Come to our Postgraduate Open Day!

We invite any prospective children’s literature students to visit us next week and hear from current students and staff. All are welcome to the public lecture from Professor Karen Sands-O’Connor. See the poster for information.

Before (and after) children’s literature: cheap print and young readers across Europe

Elisa Marazzi

It is widely accepted that what we now call children’s books were born in the 18th century, when both the Enlightenment and commercial reasons made some farsighted men and women start publishing books that were explicitly addressed to children. But children existed also before the 18thcentury, so what did they read?

1: The Primer of Claude de France. France, probably Loire Valley, Romorantin, c. 1505. Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 159, folio 3/r, available online https://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/illuminated/manuscript/discover/the-primer-of-claude-of-france

Some of them were so lucky that their parents or their preceptors commissioned, wrote, and even assembled books that were to be used exclusively by them. Let us think to the illuminated manuscript assembled for Claude of France in the early 16th century [picture 1], or to Fénelon’s Adventures of Telemachus, written in the 17th century for his pupil Duc de Bourgogne, second in line to the throne of France. Not to mention the nursery library assembled by Jane Johnson for her children in the early 18th century.

Many more children must have encountered the printed materials that circulated widely among peasants, working classes, servants, etc. since the invention of the printing press. In spite of the fact that literacy rates differed depending on urbanism, religion, emigration, and many other factors, it has been discovered that a great part of illiterate or semi-literate people not only had many opportunities to enjoy narrations by just listening to them, but were also keen on buying cheaply printed products even if they were not able to work them out completely. How about their children?

2: 1610 edition of Den sack der consten […] [The Bag of Arts]. Brussels, 1610, available on Google Books. The prologue of the 1528 edition, the earliest known, mentions that the book contains “some silly things for the youngsters and some other things” – translation by Andrea Van Leerdam, whom I thank for letting me know about this book.

Examples of cheap print for children are attested before the 18th century. Book of secrets, containing recipes and medical remedies, were a successful genre already in the age of manuscripts; so successful that a Dutch publisher issued a book of secrets explicitly addressed to children as early as 1528. [picture 2]

A quite renowned collection of ballads preserved at the British Library and named after their collector, the Duke of Roxeburghe, contains at least two 17th century moral ballads that might have foreseen children as a privileged audience. [See banner image.]

4: The Tyrant’s Views Frustrate: To Which Are Added, I Wonder’d (sic) What He Meant. The Shepherd’s Holiday. Drive Me Not To Despair. There’s My Thumb I’ll Ne’er Beguile Thee. The Highland Lassie. You’re Fitter for a Lover’s Arms. Cynthia’s Perplexity. Glasgow, J. & M. Robertson, 1808, Newcastle University Library, shelfmark Chapbooks 821.7 AIN (64)

Moreover, children were likely to share cheap print with the rest of the society. Chapbooks printed in Glasgow by J and M. Robertson in the first two decades of the 19th century carry an interesting woodcut on their title page: it represents two adults and a child singing ballads together. This must have been an advertising strategy (title pages functioned as covers in chapbooks), and it is also evidence that cheap print of any kind would have reached juvenile audiences by the means of orality. [picture 4]

Printed broadsheets that narrated stories through pictures with a small amount of text as captions were probably appreciated by semi-literates, and for the same reason they must have encountered the attention of children. Sometimes they were not even conceived of as reading materials, but they contained a really limited amount of text, as in the Venetian fogli da ventola: single sheets mounted on a stick in order to be used as fans. They were not addressed to children, but there is evidence that young people were enjoying them as well, thus encountering written words even if they did not attend schools. [picture 5]

5: Foglio da ventola printed with humorous faces changing upside-down when mounted as a fan. Printed in Bologna, Luigi Guidotti, [late 18th century]. Milan, Raccolta delle stampe Achille Bertarelli, shelfmark Popolari Profane p. 15g-10, available online http://graficheincomune.comune.milano.it/GraficheInComune/immagine/Popolari+Profane+p.+15g-10
The juvenile use of such fans is attested in a Venetian painting by a follower of Pietro Longhi, La bottega del caffe’, oil on canvas, 18th century, detail. Work available online https://progettocultura.intesasanpaolo.com/patrimonio-artistico/opere/la-bottega-del-caffe/

More didactic and educational printed materials must also be mentioned, such as ABCs, primers, catechisms, that represented, for instance, about the 18% of French chapbooks, the so-called Bibliothèque bleue. But they weren’t confined to schools, since it was not only young people that needed to practice on them. Moreover, it was not understood that children in schools had to read didactic books: in the 16th century the Venetian schoolmasters declared that children practiced reading on chivalric romances in cheap editions instead of using primers. And in the 18th century they still complained about that. Also in France, in the 17th century, bishops banned from schools fairy tales, romances and prophane books that were used to teach them to read.

Social history research on 18th century France has shown that young peasants and thieves carried sorts of cheap print on their bodies when inspected by the police. Even in 18th and 19thcenturies, when books for children were increasingly issued, most families would not afford them. Cheap print for the general public was still an option; moreover, some clever publishers started to issue massively cheap print for children.

6: A Whetstone for Dull Wits; Or, A New Collection of Riddles, for the Entertainment of Youth. : Of Merry Books This Is the Chief, It Is a Purging Pill, To Carry of All Heavy Grief, And Make You Laugh Your Fill. Glasgow, R. Hutchison, 1804. Newcastle University Library, shelfmark Chapbooks 821.04 JOE (5)

This British books of wits, printed probably in the early 19th century, has a larger number of woodcuts than the standard layout of a chapbook, and in fact it is specifically addressed to children. [picture 6] Chapbooks for children issued by Kendraw of York are among the most renowned examples [picture 7], but also in other countries cheap print for children became a proper publishing genre in the 19th century. Let us focus on Spain, where pliegos de aleluya, broadsheets containing images and captions, were used both as games (lottery) and as ancestors of comics. Traditionally addressed to the general audience, in the 19th century they were increasingly dedicated to children and proposed to them traditional narrations such as popular romances and fairy tales. [picture 8]

7: The cries of York for the amusement of good children. York, J. Kendraw, [ca. 1826]. Digitised by Washington University Libraries, https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/childrens/id/1160
8: Historia del nuevo D. Quijote. 59. Barcelona, A. Bosch, [187-?]. Digitised by Centro de Estudios de Castilla La Mancha https://previa.uclm.es/_ceclm/CentenarioQuijote/tboquijote/tbos/NuevoDQ/index.htm

Similar products were printed all over Europe also before that the so called Imagerie Populaire was founded in Épinal, France, by Mr Pellerin. It was a printing shop specialising in lithography that took over the business of printed images selling them across Europe. Through some agreement Pellerin’s broadsheets were also translated into English and printed in the United States. [picture 9]

9: Two Broadsheets printed by Pellerin in Épinal, [late 19th century]. The one on the left was published in the USA by the Humoristic Publishing Company, Kansas City. Princeton University Library, Special Collections – Cotsen Children’s Library, shelfmark Print Case 149986

In addition, new printing techniques made illustrations and colours cheaper, so that broadsheets could even become cheap toys. Pellerin even printed a Chinese Shadow Theatre: sheets were intended to be pasted on cardboard and then cut in order to build the shadows of animals and people that would act on the stage of a cardboard theatre. [picture 10]

10: Ombres Chinoises (6) Les Aventures de Polichinelle, Épinal, Pellerin [late 19th century]. Princeton University Library, Special Collections – Cotsen Children’s Library, shelfmark French Popular Print 149986 (Box 1)

Research on all this is still at an early stage, but it is evident that cheap print represented a large part of the publishing market, especially in 18th and 19th century, and that it was often enjoyed by children. This means that we have only a partial understanding of what children were reading in the past. Cheap and ephemeral printed products are very likely to tell us more about that.

Elisa Marazzi is a Marie Skłodowska Curie Research Associate at the School of English, Literature, Language and Linguistics, Newcastle University.

Festive Fun at the Seven Stories Archive

Lauren Aspery

It’s that time of year again, and nothing says Christmas like the scatological humour of children’s author and illustrator, Nicholas Allan. I was fortunate enough to spend a day at Seven Stories rummaging through his uncatalogued Christmas archive last Winter, and one year later I thought I’d take the opportunity to share what I found.

If you don’t know Nicholas Allan, he is best known for his toilet-tastic titles including The Queen’s Knickers, The Giant’s Loo Roll, Cinderella’s Bum, The Royal Nappy, as well as his more festive work, like Jesus’ Christmas Party, Father Christmas Needs a Wee and Father Christmas Comes up Trumps. Having been fortunate enough to vicariously enjoy these books via a younger sibling, I was absolutely thrilled to learn I could put them to use for an undergraduate assignment on Lucy Pearson’s Children’s Literature Module, ‘Home, Heritage, History’. In fact, I ended up enjoying my day at the archive so much, that I ended up sticking around to do an MLitt!

This was my first time visiting the Seven Stories Felling site, and was a perfect way to get me into the Christmas spirit. I was greeted by Paula Wride, who showed me the ins and outs of the archive before setting me up with my work – although I’d hardly call it work, it was like Christmas came early!

The first item I came across was a hand-painted mother’s day card signed by Allan, which features an image of Mary holding Jesus in the same style as the illustrations for Jesus’ Christmas Party. There’s no way of knowing which came first – the card or the illustrations for the story – but I’d like to think this is what inspired him. I was also surprised to see so many different cover designs for Jesus’ Christmas Party with such vast differences, including the version I have on my shelf at home. Some featured angels, some included the whole nativity and some even had the titles in different languages as well! There was even his final watercolour artwork for the figures later produced for the accompanying activity playset and designs for the cover of, what has now become, Jesus’ Christmas Party: The Musical! Here are some of the covers in circulation now, the middle being the most recent:

The image at the top of this article is, perhaps, my favourite painting by Allan. The final print of Father Christmas Comes up Trumps does not do justice to the original version I was fortunate enough to see. I was blown away by the vibrance of the colours against what ended up on the page, but what was even more surprising, is that a coffee stain in the clouds (top left of the second page if you look carefully) made it to the final text. I’ve since wondered whether the editor missed it, or if the picture was just too good to waste!

I couldn’t believe the intricacy of some of Allan’s drawings. The files were filled with tiny scraps of paper with detailed miscellaneous final artwork the size of a penny. There were bells, holly, gifts, and even a specific gift design for the Father Christmas Needs A Wee barcode! It’s clearly a lot of work being both an author and illustrator, but seems like a lot of fun to have so much input in your work.

Of course, the Seven Stories Archive is not just home to Christmas picturebooks, but is brimming with exciting resources all year round. With that said, I don’t think any Christmas will compare to seeing Allan’s watercolours of Father Christmas breaking wind in various locations.

It seems only natural to conclude by quoting the final pages of Father Christmas Comes up Trumps:

‘So the world wakes up, And the children all cheer…

Father Christmas has come up trumps, Now it’s the BEST day of the year!’

Nicholas Allan, Father Christmas Comes Up Trumps (2013)

Merry Christmas from all of the Children’s Literature Unit here at Newcastle University!

Book cover images courtesy of goodreads.com

A PhD in Children’s Literature: The Process of Applying

Rebecca Jane Francis

So, you’re partway through your MA (or maybe finished a long time ago and want to go back to school again!), and you know that you want to do further study, and that you want that further study to be centred around children’s literature. But where do you start? How do you even begin tackling such a task? Maybe you’re in a one-year MA course, so you haven’t even handed in any papers yet – how can you go about applying for PhD?

Well, we here in Newcastle University’s CLU have been there! Here are some thoughts and suggestions on how to go about it.

First of all, and MOST importantly: THE APPICATION DEADLINES ARE MUCH EARLIER THAN YOU THINK THEY ARE. Yes, even earlier than that. Seriously. Especially as you probably have deadlines starting to come up in December and January as well, and you really don’t want to be trying to get your PhD applications in at the same time as you are writing your first MA papers. Put the deadlines in red in your diary, and then set reminders for them at least two weeks before. Check when any other deadlines or breaks you might be having are (as the applications are typically due across the Christmas holidays), and block out times when you will sit down to prepare for them.

But where do you want to apply to? You can’t start thinking about deadlines until you know where you are going, as every university has a different deadline and a different application process! Well, that’s actually quite a complicated question, so let me try to break it down for you.

There are two main ways to go about deciding where to study. The first is looking at universities that have a strong children’s literature unit. A good indicator for this is whether or not they offer MA courses specifically for children’s literature (or, failing that, at least an undergraduate course) and exploring things like library resources for children’s lit. The second is looking at the major critical works that have influenced your thinking and your desire to study children’s literature, and then seeing if any of those critics work at universities that you could attend. You should also look at what kind of funding opportunities the universities and the departments have!

Once you have a list of places you think might be feasible, spend time finding out about the university and the literature department as a whole. I know how hard this is to do from overseas, but chat forums and the school websites are helpful – if you can’t even navigate the website, it may not be the place for you! If you possibly can, try to visit the campus.

While you are doing this, you need to sort out a clear idea of what you actually want to study in your head. ‘Children’s Literature’ is a vast and multi-faceted area of study that crosses over several departments (literature, linguistics, history, psychology, etc) and covers several centuries and many different cultures. Is there a particular period or author that you are interested in? Why? Is there a problem that you think needs addressing? Are you interested particularly in a specific language or country, or want to do a cross-comparison of, for example, American and Canadian literature?

The next step is to get in contact with the researcher that you want to work with. Send a quick email, explaining who you are, what you are studying, what you want to study, and why you think that your work would fit with this researcher, and ask if they think that they might be interested in supervising your PhD project. If you are not applying straight from a one year MA, then ideally you should do this in the summer, as university teachers are very busy in September and October and it may take them some time to get back to you. Don’t worry too much if you can’t, though. It is KEY to do this: your supervisory relationship will be one of the most important things throughout the process of your PhD, so you should at least get a feel for what your supervisor might be like to work with. Do they reply in a timely manner? Do they seem enthusiastic? Do they want to hear about your thoughts, or does it feel like they might take over the project? All of these you can get a feel for relatively quickly!

In my own case, I emailed multiple places. I was politely turned down by one person, which is not unusual, and you should not let yourself get too down about. I was invited to a Skype meeting to discuss my research plans by two other researchers, which gave me a chance to get a feel for what supervisory sessions might feel like with them. It is also great to get that encouragement that someone in the field thinks that your ideas are worth exploring! I also got a wonderfully enthusiastic and very encouraging email from my now-current supervisor, who offered to look over drafts of any applications to the school or for funding.

Once you have someone you think that you could work with, and whose work aligns with yours, you need to write the application piece. If you have managed to make contact with a potential supervisor and have already established a rapport with them, ask them to check over your application before you send it in. IMPORTANT: Bear in mind that you will have to order transcripts from your school and that some universities still require that these be sent by post! Make sure that you order transcripts, for both UG and your Masters, well in advance of the deadline.

In terms of writing the main body of your application: every university will require different lengths and levels of detail. My suggestion is to write the longest one first, and polish that one to the best that you can. Then, once it is as good as you can make it, choose what to cut out for the other applications. Make it as PRECISE AS POSSIBLE. Discuss your own particular projects, mentioning critical works that you have already read, to show that this is not a pipe dream but something that you have put serious thought into and already know what some of the discussion around your chosen area is saying. If the word count allows for it, try to give draft chapter titles, and a brief idea of what the thesis would look like broken down into these chapters. At the end, spend a paragraph talking specifically about why you want to attend that particular university. Mention that you already have someone willing to supervise you, talk about library and archival resources, and about any relationships the university might have with outside groups (such as Newcastle University’s partnership with Seven Stories). Make it clear that you have done the research into the place itself and that you are enthusiastic about studying there.

Finally – send it in! Check that you have filled out everything that the university wants (multiple checklists may be required). Once you have done that, though, don’t just wait: you need to get your funding application deadlines in a row next! Most of these will not be due until after you know whether you have been accepted by the school, but some require earlier applications, so keep a careful eye out. Make sure that you keep going back to what you want to study, and thinking it through more, as some of the most comprehensive funding bodies (such as the AHRC) often want far more detail than the general school application, partly because they want to see that your thought processes have moved on since your initial application.

Good luck! I hope that this was helpful, and that your applications go as smoothly as possible!

IRSCL Congress 2019

Silent Survival: Representations of Refugee Children’s Traumatic Separations

Dr Maria Chatzianastasi, Helen King and Lucy Stone

‘It feels a bit like the first day of school,’ Helen said as we made our way into the auditorium of Norra Latin, The Stockholm City Conference Centre, for the opening of the 24th Biennial Congress of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL) this summer. A fitting statement in more ways than one. Norra Latin, as we soon learned, is a former school.[1] The first time for Helen and Lucy, we were bundles of nerves, excitement and anticipation. We’d carefully selected our outfits, had our ‘school bags’ over our shoulders (we were issued with congress tote bags and Moomin characters notebooks) and compared timetables, the extensive congress programme.

Getting in touch with our inner child at Junibacken, Stockholm’s children’s book museum.

There were many panels that applied the congress theme – Silence and Silencing in Children’s Literature – to readings of representations of child refugees in children’s and YA novels. One panel brought together Ruth Lowery who spoke on refugee children as agents of social change, Evelyn Arizpe who explored the empowering potential of refugee narratives for displaced children, and Michael Prusse who explored the problems in claiming to “give voice” to the refugee experience. In another panel on refugee picturebooks, Lesley Clement, Margaret Reynolds and Petros Panaou discussed the representative challenges posed by communicating the trauma of displacement in pictures. Pictorial representation of the refugee-migrant experience was also the focus on which Mavis Reimer, Karin Nykvist and Jaana Pesonen spoke.

One recurring question was about the voice of the child refugee: how can it be heard?; is there such a thing as an authentic voice, when often the experiences and trauma of refugees are absorbed by authors and/or illustrators with no direct experience of forced migration through “listening” to various sources such as others’ accounts, the media, and the arts?

In our panel, we proposed another kind of listening. Trauma theory has shown that silence can be a significant form of communication for those who have been subjected to traumatic experiences. We discussed texts in which children’s silence features as a response to separation, exile and refugeedom from different war zones and time periods, providing important insights into understanding refugeedom.

‘It’s wonderful to be a refugee’: the apparent optimism of Judith Kerr’s drawings made as a child exile from Nazi Germany

Our panel opened with Lucy’s paper ‘It’s wonderful to be a refugee’: the apparent optimism of Judith Kerr’s drawings made as a child exile from Nazi Germany.[2] In this paper, Lucy paid tribute to Judith Kerr, remarkable child artist and children’s author-illustrator, who sadly passed away in May. Lucy discussed two of the drawings ten-year-old Kerr made as a child in 1933 Switzerland, the first country in which the Kerr family sought refuge from Nazi Germany.

One of the drawings ten-year-old Judith Kerr made as a child in 1933 Switzerland, the first country in which the Kerr family sought refuge from Nazi Germany. © Judith Kerr. With kind permission of Tacy and Matthew Kneale. Image courtesy of Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books. JK/01/01/05

Their subjects – children dancing as they sing ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ – is a ring game that has long been played across Europe. Peter and Iona Opie suggest that it is ‘almost a synonym for childhood’ (1985, 221). Here, it would seem a joyous, harmonious childhood. However, in this paper Lucy argued that reading these drawings in light of their biographical and historical contexts shows that the trauma of childhood exile that appears to be absent is in fact silently present. By reading the drawings in this way it becomes evident that Kerr was able to symbolically express some of the trauma she suffered as a consequence of the family’s forced migration from Nazi Germany, but also work through it and simultaneously develop drawings skills that she would employ in her illustrations as an adult. What also emerged over the course of this paper is the fact that child Kerr belonged to what Manon Pignot has termed a ‘graphic community’ (2019, 174) – children with experience of war, exile and/or persecution who draw, or drew. Reading Kerr’s drawings within this community helps illuminate her childhood creative practice. At the same time, Kerr has a unique position within this community. In studies of children’s war-time drawings, it is often the case that little is known about the children who created them. Moreover, frequently just a handful of drawings by each child is conserved. In the case of Judith Kerr, however, her archive at Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books spans from the pre- to post-exile years and holds many examples of juvenilia, making it possible to explore how a child refugee, with the opportunities to draw freely, was able to work through challenging exilic experiences.

“Have you ever listened to silence speaking?”: Trauma and survival in the Cypriot story “Maria of Silence” (1998).

“Have you ever heard Silence speaking? If you try to listen carefully, you will […] Sometimes, its words can reach the heart” (Charalambous, 1998: 37).

This is a challenging question, even a paradoxical one we may assume? And how could we listen to something which is not even there? How could we listen to an absence or maybe a gap, would be the next question. However, despite the paradox embedded in the narrator’s words in ‘Maria of Silence’, this quote carries a strong message about the powerful impact of silence;  it encourages readers to listen to its words and try to understand and interpret it, but it also attests to the value of the words and stories found in small texts that are beyond our reach or knowledge.

Maria’s paper explored the significance of silence in Cypriot juvenile writing about trauma as experienced by some enclaved families who refused to leave their place of origin in the north after the events of 1974. Focusing on a particular example of writing, the paper set out to listen to and interpret the ways in which ‘silence’ is used to represent, register and express a quotidian form of trauma.

Agni Charalambous’ short story «Η Μαρία της σιωπής» [“Maria of Silence”] (1998) about enclavement creatively incorporates the “enigmatic relation between trauma and survival”: an expression used by Caruth based on Freud’s notions of trauma. According to Caruth, “for those who undergo trauma, it is not only the moment of the event, but […] survival itself […] can be a crisis (9). In the story crisis finds form in Maria’s prolonged silence from the moment she is violently separated from her family. Her trauma, however, remains permanent and so does her silence, to which Marilena, Maria’s friend, begins to listen. When she begins to understand and explore the possibilities of listening through silence Marilena addresses readers with the challenging question: “Have you ever heard Silence speaking?” (Charalambous 1998, 37). As the literary reading of the story began to listen to and unravel the literary uses of silence in the text, it also added to trauma theory. Rather than merely listening to what theory says and silently reproducing it, the discussion also listened to what theory does not say. In so doing, it spoke something to trauma theory and helped extend it.

As Maria’s paper has shown, the text is constructed around an aesthetics of silence, in which silence is used as a powerful literary device to represent the traumatic suffering arising from family separation and refugeedom as a result of the confining conditions of enclavement. It is first used as a symptom of trauma but also as a form of testimony that creates several layers of witnessing and allows readers to bear witness to another perspective of trauma associated with refugeedom. It points towards the power of silence over voice or words and encourages a critical form listening, one that respects the otherness of the traumatic experience and finally it poses questions and challenges a specific political situation.

Ultimately, as Maria concluded in this paper, Cypriot children’s literature is a body of literature with a wider theoretical importance as its study can reveal issues surrounding the experiences of refugees from another not widely known but nevertheless significant perspective that speaks to and addresses trauma theory.

“How could she ever put those terrible pictures into words?”: The paradox of silence in Beverley Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth

In her paper, Helen explored silence as both a survival mechanism and a source of trauma for the child refugees in Beverley Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth (2000). She explored the Naidoo archive held by Seven Stories, revealing something of the tug of war between speech and silence that is part of being a refugee child. The archive shows both how the bureaucracy of the UK asylum process perpetuates this traumatic silencing of the refugee child, and how the act of storytelling allows the child to recover some agency.

The Other Side of Truth tells the story of children Sade and Femi, who must flee Nigeria following their father’s criticism of the government and their mother’s subsequent murder. Using false passports and withholding their names and story from the UK authorities, the children’s silence can be read as a survival mechanism, a form of ‘micro-political resistance’ to the oppressive structures they find themselves within (Wagner 2012, 100). However, this silence also entails a form of secondary trauma for Sade: the injunction to lie undermines her moral code; her silence precludes her psychological healing, causing traumatic recurrence of the ‘terrible pictures’ of her mother’s death; the withholding of their story inhibits their father’s plea for asylum (Naidoo 2000, 51). This reveals the paradox of silence in Naidoo’s novel, in which the condition of refugeehood places the physical and psychological health of the child at odds.

The Naidoo archive holds paraphernalia from the UK immigration system, telling a depersonalised version of the story of seeking asylum, and indicating that the trauma experienced by refugees often has a social dimension. The story and subjectivity of an individual or family, in order to be processed through the immigration system, is reduced to a number, to a place in a queue, to the identifier of ‘a person who is liable to be detained.’ However, within this traumatic silencing the archive reveals the ‘possibility of testimony’ (Caruth 1991, 129). Naidoo encountered individual refugees during her research process, and their stories have informed the narrative as much as any of the official documents. That hearing individual stories was such an important part of the research is evident in Sade’s development, as she instigates social change by publicising her family’s story.

Although there were there were many voices discussing representations of child refugees, we did feel that at such a huge event these voices got a bit lost and didn’t talk to one another as productively as they could have. This led us to reflect that a symposium where this is sole theme, and it is possible to hear most of the papers and there is greater time for discussion and networking, would be a better forum to give this topic the depth of attention it deserves. But the size of the Congress was also an enormous positive, giving delegates the opportunity to attend panels on topics different from your own research areas and interests. Moreover, against the backdrop of Stockholm, the Congress was able to offer a rich cultural programme – highlights included a traditional Swedish Smorgasbord in the fairy tale-like Golden Hall of the Stockholm City Hall, a guided tour of Astrid Lindgren’s apartment and the Nordic children’s literature night at Junibacken, a children’s culture centre focusing on children’s literature.

Letting off steam at Junibacken, after presenting our paper earlier in the day.

*

Maria completed her doctoral thesis, Tracing and translating trauma: childhood, memory, and nationhood in Cypriot children’s literature since 1974, at Newcastle University in 2017 and she currently works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nicosia. Helen is entering the second year of her doctoral project, an exploration of the representations of displaced children in Beverley Naidoo’s fiction and archive, with a view to developing public engagement work with Seven Stories using refugee narratives. You can learn more about Helen’s project on the Vital North blog. Lucy is writing up her thesis, a case study of the juvenilia children’s author-illustrators Judith Kerr (1923 – 2019) and Tomi Ungerer (1931 – 2019) made in exile in the Nazi era. You can see highlights of the Kerr archive in the digital exhibition Tiger, Mog and Pink Rabbit – A Judith Kerr Retrospective on the Seven Stories website and read about her project in an interview for tomiungerer.com.

We would like to thank our moderator Dr Tzina Kalogirou (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens), Dr Lucy Pearson, Professor Kim Reynolds and Dr Hazel Sheeky Bird for reviewing our draft papers, Kim and Dr Emily Murphy for being at our panel, Lucy for kindly promoting our panel via twitter and student members of CLUGG who provided invaluable feedback in the stage of composing our panel proposal last autumn. Emily gave an excellent paper on China and the Cosmopolitan Child in Elizabeth Foreman Lewis’s Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze (1932) and we extend congratulations to Kim for being awarded an Honorary Fellowship in recognition for her outstanding contribution to the IRSCL and field of children’s literature. These fellowships are awarded at each IRSCL Congress and a full list of recipients over the years is available on the IRSCL website.

Aesthetic and Pedagogic Entanglements, the 25th Biennial Congress, will be taking place in Santiago, Chile, 27 – 31 July, 2021. Information will be regularly updated on the IRSCL Congress 2021 website. You can read about the IRSCL and past 23rd Biennial elsewhere on the blog.

[1] Norra Latin is also the title of and setting for a YA novel by Sara Bergmark Elfgren. We had the chance to hear Sara speak about this novel at the theme night on Nordic children’s literature at Junibacken, a children’s cultural centre in Stockholm focusing on children’s literature. Unfortunately, Norra Latin isn’t yet translated into English.

[2] Kerr’s father, eminent writer Alfred Kerr, records this claim made by his 11-year-old daughter in his diary (1979, 26).

The Other Side of the Archive: Cataloguing the Laura Cecil Collection

The Children’s Literature Unit has a close working partnership with Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, an organisation committed to fostering academic research into its archive. As well as working with Newcastle University, Seven Stories also has a strategic partnership with Northern Bridge, the Arts and Humanities Research Council consortium of universities in the North East and Northern Ireland. This partnership connects doctoral researchers with the Seven Stories collections. Here, Durham University PhD candidate Antonia Perna talks about her Northern Bridge placement at Seven Stories.

The purpose of Northern Bridge placements is to provide PhD students with opportunities for professional development outside the academy, to develop new skills and to apply our academic skills in a new setting. From March to May 2019, I undertook a placement at Seven Stories, where I worked on cataloguing the Laura Cecil collection. My own research focuses on childhood in Revolutionary France, and I explore in particular how schoolbooks and children’s literature versed young French people in republican politics and civic conduct. In this way, I have worked with children’s literature for my academic work, and this is what sparked my interest in Seven Stories. However, although there is some foreign-language material at Seven Stories, most of the collection is in English, pertaining to British children’s books, and dates from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I was intrigued to learn more about such books, and also to find out what an archive looks like from the other side.

Most academics in the arts and humanities have at least some experience of working with archival material, and we all know how much difference a comprehensive catalogue can make! Cataloguing the Laura Cecil Collection at Seven Stories has given me a window onto the process of compiling a catalogue, and insight into the kinds of considerations a cataloguer is faced with—and thus into what happens before a researcher opens the catalogue.

The Laura Cecil Collection on the shelves at Seven Stories; © Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books

The Laura Cecil Collection contains over forty boxes of material from Cecil’s career as a literary agent. The first agent to specialise in children’s literature, Cecil worked with several well-known children’s authors and illustrators, including Robert Westall, Diana Wynne Jones and Edward Ardizzone. Upon her retirement in 2017, she donated her files to Seven Stories; they consist primarily of correspondence with and relating to her clients, c. 1970-2009.

Having been instructed to provide a description for each file, I was faced with the challenge of deciding what information to include. How do you decide what is significant, in a file that could contain any number of documents? How do you predict what might be pertinent to a research project that is, as yet, hypothetical? After an overview of each file, I selected letters and documents of note according to how they were distinct from others in the file, or how they contribute to our understanding of a particular book, perhaps in terms of its editorial process or reception. When uploading this to the catalogue, I also cross-referenced related documents in other Seven Stories collections to aid research across the archive. As an academic, my instinct was to address all possible lines of enquiry that the documents could be used for; I had to accept, however, that I could not anticipate every possible research project.

Similarly, as a researcher, I was drawn to arrange material in a logical order, to facilitate locating and retrieving files. Specifically as a historian, however, I wanted to maintain the files’ original order, as this is part of the collection’s history. Generally, it is considered good archival practice to maintain the original arrangement and structure of a collection, and so I tried to respect this. Where I could not discern any order to the arrangement of files, I highlighted this in the catalogue, and, in the case of the Robert Westall correspondence, I did re-arrange files chronologically. The pressure to make the right decision here, and not to make a mistake that was irreversible, was rather daunting. Although I had worked with archival material many times in my academic work, I had never given much thought to how material was arranged, and suddenly I felt an overwhelming responsibility to get it right! I hope I did!

Another challenge I faced was the need to remain impartial. Of course most academics try to write in an objective tone most of the time, but we nevertheless analyse and interpret our sources, working them into an intellectual argument. As a cataloguer, my task was simply to report what was in the box. I could try to anticipate and respond to academic enquiries to an extent, but I could not pursue them, nor could I make emotional or moral judgements on the material. Having read five years’ regular, amicable correspondence between Laura Cecil and Robert Westall, I felt some shock at Westall’s sudden death (in 1993), and I held back empathetic tears as I wrote, simply, ‘notable documents include… a note with costs for his memorial service (manuscript)’. The cataloguer sees and knows every document in a file; she observes and records, but her tone must remain detached.

The Laura Cecil Collection complements existing collections at Seven Stories, such as this original artwork for Sarah Garland’s book Going Swimming. SG/01/01. © Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books

Nevertheless, getting to know a collection can be an exciting process—not least because some boxes contain hidden treasures! For instance, I was fascinated to discover a mock-up for an unpublished book by C. Walter Hodges, with original artwork, and to see how Sarah Garland illustrated her letters to Laura Cecil. On the other hand, there can be disappointments too. After half an hour engrossed in a draft of Robert Westall’s novella, The Duplicator, I was left with a cliff-hanger when I realised the text was unfinished! I have since emphasised in the catalogue that this story is both unpublished and unfinished, so that researchers will not make the same mistake!

After three months at Seven Stories, I would say that cataloguing a collection is something every academic should have a go at, if interested in archival research. My experience on this placement encouraged me to explore a collection as a whole, making links between individual documents, and to think more about the provenance of material. It also highlighted the value of an open-minded approach to research, where research questions may not yet be defined, and may be shaped by the material discovered. Of course, as academics, we know these things, but often practicalities and time constraints compel us to pre-select material and not to widen our parameters. Sometimes, though, the most useful document is in the box you might not have opened… Sometimes it might not be specifically highlighted in the catalogue—despite the cataloguer’s best efforts to predict your project!

Banner image: A selection of material by C. Walter Hodges, within the Laura Cecil Collection. LC/01/07/01. © Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books.

The Children’s Books History Society

Invites you to celebrate the society’s 50th Anniversary and to enjoy a study day on Families in Children’s Literature

At: The Art Workers’ Guild, 6 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AT

On: Saturday 16th November, 2019 from 10.00am – 5.00 pm.

The Children’s Books History Society was co-founded by Brian Alderson, recipient of a honorary doctorate from Newcastle University in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the field of children’s literature. The Society exists to promote an appreciation of children’s books in their literary, historical and bibliographical aspects, and further to encourage a distribution and exchange of information on children’s literature. Now in its 50th year, the Society invites you to join celebrations and talks on families in children’s literature. Speakers and topics include: 

Jane Cooper Happy Families? What does go on in Mrs Molesworth’s children’s books

Elizabeth Galvin The Extraordinary Life of E. Nesbit

Dame Jacqueline Wilson Missing Mothers

Nicholas Tucker Attempting to protect family values through nursery rhymes

Anne Harvey & Ann Thwaite In conversation about the remarkable novels of M.E. Atkinson

Further details of the study day and a copy of the application form can be found here. Learn more about the Society on the Society website.

Carnegie Medal winner 2019: The hard work of radical change

Dr Lucy Pearson

This year is a landmark for the CILIP Carnegie Medal: for the first time ever, the award goes to an author of colour, Dominican-American Elizabeth Acevedo. Acevedo’s verse novel The Poet X is a sensitive and nuanced depiction of the life of a young Dominican American. It’s striking that the novel won not only the main prize, but also the inaugural ‘Shadowers’ Choice’ award: there’s often a divergence between the shadowers’ favourite (as expressed through the Shadowing website – this is the first year there’s been an actual award) and the judges’ choice. This is definitely not because of a lack of competition – in fact this year’s shortlist was particularly exciting and included many worthy contenders – but I think it reflects a key characteristic of the novel: it’s simultaneously boundary-pushing and immediately familiar.

The verse novel has grown in popularity in YA circles in the last few years (Sarah Crossan’s novel One won the Carnegie in 2016) but it’s still a relatively new form, and one which is exploring the boundaries of form as a means of expressing the YA experience. Acevedo uses the form of slam poetry to explore questions of voice and voicelessness for her bilingual protagonist Xiomara, caught between the strict religious views of her Catholic mother and her own sense of herself and her place in the world. Xiomara’s experience is particular to her place, her culture, and her historical moment. Yet the book also has a universal resonance in the way that the best books do. As someone who was a young woman more than two decades ago, growing up not in Harlem but in provincial County Durham (in a decidedly monocultural environment), I was moved by Acevedo’s powerful expression of female desire and the experience of being in the body of a young woman. The book spoke to me, and spoke about experiences which I rarely see on the page. I think this combination of newness and ‘universality’ is what made the book speak to both the adult judges and the child shadowers.

By coincidence, the day the award was announced was the same day that my article with Karen Sands-O’Connor and Aishwarya Subramanian on Prize Culture and Diversity in British Children’s Literature. Part of a special issue of International Research in Children’s Literature on ‘Curating National Literatures’ (also edited by us),  this article provides a context which demonstrates just why it’s significant for the Carnegie Medal to be awarded to an author of colour for the first time. We show that despite a genuine desire to promote ‘quality’ children’s literature, in practice mainstream children’s book awards in the UK have tended to uphold a view of quality which is white, English and (largely) middle-class, and to exclude the voices of Britain’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. This was precisely the concern voiced by many participants in the event which prompted our special issue: the Diverse Voices?Symposium jointly hosted by Seven Stories: the National Centre for Children’s Books and Newcastle University in 2017. That year’s Carnegie Medal shortlist had seen widespread criticism of the Carnegie Medal after the longlist failed to include a single BAME author: speaking at the symposium, YA novelist Alex Wheatle commented that ‘otherness, that feeling of being different wasn’t quite adjudicated for’. What our research for the article revealed was that children’s book prizes only represent a diverse range of voices when they are consciously working to ‘adjudicate otherness’: in other words, good will and a genuine belief in ‘objective’ criteria are not enough to ensure a broad understanding of literary quality. Only conscious engagement with the question of how literary quality intersects with wider culture ensures that the idea of literary quality isn’t shaped by unconscious biases.

The Carnegie Medal has a long tradition of engaging with wider culture. It was set up in 1936 with an activist mission: to encourage publishers to produce high quality children’s books. The late 1960s saw a new era of activism as the library profession expanded, prompting changes to the Medal which enabled radical new winners such as Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners(1975). And since 2017, CILIP has once again engaged with the hard work of creating radical change, beginning with a Diversity Review of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards led by Margaret Casely-Hayford, and continuing with the implementation of many of that report’s recommendations. It’s this hard work which has produced a radically different shortlist: one which featured four authors of colour and produced the first ever win by an author of colour.

Elizabeth Acevedo has said that the inspiration for The Poet X was her desire to meet the needs of young readers who asked ‘Where are the books about us?’ It’s fitting, then, that her book has received the award in a year when CILIP have done a great deal of work to consider how the Medal might better reflect a wide range of readers. There’s still work to be done: it’s notable that this year’s shortlist continued to reflect a sense of race as something which is ‘out there’, not an integral part of UK life. Only one BAME author was shortlisted, and Candy Gourlay’s excellent novel Bone Talkis a historical novel. In the future, I’d like to see the Carnegie Medal go to a book which reflects one of Britain’s BAME communities in the nuanced, vivid way that Acevedo depicts the Dominican American experience. My hope is that the work so far will help to bring about change in the area the Carnegie Medal was originally meant to influence: the UK publishing industry. The more the Carnegie Medal and other prizes champion a wide range of voices, the easier it will be for publishers to ‘take a chance’ on a new voice, or to invest their resources in promoting books which don’t align with the literary mainstream. The varied, stimulating Carnegie shortlist this year, and the unanimous enthusiasm for Acevedo’s compelling voice, demonstrates that work can bring about radical change.

YA Meets the Northern Stage: A Review of Sabrina Mahfouz’s Stage Adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses

On Wednesday 8th of May, our weekly CLUGG session had a dramatic twist – that evening a group of us had booked to see Sabrina Mahfouz’s stage adaptation of Noughts and Crosses performing at The Northern Stage.

Based on the first book of the bestselling Young Adult dystopian series by Malorie Blackman, Noughts and Crosses makes for an intensely emotional play. With particularly talented performances from Heather Agyepong, refreshingly energetic as Sephy, brought realism to the stage, and Lisa Howard, whose highly empathetic performance as Meggie, Callum and Jude’s mum stole the show; the emotional impact was close to that of Blackman’s novel. Yet, ultimately, it was hampered by the odd pacing of the character development, understandable given the mean task of condensing a complex 440-page novel into a two-hour play; and at times, painful over-acting from some of the performers.

The story is set around two star-crossed teenagers, Callum and Sephy, who are at opposite ends of the spectrum in a society actively segregated by race with Sephy being a privileged Cross and Callum being a disadvantaged Nought. The parallels between how this dystopian society deals with race cast a harsh light on the way in which racism is historically and currently ingrained in modern society with the dystopian twist being that it is people of colour, Crosses, who are privileged over white people, Noughts.

As the story progresses, we see these racial political tensions interfere with the lives of Sephy and Callum increasingly as their stories and that of their families become intertwined. Dealing with a broad range of controversial and sensitive issues, this story is one that doesn’t hold back any punches when tackling sensitive questions and, sadly, remains as relevant now as it did when it was originally written by Blackman in 2001. For instance, a poignant part of the play involves a Nought, a white character, being injured by people protesting the desegregation of a local Cross school which clearly alludes to the 1954 Little Rock desegregation following Brown vs Board. In the play, there is then a quip about the colour of the plaster on the Nought’s face not matching her skin colour and how this is another example of Cross privilege. This issue was brought to media attention in the real world just recently at the end of April when the press picked up on a viral tweet made by Dr Dominique Apollon about his emotion on finding a plaster that matched the colour of his skin for the first time in 45 years. (1)

Clearly then, making connections between the racial segregation in the dystopian world of Noughts and Crosses and the racial injustices present in our world is a priority for Mahfouz. Yet, despite the self-professed want to attract young adult audiences, the play remains heavily intertwined with the curriculum in its promotion. (2) The play comes with its own teaching resource pack produced by Pilot Theatre which features interviews with the cast, pre-show workshop ideas, and video recordings of the play’s key scenes. Most notably, however, is its section on ‘Why Stage Noughts and Crosses Today?’ – a video of teenagers discussing their thoughts on that very question which makes for thought-provoking consideration on the play’s importance and impact. (3) Scholars in the field of children’s literature will be all-too-aware of this difficult balance between didacticism and entertainment that guides most of the creative work aimed at young people. Is the resource pack, marked for teacher and classroom use, really necessary to this play?

Perhaps instead, general discussion questions echoing those sometimes found in the back of YA novels would have been a better compromise and ultimately, more useful and accessible to the intended audience of young adults.

In an interview with the Guardian, Sabrina Mahfouz said that she wanted Noughts and Crosses to show ‘how oppressive systems can destroy and determine people’s lives from a young age. In some cases, they’re powerless, in others they’re able to take back the power and make some change, but it’s not without a huge amount of sacrifice and pain’. (4) While Noughts and Crosses was a step in this direction, it didn’t feel like it managed to get all the way there with the pacing of the character development feeling off-centre and, consequently, undermining this message. Yet, it is an optimistic start. By adapting a story as powerful as Blackman’s into a memorable piece of theatre aimed at young adults, Mahfouz’s contribution to the future of YA literature being performed on stage is commendable, even if it falls short of achieving her ambitions. As for the Noughts and Crosses novel, a BBC TV adaptation has been in the works since 2018 with the rumoured release date due to be sometime this year. (5) It will be a six-part miniseries with each episode having a running time of one hour – this should provide ample time for a more satisfying character development that is missing from the play. In the meantime, the iconic YA series will be going back on my ‘to-be-reread’ list, and if it isn’t on yours already, I highly recommend it.

 

 

  1. Evans, Greg. “Viral Tweet Explains Why the Colour of a Plaster Is so Important.” indy100, The Independent, 27 Apr. 2019, www.indy100.com/article/plaster-colour-skin-tone-dominique-apollon-tweet-viral-8889176., accessed 27 May 2019.; ‘Should the Colour of Plasters Match Skin Tones?’, BBC News, 26 April 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/48060767, accessed 27 May 2019.
  2. Holyoake, Emily. ‘Review: Noughts and Crosses at Derby Theatre’, Exeunt Magazine, 8 Feb. 2019, http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/review-noughts-crosses-derby-theatre/, accessed 27 May 2019.
  3. Though the video is unlisted on YouTube, it can be found directly through this link: Pilot Theatre, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfLWccy_55Y&feature=youtu.be, accessed 27 May 2019. There is also a link to it within the Pilot Theatre Noughts and Crosses Teaching Pack which can be found on the Pilot Theatre website: https://www.pilot-theatre.com/performance/noughts-crosses, accessed 27 May 2019.
  4. Akbar, Arifa. “Sabrina Mahfouz: ‘People Used to Say They Expected Me to Be a Lot More Foreign’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Jan. 2019, www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/jan/19/sabrina-mahfouz-interview-noughts-and-crosses-emma-watson, accessed 27 May 2019.
  5. Carr, Flora. “When Is Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses on TV?” Radio Times, 4 Apr. 2019, www.radiotimes.com/news/2019-04-04/noughts-and-crosses/, accessed 28 May 2019.

Remembering Jallianwala Bagh: Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts

On the centenary anniversary of the Amritsar Massacre, Dr Aishwarya Subramanian reads Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts (2009), a YA novel set in Amritsar against the backdrop of the massacre. Warning: this reading contains spoilers. 

On April 13, 1919, on the Sikh festival of Baisakhi, thousands of Indian civilians gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, a walled garden in the city of Amritsar, as part of a peaceful protest against recent actions taken by the British colonial administration. Meetings had been banned a few days previously (there’s been some disagreement over to what extent this particular gathering was a deliberate act of defiance). British Indian army troops, led by General Reginald Dyer, blocked the main entrance to the garden and fired repeatedly into the crowd. Hundreds of Indians were killed, and many more injured, though the exact numbers remain the subject of debate. Dyer’s actions, intended to ‘produce the necessary moral, and widespread effect it was my duty to produce,’ were eventually condemned by the British Indian government and in the British House of Commons (not, however, the House of Lords, or parts of the popular press).

It’s a historical event that, as Bali Rai says in the author’s note to City of Ghosts, has passed almost into folklore in India. I’ve lived most of my life a few hours from Amritsar and only visited Jallianwala Bagh once, and I still remember the blank horror of it—the myth so potent as to become overwhelming in that moment.

City of Ghosts is set in Amritsar against the backdrop of the massacre and the weeks leading up to it, though it moves around in space and time, jumping back to England in 1915, and forward to 1940, when the events set in motion here are truly resolved. The narrative is divided between the perspectives of three young men. Gurdial, a resident of the Central Khalsa Orphanage, has fallen in love with the daughter of a wealthy man, and while she returns his love they see little chance of winning her family’s consent to marriage. Jeevan, Gurdial’s best friend at the orphanage, is lonely and craves a family, and so is easily manipulated into joining a group of anti-colonial revolutionaries. Bissen Singh, an older friend of theirs, is a former World War I soldier, consumed by memories of the English nurse with whom he fell in love during his time in Europe, and dependent on opium. Appearing at various points in each man’s narrative is a mysterious woman, or ghost, who seems to be the only person who knows what’s going on. As a format, this is really effective for a reader who knows the history in question—each short chapter is dated, and as we move closer to the day of the massacre the tension increases to the point that, when the narrative deviated just as things were about to get bad (there are long sections exploring Bissen’s World War I experiences, and shorter ones in which the ghost leads Gurdial on a supernatural journey of discovery), I may have sworn a little.

The three men have drastically differing views on the political events taking place around them. Jeevan fully commits to the idea of an independence struggle, and one which will inevitably involve violence, but it’s always clear that he’s too naïve to have a sense of the larger picture, and that the people who have drawn him in are far more interested in the violence than the independence. Gurdial doesn’t really want to think about politics, and finds Jeevan’s radicalisation dangerous. ‘The revolutionaries were every bit as dangerous as the British. In the end, it was ordinary people who would suffer’ (103). Bissen, on the other hand, can’t understand demands for independence. ‘The Engrezi had brought much that was good and India had prospered as a result’ (80) he thinks; even though in the next moment he contrasts India’s poverty with England’s prosperity and cleanliness, it never seems to occur to him that politics might have something to do with this contrast.

These are believable characters (who doesn’t want an uneventful life?), but as protagonists for a novel about an important historical event they can feel rather disappointing. By presenting its protagonists with a choice between apathy and the monstrous violence of Jeevan’s revolutionary cadre (implied to be itself a product of British manipulation), the book makes Gurdial’s ‘well, both sides are dangerous’ stance seem the only reasonable option. Or it would be, were it not for the minor characters around them who, in similar circumstances, have come to very different conclusions. Fellow WWI soldiers express anger and disillusionment to Bissen Singh; one of them resolving after the war to ‘take up my gun and help to chase these devils from my land’. And Jeevan and Gurdial have been raised in the same orphanage as Udham Singh (to whose memory the book is dedicated), who is only a few years older than them.

Udham Singh’s perspective forms perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book. Singh is known to the admiring younger boys as an activist and member of the Ghadar Party; in 1940 he will assassinate Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre. The novel begins with a short account of the shooting, and we later read extracts from his prison diary, in which he hopes only for an end to imperial rule. At the end of the book and immediately after the massacre, the ghost Heera tells Gurdial that one day Udham Singh will set the spirits of the dead free. There are moments in City of Ghosts where it feels as if the fragmented narratives and perspectives are allowing the book to shy away from taking a stand—but this feels like a clear one.

City of Ghosts was published in 2009; I don’t know if it was ever explicitly linked to the 90th anniversary of the massacre. Reading it in 2019, in the days leading up to the centenary, was a very different experience than I suspect it would have been ten years ago. Over the last few years, thinking about the legacy of Britain’s imperial past has become more mainstream within Britain than I ever remember it being. In the wake of the 2016 referendum in particular, ‘imperial nostalgia’ has become ubiquitous as an explanation for people’s belief in a plucky, independent Britain that is also somehow a geopolitical powerhouse. At the same time, as movements like Rhodes Must Fall and activism that works to decolonise museums grow to greater prominence, there’s an increasing acknowledgement of imperial atrocities in the public sphere. On a trip to Amritsar in 2017, Labour MP (and mayor of London) Sadiq Khan called for an official apology for the massacre from the British Government; while British political figures, including the current Queen, and (this week) the current Prime Minister, have expressed regret, there has never been a formal apology.

But the idea of an ‘apology’ is itself a fraught one. Calls for such an apology over the years have frequently cited Winston Churchill’s claim that the massacre was ‘an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire … an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation’—even the author note at the end of City of Ghosts begins with it. (n.b. I’m never sure what to make of this quote and its widespread usage, given Churchill’s well-documented attitudes towards India—perhaps the point is something like ‘even Churchill thought they’d gone too far’?) Theresa May’s recent apology echoes this language, calling the incident a ‘shameful scar on British Indian history.’ As the historian Kim Wagner has pointed out, treating the massacre as an isolated event rather than a consequence of imperial rule, as the Churchill quote invites us to do, works to absolve the British Empire as a whole, treating it as a largely benevolent structure occasionally subject to violent aberrations (which can be blamed on individual bad actors), rather than a violent system in itself.

So how does City of Ghosts fit into all of this? I’m not entirely sure. The fragmented narrative and the range of perspectives make it easier to read the massacre as the complex result of multiple factors all brought to a head, make it possible to condemn the incident without oversimplifying. But then there’s Singh’s ‘freeing’ of the dead, presumably through the death of O’Dwyer—can the death of one man within the system really absolve anything? Even Singh doesn’t entirely seem to think so, whatever the ghost Heera may say. Ultimately the book feels as if it’s shying away from these larger questions—as if, like Gurdial, it would rather just not get too involved. Gurdial is the only one of the three protagonists who survives; perhaps there’s a lesson there.

Aishwarya is a former CLUGG member. Her doctoral thesis examined the effects of decolonisation upon narrative spatiality in mid-twentieth-century British children’s fantasy. Aishwarya also led a postdoctoral project with the Children’s Literature Unit and Seven Stories, ‘Networked Voices: Connecting BAME Activism in Children’s Literature,’ which investigated and visualised networks of antiracist activism in contemporary British children’s literature. The Children’s Literature Association (ChLA) International Committee has just announced that Aishwarya will be one of the three panelists for the 2019 sponsored panel, focusing on BAME Children’s Literature in the United Kingdom, at the ChLA Conference in June. Aishwarya’s other posts on the CLUGG blog include ‘Book Burning with the Borribles’