“Can you hear me?”: Digital learning in lockdown and beyond

In July 2020, Emily Murphy was invited, by the Literature Speaker Series within the School for English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle, to run a seminar on ‘Reinventing Your Work in Lockdown’. Emily workshopped ideas with a group of PGRs within the CLU before running her seminar. What followed was a series of honest, challenging and hopeful conversations about how to move forward in a field of work that has, just like everything else, been deeply affected by our current pandemic. This is the second of our series of reflections from different members of the CLU, in which recently graduated MLitt student Lauren Aspery reflects on the ways in which the landscape of online learning offers new ways to make university more accessible.

Lauren Aspery

Since the beginning of lockdown, those of us learning, researching and teaching from home have become all too familiar with video calls. Cats strolling across keyboards, infants interrupting, “Unmute yourself! I can’t hear you!”, and the awkward pause while you try to hang up and wonder when to stop waving back at your colleagues. These are just some examples of how university has looked during the pandemic. In turning to technology, universities across the country have been able to keep courses running and have supported staff and students while campuses are closed. We have quickly adapted to the changing circumstances we find ourselves in, replacing physical interaction with digital interaction. Yet, a lot of these resources have been there all along, so why haven’t we been using them?

A few years ago during my undergraduate degree, I had an extended period of absence after a complicated case of the flu. The School of English at Newcastle were really supportive of my circumstances, and I received nothing but kindness and compassion from my seminar leaders. However, when I approached staff about working remotely, I received mixed responses. Some were quick to offer digital solutions, suggesting I could join seminars via Skype and provided me with access to ReCap recordings, where others collected hand-outs for me to pick up at a later date and suggested I needn’t worry about catching up. Decisions, decisions!

Spending time away from campus and missing seminars, lectures and general social interaction was really frustrating, and it’s been a familiar feeling attempting to write my MLitt dissertation during lockdown. But while for me, this is a sudden alternative to my usual trips to the library and one-to-one supervisions, there are thousands of students who were already unable to attend face to face teaching, having long been faced with the limitations the rest of us have only been introduced to over the past few months. Those who have disabilities, those who research remotely, those who have caring responsibilities and a whole list of other circumstances that make on-campus learning less accessible could have benefited from the likes of Zoom, Teams, Slack and ReCap before they became a widespread necessity.

So where do we go from here? Should students be able to join seminars via video if they are unable to physically attend? Should hand-ins be electronic only? Should recorded sessions be automatically available to students? While there is no knowing what universities will do in the long run, one thing is certain: this lockdown period has proven the resilience and adaptability of staff and students, where no amount of awkward video calls and bad Wi-Fi connections have stopped us from learning, researching and communicating (even if it isn’t at the pace we’re used to). But this shouldn’t be a temporary fix. Universities have opened the door to the digital classroom, proving they have the capacity and technology to keep it wide open for those who need it.

Banner image: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Just take it slow: how to beat pandemic burnout

In July 2020, Emily Murphy was invited, by the Literature Speaker Series within the School for English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle, to run a seminar on ‘Reinventing Your Work in Lockdown’. Emily workshopped ideas with a group of PGRs within the CLU before running her seminar. What followed was a series of honest, challenging and hopeful conversations about how to move forward in a field of work that has, just like everything else, been deeply affected by our current pandemic. This is the first of a series of reflections from different members of the CLU, born out of these conversations in July. The subsequent reflections will follow as we move into autumn.

Emily Murphy

Let me provide full disclosure: I have a very energetic two-year old who hasn’t been to nursery since March. Nearly six months post-lockdown and I’ll admit that my research is intermittent, nowhere near what it was earlier in the semester before everything closed down in the UK. My situation is hardly unique and many of us are facing our own challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic. While I’ve certainly practiced selfcare, including indulging in an afternoon nap or Netflix binge when needed, I also want to get back to the projects I started before lockdown. So how do you manage when your mind is actively turning back to your research and yet you still feel exhausted from the emotional stress caused by the pandemic or the extra workload in either your personal or work life?

Take…it…slow.

Having recently picked up running like so many others during lockdown (thanks, NHS, for the nifty Couch to 5k programme), it strikes me that research is a lot like running. Many of us have taken a long break from research out of necessity, and to try to work in the way we did pre-lockdown is just not feasible. If you suffered a knee or ankle injury and took four months off of running, you wouldn’t just step out your door and start running a 10k. No, you’d do gentle exercise, perhaps even walking, and radically increase your mileage and pace as you eased back into your normal routine.

Even in running circles, the benefits of taking it slow are advocated.

Even in running circles, the benefits of taking it slow are advocated.

The same should go for our research. Just like exercise, daily research and writing is a habit that we have to build, and it’s perfectly possible for our ‘mental muscles’ to atrophy a bit during a long break. I don’t mean that we’re less capable of this work, but it may be hard to sustain the same kind of focus that we once did. So, while pre-lockdown you may have been happy to read for two hours and write for an additional two, you may want to cut that down to just twenty to thirty minutes to start out. By slowly building up and seeing the progress in your research project, you can then add more time as you feel ready. (For running, it’s 10% per week and we might equally apply rules of building back up to our research intensity as scholars).

Similarly, we need to be attentive to our “burnout threshold.” In building back up to a more intense research capacity, we also have to be honest about what we can manage to do. Five minutes once a day while you take a shower? Great! 10 minutes to jot down a few sentences or two? Sure, that’s still more than what you had written yesterday! As newspaper headlines continue to remind us, we’re still in a “new normal,” meaning that work life is anything but the same with many of us dealing with much higher workloads to meet the demands of changes in the higher education sector. In such a situation, slow-paced research makes good sense as a way of protecting our mental health and avoiding burnout, and in fact is a method that some of the most active and respected children’s literature scholars I know practice (because let’s face it, time for research is never easy to find). Pre- or post-lockdown, taking it slow just works.

So the next time you feel guilty about not working, just repeat the mantra, ‘Take it slow. Take…it…slow.’ We’ve all got our own needs, and there’s no shame in working at a pace that enables you to be happy and healthy, and that will allow you to maintain your research agenda for the long-term. Happy writing!

Banner image by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

‘Only real books can produce real readers’ (Signal 64) – Remembering Elaine Moss

Dr Hazel Sheeky Bird

Late last week we received the sad news that Elaine Moss had died, aged 96. Over a long career as a children’s librarian, book reviewer, critic, broadcaster and writer, Moss’s impact on British children’s books has been considerable. Never losing sight of the children in children’s books, she was a vociferous advocate for the centrality of good books to children’s literacy.

The great impact that children’s librarians have had on British children’s books has never really been acknowledged. As such, Moss’s name and work may well be little known today. The fact is that for over 30 years, Moss worked tirelessly not only to promote knowledge about children’s books but to also get them into the hands of children, teachers and parents. On receiving the Eleanor Farjeon Award in 1976, the Children’s Book Circle noted that ‘it is not only her constant efforts to promote the cause of children’s books that single out Elaine Moss’s contribution; it is her unique concern both with communicating her own enthusiasm for books as a medium of enjoyment and with bringing books for children to children’ (quoted in Signal 23, May 1977).

Reproduced from Elaine Moss, ‘Accepting the Eleanor Farjeon Award’ in Signal 24, Sept 1977, p. 119.

Looking back on her professional life (Signal 91, Jan 2000), Moss described the beginnings of a career rooted somewhat in happenstance. Born in London in 1924, she recalled that neither of her parents was particularly bookish but she remembered her mother reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the family, and Moss herself was a keen reader. At 16, due to the Second World War, she found herself school-less. As she was fond of reading, her mother sent her off to the local library to ask for a job . . . they put her in charge of the children’s library. She read History at Bedford College giving rise to a particular interest in children’s historical fiction in later life. After undertaking teacher training, she found herself working at a boarding school in Haslemere, largely teaching English to refugees from Europe. This was followed by chartership examinations to become a librarian, although not a children’s librarian, such a role did not exist at that time.

It was Moss’s experience of working with legendary children’s editor Grace Hogarth that marked the real turning point in her career. Having had to give up work on getting married, in 1955 she went to work as a part-time PA for Grace Hogarth, who at that point worked as a scout for four American publishers. A self-described ‘Grace’s girl’ (Signal 78, Sept 1995) she credited Grace Hogarth as her mentor. By 1955, Hogarth already had a network of women who worked for her as readers while also raising their families. When Grace Hogarth set up Constable Young Books, Moss started reading for her there. It was here that Moss was introduced to fellow Grace’s girl, Nancy Chambers; this was to prove fortuitous for both women, marking the beginning of a long association between them.

By the 1970s, Elaine Moss was a prominent figure in her own right. As well as broadcasting on popular programmes such as Women’s Hour, from 1970 she selected the National Book League’s Children’s Books of the Year exhibition, for which she wrote its influential annotated catalogues. In an era which is often regarded as a ‘second golden age’ of children’s literature, Moss made an important contribution to the critical discourse around the subject, contributing articles to mainstream publications including The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and The Spectator, as well as to specialist children’s book publications like Children’s Book News. In so doing, she helped to define children’s literature as an important part of British cultural life. Significantly, she retained a foot in the real reading lives of children by continuing to work as a part-time librarian at a primary school.

Moss’s friendship with Nancy Chambers, along with their shared desire to give children’s books the serious attention they deserve, led to Moss’s close involvement with important children’s literature journal Signal: Approaches to Children’s Books (1970-2003), edited by Nancy Chambers. Moss wrote 46 articles for Signal over its 100 issues, contributed an important chapter on ‘The Seventies in British Children’s Books’ to The Signal Approach to Children’s Books (Kestrel, 1980) and, with Nancy Chambers, compiled the indispensable Signal Companion: A Classified Guide to 25 Years of ‘Signal: Approaches to Children’s Books’ (Thimble Press, 1996). This body of work offers today’s readers a clear insight into Moss’s breadth of knowledge and the strength of her advocacy for children’s literacy through literature.

Speaking at the twenty-second IBBY congress in 1990, Moss characteristically argued that uninspiring reading schemes did not produce real readers and that, ‘If literacy in the developed world is to be worth acquiring in more than the functional sense, we should now be concentrating our efforts on ensuring that children of all social and economic backgrounds are given the opportunity to sample, at an early age, the best stories and poems that folklore, true poets and authors of integrity can offer’ (Signal 64, Jan 1991, p. 17).

Looking back at Elaine Moss’s pieces in Signal it is striking how relevant so much of her work remains. Two articles in 1978, ‘Them’s for the Infants, Miss’ Parts One and Two (Signal 26, May and Signal 27, Sept) argued strongly for the use of picturebooks with older children. Like other Signal contributors, Moss went on to develop this work into a specialist Thimble Press publication: Picture Books 9 to 13 was first published in 1981 and by 1992 was in its third edition. It remains an invaluable guide.

One of Elaine Moss’s scrapbooks from the 1970s. Courtesy of the Seven Stories collection.

Today, Elaine Moss’s work in Signal is still accessible and relevant. Her voice is also a strong presence in the Aidan and Nancy Chambers archive, held by Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books. As well as editorial material relating to her many contributions to Signal and Thimble Press, it contains over 30 years of correspondence that offers unique insight into Moss’s work and the British children’s book scene from 1970 to the present. Anyone interested in knowing more about Moss and her work is fortunate as she donated her collection of 750 picturebooks to Seven Stories in 2003, and her fascinating collection of scrapbooks in 2009, which document her own contributions to multiple publications and offer a picture of how discourses around children’s books changed over the course of the 20th century . It is only fitting that Elaine Moss, who made such an important contribution to the promotion of British children’s books, is present in this nationally significant collection.

Banner image: Quentin Blake sketch drawn on being interviewed by Elaine Moss for Signal. Originally printed in Signal 16, Jan. 1975, p. 33.


CLUGG in Lockdown

Compiled by Lauren Aspery

Despite the current situation, there is still plenty of exciting research going on in the children’s literature department here at Newcastle University. While everyone is adjusting to new ways of working, a few CLUGG members have shared their tips and tricks for managing research during lockdown.  

Lauren Aspery – MLitt Student

Lauren is currently researching late twentieth-century British children’s poetry. She is especially fascinated by processes of canonisation and the Signal Poetry Award. Some of her favourite children’s writers include Michael Rosen, Patrice Lawrence and Julia Donaldson. When Lauren isn’t busy researching, she enjoys baking, organised fun and writing poetry.

A selection of Lauren’s favourite recipe books.

Lauren’s Lockdown Advice: 

“Keep a realistic daily to-do list. Never promise yourself a vague 1000 words that you’ll have to rush through or can’t achieve, but 200 words about something specific. As well as your academic goals, include things like watering the plants, taking a walk or organising your bookshelf. Ticking off those little victories can really improve your mood during these difficult times.”

Megan Ayres – MA Student

Megan is currently researching contemporary Young Adult literature with a focus on performance theory and ideas of adolescent ‘voice’. Some of her favourite YA and children’s books are those from Patrick Ness, Neil Gaiman, and anything slightly spooky. When Megan isn’t researching, she enjoys sewing, gardening, and trying to stop her dog Rosie laying in the vegetable patch. 

Megan’s Lockdown Advice:

Working from home can be unsettling if it’s a far cry from your usual working environment and, like me, you don’t have a desk. Set up a space with everything you need and keep your work within that space. This means that at the end of the workday, or during a break, you can move yourself away from any stress. I’ve set up my dining room table with a printer, the books I need, my notes and stationery, and, of course, a cup of tea. I also make sure to tidy it during lunch and at the end of the day. Even though it’s tempting to lie in bed and do some reading for work, try not to do this as it’s proven to disrupt sleep patterns. Keeping a specific, tidy area should help keep a firm boundary between work & life, even in these difficult circumstances.” 

Helen King – Doctoral Candidate

Helen is in her second year of a PhD project on the work and archive of Beverley Naidoo, with a focus on representations of displaced and activist children. In her free time she enjoys painting, cycling, climbing walls (although only in the metaphorical sense during lockdown), and bothering the cat.

Helen’s Lockdown Advice:

“Find what works for you and don’t let comparison creep in. I’ve found I write best first thing in the morning, and then again in the late afternoon, so I use the middle of the day for other things (reading/editing/snacking). The best way to be disciplined is to give your mind and body what they need  – I like to reward myself with something nice after a chunk of work to keep me motivated, with a walk, a phone conversation, a bath, etc.”

Stephanie Lyttle – PhD Student

Stephanie is a creative writing student who researches representations of bisexuality in 21st century YA fantasy. She is also writing a YA fantasy novel. Her current favourite children’s book is The Velveteen Rabbit.

Cavehill, Northern Ireland

Stephanie’s lockdown advice:

“In this creativity-sapping time of constant anxiety, writers may feel that they should exclusively funnel what creative energy they do have into their “serious” work. However, I’ve found that taking time out to work on other, low-stakes personal writing projects (in my case, poetry) actually helps the words flow more easily when I go back to my PhD novel. Let yourself write “for fun”, without judgement! It’s not a waste of time.

This advice can be broadened out for researchers in any field – take time to write a nice note to a friend, or a thank-you email, or a diary entry. Give yourself space to produce writing that doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Lucy Stone – Doctoral Candidate

Lucy is writing up her thesis, is writing up her thesis, a case study of the juvenilia children’s author-illustrators Judith Kerr (1923 – 2019) and Tomi Ungerer (1931 – 2019) [https://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/childrensliteratureinnewcastle/far-out-isnt-far-enough-remembering-tomi-ungerer-1931-2019/] made in exile in the Nazi era. When not at her desk, Lucy is taking (online) ballet classes, tending her sourdough starter, or baking cakes, should the tiger come to tea, although apparently he’s more after loo rolls these days…

Some of Lucy’s sourdough goodies (fennel seed crackers and a chocolate pear cake). It’s quite remarkable how a bit of flour and water (and a few other ingredients) can yield such tasty writing snacks.

Lucy’s Lockdown Advice: 

“Everyone works differently and needs to find a way of working that suits them. I’m finding it helpful to take one day at a time. I work the best I can each day, but even if I have a bad day, I stop at 5 pm or there about and take the evening off. It’s particularly important at the moment to maintain a balance and take care of yourself.” 

To weed or not to weed? Opening the Aidan and Nancy Chambers Archive

Dr Hazel Sheeky Bird

In the weird and worrying times that we are currently living in, it is good to be able to write about the positive things that are still taking place in the world of children’s literature. While locked down, I’ve been helping to put the finishing touches to three major areas of the Aidan and Nancy Chambers archive.

To give a bit of background: In 2016, Seven Stories was fortunate to acquire the entire archive of Aidan and Nancy Chambers. It is genuinely difficult to write an adequate summary of the immense contribution the Chambers have made to the whole field of children’s literature. (Anyone interested in finding out more about their work in general, and Turton and Chambers specifically, might like to look at my earlier blog on their work (https://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/vitalnorth/tag/turton-chambers/).

Being archivally minded, the Chambers amassed a colossal amount of material during professional careers that spanned over 50 years. This has proven to be exciting and daunting in equal measures, and meant that serious investment was needed to process the initial deposit and create a working catalogue. Fortunately, through a generous grant from the Archives Revealed scheme for an archivist-cataloguer, matched by funding from Newcastle University for a Research Associate, i.e. me, there have been two dedicated staff working on the archive for the last 18 months. Not only that, with management and input from Seven Stories’ Collection’s Manager, Kris McKie, and Senior Lecturer in Children’s Literature at Newcastle Uni, Dr Lucy Pearson, a significant amount of resources and expertise have been invested in the project.

Image courtesy of Thimble Press: http://www.thimblepress.co.uk/covers/index.htm

The Archives Revealed grant specified three distinct aspects of the overall archive to process in this first stage: Thimble Press, Signal: Approaches to Children’s Books (1970-2003), and Turton and Chambers. Aidan and Nancy Chambers set up publishing house Thimble Press in 1969, in the first instance to publish their own children’s literature journal, Signal. As editor, Nancy Chambers was responsible for publishing a wealth of articles on children’s books by contributors such as Elaine Moss, Peter Hollingdale, Peter Hunt, Philip Pullman, Margery Fisher and Eleanor Graham, to name only a few. Through Thimble Press, they also published seminal works of British children’s literature criticism such as Peter Hollingdale’s Ideology and the Children’s Book (1988) and Aidan Chambers’ own Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk (1993). Many of these books are now instantly recognizable through the Chambers’ long collaboration with typographer, Michael Harvey. Harvey designed most Thimble Press covers and was responsible for the re-design of Signal in 1979, courtesy of Margaret Clark and John Ryder of the Bodley Head. Aidan Chambers set up Turton and Chambers (1989-1993) with bookseller David Turton to publish innovative works of children’s literature in translation.

Image courtesy of Thimble Press: http://www.thimblepress.co.uk/covers/index.htm

The Chambers archive is huge. I could find grandiose ways to describe it, but the huge does the job. Aidan and Nancy Chambers had done a great job of organizing their vast papers over the years and initially deposited 126 large boxes with Seven Stories. A further accrual of boxes arrived in January 2020, and the Chambers continue to work on organizing the remainder of their papers at their home. When it first arrived, the papers were stored in a variety of boxes that the Chambers had amassed over the years. (You can see a very small fraction of the original boxes in the image below.)

Author’s own image

Before any work on the papers could begin, Seven Stories’ conservator, Rosalind Bos, had to condition check the entire deposit. This is standard practice, but it was particularly important with the Chambers archive. Before coming to Seven Stories, the archive had moved around and was not always stored in ideal conditions. Mould was a particular worry: fortunately, only one box in the whole deposit was badly affected. It was the archivist cataloguer’s job to create the catalogue, but before he could do that, I had to weed the material.

Weeding is anathema to researchers, but necessary for archives and archivists. As a researcher, steeped in the assumption that everything in an archive is sacrosanct, it has been surprising that a big part of my job has been working out what should be kept and what could be set aside. The idea of weeding is disturbing. The Society of American Archivists offers us an alarming set of synonyms for the process: culling, purging, stripping. In practice, though, the process has been thoughtful, consistent and, most important for future researchers, useful. Today, the Signal archive is housed in organized and accessible archival boxes (you can see some of the archive below), ready for future researchers.

Author’s own image

Think about the material relating to Signal: Approaches to Children’s Books. Nancy Chambers edited 100 issues of the journal over 33 years. For the majority of that time she corresponded with contributors through the post (the cost and reliability of the postal system is a frequent subject in her letters); keying (in preparation for typesetting) and proofs were sent to contributors (who may or may not have made changes to any or all of these stages). Nancy Chambers duly filed them on their return. On top of these versions, the archive also contained many photocopies of finished articles, most of which bore no annotation whatsoever, numerous pasted-up versions (i.e. copies of finished articles that had been cut up and pasted onto A4 paper), plus large amounts of camera ready copy for all issues. Nestled, and sometimes hidden, amongst this material was over 30 years’ worth of correspondence with major figures from the children’s literary world: think Robert Westall, Grace Hogarth, Robert Leeson, John Rowe Townsend, Sheila Ray, Jan Mark, Margaret Meek and Raymond Briggs for starters. Added to this, was the material that actually demonstrates Nancy Chambers’ practices as editor, and which reveals her collaboration with Margaret Clark on Signal following Clark’s retirement from the Bodley Head. Without weeding, anyone wanting to look at this rich body of material would have needed to set aside a significant about of their research time and budget to wade through many hundreds of pages of duplication, none of which revealed anything about Nancy Chambers’ editorial practices or the children’s literary world during this time.

At the outset, it was clear that we needed to agree on a set of guiding principles for weeding. Like all archives, Seven Stories already has a clear weeding policy, and this was our starting point. We also had to consider the nature of Signal as a publication: i.e. a journal as opposed to a literary work. We decided that we would keep limited draft material for articles published in Signal as, unlike literary works, there was likely to be limited interest in the writing process. Key exceptions were drafts, keying or proofs that had substantial annotation by the author or Nancy Chambers. Substantially annotated drafts of articles now considered seminal works of children’s literary criticism were also kept. I compared all drafts against the published versions and all correspondence was retained.

There were some exceptions: for example, the entire production file for Signal 1 was kept intact, even though annotated drafts were only marked up with typographic errors. I also could not identify any single issue file that reflected all production processes, so a representative amount of production material was retained and catalogued across the issues. This included, for example, handmade dummy issues, a sample index, Michael Harvey’s preparatory artwork, John Ryder’s production material for his ‘Leaves from a Designer’s Notebook’ inserts, etc. In terms of space, it simply was not possible to retain all production material for all 100 issues of Signal. The production material that we retained, however, documents not only the various processes that Nancy Chambers used over the years, but also the hands-on nature of her work as editor.

It literally took me weeks to weed the Signal material as I considered every item for its research value. In making these decisions, I was extremely fortunate to be able to turn to Nancy Chambers for aid. Weeding the Signal archive involved the removal of a significant amount of material, and it was vitally important that the final archive preserve and document Nancy’s editorial and publishing practices. Working collaboratively with Nancy Chambers meant that I fully understood, and could preserve, her working practices in the archive.

Having spent the last few weeks before the lockdown actually doing some personal research on Signal, I know that we have created an archive that is comprehensive and accessible. It has been a pleasure to read Nancy Chambers words, to ‘hear’ her voice, and to see her hand everywhere in the archive. At the time of writing, the launch of the final catalogue has been slightly delayed due to the lockdown. However, I look forward to seeing the many ways that future researchers use this unique archive.

More than editorial: working in publishing

MA student Megan Ayres on her experiences in the children’s publishing industry.

It could just be me, but I feel like a career in publishing is synonymous with images of manuscripts & proof copies strewn artistically across desks, as a dedicated editor sifts and read their way through it to find the Next Big Thing that will catapult an otherwise unknown author into notoriety. Just think of the happy accident that sparked the cultural revolution that is Harry Potter. Romantic, I know, but these were images clouding my idea about how my career was going to go after I finished my undergraduate degree in 2016.

Publishing is actually a super competitive commercial business with commercial aims and attitudes. So, it’s not really a surprise that most of it is centred in London. Yet through research and sheer refusal to live there I landed a job in a publishing house in the Midlands. I moved away from my family ready to enter the book industry working in the production department of a, predominantly, children’s book publishing company, working to coordinate the manufacturing process of books.

Firstly, I’d like to stress the difference between trade and mass market literature, since I wasn’t myself aware of it when I started. Mass market companies cater to consumer demand – their main clientele will be retailers like supermarkets, places that can sell book products inexpensively. They may even have a contract with specific brands, designing and producing material on behalf of them, or taking existing designs and facilitating the production. So, the mass market publisher will work with the client in mind, kind of like a takeaway – the restaurant only produces the food that the customers order. It can be good and bad – more fast-paced but if the customer wants something culturally out of date (pink/ballerinas/fairies for girls, blue/superheroes/trucks for boys) you produce it.

The ties that trade publishing has to consumer demand is perhaps less simplistic and explicit, even though it’s still there masked under an ethos of independence and forward-thinking-ness. This is ‘traditional’ publishing. To get a sense of that, think of all the books Waterstones sells and the sense of prestige that comes with being ‘well read’. (What does that even mean anyway??)

I worked in the former environment helping produce mass market books, and I acted as a liaison and coordinator for the manufacturing of said books. But these weren’t simple books, they had bells & whistles: sound modules, stationary, puppets, stickers… massive books, tiny books, books that didn’t even look like books. It was all very adventurous, which I think is the glory of the mass market – you’re so tied to attracting customers that you’re constantly working to get that wow-factor. But it means you need the right people – ones who can source weird components, printers that can produce large quantities, and so on – all at a cheap price.

My role involved communicating with international suppliers to negotiate delays, quality issues, schedules, and the like. It really built my capacity to talk professionally, forge bonds with people on the other side of the world and be firm. It took a lot of self-organisation and problem-solving: risk assessing products for children comes with a whole health & safety side that you probably wouldn’t realise.

Publishing houses are multifaceted but working in production means you get to be the spider at the centre of the web. I worked directly with the editorial department to discuss design & technical issues; for me, resolving these issues was always the most gratifying. You could have a really tricky, horrible specification for production but when the book would come in (and we were always the first to see it!) getting the final product in your hands and being able to take it to the editorial team to show it off was always a real score.

I also worked with the sales team, which gave me a nice foundation of marketing & selling knowledge. It was often a slight battle: they had a tricky job with the customer on the other end of the line asking for quicker schedules & lower costs – yet better quality – which obviously wouldn’t always be possible on our side of things. But to be honest I always found it kind of fun – it would keep the day fresh and it was worth it for those moments when you could pull it out the bag for them.

Working in production means getting to be around and work with a lot of people, which I think is one of the most important skills you can have. I also got to work with the operations and shipping teams, because in order to get to shops they’ve got to sail for weeks on the sea first! That comes with its own set of requirements about quantities, pallets, and packing – all of it burned into my brain. I got to produce some things for really big brands and seeing them in shops was always a bit of a smug moment. It’s weird seeing something in the real world and knowing you had a hand in it, even a hand no-one really thinks that much about.

Ultimately, coming back to university for my Masters has been the right choice for me, no doubt, but I’m deeply appreciative of the experience I’ve had. It’s improved my outlook and way of thinking about work; I have more confidence in myself. It gave me the buzz I needed to choose to come back for my Masters and to focus specifically on children’s literature. I realised how integral the actual process of publication is in impacting the books that are available to children, especially how tied to trend and consumer demand they are. I always thought of publishing as very forward thinking, but there’s a lot more to it than that. This really sparked my academic interest and reignited that sense of intrigue, not just for publishing but for literature in general. Books have such a complicated and multifaceted role within the cultural space. More generally, being in employment full time improved my initiative and work ethic, which is important for postgraduate study!

For anyone trying to get into publishing, I would say to look outside the box a bit; look at the roles in production, sales, design, & operations. They each play to different strengths and can be really rewarding. Editorial is awesome, no denying, but there are loads of roles out there –  it’s brilliant for anyone who loves fast-paced and innovative environments.

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!