Invites you to celebrate the society’s 50th Anniversary and to enjoy a study day on Families in Children’s Literature
At: The Art Workers’ Guild, 6 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AT
On: Saturday 16th November, 2019 from 10.00am – 5.00 pm.
The Children’s Books History Society was co-founded by Brian Alderson, recipient of a honorary doctorate from Newcastle University in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the field of children’s literature. The Society exists to promote an appreciation of children’s books in their literary, historical and bibliographical aspects, and further to encourage a distribution and exchange of information on children’s literature.Now in its 50th year, the Society invites you to join celebrations and talks on families in children’s literature. Speakers and topics include:
Jane Cooper Happy Families? What does go on in Mrs Molesworth’s children’s books
Elizabeth Galvin The Extraordinary Life of E. Nesbit
Dame Jacqueline Wilson Missing Mothers
Nicholas Tucker Attempting to protect family values through nursery rhymes
Anne Harvey & Ann Thwaite In conversation about the remarkable novels of M.E. Atkinson
This year is a landmark for the CILIP Carnegie Medal: for the first time ever, the award goes to an author of colour, Dominican-American Elizabeth Acevedo. Acevedo’s verse novel The Poet X is a sensitive and nuanced depiction of the life of a young Dominican American. It’s striking that the novel won not only the main prize, but also the inaugural ‘Shadowers’ Choice’ award: there’s often a divergence between the shadowers’ favourite (as expressed through the Shadowing website – this is the first year there’s been an actual award) and the judges’ choice. This is definitely not because of a lack of competition – in fact this year’s shortlist was particularly exciting and included many worthy contenders – but I think it reflects a key characteristic of the novel: it’s simultaneously boundary-pushing and immediately familiar.
The verse novel has grown in popularity in YA circles in the last few years (Sarah Crossan’s novel One won the Carnegie in 2016) but it’s still a relatively new form, and one which is exploring the boundaries of form as a means of expressing the YA experience. Acevedo uses the form of slam poetry to explore questions of voice and voicelessness for her bilingual protagonist Xiomara, caught between the strict religious views of her Catholic mother and her own sense of herself and her place in the world. Xiomara’s experience is particular to her place, her culture, and her historical moment. Yet the book also has a universal resonance in the way that the best books do. As someone who was a young woman more than two decades ago, growing up not in Harlem but in provincial County Durham (in a decidedly monocultural environment), I was moved by Acevedo’s powerful expression of female desire and the experience of being in the body of a young woman. The book spoke to me, and spoke about experiences which I rarely see on the page. I think this combination of newness and ‘universality’ is what made the book speak to both the adult judges and the child shadowers.
By coincidence, the day the award was announced was the same day that my article with Karen Sands-O’Connor and Aishwarya Subramanian on Prize Culture and Diversity in British Children’s Literature. Part of a special issue of International Research in Children’s Literature on ‘Curating National Literatures’ (also edited by us), this article provides a context which demonstrates just why it’s significant for the Carnegie Medal to be awarded to an author of colour for the first time. We show that despite a genuine desire to promote ‘quality’ children’s literature, in practice mainstream children’s book awards in the UK have tended to uphold a view of quality which is white, English and (largely) middle-class, and to exclude the voices of Britain’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. This was precisely the concern voiced by many participants in the event which prompted our special issue: the Diverse Voices?Symposium jointly hosted by Seven Stories: the National Centre for Children’s Books and Newcastle University in 2017. That year’s Carnegie Medal shortlist had seen widespread criticism of the Carnegie Medal after the longlist failed to include a single BAME author: speaking at the symposium, YA novelist Alex Wheatle commented that ‘otherness, that feeling of being different wasn’t quite adjudicated for’. What our research for the article revealed was that children’s book prizes only represent a diverse range of voices when they are consciously working to ‘adjudicate otherness’: in other words, good will and a genuine belief in ‘objective’ criteria are not enough to ensure a broad understanding of literary quality. Only conscious engagement with the question of how literary quality intersects with wider culture ensures that the idea of literary quality isn’t shaped by unconscious biases.
The Carnegie Medal has a long tradition of engaging with wider culture. It was set up in 1936 with an activist mission: to encourage publishers to produce high quality children’s books. The late 1960s saw a new era of activism as the library profession expanded, prompting changes to the Medal which enabled radical new winners such as Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners(1975). And since 2017, CILIP has once again engaged with the hard work of creating radical change, beginning with a Diversity Review of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards led by Margaret Casely-Hayford, and continuing with the implementation of many of that report’s recommendations. It’s this hard work which has produced a radically different shortlist: one which featured four authors of colour and produced the first ever win by an author of colour.
Elizabeth Acevedo has said that the inspiration for The Poet X was her desire to meet the needs of young readers who asked ‘Where are the books about us?’ It’s fitting, then, that her book has received the award in a year when CILIP have done a great deal of work to consider how the Medal might better reflect a wide range of readers. There’s still work to be done: it’s notable that this year’s shortlist continued to reflect a sense of race as something which is ‘out there’, not an integral part of UK life. Only one BAME author was shortlisted, and Candy Gourlay’s excellent novel Bone Talkis a historical novel. In the future, I’d like to see the Carnegie Medal go to a book which reflects one of Britain’s BAME communities in the nuanced, vivid way that Acevedo depicts the Dominican American experience. My hope is that the work so far will help to bring about change in the area the Carnegie Medal was originally meant to influence: the UK publishing industry. The more the Carnegie Medal and other prizes champion a wide range of voices, the easier it will be for publishers to ‘take a chance’ on a new voice, or to invest their resources in promoting books which don’t align with the literary mainstream. The varied, stimulating Carnegie shortlist this year, and the unanimous enthusiasm for Acevedo’s compelling voice, demonstrates that work can bring about radical change.
On the centenary anniversary of the Amritsar Massacre, Dr Aishwarya Subramanian reads Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts (2009), a YA novel set in Amritsar against the backdrop of the massacre. Warning: this reading contains spoilers.
On April 13, 1919, on the Sikh festival of Baisakhi, thousands of Indian civilians gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, a walled garden in the city of Amritsar, as part of a peaceful protest against recent actions taken by the British colonial administration. Meetings had been banned a few days previously (there’s been some disagreement over to what extent this particular gathering was a deliberate act of defiance). British Indian army troops, led by General Reginald Dyer, blocked the main entrance to the garden and fired repeatedly into the crowd. Hundreds of Indians were killed, and many more injured, though the exact numbers remain the subject of debate. Dyer’s actions, intended to ‘produce the necessary moral, and widespread effect it was my duty to produce,’ were eventually condemned by the British Indian government and in the British House of Commons (not, however, the House of Lords, or parts of the popular press).
It’s a historical event that, as Bali Rai says in the author’s note to City of Ghosts, has passed almost into folklore in India. I’ve lived most of my life a few hours from Amritsar and only visited Jallianwala Bagh once, and I still remember the blank horror of it—the myth so potent as to become overwhelming in that moment.
City of Ghosts is set in Amritsar against the backdrop of the massacre and the weeks leading up to it, though it moves around in space and time, jumping back to England in 1915, and forward to 1940, when the events set in motion here are truly resolved. The narrative is divided between the perspectives of three young men. Gurdial, a resident of the Central Khalsa Orphanage, has fallen in love with the daughter of a wealthy man, and while she returns his love they see little chance of winning her family’s consent to marriage. Jeevan, Gurdial’s best friend at the orphanage, is lonely and craves a family, and so is easily manipulated into joining a group of anti-colonial revolutionaries. Bissen Singh, an older friend of theirs, is a former World War I soldier, consumed by memories of the English nurse with whom he fell in love during his time in Europe, and dependent on opium. Appearing at various points in each man’s narrative is a mysterious woman, or ghost, who seems to be the only person who knows what’s going on. As a format, this is really effective for a reader who knows the history in question—each short chapter is dated, and as we move closer to the day of the massacre the tension increases to the point that, when the narrative deviated just as things were about to get bad (there are long sections exploring Bissen’s World War I experiences, and shorter ones in which the ghost leads Gurdial on a supernatural journey of discovery), I may have sworn a little.
The three men have drastically differing views on the political events taking place around them. Jeevan fully commits to the idea of an independence struggle, and one which will inevitably involve violence, but it’s always clear that he’s too naïve to have a sense of the larger picture, and that the people who have drawn him in are far more interested in the violence than the independence. Gurdial doesn’t really want to think about politics, and finds Jeevan’s radicalisation dangerous. ‘The revolutionaries were every bit as dangerous as the British. In the end, it was ordinary people who would suffer’ (103). Bissen, on the other hand, can’t understand demands for independence. ‘The Engrezi had brought much that was good and India had prospered as a result’ (80) he thinks; even though in the next moment he contrasts India’s poverty with England’s prosperity and cleanliness, it never seems to occur to him that politics might have something to do with this contrast.
These are believable characters (who doesn’t want an uneventful life?), but as protagonists for a novel about an important historical event they can feel rather disappointing. By presenting its protagonists with a choice between apathy and the monstrous violence of Jeevan’s revolutionary cadre (implied to be itself a product of British manipulation), the book makes Gurdial’s ‘well, both sides are dangerous’ stance seem the only reasonable option. Or it would be, were it not for the minor characters around them who, in similar circumstances, have come to very different conclusions. Fellow WWI soldiers express anger and disillusionment to Bissen Singh; one of them resolving after the war to ‘take up my gun and help to chase these devils from my land’. And Jeevan and Gurdial have been raised in the same orphanage as Udham Singh (to whose memory the book is dedicated), who is only a few years older than them.
Udham Singh’s perspective forms perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book. Singh is known to the admiring younger boys as an activist and member of the Ghadar Party; in 1940 he will assassinate Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre. The novel begins with a short account of the shooting, and we later read extracts from his prison diary, in which he hopes only for an end to imperial rule. At the end of the book and immediately after the massacre, the ghost Heera tells Gurdial that one day Udham Singh will set the spirits of the dead free. There are moments in City of Ghosts where it feels as if the fragmented narratives and perspectives are allowing the book to shy away from taking a stand—but this feels like a clear one.
City of Ghosts was published in 2009; I don’t know if it was ever explicitly linked to the 90th anniversary of the massacre. Reading it in 2019, in the days leading up to the centenary, was a very different experience than I suspect it would have been ten years ago. Over the last few years, thinking about the legacy of Britain’s imperial past has become more mainstream within Britain than I ever remember it being. In the wake of the 2016 referendum in particular, ‘imperial nostalgia’ has become ubiquitous as an explanation for people’s belief in a plucky, independent Britain that is also somehow a geopolitical powerhouse. At the same time, as movements like Rhodes Must Fall and activism that works to decolonise museums grow to greater prominence, there’s an increasing acknowledgement of imperial atrocities in the public sphere. On a trip to Amritsar in 2017, Labour MP (and mayor of London) Sadiq Khan called for an official apology for the massacre from the British Government; while British political figures, including the current Queen, and (this week) the current Prime Minister, have expressed regret, there has never been a formal apology.
But the idea of an ‘apology’ is itself a fraught one. Calls for such an apology over the years have frequently cited Winston Churchill’s claim that the massacre was ‘an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire … an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation’—even the author note at the end of City of Ghosts begins with it. (n.b. I’m never sure what to make of this quote and its widespread usage, given Churchill’s well-documented attitudes towards India—perhaps the point is something like ‘even Churchill thought they’d gone too far’?) Theresa May’s recent apology echoes this language, calling the incident a ‘shameful scar on British Indian history.’ As the historian Kim Wagner has pointed out, treating the massacre as an isolated event rather than a consequence of imperial rule, as the Churchill quote invites us to do, works to absolve the British Empire as a whole, treating it as a largely benevolent structure occasionally subject to violent aberrations (which can be blamed on individual bad actors), rather than a violent system in itself.
So how does City of Ghosts fit into all of this? I’m not entirely sure. The fragmented narrative and the range of perspectives make it easier to read the massacre as the complex result of multiple factors all brought to a head, make it possible to condemn the incident without oversimplifying. But then there’s Singh’s ‘freeing’ of the dead, presumably through the death of O’Dwyer—can the death of one man within the system really absolve anything? Even Singh doesn’t entirely seem to think so, whatever the ghost Heera may say. Ultimately the book feels as if it’s shying away from these larger questions—as if, like Gurdial, it would rather just not get too involved. Gurdial is the only one of the three protagonists who survives; perhaps there’s a lesson there.
Aishwarya is a former CLUGG member. Her doctoral thesis examined the effects of decolonisation upon narrative spatiality in mid-twentieth-century British children’s fantasy. Aishwarya also led a postdoctoral project with the Children’s Literature Unit and Seven Stories, ‘Networked Voices: Connecting BAME Activism in Children’s Literature,’ which investigated and visualised networks of antiracist activism in contemporary British children’s literature. The Children’s Literature Association (ChLA) International Committee has just announced that Aishwarya will be one of the three panelists for the 2019 sponsored panel, focusing on BAME Children’s Literature in the United Kingdom, at the ChLA Conference in June. Aishwarya’s other posts on the CLUGG blog include ‘Book Burning with the Borribles’.
The beginning of April saw spring arrive in Italy, and, with it, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Last week marked the 56th year of the fair with over 250 conferences and workshops and almost 1,500 exhibitors spread over 6 pavilions … comfy shoes were a must!
The sheer size of the Fair can be overwhelming and you can easily find yourself wandering about and feeling a little lost. But if you take the time to carefully study the Fair’s programme in advance and plot your course, you’ll be in for a real treat and have a golden opportunity to discover the latest trends in children’s illustration and publishing. The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is the world’s most important and prestigious book fair for children’s book publishing. The Book Fair’s BolognaRagazzi Awards are considered among the most important international prizes in children’s publishing.
I was born in Bologna, and so the Fair has always been an integral part of my life (and has probably contributed to the factors that made me, today, a researcher in children’s book illustration). My mum, a school teacher, would take me there as a child. At that time, teachers were considered as ‘workers in the sector’ and would be given discounted tickets. With hundreds of other children, I flocked to my favourite illustrators, clamouring for book signings and sketches. I browsed new books in arcane languages, and hoped that I might be able to take one home, as a souvenir to treasure from a magical day out at the Fair.
When I grew up, I was an illustrator and comic artist, and, for a little while, I was one of the young illustrators at the fair, big black portfolio folder in arm, going from publisher to publisher to show my work.
For me, and many of my generation, the Fair was a wide window onto yet unknown worlds of possibilities. We also thought it a symbol of hope: for some, at least, making a living out of children’s books was a reality.
However, for a long time after my early visits to the Fair, that window closed. Children were – and still are – banned from the Fair. ‘Visitors must be over 18 to enter the fair,’ the website warns, betraying the wishes of intellectuals such as Gianni Rodari, who thought the Fair should be open to children as well, and, in fact, are the Fair’s true audience.* The definition of ‘workers in the sector’ was reduced to publishers and literary agents.
A reminder that the Fair was, and still is, the place for the book business. Not for the books’ child readers.
The Fair now again admits some members of the public, although the ‘workers in the sector’ category does not extend to school-teachers, booksellers, librarians and academics (which means full price tickets for us). While children cannot attend, the Bologna city council launched BOOM! Crescere nei libri in 2017, offering children and their families a wide programme of exhibitions, meetings, workshops, readings and performances in the city centre during and after the Fair.
Although of course the core economic focus of the Fair remains the purchase and exchange of foreign publishing rights, business takes place in stalls decorated as secret gardens and pleasure islands… this is a children’s book fair after all.
The Fair also has a big focus on young illustrators. In 2017, an Illustrators Survival Corner was set up, where young illustrators can come and take part in workshops (from storyboard to published book; secrets of creativity; publication process; material and contents in non-fiction visual narratives; publishers’ contracts), portfolio reviews (how to make a portfolio more effective), consult well-established illustrators and artists (e.g. Beatrice Alemagna, Emiliano Ponzi, Johanna Schaible, Chih-Yuan Chen, Lorenzo Mattotti, Christopher Myers and Kestutis Kasparavicius) and, this year, remember those in the illustrators’ community who have recently died (The BCBF had memorials for Grazia Nidasio (1931-2018), Tomi Ungerer* (1931-2019), Livio Sossi (1951-2019)).
The Fair is widening its horizons to acknowledge children’s publishing trends. The BolognaRagazzi Awards now include Digital Awards and an award for best Toddler book. Silent books (also known as wordless picturebooks) have been exhibited in recent years and from next year, comic books will be among the categories to be separately considered and awarded.
But, for me, and many others, the Illustrators Exhibition remains the main point of attraction.
Since 1967, Bologna Children’s Book Fair has been offering illustrators from all over the world the chance to showcase their work to an international audience of professionals and peers.
This year, the Illustrators’ Exhibition selected work by 76 illustrators from almost 3,000 artists from 62 countries.
In the opening mall, five long showcase tables unroll the work of the selected artists. For sure, from this stage they will be successfully projected into the world of professional illustration, if they are not there already.
For those whose work was not selected for exhibition and aspiring to join the selected in the coming years, an Illustrators’ Wall (or, rather, something of a maze of walls) is available to pin business cards and presentations, hang illustrations and draw sketches.
Walls of hope, they might be called.
To learn more about the history of the Bologna Children Book Fair, some knowledge of Italian is required (William Grandi, La vetrina magica. 50 anni di BolognaRagazzi Awards, editori e libri per l’infanzia, Pisa 2015), but Shirley Hugues does provide a small account of it in A life drawing. Recollections of an illustrator (London 2002).
*Gianni Rodari (1920-1980) was an innovative children’s writing and the first Italian recipient of the Hans Christian Anderson Award in 1970. The 2020 Bologna Children’s Book Fair will be celebrating the centenary of Rodari’s birth.
The Occasional Diary of a Mature Postgraduate Student at Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit
From Fresher at Fifty to Graduate at 52
The peacocks are quite possibly the most vivid memory from my first graduation. Back in the summer of 1988, we had lunch in Edinburgh’s Prestonfield House Hotel, where the savvy waiters hovered refilling glasses of red wine with the tempting mantra ‘you deserve it’. It’s hardly surprising that when we finished eating, and repaired to the garden for some photographs, this new graduate was spotted crawling along the grass trying to persuade the showy birds to play bonnie for the camera.
There were no actual peacocks* present in December when my fellow graduands and I gathered in the rather grand King’s Hall for graduation number 2 – or ‘congregation’, as it’s called at Newcastle University, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t memorable. For one thing, there was something rather awe-inspiring about walking the same route as Martin Luther King had taken when he received an honorary degree from the university back in 1997. For another, it was great to catch up with some of the friends and acquaintances who were graduating on the same day.
And frankly, it was also pretty great to have got to the point where I was graduating at all.
It was back in 2017 that I decided to study for a research degree in children’s literature, working for the MLitt part-time over two years. Looking back, I had dived into the application process in a fit of naïve enthusiasm, without any real idea of what it would be like. I had imagined it might be tricky to navigate professional commitments with my new life as a student (stopping work was never a financial option for me) but had blithely supposed it would all be fine, really. I also had vague apprehensions that academia might have moved on a bit in the last 30 years, but confidently felt that I could deal with that: bring it on, said my 50-year-old self.
I’ve written in a previous blog about the various challenges, particularly in re-learning academic writing and balancing the various demands that are inevitable at my time of life, including my dad’s increasing care needs. Surprisingly (at least to me), however, the experience of doing the degree was that, overall, it alleviated rather than added to these stresses. Even at the height of dissertation writing, with deadlines looming, I was able to lose myself completely in writing, rewriting, and yet more rewriting – so much so that I once ended up on a train to Glasgow instead of Edinburgh because I was engrossed. That kind of feeling is pretty wonderful.
On reflection, doing the degree also gave me some fabulous opportunities. As well as doing my own original research on mid-20thcentury girls’ books, I sat in on the undergraduate children’s literature course, which introduced me to things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise read (Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut was a particular favourite). I spent some time in the Seven Stories archive wallowing in Noel Streatfeild’s diaries and letters, which was great fun and a new experience. I heard some fabulous speakers at university events and made some good friends. I also learned to think and respond more with greater critical clarity – not just to literature, but in all aspects of life.
I can’t say that I really felt I truly got to grips with academic writing, and my dissertation (on radicalism in Mabel Esther Allan’s early books) could have been infinitely better. But I did okay, and my overall degree result was sufficient should I decide to apply to do a PhD in the future.
I miss my life as a student and my frequent trips to Newcastle. Yes, it was tough, but it was also wonderful. I’d very much recommend it; indeed, I might, at some point, be back…
*when I say there were no ‘actual’ peacocks there in December, I think my dad’s smile on the day suggests he was ‘as proud’ as one.
Jennifer, we hope that you will soon be back at Newcastle.
Books always were my best friends; ever since I was a child they shared with me their facts and knowledge, their flights of imagination, with fun, dread and suspense.
There is always a bond between the author and reader, every book is a bridge, having something different to offer […] Books are lasting, they do not lose their leaves in autumn as trees do.
Tomi Ungerer, A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader 2018, 216
The Tomi Ungerer I first knew was not Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur, the prolific illustrator and trilingual writer of 140 books. Rather, he was Tomi Ungerer, the precocious child artist who, in the summer of 1940, aged 8, witnessed the Nazis invade his hometown in Alsace. A few months later, he recorded this sight on paper:
Many years after that date, this pencil drawing would illustrate his memoir of his childhood under the Nazis, first published in French as À la guerre comme à la guerre (1991, in German as Die Gedanken sind frei, 1993 and in English as Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis, 1998). By the time of this drawing, Ungerer could only sign his drawings TU within the safety of his home; in Nazi-occupied Alsace he had to change his name from Tomi (Jean-Thomas) to Hans (Johann). Street names, as well as resident’s first names changed from French to German; French books and berets were banned and one word of French, one bonjour, one merci would land you in an internment camp. Ungerer’s sister, Genevieve, who worked at the government prefecture during the war, would take home formulas and certificates of military allocations, and he would draw on the back of these. Ungerer drew, among other subjects, images of the Nazis; had they been discovered…
Thankfully, they were not. Tomi Ungerer’s mother conserved 500 of the drawings he made in his childhood (both before and during the war), and they formed part of the collection for the Musée Tomi Ungerer – Centre Internationale de L’Illustration in Strasbourg, which holds 11,000 graphic works by Tomi Ungerer and collections by artists such as André François, Maurice Henry and William Steig.
I have been fortunate to work on the collection of child art as part of a doctoral project exploring the significance of juvenilia in the formation of artists whose backgrounds include exile and war.
One of my museum visits coincided with the press conference for the museum’s 10th anniversary, and the museum curator, Thérèse Willer, kindly invited me and introduced me to Tomi Ungerer. I was very moved. There were many important people present, my spoken French was – and still is – abominable, but Tomi Ungerer took leave of them from time to time that morning to hear about my project and talk to me about his life, his influences. ‘Books are everything,’ he told me. Books? I was surprised. Was it not drawing that should have been everything to this remarkable artist? No, books, he said, books that he had read as a child had marked him for life.
Back in the museum library, Thérèse Willer showed me the Benjamin Rabier albums that Tomi Ungerer’s brother and sisters had handed down to him and contained his first scribbles, Jean de Brunhoff’s L’ABC de Babar, one of the few books that had been Tomi Ungerer’s very own as a child and that would in part inspire his Mellops family, the family of pigs in his first published children’s books.* She also spoke with me about the young Ungerer’s reading of Le Journal de Mickey and the books by the Alsatian artist Hansi (Jeans-Jacques Waltz). Mickey Mouse appears in drawings Tomi Ungerer made before and during the war: when Tomi Ungerer’s world was turned upside down, Mickey Mouse was a figure remnant from his pre-war world that provided him a reference point as he sought, on paper, to navigate the place his home had become.
Many of the soldiers he drew at this time (when not at school!) are not those of the Second but First World War; Tomi Ungerer’s dislike for the Nazis was in great part informed by the anti-German propaganda Hansi wrote and illustrated in his children’s books around the time of the so-called Great War.
the books read in childhood lay the foundations of a writer’s literary aesthetic; they provide the models, the anti-models, and the springboards for subsequent generations
Kimberley Reynolds, Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction 2007, 9.
In many ways, Hansi’s books became the anti-models for Tomi Ungerer’s work as an adult that fought against social injustice and prejudice and for pacifism. Firmly believing that children should not be shielded from the reality of war, his picturebook, Otto: the Autobiography of a Teddy Bear, which fictionalises some of his own childhood experiences, does not shy from the violence and persecution of the Second World War; schools in France often use the book to teach children about war and the Holocaust. Perhaps stemming from the role creativity played in his own childhood, he also strongly advocated for children to use their imaginations and stretch their minds (Ungerer always liked to include words in books child readers would not necessarily know).
On Saturday afternoon I saw that the Tomi Ungerer Museum had changed the profile picture on their Facebook page: a black circle; their cover photo a black banner. What exhibition is this for, I wondered, what is Tomi commenting on with this blackness in his latest artwork. Then I realised. These changes were not for an exhibition. There was no new artwork. Tomi was dead. Yet, as I learned the following day, yesterday, black was not only appropriate for marking our loss of Tomi, but also to represent one of his philosophies. In a video clip the Ungerer family posted, Tomi explains:
When I say far out is not far enough, it means that no matter how far you’re thinking […] no matter how far it is, it’s still not far enough. Because one challenge [to be] worthy at all has to be followed by a greater challenge. It’s the unknown, that’s what’s really fantastic about death and death is to be welcomed, and when I die I’ll find out what’s behind the far out. Maybe there’s nothing. But nothing is fantastic too, because if you’re faced with nothing, you can fill it up with your mind.
Tomi, whatever may or may not be behind the far out, may your incredible imagination serve you well.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West follows the relationship of Nadia and Saeed who endure a difficult journey in search of safety and belonging after their escape from a war-torn country through a magical door. The doors that emerge in the novel – instantly transporting passers-through to a random location in the world – serve as an optimistic vision of a borderless future raising questions about identity, transience, and belonging.
As part of Newcastle University’s participation in the Booker Prize Foundation’s One Book Project, free copies of Exit West were offered to students across the University campus. This culminated in the One Book Event on Monday 29th October during which author Mohsin Hamid was in conversation with Newcastle University’s Dr Neelam Srivastava about his latest novel. This free, public event provided an accessible way for students and members of the public to engage with the book, explore its themes, and connect with its author. The event was a huge success with engaging conversation, a full audience, and plenty of opportunity to ask questions followed by a book signing by Hamid.
The evening opened with Hamid reading a passage from his book – one of the many micro-stories featuring in the novel. In Hamid’s selection, we see an extract from the micro-story of an old woman who, surrounded by youth, modernity, and change, muses that we are all “migrants through time.” Transience and temporariness are central themes in Exit West and this is comparable to the arc of maturation often found in adolescent fiction. It reminds us that transience is a universal experience transcending race, culture, and time, yet it is one we tend not to acknowledge out of a desire for the illusion of permanence and belonging. Hamid compares this to anxieties about mortality, of ourselves and of our loved ones. These themes of temporariness and mortality are common throughout teenage fiction novels and one of my key research interests is exploring how they are navigated in teenage Holocaust fiction.
An intriguing aspect of Holocaust fiction’s popularity among teenage readers is their curiosity regarding issues of trauma, death, and identity – elements that feature prominently in Holocaust fiction by its very nature. Hamid’s poignant discourse in both Exit West and his other writings on the falsehood of permanence also relate to Holocaust literature and education. A key message of Holocaust commemoration is, ‘never again’, yet how often do we see this message weakened by stories of conflict, prejudice, and genocide in headline news? And how do we then communicate to young readers that Holocaust fiction is about the past when the issues it explores are still very much prevalent in our society? My MLitt research underlines the view that we shouldn’t – these themes deserve our attention and the creation of accessible Holocaust fiction for young readers is a viable way to bridge gaps in education and to explore many of the issues Hamid’s Exit West discusses.
In an interview with the Guardian in August, Hamid said that children’s stories are the best examples of how a story can speak to humanity as a whole. I asked him, considering that statement, whether he would write a children’s story himself in the future. He said he would like to but hadn’t gotten around to it yet, then explained that his first novel was a cynical response to ideas of purity and that, while his following two novels featured destabilised narratives, Exit West’s narrative style was inspired by children’s books.
…[Saeed] he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our own being-ness, and all our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in each other, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world (p. 202).
On reading Exit West, with its raw exploration of difficult questions surrounding identity, transience and belonging against the backdrop of negotiating culture clashes and escaping conflict, you may be surprised to find out its style was inspired by children’s fiction. Yet it is the double-partisan way in which children’s literature involves and challenges the reader, by its ability to be both straightforward and complex in adapting to the needs and maturity of its audience, that inspired Hamid’s writing style in Exit West. Hamid said this in response to the question I put to him at the One Book Event, stating that, in the face of the popularity of fake news, there is value in putting the reader on the side of the character to explore an issue. He compared it to the effect of Charlotte’s Web in the reader’s involvement in urging Wilbur not to die – he wanted Exit West to give readers the same involvement with its characters.
Exit West gives raw emotionality and human experience to the stories we are all familiar with seeing on the news. Its manner of taking the reader out of their comfort zone without having the effect of preaching privilege encourages reflection as it explores issues that affect us all without condemnation or outright judgement of any particular group. As issues of identity and belonging become more contentious and politicised, Hamid’s voice is an important one. One day, his voice will be a valuable contribution to succeeding generations should he write a book for younger audiences. Until then, it’s up to us adults to learn, co-operate, and act to improve the world for those that will follow.
Wanted! Outstanding candidates interested in fully-funded doctoral projects in collaboration with Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. Seven Stories is a groundbreaking museum, archive and visitors’ centre with a mission to preserve and celebrate Britain’s rich heritage of children’s literature. As the National Centre for Children’s Books, Seven Stories hold manuscripts, artwork and archival material relating to British children’s books from c.1930 to the present day, representing over 250 leading authors and illustrators ranging from Enid Blyton to Michael Morpurgo, and correspondence and other material from editors and publishers. See here for an overview of current holdings. Seven Stories shares this collection with the public through events in their visitor centre, and exhibitions which tour nationally. Through their award-winning creative learning and engagement programme they work closely with schools and community groups.
To take advantage of this opportunity you will:
be a resident of UK or EU
be seeking to begin a PhD in October 2019
have an outstanding academic record, including a first degree in a relevant subject and (in most cases) a master’s degree either in hand or shortly to be completed OR relevant and equivalent working experience
have an interest in working on a doctoral project in collaboration with Seven Stories, in one or the areas listed below.
Applications for a Collaborative Doctoral Award are invited in the following research areas:
Children’s and youth literature projects will make substantial use of one or more archival collections at Seven Stories. Critical and creative projects will be considered. While the Seven Stories collection represents material from the 1930s onwards, proposals on the history of children’s literature, as well as work focused on the 20th and 21st centuries, are welcomed. Themes of interest to Seven Stories in this application round are:
Makers of children’s literature: children’s book history; editing; publishing; education; bookselling
The art of children’s books: children’s book illustrations; picturebooks; comics; development of printing technologies; art history; visual experience; materiality
Childhood and place: national identity; global childhoods; cosmopolitanism; heritage and historical fiction
The child and the book: children; childhood heritage; literary heritage; the book as object; memory; childhood reading; reading contexts Museum and gallery studies projects will focus on Seven Stories’ role as a museum, focussing on our visitor centre and touring exhibition programme. Themes of interest to Seven Stories in this application round are:
Children and museums: children; young people; early years; museums; galleries; heritage; archives; digital technologies
Creative practice projects are invited in any artistic medium or discipline, that respond to our collections, spaces, work and audiences, and could adopt the form of residencies within our venues. Themes of particular interest to Seven Stories are:
The evolution of children’s books: children’s books; production; experience; distribution; experimental practice; participation; collaboration
The future of storytelling: storytelling; technology; artificial intelligence; machine learning; immersive technologies; interactivity; virtual reality; augmented reality; mixed reality In each of these research areas, we particularly welcome projects which explore themes around inclusion, diversity and representation: race and heritage; disability; gender and gender identity; sexual orientation; age; socio-economic status; religion; culture; children’s rights and human rights.
How to register an interest in a Collaborative Doctoral Award with Seven Stories:
Potential applicants are asked to select the research area they would like to pursue, and contact Dr Annie Tindley (email@example.com) to discuss ideas. They will then submit a project summary which will undergo an initial assessment in November 2018. Projects selected at that point will be supported into the main competition. For more information about Seven Stories please explore the website.
For queries about eligibility, suitability and for general enquiries please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Current Northern Bridge Collaborative PhD Student Helen King says of the application process:
I found Seven Stories and my supervisors really supportive throughout the Northern Bridge process. It’s a lengthy process and I felt daunted by it at the start, but they were enthusiastic about my ideas whilst also challenging me to keep improving my proposal. I was made really welcome when I came for a visit so I got a real sense that I’d enjoy studying here. It’s important to remember that your potential supervisors have a wealth of expertise both on their subject and the application process. It’s also worth remembering that if they have accepted your expression of interest it means that they think your research is exciting and worth doing, and they will be rooting for you to get a place.