Hello!

Featured

So here we are, my new blog.

I’ve talked about books on and off since 2009 over here, sometimes about children’s books but just as often ghost stories, queer fiction and vintage SF. (What strange chemical element links all these? Answers on an imaginary postcard, please; you can pop it in the Impossible Library’s Returns bin.) From now on, though, I’ve decided to concentrate on children’s books and reading in all their myriad possibilities, or as many as I feel I can do justice to.

Why am I making this change?

The old reason is that children’s literature fascinates me. The name of this blog is inspired by Jacqueline Rose’s seminal work The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, which posits that children cannot be said to have a literature of their own – it’s provided by others, and maybe, just maybe, those people have an agenda. There are all sorts of issues of power, control and representation – I’m talking purely about the figure of the child, but of course that’s just for starters in terms of identity – and so in our ideals of them and us. Whilst we each have our sense of what good children’s books should do, there is also a further impossibility: knowing what a child’s experience of a book is, or even knowing ourselves as child readers.

So children’s literature does the impossible: bridges people, generations, experiences of the world, of story, text, language, feeling. In some ways, it emphasises intriguing, disconcerting and issues that inherent in every act of reading, whatever our age. Often it seems it’s more likely to acknowledge and play with these issues than other kinds of literature. (Some children’s literature can even re-enact for us the wonder of our first encounters with story or text.)

I’m fascinated, too, by the ways children’s literature does all this: through the most subtle depictions of the ‘real’ world, or through the most outrageous fantasy, and sometimes by shifting deliberately back and forth across the line between them.

Those are the old reasons. The new reason for this blog is that, having worked for more than two years as a children’s bookseller for a nationwide chain, I more than ever see the importance of discussing, debating, recommending and, yes, celebrating good children’s literature. Elsewhere I would love to see advocated for good children’s film, good children’s TV, and good children’s online media.

As a bookseller, I saw how overwhelming a good children’s department is. There are so many good things to discover, new and old, while all the promotion goes to the same few writers.

In 2017 I saw a movie about Fred Rogers, a children’s broadcaster unknown in the UK but a household name for American viewers, who once said, “One of the greatest dignities of humankind is that each successive generation is invested in the welfare of each new generation.” (He also said this.) The same year, I watched this Ted Talk by James Bridle on YouTube’s indifference to the sensitivities of child viewers. The reverberations of those ideas clashing is still thundering in my head. Likewise, earlier this year I read the biography of Oliver Postgate, a man with Rogers’ sense of responsibility to children’s culture; in recent months, we have seen reports of self-harm memes on which YouTube, Instagram and the government seem ludicrously slow to act. We’ve also seen a dearth of education funding so serious that schools shorten their teaching time for an afternoon, and lobbying against the ‘No Outsiders’ programme that goes unchallenged by elected Members of Parliament.

Children’s literature is the space in which young people are truly offered the world, and I don’t mean the material planet but the universe beyond and within them. It is an escape hatch, a play space, an exploration of discovery. It is free in libraries around the country whilst all bookshops welcome curious browsers. According to research, books are good for children’s mental health and their success in education. So where is the national campaign to promote reading? Where are the TV shows, radio shows, magazines about it? Why do we get so much marketing devoted to the same few children’s authors, already famous for careers elsewhere?

This is the point where I fiddle with my cardigan buttons in an attempt to not sound too self-serious. This blog is one small voice among many online, but if we all add our voices and speak up for children’s reading, something good is bound to happen. The books are out there. The readers are waiting.

Advertisements

Reading the Carnegie: Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds

Will’s big brother Shaun is dead. He was shot in the street. The news is seismic; with Will’s Dad long since passed before he could know him, Shawn was his mentor, confidant and role model. One thing Will learnt from Shaun was a simple set of rules: you don’t cry, you don’t snitch, and if someone you love gets killed, you avenge them in kind. As Will says, these rules

weren’t meant to be broken.

They were made for the broken

to follow.

This is a novel in verse. My new job involves the odd conversation with creative writing students, and we were talking recently about the renaissance in poetry reading among young people (I was thinking of writers like Rupi Kaur and Yrsa Daley-Ward whose Instagram fame has converted into book sales). I could tell this one young man was surprised when I told him about the verse novel is a major phenomenon in Young Adult writing. Yes, Robin Robertson’s novel-length poem The Long Take was a Booker shortlistee last year, and Max Porter’s indefinable work Lanny will (I hope) garner further awards this year: by contrast, the likes of Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan have long since made it a form to be reckoned with in YA literature. This year’s Carnegie Prize alone features three novels in verse – and I think that’s remarkable.

Chris Priestley’s illustrations understated and powerful

The author makes extraordinary and varied use of the form. One surprising thing is how natural it feels: telling the story in Will’s voice, Jason Reynolds affords himself all the more freedom to capture the human voice; the voice of testimony, loss and adolescent swagger, all the while liable to shift like a riverbed in a stream and show something more beneath the surface.

Elsewhere, it effortlessly depicts the power of grief to disorientate: as we read, words and phrases fracture and the novel opens out into the silence of white space. These are the words of a young man whose world has split down its fault-lines and – as he shoves his brother’s pistol in the waistband at the back of his jeans and boards the elevator on his mission of revenge – a world threatening to fall apart entirely. It’s a world held together by rules, stories and creeds, and Reynolds’ poetry emphasises the strangeness of that linguistic world. His narrator has a thing for anagrams:

same letters,

different words,

somehow still make

sense together,

like brothers.

It’s a device Reynolds uses in his novel Ghost, which I also read this week, in which a boy (younger than William, potentially reflecting their readers respectively) accidentally find a talent for running, and returns with fascination repetition to his copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. It nicely frames a child’s view of the world – and like the Ghost’s verve and nuance, it reminded me of Betsy Byars’ writing and her protagonists’ defining traits – and it takes its protagonist subtly into questions of measuring and achieving greatness. It’s an honest depiction of children’s naivety but in a way that stresses their power and potential.

Ghost is a heartwarming, pageturning, wisecracking adventure in one boy’s real life of troubles and joys. A couple of glancing but substantial references to extremely bad fathers raise the ‘maturity bar’ in my opinion (I wouldn’t be so foolish as to put an absolute number on it) but I do hope it continues to grow in reader and bookseller awareness: Reynolds’ narrative fluency and deftness with character make it a dynamic reading experience and give us an authentic, empowered, complex young black hero. And you don’t have to care (as I do not care at all) about sport.

Another Chris Priestley illustration

For what it’s worth, the sensitivity deployed in Long Way Down means I would recommend it to both younger and older teenagers. It will show them some of the things a novel can make us feel. It’s a dark tale, though – you know that within a few pages, but as Will’s elevator makes its first stop and a man gets on, someone Will knows, and that he knows should not be alive to board that elevator, things go darker by a shade. And I do mean shade, in the spooky sense: the first of several to join Will for a conversation.

Here, Reynolds’ use of verse and his capture of Will’s voice take on a new variation, as the story gains the overtones of folk tale, ghost tale, urban legend, cautionary tale. We are unsettled and we are moved, but we are never left with such a definitive viewpoint that Reynolds’ story loses its subtlety. The author-illustrator Chris Priestley reflects Reynolds’ tone, startlingly real and teasingly strange, in his brilliant illustrations. In smoky black white close-ups and cutaways, Priestley draws us deeper into the claustrophobia of Will’s world. We hear him tell his unbelievable tale; we catch glances of his indescribable world; throughout the whole reading experience, it is the reader who has to answer the questions posed by the novel, right up to its final page.

I’m thrilled that Long Way Down is on the Carnegie shortlist. It’s a journey all curious readers should make.

Reading the Carnegie: ‘The Land of Neverendings’, by Kate Saunders

David Dean’s beautiful cover art

It seemed appropriate, returning to the Carnegie Shortlist, to alternate and talk this time about a book for ‘middle-grade’ readers (though, that’s a strange designation, isn’t it? Not quite so good for the self-esteem than ‘young adult’). At first glance, this latest novel from Kate Saunders (of whom I only know the pitch perfect E. Nesbit sequel, Five Children on the Western Front) appears aimed at a distinctly young reader: when Emily learns a door has opened between the world of imagination and the real world – the Hard World – she makes the acquaintance of a multitude of stuffed toys, and helps repel an invasion of sadness incarnate. Indeed, the book does delight in funny rhymes, cuddly characters and food fights, but from the first line, we know we will be exploring a much heavier theme: ‘When Holly died, Bluey suddenly fell silent and all the lights went out in Smockeroon.’

Smockeroon is the land devised and narrated by Emily for her older, critically ill sister Holly, although both girls have inhabited it imaginatively. Bluey, Holly’s beloved teddy bear, lives in Smockeroon and spends his days there indulging in jelly fights and inventing such life necessities as the five-minute Fart Siren alert. Holly is dead from the first page and her family’s sense of loss is felt throughout the novel. Initially, Emily is totally withdrawn (and at the same time, abandoned by old friends), she devotes her attention during class to her Bluey Book, a private chronicle of memories of Smockeroon, and the occasional new invention, now without an audience. On meeting the stuffed penguins and dolls that stumble accidentally into her room, though, she learns something impossibly wonderful and wonderfully impossible: Bluey, though cremated in the real world, lives on in Smockeroon and “spends most of his time playing with his owner”.

I must admit, my hackles rose at that point. Not only had Saunders firmly established by now that the endlessly sensitive subject of grief (and a child’s grief, too) would be central to her story, it now seemed that she would be exploring it with the most mawkishly sentimental tropes imaginable. This is a dangerous line to walk, and throughout the novel I was unsure whether Saunders would guide us satisfactorily through. The novel is wonderfully witty, the kind of wit that effortlessly knits together realist and fantastical worlds with language and character. But Emily keeps looking back longingly towards Smockeroon, even when it seems extraordinarily dangerous to do so, drawn by the unquenchable hope of seeing Holly and Bluey again. Each time I wondered, how will this, how can this be resolved in a way that does justice to its characters, its themes and its readers. I was intrigued to see reader recommendations on the flyleaf from Yzabelle and Priya, age 8, as well as Gina and Darth, age 9. The sunlit primary colours of the Land of Neverendings are muted by authentically dark shadows.

It’s clear from the book’s Afterword, though, that this is a very personal novel. Smockeroon’s alternate name, ‘the Land of Neverendings’, derives from the imaginary world made up years ago by antique shop owner Ruth for her son, Danny, before his death in a road accident. Ruth has a crucial role in the novel as a strong, responsible adult figure, capable of offering guidance and experience of grief (complemented, here and there, by words from Emily’s English teacher, with her own experience of grief). She is never a dry, functional character, however – she is a full-on participant in the adventure, risking nearly everything for the dream of entering Smockeroon and visiting her son there. Occasionally, she is as much in need of emotional guidance as Emily. The result is beautifully balanced, the tone of the novel never becoming twee or distressing. I can imagine this novel being a consoling experience fpr some readers, but not because it avoids jagged, difficult emotional terrain. It explores them, however, with a sure tread and as the novel progresses, makes toward safer ground.

The plot demands that Emily cannot enter Smockeroon and take part in events there, which makes for an unconventional and satisfyingly understated plot. The last third of the novel, though, I found a little less satisfying – a quest in the real world where the stakes never quite feel as high as they seemed when wrapped in mystery. Conscious of the author’s terrific earlier success with Nesbit’s Psammead, the search for ‘an old magic bear’, a bear that ‘[thousands] of children have seen … and loved … and filled him with huge amounts of imagination’, feels tantalisingly like it will lead to re-enchantment of (perhaps) the world’s ultimate teddy bear. Perhaps in a parallel world, Emily and co. avert production on Disney’s 2018 schmaltzfest Christopher Robin, and sit down to re-read The House at Pooh Corner. Perhaps, too, I’m reading as a stuffy adult with a yen for metafiction; the solution to the quest, when it comes, is more original (and many people are with Dorothy Parker in pooh-poohing Pooh, to say the least). In any case, the shift seems to move us away from more difficult emotions, making it an easier recommend to such younger kids as Priya and Darth.

The novel’s conclusion aside, I found it mining rich territory. Once you begin thinking of them, the ‘Toys’ section in the Impossible Library begins to overflow: Pooh, of course, but also The Velveteen Rabbit, The Mennyms, The Mouse and his Child – and these examples, like Saunders, delicately explore the idea of life, death and lifelessness. The Land of Neverendings brings with it the sad and beautiful concept of ‘empty’ toys, that have never been animated by a child’s imagination: a disgusting prospect to Smiffy and Hugo, the penguin hoteliers dreamt up between Danny and his mother. In its funnier moments, this novel recalled last year’s Carnegie shortlistee Wed Wabbit, a bitterly funny psychofantasy exploring the deeply felt inventions and attachments of a young child’s interior landscape. Increasingly, though, The Land of Neverendings mines its own territory – imperfectly, but bravely and with rich rewards.

The Puffin Book of Princesses, by Pamela Hope Johnson

My tatty copy, found in Blackheath Oxfam last spring

As well as new books, I’d like to celebrate the best of the past with this blog too. I may not be mad about princesses, but I do royally love an old Puffin: there is nuffin’ quite like them. I long ago forsook collecting them – there are just too many – but I make an exception for their anthologies. A Book of Princesses is the first, but there would soon be a Book of Princes to go with it, books of Dragons and Heroes and more (there are all sorts of second-cousins and fairy godmothers I won’t go into now). I can’t say quite what delights me about these collections: perhaps it’s the combination with authority with eccentricity. They are like stand-ins for the best teacher you never had.

Actually, I would ask why the anthology as a genre seems to have gone out of fashion in children’s publishing nowadays – but perhaps not today.

Fritz Wegner illustrates ‘The Light Princess’ by George Macdonald

Of course, Puffin Books are just one part of the story when it comes to A Book of Princesses. The books were originally a series published by Hamish Hamilton (still with us today as an imprint of Penguin Random House). Have a peek online at the Hamish Hamilton Book of Princesses, first published in 1963. Square, solid, with lavish artwork by the illustrator, the immortal Fritz Wegner (I’ve illustrated this post with samples from the book: you’re welcome), it was a Christmas present sort of book, a treasury as weighty as treasure itself. This was the first, immediately followed by titles that, curiously, didn’t make it into Puffin (Myths and Legends by Jacynth Hope-Simson, and, individually, Kings and Queens, jointly edited by Eleanor Farjeon and William Mayne). It’s put together with such care by its editor and illustrator that it retains all its charm in paperback: if foxed, yellow pages could glitter, these would.

Fritz Wegner illustrates ‘ A Toy Princess’ by Mary de Morgan

Sally Patrick Johnson introduces her selection by wondering why we (in 1963) still care for princesses: “There are not as many real Princesses in the world as there once were, but those who remain still make headlines and inspire love and curiosity in ordinary people,” she says. Perhaps it’s because the Princess represents an ideal of “beauty, wealth and privilege most perfectly”, free of responsibility, the focus of attention and “the centre of countless intrigues”. It’s fun to imagine that Johnson is referring here to the scandalous Princess Margaret; interesting, too, to consider how things have changed since 1963, given the ‘real-world’ life and death of Diana Spencer and the ever-increasing commodification of, for example, Disney Princesses TM.

The opening story, Andersen’s ‘The Princess and the Pea’, exemplifies this sense of Princess as a sort of fetish object for “ordinary people” to pursue or protect or measure themselves against. It comes with the caveat that “when you have read some of the stories about Princesses who are less delicate, you will see how much these Royal people have changed in the course of literary history”. One of the most subversive tales in the book, though, is one of the earliest: ‘A Toy Princess’ by Mary de Morgan, from 1877. The Princess of this story is born to a society so stiflingly polite its people never speak to one another; her fairy godmother rescues her, putting an enchanted doll in her place. The story is fresh and funny and its ending bittersweet: when the King and his people learn they’ve been tricked, they vote unanimously to keep the toy princess. The real one escapes to live happily ever after as a fisherman’s wife. Its now-forgotten author, born in 1850, lived in an era of royal women (a contemporary of Queen Victoria’s daughters) but de Morgan was an active suffragist and this is a political fable (with, perhaps, the influence of William Morris, a family friend). It’s tempted me to read her other work – and if you like looking at beautiful Victorian books, the original editions of her books are worth viewing online.

Fritz Wegner illustrates Melisande by E. Nesbit

In style, de Morgan’s closest echo is ‘Melisande’, by the wonderful E. Nesbit, but here as elsewhere in the book, the princess is more acted upon (or for) than acting: Johnson even includes the tale that became The Taming of the Shrew, the antithesis of de Morgan’s story. Almost every inclusion, though, is worth reading. There is an intriguing and entertaining fairy tale by Charles Dickens and the questionable selection of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’. My favourite – besides a retelling of ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ by Walter de la Mare, which I’ve always loved – is ‘Many Moons’ by James Thurber. In many ways, though, it’s more a trickster’s tale – once again, the Princess is merely “the centre of … intrigues”.

In the years since A Book of Princesses, we’ve had Robert Munsch’s Paper Bag Princess and Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants, Julie Corbalis’ Wrestling Princess and Pamela Oldfield’s Terribly Plain Princess: enough for a shelf of their own in the Impossible Library. In recent years, Anna Kemp’s picturebook The Worst Princess and Mike Brownlow’s Ten Little Princesses have returned to the same subversive process: it seems love for the subject is undimming and the task of deconstructing never done. I think a new Book of Princesses would have to feature a story devised by Joan Aiken (perhaps ‘The People in the Castle’) but what else? As well as modern fairytales, I’m sure there are older ones about royal women who are the tricksters of their own stories – perhaps it’s time to go back to Angela Carter…

Reading the Carnegie: ‘Bone Talk’ by Candy Gourlay

I thought it would be good to kick off my new blog by talking about the CILIP Carnegie Medal: the longest-running and perhaps most esteemed literary award for children’s writing in the UK. Voted for by librarians, the judging panel’s shortlist came out about a month ago and the winner is decided in June. Over the years I’ve tried to read the shortlist in this window and valiantly failed, but even making the attempt is not just educational but somewhat celebratory. I can do this – and so can you! Let’s treat ourselves to (what feels like) an exceptionally strong list of titles. We can all meet in the Impossible Library’s entirely imaginary upper room (so long as it’s not the night I hire it out to tango practitioners or the Susan Sontag Memorial Movie Club), drink gin and giddily present our favourites.

Speaking of which, let me commend to you the novel Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay.

It’s two weeks since I read it, but the world delineated by Gourlay in this, her fourth book for young readers, is still vivid in my mind. It’s set far from anything I’ve read before: a secluded Filipino village at the end of the nineteenth century, high in the mountains and surrounded by forests, rice paddies and encroaching enemies. The historical events of the novel, too, were unfamiliar to me and linger now in dark images, immovable as blood stains.

This is a novel of unexpected interruptions, moving breathlessly from one surprise to another: the reader is helpless to do anything but turn the pages. We follow young Samkad, engaged on the first page in innocent games with his friend Little Luki, into his rite-of-passage toward manhood – then, abruptly, off the conventional track. Suddenly Samkad is caught between states of innocence, power and responsibility. How will he proceed, and what if his journey leads him to encounter other versions of masculinity: scholarly, soldierly, irreligious, even treacherous…?

With these explorations of maturity, the novel deserves a wide Young Adult readership. There’s tons of material here to chew on here, but thank heavens it’s also presented with brilliant immediacy and momentum. Before we know it, we’re following Samkad on a quest of sorts, in the company of men whose character he is increasingly obliged to question. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we are able to read the signs a few beats before he does, shadowing his journey out of naivety. It’s a deftly handled perspective, and the only character ill-served by it is Luki: since her journey is independent from Samkad’s, I felt her strong, heroic character was by necessity put in the background.

Samkad’s unconventional route to maturity reflects rich themes of historical rupture for the Philippines as well. An ancient, supposedly barbaric culture — led by somewhat childlike ‘ancients’ — collides with a self-consciously ‘civilised’ society, masking its own brutality. What follows is an account of manipulation and destruction all the more biting for being rendered intimately through one young man’s experience. But this is also a novel that hints at different kinds of rescue and redemption, in which boys and girls – outside those distinct physical markers of child and adulthood – are resilient, hopeful and independent when their elders offer little guidance. Then, after the novel’s more violent phases, we come to conclusion rich with ambiguity. What do we see with our powerful hindsight now? What is coming to Bontok, and what will survive of them?

It adds up to a novel about historical narrative that is both thrilling and complex, both empowering and heavy with grief. From the forest, the rattling bone-offerings in the Bone Tree (portrayed so ravishingly in Kerby Rosanes’ cover art) speak of the Americans bringing new time to the Bontoc ancients: A day is made of hours. A month is made of days. A year is made of months. And a man is made of years.Samkad and Luki, who have lived through this revolution in time, have perhaps ended up with a more nuanced understanding of what it means to grow. I’d love to hear the story of what happens next, for Samkad, Luki and their families, but that is also the strange subjective power of a historical narrative such as this, which leads us to the very edge of fiction. There is always more to learn.

The Carnegie Medal has some history with history. Over the years, historical drama has been its most rewarded genre (while many other awarded novels have been seriously engaged in exploring the past). Winners in 2015, 2017 and 2018 were all historical fiction. (Is this about children’s fiction, the prize’s judges or revisionist historical fiction beyond those worlds?) Moreover, it’s been a while since the Medal went to a middle-grade book: again, is that the nature of children’s fiction, the character of the prize, an overdue acknowledgement of Young Adult reading, or what?

Whatever the outcome, Bone Talk deserves a place on your bookshelf: its momentum will carry even reluctant readers deep into territory they did not expect…