand how that’s possible to think that (lord, on my very bad days, I think something similar) but to apply that globally? Sweepingly? That’s intensely problematic.

So here’s the thing. Research, even by those fabulous professorial types you see at some universities, is being done within a global context. It is being done within the worlds you live in every day.

Some of the best books I know about writing and children’s literature are done by academics (“Some of my best friends are academics…”). Children’s literature lives in a space between people, between readers, and has to reach in a thousand different places all at the same time. And the more you understand that, the better a writer you’ll be. Fact. Write your books. Send me a pitch to review if you like. But know your field. The more you read, the better you’ll be. As writers, readers, people, we thrive on voice. Interaction with different, new perspectives. And to deny that is to deny a sense of betterment. Don’t ever be afraid of challenging yourself, of reading something dangerous or unwieldy, or ‘beyond your capabilities’. Don’t ever be afraid of reading.

And if you do head towards that academic library, here’s five titles you might want to take a look at…

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Everything else

On glass ceilings and echo chambers

It was YALC this weekend and for those of you who don’t know what it means, YALC is a Young Adult Literature Convention held as part of the London Film & Comic Con. YALC is in its third year now and seems to be going from strength to strength which is excellent and lovely news. If you’re wanting to find out more about the event and to be cheered by life in general, I’d recommend a check of the Twitter hashtag. There’s really very little better than celebrating books in an overt and joyous manner – and enabling that enjoyment for a ton of readers? Brilliant.

I read a really interesting and thoughtful post this morning from Jo Hogan on the experience of taking her teenage boys to YALC. She writes about the exclusion felt by the boys from young adult literature and touches on some points that struck a chord with me . I wanted to talk a little bit about that. As Jo so accurately writes:

“a healthy community questions and challenges itself. A healthy community looks at not just whom it includes but whom it (unintentionally) excludes and whether there is more that we can and should do to welcome others.”

I am a writer, blogger, librarian, researcher, and reader. I wear a lot of metaphorical hats.  I write young adult fiction about the experience of girlhood and womanhood because I’m fascinated, preoccupied and occasionally deeply terrified about it. I’ve lived it. I’m still living it. Being the you that you’re meant to be is the hardest thing in the world. I write books that slide a knife into that and try to cut it open. I write incisions.

But I also balance that with all the other hats I wear.

I am a blogger. This blog, I hope, reflects a fairly diverse and open reading experience. I will read anything I can though I have a natural predilection towards certain genres and a distaste for other. Fantasy and love stories? Not for me. But I will read anything and I will try and help the good books to get out into the world and if I can write about it constructively, I will. (And if you have a book to recommend for me, that you think needs that extra coverage, please comment as I want to hear it).

I’m also a librarian. I work a lot with boys and young children and nervous, tense readers. It’s the Summer Reading Challenge at the moment in public libraries. It happens every summer and it’s one of the great joys of my life. As part of it, but also as commonplace, I get asked a lot about what books to recommend to people. And here’s the thing; I haven’t read a lot of the books that I recommend. I can’t. I am not superhuman enough (though I’d love that to be my superhero power).

So here’s my secret: recommending books? It’s often about actually not recommending them at all. It’s about taking the time with the reader, sitting down on the floor with them – talking to them  as much as I talk to the mum and dad – and it’s about finding their thing. Everybody has a thing. I’ll try some key words. Maybe find out about books they’ve enjoyed before. And I’ll watch where their eyes go, what makes them smile or what makes them look up – that’s the point where we click, that’s the point where I find them something. Might be a non fiction book about tigers, might be a comic about robot brothers, might be a recipe book. The point is, they’re invested and they’re a part of this journey. And they’ve, pretty much nine times out of ten, chosen the book themselves without realising it.

I’ve had children tell me that they don’t like reading, that they don’t read, that they don’t like books – and that they are ‘bad’ readers. All of that is fine, because choice, but that last one pains me so much. I would ban that expression if I could – and if such a sentiment wasn’t deeply against my liberalistic hippie tendencies. No child is a bad reader. They aren’t. Reading isn’t a scale; it’s about framing that journey differently for the needs of different people. And what so many people just need is time and the confidence that they too, will one day reach that glass ceiling and smash it.

Whilst I can’t yet coherently respond to some of the points made by Jo in her thoughtful post, I can address the points that stick with me.I can challenge the limits of the echo chamber. I can talk to the parents of the kids that I meet and the parents I don’t.

I am here to help you, and if I can I will.

I work to make, create and empower readers.

All readers.

Categories
Theory

A spectrum of choice : Girlhood and Enid Blyton

“Shall I tell you what I want? What I really really want?

I really really really want to see a recognition of the diverse modes of femininity and girlhood presented in Enid Blyton’s school stories zig a zig aah.”

Whilst I’m conscious that these aren’t the exact lyrics for the Spice Girls classic, I want you to imagine that for a second they are. Wait. No. I’m a step too far ahead already. Let’s go back. Twist the sky and push the sun down over the horizon, let the night fall, let’s go back.

Let’s start here; and with Anne and George and Dick and Julian and Timmy. The Famous Five. I’d hazard there’s not many of us who haven’t met them, whether through the series itself or through the cultural shorthand that Blyton has come to represent. Racism. Sexism. Outmoded sterotype-ism. Slightly rubbish writing every now and then-ism. We know Enid Blyton, even when we don’t. She’s cultural shorthand; an icon wrapped up in sensible shoes and fanciful stories about blackbirds and some chap with a saucepan on his head. She’s part of our world.

Yet, equally, she isn’t. We know a construct of Blyton. We know an idea of her, a shape to be filled in with our concerns and our needs and our fears. It’s the same for every public body, maybe, they become a politicised space that can be written over with our needs. We don’t know Benedict Cumberbatch, but we do. We know and unknow. The paradox of knowing. The paradox of knowing that you don’t know. The paradox of increasingly complicated sentences!

So let’s go back to the simple points, to Anne, to George, and the way they are both girls and not girls, the way that they are shorthand for all that is bad and good for Blyton, all that they are and were boiled down to this – simple – dynamic.

And I am the first to find Anne complex, challenging, but she exists with George; not opposed, not the other, but rather an other. Girlhood is a spectrum; not all girls this, not all girls that – , this girl is – . Not these girls are. Not all girls are. Boil this down to pink and flowers, I dare you – girls are more, beyond that, they are not one word nor one action, and they exist, co-exist, share space in the world –

they do not cancel each other’s space. Not one for the other, but rather both as an expression of girlhood, neither as the distinct representation thereof –

Anne thrives in the domestic, the control – the limited expression of power, perhaps, because that is all she can control within that environment? The domestic space; not a subspace, not a second space, but rather space; Anne’s space –

George, the girl of action, the girl in the wide, wide world, the girl who adopts masculinised vestments and behaviours because , perhaps, she cannot exist in that wide wide world without doing so? A Cesario in the world –

Simplistic readings, perhaps – but contrarily simplistic. Deliberately so. Blunt, hardheaded readings because I rail.

I rail against readings that reinforce ideologies, that deny the shifting nature of critique and selfhood, that deny these texts relevance, that belie them –

Girls as girls as girls. A thousand figures of girlhood stretch themselves against Blyton’s canon; girls that yearn for the domestic, girls that would rather die than touch it, girls that embrace careers, girls that embrace maternity, girls that embrace a spectrum of potential – a spectrum of choice

I choose to read Blyton like this, I choose compexity, I choose, I choose –

 

Further reading

Empowering girls? The portrayal of Anne and George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series

Categories
Theory

The urge for the classic : on children’s books and those eternal surveys

Another day, another survey that says what children can and should read. The click bait nature of most of these articles aside (and note, I say most and not all), there’s something interesting here worth teasing out. I suspect that something might centre on the historic constructions of children’s literature itself; the nature of age and growth for our interpretation of the sector, and the nature of the adult within that construction and interpretation. That’s a horrible sentence, but I hope it implies one key thing amidst the grammatical morass : children’s literature is complicated.

So, she says nonchalantly, just what is children’s literature? It’s a question that devours great swathes of research and one that bears particular weight to this blog. I focus on children’s literature. I broaden that to include young adult and picture books, but I do not review or talk about works for adults. So maybe we can start there; children’s literature is a space that exists in opposition to adult literature? And yet, even there, in that trembling starter, I find myself arguing with myself. Children’s literature thrives on the adult; they are vital within picture books, they’re vital in the purchase of literature (kids get money from somewhere, right? they don’t get to the library by themselves…). The adult is the silent presence within children’s books; the child themselves is defined by otherness from the adult. The Victorians had a field day (Arcadian pun intended) with the idea of the precious child; the cult of the child saw the great purity of the child fixated upon and maintained. The child as child as child. 

Maybe then we argue for children’s literature to exist not in opposition but in phase; in sequential space within each adults journey towards literacy, but transforming for each and every adult. Children are the great unknowable; we are not children, though we once were. Our childhood is past, but it was there; it was experienced, and now we are through it. We are grown, we are adult (excuse me whilst I go and panic fly a kite and contemplate my aged existence). We look back on childhood. We don’t look on or in. Childhood, our state as child, exists in a backwards, historic state. We have travelled through it.

So, surveys, I suspect, about what children read, will always be historically tinged and somewhat retrospective precisely because of our distance from childhood. We are people who read backwards, and who drive the demand for literature backwards. Of course we read contemporary fiction and we yearn for the new, sharp hit of wonder, but we yearn for stability. Like I said, children’s literature – it’s not simple. There’s a reason that Enid Blyton is one of the fifth most translated authors in the world, and it hinges on that idea of stability. Our childhoods are safe, golden spaces. We are trained to see them as that, regardless of the truth. School is the best time of your life. Holidays become golden tinged. We remember the good. We choose books which will construct that idyll and transfer it onto a new generation.

Sometimes I think these surveys don’t reflect the books at all.

Sometimes I think these surveys reflect the ideologies around these books.

 

Further reading:

Read Samantha Shannon’s lovely piece in the Guardian on this topic.

Non Pratt’s series of gorgeous tweets  delivers a list of reccomendations I’d be thrusting into the hand of every person ever.

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Everything else

A brief departure from the norm

I’ve begun this a thousand times. Every time a different sentence, every time a different way to phrase what I’m trying to say, and all of them wrong.

So perhaps I don’t begin, perhaps I rather say this:

I advocate for the importance and the relevance of literacy and literature on a daily basis. I believe feverishly in the right to read and the empowerment of that reading.And so do you, consciously or unconsciously, through your investment in literature. Every time you read, every time you visit a bookshop, the library, the charity shop, and pick up a book, you’re making a statement.

You are speaking so loud, so openly, so hopefully about what you think this world can and should be. You are speaking so loud, so beautifully loud.

You’re reading for yourself, your mother, your father, your sister, your brother. The man you see on the bus, the woman you see downtown, the kid you say hi to every morning.

You’re reading independently, together, communally.

You’re reading critically, angrily, hopefully, questioningly, selfishly, indulgently, painfully.loudly, openly, proudly, honestly.

You’re reading with love.

Don’t ever let that stop.

 

 

 

If you are looking for support and resources on the atrocity in Orlando, I direct you initially to this thread of tweets from Teen Vogue. It is, I feel, a thread to be lauded. I welcome any suggestions of further resources to add).

 

Categories
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.

 

Categories
Everything else

Spaces; edges; the parts in between

Hold out your hand. Hold out your hand and look at it, at the way the fingers curve and shape themselves towards holding something that’s not even there. Look at the way it ends; at the horizon of your palm, the sunset edge of your nail against the thing beyond; look at your ending and the beginning of something new.

Everything starts, everything ends, but everything connects. There’s a point in between; a space of challenged hierachies and unsure spatiality, a point where it’s neither one thing nor the other but rather the space in between. The shadow of a pen. The curve of a coffee cup. The moment just before your cat walks across the laptop, typing their own novel in their own peculiarly persistent semiotics.

I am returning more and more to these moments, these edges. These endings, these beginnings. These spaces where a book finishes and another stops, and I am becoming convinced that everything happens in the space in between. The pre-read. The post-read. The read itself.  Perhaps everything is reading and thus we are all texts, all of us, being read and making readings of each other every day.

My skin, your skin, the poetics of us. The poetics of our space, our performed, lived lives, the poetics of love and loss and hate and happiness. We exist in moments but we exist between them as well, and oh we are made of such serendipity.

Fall in love with a book, fall out of love, be part of a whole expression of love, a semiotics of passion, and you are part of it before, after, always. Literature is love, living. It is the language that we are given to understand the world; it is given for us, to us, by us, from us : Apart, a part, parted; amo, amas, amat.

We are such wonders in this world, and in such, we are lost and we are found, and the ties that bind, that break, that make us are word-formed and cursive-cut. Language; loss, life. It’s all here, always.

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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.

Categories
Theory

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive”

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”

I bet you know where that comes from.

I bet you remember the first time you read it; maybe not the precisions of it, the exact thing you had for lunch, or what colour socks you had on, but I bet you remember that moment. I bet you remember how it felt.

For me; Leeds, and a nondescript shopping centre. WHSmith, maybe. One of the high-street stores; one of those that look like something you’ve seen a thousand times before. We were passing through. I had a book token.

(Book tokens, oh my lord book tokens, the eternal love of the bookish child)

The shelves were at the back of the shop; tucked away. I bought the first three titles in the series, titles twisting on my tongue. Familiar. Unfamiliar.

I have a habit of being late to things; I am a library lover, a librarian, I read what the library has, and sometimes some libraries are more prompt than others. I picked up His Dark Materials in Totnes, all three of them, another deal, more clean-edged spines; the crisp, indulgent pleasure of newness.

Of a book that has never been read before; a book waiting for you.

Only you.

I am rereading this book now, this book that begins with a suburban couple in a suburban street, perfectly normal thank you very much, and I am thinking of those moments and the way that first read contrasts with the second. The third, fourth, fiftieth.

We read; we connect. That first read, that self-making read.

We read again; we reform, we reconnect, we rediscover. We affirm those bonds of ourselves, hard fought and hard forged.

And sometimes; we rediscover a classic. A book that aches with resonance, with sentences that sound a note something far beyond that which they sounded so many years ago.

This is rereading; this is us, this is the story of who and why we are. This is your first love, your first kiss, first loss, first – moment.

And it all comes from

this.

this tiny, tiny thing

this book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Everything else

Dirty Dancing; sexuality and young adult literature

There’s a film called Dirty Dancing; you may know of it, you may not.

My rapturous rewatching of it last night made me think of sexuality in literature, in media, and how afraid we are of it. I write about young women finding their place in the world; finding who and what they are going to be, and who they can be. I write about selfhood; about those aching edges of you; of those points where you touch somebody else, and those points when your edges curl up and recoil; I write about edges. 

Dirty Dancing is all about edges, I think, it’s all about an unabashed and perhaps unparalleled exploration of sexuality. It’s about Baby, Frances, and that moment where she suddenly starts to realise who she is. Who she might be.

Who she is when she dances.

baby.gif

I think a lot about dance and movement which is odd for somebody who writes and is devoted to the power of the written word, but movement, I think, is something quite vitally important towards literature. Sexuality is about movement; it’s about raw, breathing movement, it’s about – pauses – and looks, and gaps and absence and togetherness.

Sometimes I think we’re afraid of seeing that on the page; of seeing the arc of the back, the caught-hand, the look.

I think, sometimes, we’re afraid of that – particularly for young women – ; afraid of the hard-edged definiteness that comes with text. Afraid of the role of the gatekeeper, afraid of the reader, afraid of the blunt blunt truth that sometimes comes within story.

I don’t think we should be.

I would like more books that explore that edge of ourselves, please, I would like more books that explore that movement, that live on the space beyond a touch, beyond a breath.

I would like there to be more books that help us to learn how to fly.

Categories
Everything else

On Turning Left

Donna NobleIt’s been an interesting week. My research may need to change tack quite substantially and so that is a lot to come to terms with. Pauses and stops and halts and the realisation that maybe turning left instead of right will be – something different and maybe something better. Maybe. I hope so, at least. I love what I do, and now is the time to figure out how best to shape that something. An intangible challenge; and yet, an odd relief to face it head on. The difficulties of decision. The release of decision, of definition

And as I think about these things, about pulling my own Donna Noble and deciding which way my car will go at the junction, I think about literature and the lines that guide us from book to book. My research is so very centred on space and the idea of mapping; the points of connection between the fictional and the real, and when you start to see them in one space, you see them everywhere.

The world of literature is full of connections, of lines that pull us to and from literature and on a route from book to space to site to book. Think about lines; the use of lines in a bookshop or a library. Think of shelves, really, and the direction of them. The enticement of shelves and shelving, the psychological reading of space and the teasing promise of something delicious around the corner, further in.

We read books before we see them, that much is a given, but we read space like that as well; I walk into a library and I am home, I know how to navigate that world, I know how to master it. I know its symbols, I know its signs. When we read, we read within a space that we know, we know how to handle it, how to be within that space. We know, perhaps, that when it gets too much we can close the book and step away. We know that this will start, this will stop, that books are here for us to pick up and choose and touch and look at.

shelvesImagine the static library, imagine that for a moment, the horror of a still and static space that does not breathe, does not live. That does not long for that presence of the other, that does not even want that other there, spoiling, ruining.

Literature, libraries, landscape; they need people, they need to be read and they need to live; they are half-texts without that, they are readless, restless beasts.

And so, I turn left; I turn, I trail my hands along the shelves, and I read E Nesbit and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Angela Brazil, and I touch ornate spines and wallow in lavish front covers and exultant design, and lines, everywhere, enticements, encouragements, and I turn, I turn, and I keep walking. I keep reading.

Because, I do not think I can stop; readers do not stop, literature does not stop, and I do not want it to live without me, I am in the library and I am stood on the kickstool and I am reaching for the book on the shelf, just to the left of where I would normally look, just to the left.

 

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Everything else

A wild beginning

A New Year. A New Year, with all the inevitability, hope and curious letdown of another night, and another day and another morning and another evening. Another number notched. Another year rolled into. Another year done.

It’s raining. It’s rained on and off for a good week now; blanket-thick, grey, fat rolls of rain that smother the light from the day and turn everything into twilight. What else to do on such a day than to hole up and burrow down and read.

I’m reading.

I’m bathing in a sea of comic books, with plots so dense and abstract, that I wallow in the dynamism of the page, and of the colours, and the sharp nuances of character and relationships, captured in a few inked letters on a page. I love the precision of comics; the blink-sharp incision of a frame on the page, the way it hangs in the moment of the book itself.

I’ve discovered Sappho through If Not, Winter : Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carston. It is a book of space and restraint and I am drunk on it. I am drunk on the white space and the edged words and the way that there is so much caught in this poetry, so much that is said and unsaid. The spoken. The unspoken. A poet of nothing and of everything. I think I am obsessed.

I’m reading Watership Down; a book so seared to me visually by the film adaptation, that I had forgotten the thick and fat beauty of the original text. Rabbits. Rabbits, and yet, in this sprawling, rich Tolkien-esque saga, there is so much here to enjoy. It is a rich, layered wild in this book, and it is one that seems to revel in a slow read. An indulgent read.

(If I ask anything of you this year, it is to give yourself a slow read. An indulgent read. A selfish, generous, passionate read. Tell nobody of it. Hold it to yourself. Delight in that dialogue between you and the text and revel in your read. There is such power in this space).

The idea of wild and the wilderness is something I keep returning to here, now, in this mid-space between Christmas and reality, this pause of the world; the wild is so much in children’s literature and yet, so rarely expressed. Piers Torday‘s potent The Last Wild trilogy deals with the loss of the wilderness and the ramifications of that upon our world. The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse tells the story of a band of water voles, and I am excited to see a sequel in this series. Richard Adams, of course, is one of the foremost authors in this area, with the richness of Watership Down and the fantastically dark , more adult, and quite vicious Shardik.

The unknowable nature of the wild; the dark. The edge of the world. I think Susan Cooper had it right; that there is a thinness to this world at times. Maybe this time is when we feel it the most; the nights that are not quite dark and then, at another glance, a moment later, pitch-black and lightless. The thin-grey light of the half-day. The rain, the wind. The point of the year where the world is less ours and more somebody elses. Something wild.

The telephone wires are dancing with the wind; and the rain is marking itself against my window, burning the glass with its insistent presence.

I shall go and read.

 

 

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Everything else

All the books I’ve never told you about

I thought about this post today as I stood in a local charity bookshop and gazed upon the shelves. I’ve done this a lot in my life; I know the shapes of bookshops, their feel, their patterns, and I love them. I love the way titles are grouped together, the slim multitudes of the picture books and the way they’re stared down by the stately hardbacks up above. I love the way the Brent-Dyer’s and the Brazil’s and the Oxenham’s lurk somewhere a little closer to the desk, wrapped in their plastic wrappes, gleamingly smug in their collectability.

And I thought that, for somebody who talks a lot about books, there are so many books out there that I haven’t told you about. That’s so fascinating to me; this idea of a writer who writes about books and yet – doesn’t. It’s the truth though; for every book I share here, there are a multitude that don’t get their time in the bloggish sun.

A little of this thought process inevitably touches upon my PhD research and the ideas of Franco Moretti and distant reading, but I think here, maybe, in this moment, it touches upon the idea of selfishness.

It touches upon love.

(Sometimes, the worst of our emotions and the best of them, they are so close. Love is hate and hate is love and fear is hope and terror is laughter and everything is everything else, all at once, all along).

I met somebody once who knew that I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He told me, almost instantly, his five favourite episodes and asked me mine and I did not know what to say. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t share this love of mine with him because –

I didn’t want to.

Buffy was the show that taught me about fear and darkness and love and family and writing. God, how it taught me about writing. But I didn’t really want to talk about it.

I think I loved it too much. I don’t think I wanted to share it with people.

I don’t think I knew how.

(How to talk about the great loves? How to bring something so perfect, so transcendent, so – mindblowing – to words? To the fixed, precision of words?)

And so, as I stood there in the bookshop, and I stared at Misty of Chiconteague and I thought of A Taste of Chlorine and I caught sight of a pile of Unwritten comics, I thought –

there is so much here  –

so much.

And I thought –

that even the silent, furious –

unspeakable –

passions will make themselves known –

And I wrote this.

It is not an ending. But – rather –

a beginning.

 

,

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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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Theory

The library of things (with thanks to Bachelard and Barthes)

I’m moving books; placing Coram Boy against Drama, The Whitby Witches against The Three Musketeers. This is my packing and these are the boxes of texts pressed together in their fleshy book-bound bodies, and they are full of my life and a thousand other lives. This is my library; a library of things, of books, of boxes, of moments. As Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space: “Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space”, and so these books are not indifferent spaces. They are loaded and weighted with the space of myself and of my life lived and yet to live, aconjunction of moments and thoughts and dreams and sadnesses, trapped between the pages of The Secret Garden and Looking into the Middle Ages and Jasmine Skies.

This is my library of things, a library of loneliness and of desire. These texts exist singularly, ferociously so, but when they are like this, they are together-texts, and I return to Barthes in my thinking of them: “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” It is my love, this quote, always, and the desire here manifests itself as connections; spines pressed up against other spines, covers pressed against covers; words running from one to the other, leaping the gaps to colonise the in-between spaces. Books do not exist in regimented isolation, in ordered magnificence. They are wild and chaotic and living things that seek these moments of cross-pollination, of blurred edges, of spaces where connections can thrive and react and exist.

I think that the more I write and the more I read and the more I know, the more I think of texts as not being book-bound at all, but rather existing as a world; as a subspace that exists in our world that we enter and exit and a space that sometimes, I think, we never ever leave at all.

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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

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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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

The blurred edge of literature (or: trees make books make trees)

How’s that for a thing? In case your Spanish isn’t amazing (and mine is quite patchy at best), here’s a link to an article which explains a little more about that video. It is a book which, once read, can be planted and thus grow back into a tree. It’s a circle of existence; text as object, text as reading experience, text as catalyst and creator for further texts. The reading/making/reading cycle is one that is quite literally propagated and managed by the act of reading, of interaction with a text.

I find that so very exciting. It’s a project which starts to push at the edges of literature; at that moment where the book touches the real world space and somebody has to decide how to handle it. And that’s something we do everyday, it’s something we’re trained to do from birth: read the black text not the white space; the full stop means the end of the sentence, a capital letter means the start, a book holds a story that you start and then finish, etc, etc.

We understand how to handle that because there are rules. But – projects like this, and my PhD, make me ache for those moment that exist on the edge of literature. Those moments when you have to decide how you react to literature. Those moments when you have to decide – what are you in relation to this thing?

And we know how to do that when we have books because we know what they are.

But how do we react to books that spill out of their bookish space and become something quite new?

How do we react to a live reading of The Mozart Question by Micheal Morpurgo? (For clarity: I attended this recently and am provoked of thought as a result) How do you situate yourself in response to a text that is being given to you in the surroundings of York Minster, performed orally and musically by a range of incredibly gifted musicians? How do you situate yourself in response to a text that isn’t a text but more of an experience? How do you – handle – that as a reader? Are you still reading a book when it’s performed? Or – are you in the book? (And if you are, which I rather think you are, then who are you in that text? Where are you? Are you even you any more?)

Maybe – this is is something we need to think about a little more. Maybe this is something we need to start thinking about in our libraries and our bookish encounters with friends and families. Maybe we need to have quotes from books chalked onto brick walls, or cut into the long grass at the side of the motorway. Maybe we need to have live readings – public readings – flashmobs of readings. Maybe – just maybe – it’s time for us to let the texts that break and make us out into the wild.

Maybe it’s time for us to let the books make trees and for those trees to stand in our worlds, next to banks and shops and carparks, and for them to just – exist. Just to be there. Just to be part of the world, not book-bound nor shelf-bound, but – just – there.

Maybe it’s time for the world to become bookish.

Maybe it’s time for us to revel in that blurred edge

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Everything else

Series fiction, Glee, and the Babysitters Club : a few thoughts

According to Wikipedia, by the time the Babysitters Club series finished publishing in 2000, there had been 213 novels published. Another series, publishing around the same sort of timeframe (ish) was the Thoroughbred series which hit 72 books by the time it finished in 2005.

And Glee finished recently, after 728 musical performances and 121 episodes.

There’s a connection here, a slow ephemeral sort of connection, and it’s something I’ve been trying to think how best to phrase over the past few days that I’ve wanted to write this post.

I used to love Glee. There are moments, still, in it which blow my mind. Moments of pure unbridled character (that moment when she almost howls “Don’t forget me” is perfect, painfully so) and soul-splitting hope (this is just everything, really), expressed all through music and song and dance. I am a soft touch for a song and dance number. Always have been. Always will. And sometimes, when I can come across character moments like that, moments which make you look twice at an emotion which has been all over screen or literature (how many times have we read about love? about hate? How many times has somebody sung a song about how much they love somebody?) then I will always stop. Always. How can I not when I am being given something so new and so different and so glorious and over and over again?

And that was my Glee.

It was also my Babysitters Club, my Thoroughbred series, my Chalet School, my Famous Five, …

(It’s also, in a way, why I remain fascinated with the WWE. It’s a story that never, ever ends. How amazing is that? How *terrifying* is that?)

It’s also the world of the Adam Blade books, the Daisy Meadows, the Jenny Oldfield… (and regardless of how you may feel about them, these books have flown out of every library I’ve ever worked at – and I suspect a lot of that is due to the familiarity of the series, of the structure of the books, and of the sheer fact that there’s always something *more* to read of them. And that’s an amazing thing to witness in a child who is hungry for more, and I will always, always try and facilitate their reading)

But the Daisy Meadows et al are for a younger age group than the Thoroughbred series were, I think. And in a way, I miss those sorts of children’s books that grew with you. That you could dip in and out of, fall in and out of love with, that you could pick it up and put down and have maybe years in between them before coming back and finding that same world there, just paused and ready and waiting for you. Timeless.

I hunger for series fiction; I hunger to go back to that world and to have that experience again I hunger for it. I memorialise it. I am greedy for it.  I’m this far from buying the entire series of Jinny books. And that’s all because I want to go back to it. That I ache for that writing. For those moors. For Shantih.

We binge now on box sets. A weekend of Game of Thrones. Of Breaking Bad.

I wonder what it would be like if we binged on books. I wonder if there’s still a space for something like The Babysitters Club in this world.

God, I hope there is.

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Everything else

Heroism, heroes and heroines in children’s literature (or, the one where I talk about Edmund but not Peter)

I watched Prince Caspian last night. It is, as is nigh tradition with my relationship with the Narnia books and films, a complicated thing but even amidst that complexicity, I was struck by something. I was struck by Edmund and his wry growth as a character in a way that I’ve never quite realised before.

Edmund is somebody who’s lived and lost and been subject to the moods and madness of life in a way that, I think, not many of the other characters in Narnia are. His journey is the fall, the rise; and it is perhaps worth nothing that those that fall often rise harder than those who have not. He’s perhaps one of the few perfect notes in the film, commenting wryly that: “Last time I didn’t believe Lucy, I looked pretty stupid.” He is, I think, a bit of a hero.

I’ve talked about heroism before on the blog, about characters such as Ruth Hollis from KM Peyton’s work and Roberta from the Railway Children by E Nesbit and it’s a topic that I keep coming back to. I think the recursive nature of this thought process centres around my belief that children’s literature allows us to engage in the process of ‘creating’ heroes, but I think another part of this thought process centres around the idea of flaws. Good literature, truthful dark and honest literature, acknowledges those flaws. It acknowledges the Katniss, the Ruth, the Roberta and the Edmund through letting them be flawed but also letting them learn from those flaws and letting them grow. Letting them live. Letting them be.

There’s a reason that Peter the High Pain In the Posterior never ever hits home with me and I think that a lot of that comes from his perfection. He is an exalted character, both in the books and the films and the television adaptations; the noble elder brother who Decides Things and Looks After Family and Does The Right Thing. He isn’t real to me somehow. He’s lost in a melee of ciphers and metaphors and implications and I never quite manage to find him in that.

But I found Edmund. Oh God, it’s taken me far too long but I have, at last, found Edmund Pevensie. I’ve found his bravery, his foolishness, his complexicity, his realism, and I am giddy with the implications of that finding. It’s as though I’ve known somebody for a thousand years and only now have I come to see his true face.

Character does that; characters who hide from you and give you the something that you expect them to see, whilst the reality of them is hand-held somewhere dark and deep inside them and they’ll only let you see it when you’re ready, willing and able to see it. And that moment, oh that moment when you do, it is intoxicating.

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Everything else

Interactive storytelling – two resources of interest

Just a quick one today to share with you two resources I’ve found recently which may be of interest to anybody having a think about interactive / alternative models of storytelling. Both of them are free (well, they do offer paid versions but the free is more than adequate).

1. Pixton is an online comics maker that allows a *lot* of flexibility with the medium and is rather great. The big issue is that you can’t download your comics without paying, and there’s a weird little option to be careful of in the settings which grants Pixton the right to use your comic for paid merchandise (when you click publish – check settings and uncheck this box if that’s not your thing, it’s certainly not mine). Despite those fairly substantial caveats, it is still a lovely thing – I made this and spent way too much time on it, etc, etc 😉

2. The second was pointed out to me by the estimable Dr Matt Finch, and is called ‘Inklewriter’. It’s a programme which allows you to write interactive fiction – you know, those choose your own adventure type stories? Them. I’ve not had as much time to play on this one, but what I have discovered has been excellent.

I love anything that helps people realise that stories and narrative are flexible, bendable beasts and can be shaped to tell the story that you want. Mastery over and the confidence to engage with a medium is a great gift to give yourself and the kids you work with. Break the rules. Write a story in the mud with a stick. Chalk words onto bricks. Arrange fallen leaves into haikus. Make the stories your own and make stories. That’s pretty much all I’d ever tell somebody. Be brave. Find your voice. Use whatever you can to help you find your voice. And once you’ve found it, own it. Hold onto it tight and stubbornly and don’t let anybody take it from you.

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Everything else

New Year’s Read : Five Reading Resolutions for 2015

(With obvious inspiration due to Daniel Pennac)

1. Read Recklessly

Read books when you have no time to read; read them in snatches on the bus, whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, whilst the adverts are on. Read them recklessly and with abandon and dangerously and interlace these texts into your life. Jam a paperback into your bag. Make the packed lunch and tuck in chapter fourteen. Read on the run, on the go, read recklessly and hopelessly and hungrily.

2. Read Anything

Read books that are books, books that aren’t books, books that are words on the back of the HP sauce bottle and compose a message from them and drop them it into the sea, wrapped in a bottle and sealed with candle-wax. Read an adventure on the back of the soap packet, wrap words around you, read books for girls, books for boys, books for adults, books about toys, break boundaries that should never have been made and see a saga in the words on a water bottle.

3. Read Emotionally

Read sadly, happily, madly, angrily. Read words that make you feel something and let yourself feel those words inside the read and then let yourself feel it outside the read. Read a character falling in love and talk to your children about how real it is and about how sometimes people twist and turn and fall into the shape of another, as though it was meant to be that way all along. Read heartlessly and heartfull and with anger and with joy and with shame and with sadness and with love.

4. Read Loudly

Read and then talk and then share and then gossip and then ask your friends what they thought and ask your children to read the same part and find out what they think. Read with friends and in groups and in families; make occasions of reading, read out loud, read on walls, chalking words and phrases up against the brick, stone, read visually, read pointedly, read so loudly that the world knows, knows, knows.

5. Read Selfishly

Read tightly, read closely, read a contradiction into things and allow yourself to stretch so far that you swallow the world in with every word and then on the next, read so closely that it’s just you and this book, this text, this voice, and you’re talking and it’s like you’re sat in a room with them one and one. Read with relish and with gusto and with selfish, selfish joy and read for the world and read for yourself; contradict, own, read.

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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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“Only the Other could write my love story, my novel”

Sometimes there are moments when I realise how much I love story. Storying. Telling something to somebody else, nobody else, just telling a story to the world and hoping, knowing, longing that somebody will hear. Just telling. Telling. It is all in the telling and the shaping and the forming and the making, making, making.

I feel feverish. I feel as though I want to lock the door and let everything spin past me.

I believe in story. I love story. I reaffirm myself to it, I cleave to it and wrap my arms around it and will not let it go.

I write for moments. I write for the moment when a girl looks in a mirror and sees herself, properly, wholly, painfully, for the first time. I write for the moment when a girl is able to describe herself and not pause and not wonder where to begin. I write for the moment when two people look at each other and realise that that moment, right there, when they see themselves in another’s eyes, that is everything. I write for the space in between people where we touch, so briefly, so endlessly. I write for the life that we live for the life that we could live for the life that we don’t want to live, for the life that we dream of each and every day.

I write for that space just beyond the fingertip touch.I write for the edge of forever and the moment when your skin touches the one you love.

I shiver for those moments. I ache for them.

I adore them.

Their story. My story. Our story.

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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.

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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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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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“Language is a skin : I rub my language against the other”

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” – Roland Barthes

Barthes was one of the first people I found who said what I wanted to say about language and who said it how it needed to be said. And this quote, oh how I am stuck on it, how how I am always stuck on it, how I do not look away from it with heart nor eyes.

It makes me think about viewing. It makes me think about relationships, about sight and about point of view. We engage with everything we read on a personal nature, we push ourselves up to it and frame ourselves against it, in opposition to it and in conjunction with it.

We are not what we read, we are anti-what we read, we are and always will be what we read.

Reading is about viewing, about a relationship so specific, so tight, so focused and yet, it is a relationship that we do not control. We are controlled by An Other, an unknowable, un-quantifiable other who has pulled our focus, who has turned our head and made us see what we want to see.

Books lie. Books tell the truth that you want to see. Books tell you the truth that you need at that point in time, for who and what you are. Come back to them later, come back to them never, and they will change and they will meet you for what you are at that point in time.

I love writing. I love the shifting, feckless nature of it and the way it can lift its hands up to the hills and stand silhouetted in the setting of the sun. I love the way that it is, the way that it exists and then does not exist, the moment that I change a sentence or edit a word. Language is art and art is language and I love it , I love it, I love that it is. 

And I touch it. I rub my hand against it and I bathe in it and I look at things and I remember and I want to do it all over again.

I finished a draft of the book this week. It’s a book that I have ached for ever since it began inside my head. Finishing it has left me drunken and content and so, so pleased. It’s almost there. I hope you get to read it some day soon.

 

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Tribes, reading and the nature of identity (and a lot about horses)

I don’t understand you.

I don’t. I can’t. Your experience is not mine, mine is not yours. I can gain empathy with you. I can share common ground. But I can never, ever fully understand the experience that is your life.

I don’t understand your childhood.

I understand my childhood, I understand spending every Saturday morning at the riding stables and learning the intricate joys of measuring stirrup leathers against your arm and somehow having them fit your legs as a result of this. I understand ginger cats, and paddling through streams. I understand my mum baking bread on a snowy day and the rest of us eating it all before it got cold.

That’s my childhood. That’s the shape of what made me. It’s not the shape of what made my brother, my sister, my parents, my best friend, you. It’s the shape of what made me.

Books are like that, I think, they are shapers and moulders but resolutely personal in their actions. They are powerful, powerful things but they are your thing, the effect (affect?) they have on you is yours because this dynamic you have, between you and the book, that’s yours. That’s all yours.

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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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The physicality of reading

It’s been a bit quiet here on the blog for the past few days, primarily because I am working a lot on book two. Book one is out in the great wide world doing things, and so I have shifted my attentions to book two. Book two is a big, heart-mash of a book; it’s not an easy one to write. It is one which, I think, I have had to write (as I have with book one), but it is interesting to me how physical the writing of book two is proving for me.

And that is making me think of things about the physicality of reading, and of how we can feel a text and how we can experience it, in so many ways, how the words can fall off the page and be felt in our hearts and our heads.

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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

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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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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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

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

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

“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

Creation : a tribute

It sort of stuns me sometimes that things happen.

That  if I write ‘I’,  a simple bold stroke down the page, that that mark could mean – well, you. Or me. Or somebody mythical and magical and pulled from a story told a long time ago. Or somebody who, until the marking (making) of that I, did not even exist. That that line, that line can be the sum and the whole and the everything of what they are and what they can be. And a second ago it did not even exist.

That stuns me, you know, it really does. That there’s a way to just simply – create.

And that people can see that creation and interpret that and come together and make it mean.That they can touch on the meaning at the heart of it and through that touching make it live (live, live, live). That so much can come together for them (that everything can collide and let them come together) and that they can make something – else. The spiralling of creation. The mark made bold. The mark remixed and painted, sewn, shaped, baked – that it can and does happen – it’s amazing.

So here’s to you, you readers and makers and breakers of things. Here’s to you.

Categories
Theory

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?”

Categories
Theory

Learn to question, learn to love

I read something last night over on headguruteacher which has got me thinking. He talks about the difference between knowledge and skills, and the way they interplay and whether one is useful without the other or if, in fact, it’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s a post well worth wallowing in, and one that I think bears a lot of weight through the ‘questioning’ nature of it. Questioning something is, I think, a skill (ability?) I did not learn until I hit university and spent my days contemplating the poetics of dahlias.

And if I think anything about reading, about children’s literature, about textual based narratives, about literature in general, I think this: question it.

Questioning something, pushing in and around and touching something makes you know it. It makes you understand it. It makes you get the feel of how it’s cut, how it’s shaped, and the longer you spend with it, the more you realise how beautifully (or hideously) it’s been put together. That care has been taken over each and every element of it.

Over the curve of the comma, or the way that a sentence ends

and begins.

Or the way that a dash – keeps you – just – a – little – bit – on – edge

(or the way that parentheses can sidle up to you with a confidential wink and a covert statement).

Learn to question – learn that you CAN question them – that stories are not some precious, pristine thing to be viewed from a distance, untouchable, unapproachable. Stories are messy, human things, full of hope and light and shadows. They are scrappy, perfect, wondrous things.

It is through learning that I could question words, that I have the right to question words, that I learnt to love them.

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Everything else

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)

 

Categories
Theory

I didn’t finish a book today

It’s rare that I don’t finish books. But today, I have made the decision to step away from a book.

It feels sort of wrong, as though I’m cheating on it, and insulting the writers and everybody who’s worked with it, and everybody else who read it. It feels a bit like maybe I read it wrong somehow, like I’m missing the bit that made everybody go “Oh.”

But this book sits uncomfortably with me. The key twist is one that I cannot, really, stomach.  I won’t precis it because, to be honest, you’ll all figure out the title and I’m not for spoiling what may be the best book ever to somebody else. This post isn’t for that.

It’s so strange that this book has left me so … blind. I’m even struggling to write this, to formulate my thoughts and feelings about this strange taste in my mouth. I don’t like it. I don’t like the feeling and I really don’t like the book now.

Oddness.

Uncomfortable, too-close, oddness.

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Everything else

The Complications Of Being Merely Whelmed

I am going to make a statement. I think we are in a golden age for children’s literature. I genuinely do think that. I think the provocative, brave and brilliant books that are being published right now and over the past few years are wonderful things. I think if you grow up now, you’ve got the world at your fingertips in a way that has never really quite been so before. 

But here’s the second part of my thought process, and this is the bit where it starts to get complicated for me. If everything is – so – overwhelmingly good, then – do we have books that simply – ‘whelm’ ? Books that just – occupy – us? That when we finish them, we have nothing but a rampant sense of indifference? Of time fulfilled, time passed?

I wonder this because I wonder if it’s a by-product of the outstanding quality that’s out there. That when we get a – quieter – book, a book that’s less feted and awarded and exposed, that somehow it gets lost in the torrent? There’s a lot of books in this world. There are new books coming every day. And as a reader, your expectations are dictated by what you read. You compare, you contrast, and you rate (explicitly or implicitly) and you contextualise your reading of the ‘now’ book against the reading of the ‘then’ book. And maybe that’s a contributory factor to merely being whelmed, because your expectations of brilliance are coloured by the life-changing book you just read? 

Maybe it’s less of a question of the book being ‘bad’ (which is such a loaded term itself), but rather the fact that you met the book at the wrong time. Maybe it’s because you meet the book after your world has been changed and you want that high again. Maybe it’s something to do with the bias that we bring as a reader to each and every textual encounter.

Maybe it’s not the books that are whelming. Maybe – just maybe – it’s me.

“Overwhelming? How much more than ‘whelming’ would that be, exactly?” Anya, (Spiral : Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

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Everything else

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

I think about things, probably much more than I should, and sometimes the expressing of things is difficult. That’s life, I suppose, that tongue-knot that comes when you least expect it. But it’s how you deal with it, that’s what matters. It’s how you learn to speak, to write to express yourself even through all the boundaries you place in your way.

And that’s why I love blogging. I love the freedom of it, the way the space can be constructed as however you wish. I love the way that by engaging in it, you’re engaging in,  well, everything. You’re throwing out little hooks into society and every now and then you’re meeting somebody who just blows your mind. An anchor. Somebody to hitch your colours to, somebody who speaks about the things you believe . Somebody who says what you want to say, what you want to be said.

Books have done a lot for me. They’ve given me power and words for the darkest darknesses. In a way that’s why I write – I want to share that power with others. I want to pay it forward. I believe in the transformative power of literacy. I believe in books.

And I believe in people. One of the greatest joys of doing this blog has been finding my anchors. People such as Ali from Fantastic Reads, Zoe from Playing By The Book, Melanie from Library Mice and Anne-Marie from Child-Led Chaos. People such as Yvonne from Babbleabout, Megan and Claire from Women Write About Comics, Saranga from New Reader’s Start Here and Carmen Haselup. There’s  more, of course there’s more, but I’m moments from typing in all of the lyrics to ‘The Circle of Life’ so I’m going to stop it there.

The thing about this community (am I calling it a community? I think I am. That’s kind of splendid) is that there’s so much here.So much skill, knowledge and passion. So many genuinely fascinating people doing genuinely fascinating things, pushing, prodding and examining children’s literature be that examining the representations of female animal characters in children’s literature, running edible book festivals, reviewing forgotten classics and giving voice to the great unsung stories that deserve to be sung about that little bit louder.

And I think that’s a bit amazing and should be a little bit recognised. Hence this.

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Everything else

The Mania

When you’re lost in the story, the worlds mesh, the real and the figurative intertwine and cobweb around you. Yesterday I was in Oxford and I felt stories in every building. In every shape. A landscape written upon our psyche and in our consciousness. Buildings, some holding knowledge since the 1400s, and still holding it today. Places where you walk – and you feel the thousands that have been there before you. You feel their stories. We are built on stories, telling them to our children, our lovers, our sisters. We tell them, revel in them, find comfort in them. We feel, we know, their shape – their warmth – their familiarity. Stories guide us – make us – break us. They are us. They are our constant; our hope, our fear, our mania.

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Everything else

Discovering your story

Image: ooh_food (Flickr)
Image: ooh_food (Flickr)

I am very stubborn. (Hi Mum. Don’t laugh). I am very stubborn and quite contrary and distinctly independent. I have a few things I believe in, very very much.

One of those things is that books – literacy – libraries – all these things fall under one of our greatest achievements as humanity. We share knowledge. Share it with the turning of a page. How amazing is that? That we give such a gift – such a power – free of charge?

But what’s more amazing is when you discover that you already have a story. That you own it – you know it – and you want more of it. Literacy is amazing, but what’s more amazing in a way is the realisation that you – are – the story. When you discover the building blocks for where you want to go – and where you’ve already been. More formally, I suppose one could call this a discovering of your own literature – oral and textual – and through a discovering of that literature, a discovering of yourself.

These are my roots. These are my building blocks books. These are my stories.

PC 49 from the Eagle. Everything from the Eagle. Dan Dare. The way the Colonel protected the lady astronaut. Sam Small (Pick Oop Tha’ musket!). Sir Gawain. Sir Percival. The dirty bits in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Knights. Spike Milligan. Troy. Ithaka. King Arthur. The Four Marys. The Chalet School. Everything ever written by Michelle Magorian. My Little Pony. The Last Unicorn. Transformers. Even the bits when Optimus Prime died and Hot Rod took over (So yes, I did cry). Aragorn. The Colour Purple. Ariel (with the note we wrote in sixth form that says ‘oh look it’s another depressing poem’). Twinkle. Twinkle! The Silver Brumby. Oh the Silver Brumby. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. My Friend Flicka!

This is my literacy, a weird hybrid of horses and comics and consonant dropping soldiers. Knowing this – knowing why I liked it then / now / forever – helps me to know where I’m going, because I know where I’ve been. I know what I am. And I like it.

I am built by books, and I am being built anew every day.

I am a reader.

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Everything else

The fatness of words

There are words that are people, words that live. Words like plumeaux, fat, mythical, snuggling warm words. Words like dash – where – I – skip a beat – and fall – and slip-slip-slide my way across the paragraphs and jerkily into the new space. I like words. I like their power. Their glower. The way they scrub and scour the page, the you, the person you were before, the way you once thought. Words that stand up and castle, fortifying themselves against each other, words like castle and battle and rattle, words so similar and so different, bumping jumping fighting for space. I like words. I like the dreaming of words, the heating, the eating, the burning summery Sunday yearning of words. I like the way nonsense makes sense and how you can be everything and nothing all at the same time all balancing on the placement, the string, the tight tight rope of the sentence. I like the balancing, the fraternising, the way fat looks complete and whole, and the way cat tails away at the end, sidling from you before you’ve even finished realising what you have in front of you. Words that push, fuss, muss up their hair, and get away before you’ve tamed them, named them, even begun to know them.

I like words.

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The reflective post

So today I attended this, which featured one of my longtime favourites (idols) and one of my newest discoveries who has written one of the most perfect picture books I’ve seen in a long time, and now I am taking time to reflect.

Sometimes I am guilty of being too Barthesian in my reviews. I judge the book as the book. The medium is the message. I will never ever have a personal attack in what I write, even if I hate the book. (And if I do? Pull me up on it. Please. That’s not how I want to write). I write, and I review because I want to. I enjoy it. Love it. The day this blog becomes a chore to me, is going to be the day that I have to have a serious think about things.

But the thing about blogging – reviewing – about reading – is that you’re the final moment in a very long journey. And I was thinking about that journey, how images painted lovingly whilst resting on a kitchen table, end up in our hands. In my hand. (Please sign this. It’s for me. And it’s a privilege to hear you talk. To be here, just – with you and listen to you talk. A privilege).

Stories are magic. Stories are magic, magic things.

I was sat next to a child who dozed off, snoring quietly throughout the talk. But before he went to sleep, his finger traced the roundness of Alfie’s cheeks and followed Martha springing across the page.

Reader, I almost cried.

This is what I want. This is why I do what I do. This is what I believe in.

 

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Fear

There are not many places in this world that make me afraid, but hospitals do. For reasons.

Fear is a curious, tight thing. That panic that burns and grows in your throat, that pressure behind your eyes, that inability to form the words that you know you have to say. The way that it seems that only you, only you is caught inside this pot of pure darkness, and the way it seems that you can’t even touch the world to re-root yourself in it.

Fear is the thing that comes for us all at some point in our life. Whether it’s fear of the dark, that shadow on your window, that unknown person on the bus, that dog with it’s jaws unfolded, it comes. Fear doesn’t stop. It hits, sharp, sharp, sharp.

And it changes. It shapes, and it shifts, and it becomes something new when you least expect it.

To sweepingly generalise, in children’s literature I feel like we’re taught to manage it. Taught that it’s okay to be scared and here’s how to do deal with it. Problem. Solved. Fear. Gone. Darkness. Managed. We preserve and we protect. We fight for the right of the ‘innocent’ to remain innocent. For the Famous Five to find the baddie and sort it out.

But then, what do we do as individuals when the darkness comes in our real life? When the fear and the shadows and the pain kicks in? Books for sadness, for pain, exist (I love you Michael Rosen btw) and I’m so massively proud of those that do.  They exist to help fill in the gaps, the moment where life shatters and needs to be rebuilt. We trust books with every other moment in our lives but I stood in a bookshop earlier today and wondered about those books that pick us up when we’re down – and why they don’t exist in children’s literature so much.

So I wrote about it because, as ever, I find clarity in words and in putting down my thoughts on paper. I don’t think I’ve reached a conclusion, but I’ve started to unknot some thoughts inside my head. And I think those thoughts are related to things like that sick-lit article from the DM, and after attending a talk on the Narnia series, hearing a question on why write books of this complexity for children? And it’s also related to the whole ‘misery memoir’ genre greatly.

Is this then a form of societal censorship? Mediation? An ideological reflection of the genre? Or do kids not want to be sad in their books? Are books for excitement? For escapism? Am I writing this from the perspective of an adult reader of children’s literature as opposed to that of a child? Is it commercial – would these books not sell? Or  is it more complex … is sadness a result of love? You love, and then you lose. Is it that the books for grief, for bereavement, are out there but are simply – hidden?

(Can you tell I’m having a scholarly kick? Here’s your congratulatory Pikachu for putting up with it).