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.