You are invited to join colleagues at the Newcastle University for the internal launch of the Centre of Research Excellence (NUCoRE) for Children and Youth, on 26th May at the Boiler House, 11am-1pm. The aim of the NUCoRE is to improve childhoods for all through pioneering and interdisciplinary research. We will be bringing researchers together from all University faculties to share methodologies and resources, and build opportunities for collaborative and partnership work.
Our event will include brief provocations from each faculty, along with ample time to discuss how the NUCoRE can benefit you. Lunch is provided, and you can sign up here: https://forms.ncl.ac.uk/view.php?id=13876382
Additionally, if you would like to join our mailing list, fill out this form: https://forms.ncl.ac.uk/view.php?id=14174033
It’s been a busy time for Clugg members! In the last days of April and the first week of May, Clugg was involved in several events.
We started the week off with a trip to the Seven Stories archive to meet Sita Bramanchari, who is currently on an archival quest of her own. We looked at the precious notebooks of Judith Kerr, The Story of Pandavas; the illustration for poems from around the world collection; two versions of Grace Nichols’ Baby Fish.
Then on Tuesday, Clugg members Megan, Devika and Helen conducted interviews with Sita based on her Levenson Family books. We talked about a range of topics; from disability, representation, memory, the archival process, seeking asylum and refugees in children’s literature. (Watch this space for the recorded interviews). The Digital Media centre staff were lovely and very interesting to talk to. We especially loved the paintings of local scenes on the walls. Meeting and talking to Sita was a pleasure for all of us.
On Tuesday night we had the second of Karen’s Carnegie Award shadowing group where we discussed Manjeet Mann’s The Crossing and Alex Wheatle’s Cane Warriors. Our next meeting will be about Sedgwick’s Tsunami Girl and Hitchcock’s Everyone Dies Famous In A Small Town.
On Wednesday, CLUGG hosted Leverhulme fellow Kristin Bluemel for a talk on “Peter Rabbit, Metropolitan Modernism and Rural Modernity”. This was a fascinating insight into the scholarship of Beatrix Potter and the field of modernist literature.
Then on Friday, we attended the first of Emily Murphy and Tyler Bickford’s NUPitt Global Speaker Series. This was a lecture and Q&A session with Macarena Gárcia-González and Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak and their views on the place of social justice in children’s lit scholarship. These lectures will continue on the 6th and (find date).
Here is a glimpse into the research conducted in the Children’s Literature Unit, Newcastle University and CLUGG members this year.
Helen King: I’m writing up my PhD on the work and archive of Beverley Naidoo. She is a UK-based South African writer of novels and picture books, and her novels especially often have a political or social mission, narrating stories of apartheid, colonialism, and displacement. I’m interested in her construction of political childhoods, and her vision of the political potential of childhood reading. My research explores her published work, her collaborative creative process with children, reader responses to her novels, and her dialogues with her readers, which I use to theorise about the agency of children as both producers and consumers of children’s culture. I’m also interested in postcolonial and critical race approaches to children’s literature, trauma theory, and participatory research with children.
Karen Sands-O’Connor: I am the British Academy Global Professor for Children’s Literature, which is a fancy way of saying I got a grant to come here because I had some unique knowledge that could usefully contribute to Newcastle University, Seven Stories, and the nation in general. My research for the last 20 years has concentrated on the history of Black British children’s literature, mostly but not exclusively Afro-Caribbean children’s literature; and how the authors of this literature have written against, challenged, and contrasted with the images and stereotypes created during the British Empire. I’ve moved into policy work, trying to embed Black British children’s literature into book and literacy organisations across the country, including Seven Stories, the Youth Libraries Group, and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education.
Lucy Pearson: I am a Senior Lecturer in Children’s Literature, arriving at Newcastle University in 2007, first as a PhD student and then as a member of staff. Throughout that time, I’ve worked closely with Seven Stories, and I’ve been lucky enough to work in their amazing archival resources throughout my career. This has been really important to my research: I am a book historian and am interested in how books are published, marketed and received. I’m currently working (very slowly) on a history of the Carnegie Award, considering how it has shaped ideas about quality children’s literature in the UK.
Devika Mehra: I am a postdoctoral research associate working on the archives of Grace Nichols, John Agard, Grace Hallworth, and Valerie Bloom held at Seven Stories. The second part of my project deals with analysis of representation and diversity in Carnegie-Kate Greenaway medals and the shadowing process. What I love most about my work at Newcastle University is the opportunity for collaborative knowledge exchange work with external partners such as Seven Stories and the Youth Libraries Group. My research looks at the constructions of marginalised childhood/s and the child-signifier in contemporary global and South Asian children’s literature, archival study, contemporary Black British and minority ethnic literature for children, Western and South Asian media and film cultures for children.
Jo Yuanyuan Zhou: I am a PhD student here in Newcastle University for one year as part of my PhD programme. After 7 years of teaching in higher education in China, I am interested in Chinese children’s literature and childhood study and its relation to the world children’s literature, especially in the UK, America and East Asia. I am working on the comparative study of translated Chinese children’s books and mainstream publications in the UK in terms of family stories/genre. Also, another work that I have planned to do is to research how children’s agency is developed in China and the UK social contexts, and how it is presented in literary books and movies after the 1970s.
Megan Adams: I am an MLitt student currently writing my dissertation on how blindness and visual impairment is presented in children’s literature for which I was awarded an IRSCL research grant. I am interested in all aspects of literary disability studies and hope to continue my research into a PhD at some point.
Stephanie Lyttle: I am a part-time PhD student in Creative Writing, researching bisexuality and magic in recent YA Fantasy novels. The creative component of my thesis is an original YA fantasy novel. The first books I ever read were Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo and Pat Hutchins’ Don’t Forget the Bacon (and I still recommend them both!).
Emily Murphy: I am a Lecturer in Children’s Literature at Newcastle University (UK), with research interests in international children’s literature, childhood studies, and global citizenship education. My monograph, Growing Up with America: Youth, Myth, and National Identity, 1945 to Present (University of Georgia Press, 2020), was the winner of the 2021 International Research Society for Children’s Literature Book Award. The book explores the role of the figure of the adolescent in challenging national myths about U.S. identity, and looks at both canonical American novels and young adult fiction, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and M.T. Anderson’s Feed, to support its argument. I have published essays in The Lion and the Unicorn, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and Jeunesse, and my work also appears in Prizing in Children’s Literature (ed. Kenneth Kidd and Joseph Thomas) and Connecting Childhood and Old Age in Popular Media (ed. Vanessa Joosen). Currently, I am working on a new book project entitled The Anarchy of Children’s Archives: Children’s Literature and Global Citizenship Education in the American Century, for which I have received multiple travel grants to conduct research in some of the top special collections in children’s literature.
Forgiving Our Fathers (and Mothers): The Role of Adolescence in Crisis Narratives within American Studies and Children’s Literature
Dr Emily Murphy brings the first in a series of posts exploring the intersections between American studies and children’s literature. The remarks presented here by Julia Mickenberg and Donald Pease are from the launch event for Murphy’s new book, Growing Up with America, which took place on 1 September 2021. This series makes space for continued conversations which Murphy believes the newer field of childhood studies helps to facilitate. The next part of this series will explore more the role of adolescence in shaping and bridging these two fields of study.
In his 1998 film, Smoke Signals, American Indian author Sherman Alexie quotes the poem “Forgiving Our Fathers” by Dick Lourie. One of the main characters in Alexie’s film, an eccentric orphan named Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, asks, “How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream…Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs? Or in their deaths, saying it to them or not saying it. If we forgive our fathers, what is left?” The question of how to “forgive our fathers” is one that is relevant to many fields of study, but I’d like to approach it from two fields that are central to my own research: American studies and children’s literature. At the source of the question raised by Lourie’s poem about fathers is an anxiety about the absence left when the tension between and the older and younger generation dissipates: does this lack of tension, often the source of new critical insights in the case of academia, leave the one who forgives feeling empty and uninspired? Or, in forgiving those who came before, are we actually setting ourselves free and escaping the boundaries (disciplinary or otherwise) set by them?
On the one-year anniversary of the publication of my first monograph, Growing Up with America (2020), I had the pleasure of engaging in a dialogue about intersections between childhood studies and American studies with Donald Pease and Julia Mickenberg. Pease, as those in American studies will well know, has greatly contributed to the field as it currently stands, adding to conversations about the “transnational turn” in American studies and opening up new insights into the field as founder/director of the Futures of American Studies Institute and editor of the New Americanists series from Duke University Press. Similarly, Julia Mickenberg is an early advocate for bridging the fields of American studies and children’s literature, drawing our attention to the radical politics in both and recognizing the importance of girlhood, in particular, through her scholarship on Cold War politics. In their commentary on the book, they make a series of important criticisms about the potential risk of the narrative I create in Growing Up with America, which seeks to intervene in the field of American studies by revealing the role of adolescence in the shaping of some of its early history, particularly in the Cold War era when the myth-symbol criticism became popular through the efforts of founding figures that included Henry Nash Smith, Perry Miller, R.W.B. Lewis, and Leo Marx.
What is at risk here, as both Pease and Mickenberg rightfully pointed out, is that in returning to this scholarship we repeat it—something I think that connects to larger conversations about “decolonizing the curriculum” that are happening more broadly within literary studies. This is an argument that American studies has circled back to again and again, and that is most eloquently described in Brian T. Edwards and Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar’s edited collection Globalizing American Studies (2010), to which Pease also contributes. In the introduction to this collection, Edwards and Gaonkar remark on what they call “founding” and “crisis” narratives, which they view as responses to some of the central currents of “disciplinary anxiety” within the field. They define these two types of narratives as follows: the founding narrative employs a metacritical approach whereby either new objects of study and/or methods of studying these objects are put forward; in the case of the crisis narrative, however, a “discursive rather than performative” mode is more common. This type of narrative is metacritical in a way that is distinct from that of founding narratives, and on occasion uses these founding narratives as a springboard for its insights (8). Edwards and Gaonkar give the example of Amy Kaplan’s influential essay, “Left Alone with America” (1993), where she first analyses the intellectual impulses in myth-symbol critic Perry Miller’s preface to the Errand into the Wilderness (1956). However, in returning to the founding myths of America that Miller deploys in his scholarship, Kaplan also “unwittingly reinstalls exceptionalism” by failing to locate the United States in a global framework (Edwards and Gaonkar 9). It is a classic conundrum, in the sense that by returning to foundational texts, even without intention, scholars take the risk (and I am guilty of this myself) of letting these voices and the narratives they promote continue to have dominance.
We have seen a similar critical turn within children’s literature, whose own founding narrative begins with figures such as Jacqueline Rose. Rose, who famously declared that “children’s fiction is impossible”—by now one of the most-cited phrases within children’s literature criticism—was preoccupied with language, fantasy, and desire, in large part due to her own investment in Lacanian theory (1). Rose launched a set of disciplinary anxieties specific to children’s literature that continue to permeate the field, in a manner similar to the myth of American exceptionalism which plagues American studies. How, those in the field of children’s literature continue to ask themselves, can we take account of the power dynamics between adult and child in the production and consumption of children’s fiction? And, more recently, to what extent does the child have a say in all of this? A special anniversary edition of Children’s Literature Association (ChLA) Quarterly from 2010 offered a “return to Rose,” but far more insightful are critical essays that attempt a more daring paradigm shift, breaking from Rose’s limiting critical lens for interpreting childhood and children’s literature. I am thinking, for instance, of Marah Gubar’s wonderful essay “Risky Business: Talking about Children in Children’s Literature Criticism” (2013), where she discards what she calls the “difference” and “deficit” models of childhood in favor of a more flexible model of growth—the “kinship model”—that rejects the binary opposition of adult/child altogether (450).
While American studies has yet to locate the child within the field to this extent, there are some interesting moments of critical overlap. Rose, for example, appears in Pease’s influential study The New American Exceptionalism. Here, though, Pease is not looking to her famous work on children’s fiction, The Case of Peter Pan, but rather to her later work on the role of fantasy in relation to English studies in States of Fantasy (1998). Rose’s interest in a psychoanalytic approach to fantasy remains, over ten years after the publication of her study on children’s fiction, and Pease utilizes this scholarship to talk about what he calls the “state fantasy” of American exceptionalism (7). Similarly, in Beverly Lyon Clark’s Kiddie Lit, which is still a definitive history of the field, American studies enters into her argument about the marginalization of children’s literature and childhood. Here, Clark remarks on the way in which, if it did enter the conversation, childhood was simply a reflection on adolescent rebellion in a larger narrative of manhood promoted by the early proponents of American studies (67). In reflecting, then, on founding myths, it is perhaps these moments where one field enters into the other that provides the richer context for the role of childhood and adolescence in shaping American culture and literary thought. As Julia Mickenberg raises in her observations about the shifting academic landscape at the annual American Studies Association meeting, there is now a significantly larger group of children’s literature scholars who have been drawn and converted to the insights offered by American studies. I am certainly a good example of this having trained in children’s literature and only having come to the scholarship of American studies in 2012 after passing my PhD exams and embarking on my dissertation project, which is the early version of Growing Up with America.
So where does this leave us in terms of the founders? Firstly, there is the question of who constitutes as a founder? Is it the “fathers” of the myth-symbol school? Is it a founding “mother” such as Jacqueline Rose—a mother, importantly, who abandoned her “child” (if we continue with the familial metaphors) of children’s literature? And, importantly, in casting ourselves as “fathers” or “mothers,” “sons” or “daughters,” are we doing a disservice to children, who we employ metaphorically to create narratives of progress about these academic fields of study? (I am thinking, for instance, back to the 2010 issue of ChLA Quarterly I mentioned earlier, where Perry Nodelman quips about the “possibility of growing wiser,” in a play on Rose’s famous quote on children’s fiction). The truth is that both fields are continually being founded and refounded, and this isn’t because American studies or children’s literature has “grown up” into a new, mature self—that would do a disservice to children who we are then casting as immature and naïve. Instead, we might take our clue from childhood studies and the models of growth, such as those I have cited here, that seek to disrupt such linear narratives of progress and maturation. In doing so, even if we cannot completely escape it, we might be able to alleviate some of the disciplinary anxieties at the root of both fields and break the cyclical pattern of a return to the founders that limits the boundaries of them.
Clark, Beverly Lyon. Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Print.
Edwards, Brian T., and Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, eds. “Introduction: Globalizing American Studies.” Globalizing American Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 1–44. Print.
Gubar, Marah. “Risky Business: Talking about Children in Children’s Literature Criticism” (2013).
Nodelman, Perry. “Former Editor’s Comments: Or, The Possibility of Growing Wiser.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 35.3 (2010): 230–242. Print.
O’Brien, Sharon. “Commentary.” In Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline. Ed. Lucy Maddox. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 110–113. Print.
Pease, Donald. The New American Exceptionalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan. 1984. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.
Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Miramax Films, 1999. DVD.
Dr Emily Murphy introduces her new book, Growing up with America:Youth, Myth, and National Identity, 1945 to Present
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, a number of protests emerged internationally to support the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a turn that raised with urgency the question of who belongs in America and how the rights of the nation’s marginalized citizens can be protected. As the harrowing footage captured for Floyd’s case revealed, it’s not always lawmakers who can be trusted to protect these rights. This is a message that American teenagers have tried to make clear both on the silver screen and in public protests. In Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (2017), protagonist Starr Carter is left devastated after her childhood friend is unjustly shot by a policeman. In the 2018 film adaptation of this young adult novel, one of the most powerful images is Starr’s raised fist as she leads a peaceful protest. In this moment, Starr not only represents the Black Lives Matter Movement but also the figure of the rebel that is often associated with American adolescence.
At the start of the 1950s, the image of the rebel teen was popularized both in response to the national mood, a time when the nation was anxiously trying to “grow up” and establish itself as a world power, and in response to a rapidly expanding youth market following an increase in birth rates during the “Baby Boom.” Heroic male figures—all white—included a youthful cast such as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and drew upon Western myths of the frontiersman. These new bad boys moved the frontiersman out of the flat plains of the West and into the cookie-cutter neighbourhoods of suburbia.
The suburban “bad boy” produced through popular culture supported Cold War rhetoric of the United States as an exceptional nation, one that was whitewashed and sanitized for mass consumption. But tucked away beneath these celebratory narratives of national power and might were stories of marginalized Americans, often told through the same figure of adolescence that gained currency through the teen icons of popular culture. In some of the most explosive literature of the decade, there are glimmers of the adolescent’s true potential as a rebel, which worked to upturn hundreds of years of history and give voice to those previously silenced.
One of the most heart-wrenching, and perhaps most recognized canonical works of the period, is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). In my book, Growing Up with America (2020), I argue that Lolita’s story of loss and suffering is reflective of the colonial violence of the nation. While her body is often described as lean and muscular, it is the variation in her complexion that is intriguing: at times the light skin of the white girl that she is and other times a dark brown. Lolita might easily remind readers of a spoiled suburban teenager with the way she is described by protagonist Humbert Humbert, who takes advantage of the death of Lolita’s mother to pursue an unwanted sexual relationship with the young girl. But there is something haunting in the voice that Nabokov creates in this novel that strips away Humbert Humbert’s fantasy. Nabokov hints at this association in Lolita’s collection of American Indian handicrafts, and through other key moments within the novel. In a scene where Lolita is shivering from an unnaturally high temperature—importantly the illness that enables her ultimate escape from Humbert Humbert—Lolita is shown at her most vulnerable and these subtle associations come to the fore, urging readers to think about repressive systems of power that have silenced those who do not belong to a white (and often male) majority. Lolita is what I call a “virgin girl,” a figure that dispels the myth of an empty and conquerable land that is devoid of people, which helps to justify westward expansion in the nineteenth century and neocolonialism beyond U.S. borders in the twentieth century and beyond.
While Lolita remains firmly positioned within white middle-class suburban culture (she is, after all, a white girl no matter how she is portrayed), her character functions as a quiet act of subversion that helped to upturn national myths that celebrated white masculinity within American culture. That is, Lolita’s body still alludes to the history of colonial violence against those who were marginalized due to their race through her association with American Indian culture, a connection I argue in my book that Nabokov intentionally developed. Lolita’s very often silent protest to such injustices grows louder over time as it is joined and made stronger by the contributions of Native women writers including Linda Hogan, Lesley Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich. Their work serves to demonstrate the ways in which American literature has worked to light a fire of rebellion to promote positive and meaningful change in the nation, opening up spaces to revisit the question “What does it mean to be an American?” and reminding us that, so long as injustice persists, there will continue to be young rebels seeking to right these wrongs.
Emily Murphy is Lecturer in Children’s Literature at Newcastle University.Her book is now available for purchase from the University of Georgia Press.To reserve a space at the book launch event for Growing Up with America, register here. For guest talks, contact Dr. Murphy at email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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).
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!
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).
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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
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
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.)
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.
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
There were some exceptions:
for example, the entire production file for Signal1 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.