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.

 

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.

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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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.

 

 

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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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.

“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.