An Invitation: Open Day at the Children’s Literature Unit

Wednesday 7th February, 3:30 – 5:30 pm

We would like to invite you to visit our Children’s Literature Unit on Wednesday 7th February 2018 from 3:30 to 5:30pm, as part of Newcastle University’s Postgraduate Open Day. 

If you’re considering an MLitt, MPhil or PhD, come along and find out about studying children’s literature or creative writing for children and young people in Newcastle. Meet current students and discuss your research project with potential supervisors, and find out more about our outstanding research collections with staff from Special Collections and Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books.

Register your attendance for the afternoon here. We look forward to meeting you soon. In the meantime, you might like to read about last year’s Open Day.

We Come Apart with Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan

We would also like to invite you to the event We Come Apart with authors Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan, chaired by author and Teaching Fellow by Liz Flanagan. This event is free, and will be followed by a drinks reception and book signing. 6:30 – 8:00 pm. Find out more about the event and book your place here.

“What do you think about, when you think about nothing?”

BookTrust Annual Lecture

Lauren Child

As we begin the new year, Agnès Guyon, MLitt Student, looks back on the 2017 BookTrust Annual Lecture by Lauren Child, recently appointed the Waterstones Children’s Laureate, and the beloved author and illustrator of Charlie and Lola (pictured above) and Ruby Redfort.

Lauren Child, Waterstones Children’s Laureate, BookTrust.

Last year, I had the opportunity to attend the BookTrust Annual Lecture at the RIBA delivered by recently appointed Children’s Laureate, Lauren Child. The role of the Waterstones Children’s Laureate is awarded every two years to a “writer or illustrator of children’s books to celebrate outstanding achievement in their field and recognise the important contribution children’s literature makes to cultural life”. Although they all share a common belief in the power of children’s literature, each Laureate has a different focus, from championing diversity as did Malorie Blackman (2013 – 2015) to advocating for school libraries in the case of Chris Riddell (2015 – 2017).

Lauren Child is a strong advocate for idleness, and has announced right at the beginning of her tenure that she would like to encourage the creativity and imagination which is born out of boredom and daydreaming. She would also like to help build stronger links between children’s literature and other art forms such as the fine arts, film, music, television and design.

In her lecture entitled “What do you think about, when you think about nothing?”, Lauren Child developed these themes, starting with the question which is inevitably asked by children during her visits to schools or other children’s events: “Where do your ideas come from?” She spoke of the importance of free time, time to daydream and observe the world around you. As a child, she spent a long time staring out of the window and many of her childhood observations have informed her own writing and illustrating.

With strong visual support and a lot of humour, Lauren Child advocated the importance of supporting children’s creativity, and the need of more diversity in children’s books. She called for children’s illustration to be taken more seriously. She illustrated to the audience how important children’s books are in reassuring or helping children make sense of the word, praising books such as Michael Rosen’s and Quentin Blake’s Sad Book (2004) for its honesty, and regrets the pressure put on children to read “the classics” at the expense of personal choice.

BookTrust’s Head of Books, Emily Drabble, hosted a Q&A session after the lecture and one of the first questions was about Lauren’s creative process and whether she is a linear or non-linear thinker. Lauren admitted to being such a non-linear thinker that she usually starts her stories somewhere in the middle and works round it. I found her lecture itself a perfect illustration of this. It seemed to meander and follow such a circuitous path that I was wondering where it was going, but it made complete sense in the end!

The annual lecture was followed by a celebration to mark the 25th anniversary of Bookstart. Wendy Cooling, Bookstart founder, was presented with an Outstanding Contribution award and spoke about her motivations and how the idea to give books to all babies sprang from when she she once watched a child, at his first day of school, who clearly had never held a book before and had no idea how to handle it. Through no fault of his own, that child had already failed his first school task. From Children’s Laureate to Bookstart, the link is obvious – a strong belief that children’s book make a difference.

Photos from BookTrust.

Current Global Politics Limit Academic Freedom – IRSCL Statement of Principles

Today, Universal Children’s Day, the 20th of November 2017,  the International Research Society for Children’s Research in Children’s Literature (IRSCL) issues a Statement of Principles, concerned about the ways in which contemporary geopolitics curtail academic freedom. 

This summer, the IRSCL convened its 23rd biennial congress in Canada.  More than 20 percent of the scholars whose papers were accepted were unable to attend due to radical economic disparities and restrictive travel policies in the world.

The IRSCL is worried by the current xenophobic situation as it curtails academic freedom. The free flow of people and ideas across borders has to be defended anew, says Lies Wesseling, President of the IRSCL.

For this reason, the IRSCL today issues a Statement of Principles, which explains why scholarship can flourish only in a world with open borders. The statement is in the format of a collection of videos featuring IRSCL members reading the statement in their native language.

The statement is issued on Universal Children’s Day to emphasise not only the importance of our research, but also of children’s literature’s potential to foster empathy, nurture creativity, and imagine a better world, says Lies Wesseling.

The IRSCL is an international scholarly organisation dedicated to children’s and young adult literature with 360 members from 47 different countries worldwide. This announcement has been adapted from the IRSCL press release. You can learn more about the IRSCL on the IRSCL website and follow the IRSCL on Facebook

Every second year the organisation arranges the IRSCL Congress, the world’s most international congress within the research field. Please read on for a report of this year’s congress by Professor Kim Reynolds. 

IRSCL Congress 2017

Possible & Impossible Childhoods

Professor Kim Reynolds

The 23rd biennial gathering of the International Research Society for Children’s Research in Children’s Literature (IRSCL) convened at York University, Toronto at the end of July. Lasting 5 days, it was a full-on programme with more than 300 papers, and a programme of complementary events. Over the years I have come to prefer smaller, more tightly focused symposia where it is possible to hear most of the papers and have ample time for discussion and networking. This, however, was a beautifully constructed programme on the theme of ‘Possible and Impossible Childhoods’ with an emphasis on exploring the intersections between children’s literature and childhood studies. An added feature of this year’s conference was a much-deserved celebration of the work of Jack Zipes, who had several books appear in this, the year of his 80th birthday. Jack has not only been a great contributor to children’s literature scholarship through his publications and projects on fairy tales, storytelling, translation and adaptions of children’s books, but also a good friend to scholars young and old and a great ambassador for both children’s literature and childhood studies. One of his recent publications looks at retellings of tales about the sorcerer’s apprentice, popularised in the Disney film Fantasia. Zipes shows that one strand of these tales is unusual for showing how those who are enslaved or otherwise have little power manage to challenge elites and transform the status quo. For those of us interested in the use of magic in children’s literature, it’s an important new resource.

Perhaps I enjoyed this conference more than other huge events I have been to recently because I chose which sessions to attend more carefully. There are always competing pressures to hear new voices, as well as to attend sessions by students and friends, to learn what established figures are thinking, and to support those who may be at the margins of a conference in terms of language and corpus. So a tip to those who are new to the conference scene – be both a little selfish and a little adventurous as you plan your schedule so that you get the maximum from what can be a costly experience in terms of time, energy and money.

Unlike, say, the main annual conference of the Children’s Literature Association, another huge event with a strong US/Anglophone focus, the IRSCL congresses are always truly international. Those who attend them tend to be very welcoming to colleagues from all countries and at all stages in their careers, for this society was formed precisely to support children’s literature scholars, who even today, when the subject is more established, often find themselves rather isolated in their own institutions and countries. It is a fine forum for discovering new kinds of primary materials, new methodologies, and potential collaborators.

For me some highlights this year included a plenary by Robin Bernstein, a cultural historian based at Harvard, who developed her work on the performative nature of children’s literature in the form of a lecture on ‘going-to-bed-books’. In a stylish and witty lecture she managed to convince me that books can be examples of ‘performative utterances’, meaning they don’t reflect existing reality but change it. In this case, the books change the moment from not time to go to sleep to one in which sleep is embraced.

Double-page spread from Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947, illustrated by Clement Hurd), one of the first and best-loved ‘go-to-bed’ books.

Robin also works on race, and she was one of many voices who encouraged us to examine our default assumptions and understanding of what we mean by inclusivity. Although I have always found IRSCL to be very inclusive, it is true that the preponderance of participants come from Europe, North America and Asia, and so work remains to be done. Robin’s lecture was introduced by Philip Nel, whose new book Was the Cat in the Hat Black? addresses this issue in an engaging but challenging way.

I was also very taken with a highly unusual variation on the WWII prisoner of war story told by a young scholar from China who discovered in the stacks at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, London University) a magazine produced by children who were incarcerated in a school in occupied (by Japan) China. Although it was technically a prison camp, the missionaries who ran it managed not only to keep a semblance of normal life running for the international group of students held there but also to make it a happy and rewarding time in their lives. They played baseball, studied for their exams, attended meetings of Scouts and Guides – complete with uniforms – and launched a magazine which continues to this day. When the war was over and the children were dispersed, it provided a valuable social network. An equally fascinating though chilling paper looked at how the Turkish government has been rewriting traditional folk and fairy tales in the service of the current regime’s ideologies. Altogether, I came away intellectually recharged, more than ever aware of the political and cultural significance of children’s literature, and convinced yet again that these assemblies of scholars are a genuinely important part of international co-operation and intellectual development across countries.


Silence and Silencing in Children’s Literaturethe 24th Biennial Congress, will be taking place in Stockholm, Sweden 14-18 August 2019. Information will be regularly updated on the IRSCL Congress 2019 website

From Horses to Fantastic Beasts: The Fantastic Journey of Olivia Lomenech Gill

Jacqueline Ho, MLitt Student

Who do you immediately think of when you hear Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? J.K. Rowling? Eddie Redmayne? There is, however, someone else who is worth just as much praise – Olivia Lomenech Gill, illustrator of the latest edition of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Last week, I had the privilege to celebrate the book’s exclusive launch with Olivia at Seven Stories, a place I’ve longed to visit.

Stepping into the attic, I was completely mesmerised by the atmosphere: warm, welcoming, magical.

Olivia began her discussion on the creative process behind Fantastic Beasts by sharing one of her very  first paintings, a horse, made when she was 6-years-old. Ever since, horses have become her long-term working partner. Before illustrating Fantastic Beasts, Olivia worked with Michael Morpurgo. Where My Wellies Take Me (2012) was her debut illustration project. She was then invited to draw pictures for War Horse. Here is one of them, Standing To: 

After many years of working with horses, Olivia began on Fantastic Beasts, a rather challenging project. Taking roughly eighteen months to complete, Olivia began the project by studying and sketching animals from real-life and Greek Mythology. Some beasts pure products of Rowling’s imagination, Olivia found them difficult to create. Once she had tackled the beasts’ general appearance, Olivia sought to make the creatures believable to the readers, visiting zoos and studying special animal collections and archives.

Living in the generation of technology and social media, computer software like Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator are popular among many contemporary designers and artists. When illustrating creatures, many may also choose to take film footage of animals “in the field” for later use. Not Olivia. She prefers the traditional way: working in situ wherever she can with pencil, charcoal and sketchbook.

Olivia believes doing rough sketches by hand somehow helped her to develop an intimate relationship with animals, and thus aids her illustration work. She also makes animal models. For example, to develop her design of the Acromantula, she created a model of a spider-like insect in her studio.

Olivia’s studio also plays a great role in the illustration process. She designed and built her studio, a strong believer that architecture affects one’s working process. It attracts many creatures, such as birds and insects. At times disturbing and troublesome, Olivia was ultimately thankful for their presence throughout this project; it was fitting that in illustrating creatures some live ones should have been present.

What struck – and inspired – me most was Olivia’s modesty and honesty. This project had panicked her, she admitted. I’m not a good illustrator; my drawings aren’t good enough. On the contrary, Olivia truly is a fantastic illustrator. I empathise with her and see my own struggles as a researcher reflected in Olivia’s as an illustrator. Just as Olivia must spend lots of time “in the field”  and make copious preparatory sketches, so in literary studies a researcher must spend lots of time in the library, reading, making notes, forming and employing the right methodology. But when it is something you love – as illustrating is for Olivia and researching for me – take courage, push on through the difficulties and moments of self doubt, do the best you can and you’ll be surprised at just how far you can go.

You can find further examples of Olivia’s illustrations on her website

Revolution in the Library! A Conference on the ‘Children’s ‘68’

Dr Lucy Pearson

The anniversary of 1968 approaches, and with it memories of radical change: workers and students united on the streets of Paris; draft resisters and anti-Vietnam protesters; flower power and violent revolution. The 60s revolution is usually regarded as a youth phenomenon, yet little attention is paid to the literal ‘children of the revolution’. This is the gap that Sophie Heywood proposed to address with her research network on The Children’s 68. On October 12th, CLU colleagues Kim Reynolds and Lucy Pearson headed off to Tours, France, for an interdisciplinary conference organised by Sophie Heywood and Cécile Boulaire exploring the many dimensions of childhood and ‘the spirit of ‘68’.

The conference brought together scholars from many different countries and many disciplines. For some of us, 1968 was clearly a landmark moment, while others questioned whether there was a ’68 moment at all in our countries of interest. Topics included children’s books, radical magazines, television, art culture, feminism and workers’ rights. What emerged from this comparative approach was that there were many correspondences across the experiences of different nations, but also that even within a single cultural context the ‘meaning’ of ’68 encompasses a variety of different and often conflicting ideas.

There were many examples of culture which tried to give children a voice or encourage them to resist the power of adults. Olle Widhe’s paper on the children’s rights movement in Sweden, for example, showed us books which encouraged adults to resist the ‘indoctrination’ of their children, and encouraged children themselves to rise up against the power of adults. Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer, on the other hand, showed that West German texts sought to ally children with other marginalised groups: a collaborative revolution in which children helped to overcome the systems of power.

Kim Reynolds vividly evoked the feelings of power and possibility experienced by children and young adults in 1968 USA, and showed that while children’s culture failed to produce texts directly addressing the Vietnam War, these young people co-opted the adult culture of popular music to articulate their feelings and beliefs. Other papers, though, raised the possibility that the child was co-opted by adults as a symbol for their own ideologies and desires. Andrea Francke showed a range of exciting picturebooks which questioned the existing social order, but ruefully acknowledged that while these were exciting and important for the women in the feminist collectives who produced them, many children found them uninteresting. In David Buckingham’s paper on the controversial schoolkids’ issue of Oz magazine, he suggested that the magazine included both the authentic concerns of schoolchildren and a discourse around childhood which served the interests of the adult men who edited the magazine.

‘You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant’: Kim Reynolds showed how song lyrics became a key part of ’68 youth culture.

One striking theme was the degree to which this ‘counter-cultural’ moment was institutionally supported and disseminated. Helle Strandgaard Jensen showed that the state broadcasting of Denmark incorporated radical voices into its children’s television. My own paper, on Leila Berg’s Nippers series, considered the intersection between progressive education and mainstream educational publishing and policy. Cécile Boulaire showed that even traditional Catholic publishers in France produced radical material in the form of children’s magazine Okapi.

Left: Leila Berg’s ‘Nippers’ books for children grew out of her activism on children’s rights. Right: Anti-authoritarianism for supper? Critics of Leila Berg’s ‘Fish and Chips for Supper’ complained that it gave children ‘the wrong sense of values’ and that ‘father should not be the object of criticism’.

Another theme which preoccupied me throughout the conference was the question of intersectionality. One of the most striking aspects of the May ’68 revolution in Paris was the way it brought together different constituencies: students and workers manned the barricades together.

Yet I felt that very few of the examples considered fully expressed such unity between children’s rights and the interests of other groups. Children are not only children, of course: they are also defined by their gender, class, ability, race etc. Many texts sought to explore the power dynamics of such categories, and many promoted the rights and agency of the child, but neither the cultural productions of the sixties nor our scholarship achieved a fully intersectional understanding of childhood. I wondered if this gap was a partial explanation for our sense that many of these radical ideas had not had as great a legacy as some of us wished.

The conference closed with the accounts of practitioners: children’s librarians, curators, and educators. Alex Thorp, Education Curator at London’s Serpentine Gallery, showed some fascinating examples of projects which demonstrated the radical potential of play and the degree to which the young people of today continue to experience their relationship with the adult world as one of oppression. All the discussion in this closing session drew attention to a crucial gap in the conference discussion: almost none of our papers included the accounts of actual children. For scholars of childhood, the question of how to include the child’s voice is a perennial problem, but our subject really brought this to the fore. The network hopes to partially address this in an exhibition on ‘Le ’68 des enfants’ taking place May-June 2018, to be held at the French children’s archive Heure Joyeuse, preserved at the Mediathèque Françoise Sagan. Working with graphic designer Loic Boyer, the archive will develop an interactive exhibition which invites children to participate; accompanying workshops with illustrators will also help to bring children’s voices to the fore.

It was a stimulating few days which generated many productive conversations and (I hope) some lasting collaborations. For me, it was a great reminder of how interlinked different aspects of children’s culture are: I can’t wait to do more work with colleagues from other disciplines. Perhaps together we can revive something of the spirit of ’68!

Perhaps some of you were ‘children of ‘68’ – or the children of those children! What was the spirit in your country? And how has it shaped children’s culture today?

A Fresher at Fifty

The Occasional Diary of a Mature Postgraduate Student at Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit

Jennifer Shelley

Episode Four

On realising I know nothing – but am starting to learn

There’s a rather lovely sense of back-to-school in Newcastle at the moment: there’s an autumnal chill in the air, the leaves are turning and I’ve bought some splendid new shoes.

It’s the start of the new academic year, and for me, as a research student, it’s also the end of the old one, which technically finished mid-September when I had to submit the third and last research assignment of my first year.

In one sense it seems like yesterday that I started the MLitt in children’s literature as a mature student; in another, it feels like a lifetime (largely in a good way). As mentioned in previous blogs, I’m taking the course over two years, as a part-time student, so this is essentially the half way point for me.

So what have I learned?

The first and possibly most important thing for me was not to underestimate just how much there is to learn: many years as a keen reader of children’s books are certainly not a passport to academic success. There’s a song by Dean Friedman from the 1970s where the chorus goes something like you can thank your lucky stars that we’re not as smart as we like to think we are. It’s not a track I ever particularly liked, but unfortunately it’s been going round and round in my head, almost since my first meeting with my supervisor, and certainly since I started getting feedback on my work. It turns out that academics can be – how can I put this? – blunt in asserting their opinion of one’s hard-sweated efforts, and any notion that I’d walk in being brilliant was quickly dispelled.

The second lesson was somewhat connected, in that it involved a growing appreciation that challenge and criticism is not only good in a ‘swallow-your-medicine’ kind of way, but that it can also be thoroughly enjoyable. It can be disconcerting at first to be forced to justify everything you say or write (at some points when asked why I’d included mention of a particular critic, for example, I just wanted to wail ‘well I don’t know, it just seemed a good thing to write’). But actually, being forced to anticipate that kind of challenge has made me much more stringent in my own writing, both in my academic and professional life.

And that’s probably the nub of the third lesson: academic writing is a skill in itself. Having been a journalist for almost three decades, freelance for half of that, I’m accustomed to writing for a variety of different audiences from the general public to policy-makers and specialists. Before I started this degree, I was aware that I’d have to abandon some of my most dearly-held tenets, such as never writing an introductory sentence of more than 30 words; I also knew that I’d have to get to grips with proper referencing. But I had thought less about other aspects of academic writing, from the simple (such as not using contractions) to the harder-to-judge, like avoiding colloquialisms. In each of the three research assignments I’ve submitted, I’ve been picked up for using informal language, even though I’ve tried very hard to stamp it out in my writing.

Has it been worth it? Well, I have to say I’ve absolutely loved it, challenges and all. It’s been possibly harder than I anticipated to balance my professional life and university life (not to mention life-life and all its inevitable issues), but it as also been hugely satisfying. I’ve genuinely had a sense of progression, not just because my marks have steadily grown higher over the course of the year, but because I can see myself that while my work still has an enormous way to go, it’s definitely improving. In case anyone’s interested, my research topics covered my existing interests – mid-twentieth century books for girls – but through a lens that was new to me, that is, the feminine middlebrow. The first essay was on career novels for girls, the second on the family novels of Noel Streatfeild, and the most recent on Mabel Esther Allan’s coming-of-age novels, specifically the Drina series (written under the name Jean Estoril).

So now it’s time to plan the dissertation – probably in itself the topic for another blog – and to jump in to my second and final year as a mature student. I’m looking forward to it very much – and did I mention I’ve got some great new shoes?

Angela Brazil Pulls it Off

A pioneer of the British girls’ school story is commemorated at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Jennifer Shelley

To the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to see For the School Colours, a show based on the life and works of Angela Brazil – well, who could resist?

It’s being put on in a typical, small Fringe venue just off the Royal Mile, by Not Cricket Productions, a company that is developing a reputation for producing shows based on classic texts and tales.

Not Cricket’s other offering at this year’s Fringe is the better-known Alice in Wonderland, but it was the For the School Colours that attracted me. Regarded as one of the ‘Big Four’* in terms of early 20th century writers of school stories for girls, Brazil is probably the one I know least about – and yet she repays some attention. To today’s eyes, her work appears to embody the worst of the clichés of girls’ school stories, as lampooned by the likes of the musical Daisy Pulls it Off; it’s hard to keep a straight face when reciting some of the titles, such as The Jolliest Term on Record (1915), The Madcap of the School (1917), or Joan’s Best Chum (1926). But Brazil was to an extent a pioneer. Of course she didn’t invent the school story, but she is recognised for doing much to develop and popularise it, and for writing books for the entertainment of modern girls. Indeed, the blurb for the show suggests that she paved the way for writers such as Enid Blyton and even J. K. Rowling, but that’s a discussion for another day.

The play has clearly been well-researched, and acknowledges that little is actually known about the life writer, who lived from 1868 to 1947. Brazil did leave an autobiography, but it painted a very rosy picture, for example, making her family out to be grander than it was, and glossing over anything not quite ‘respectable’. A later biography by Gillian Freeman was published in 1974, and covered such delights as Brazil’s unexpected correspondence with Marie Stopes, including a letter discussing whether the school stories would translate to stage or screen. Although this production mines these resources, writer Kate Stephenson has also turned to Brazil’s fiction for clues about the author’s life. For example, the company acts scenes from A Patriotic Schoolgirl (1918), where a respectable schoolteacher has to explain to her pupils why her nephew is being brought up in a household that is distinctly below her station. The play draws parallels between this and Brazil’s own brother, who apparently cut himself off from his sister when she would not accept his marriage to someone considered not good enough.

The play gives the overwhelming impression that when it comes to Angela Brazil, what you see is probably not what you get, even with something as basic as pronunciation of her surname. Although she herself voiced it to rhyme with dazzle, the play suggests that her parents and brother chose to call themselves Brazil, as in the country. I found that particularly amusing, partly because in certain fandoms, how you pronounce Brazil is almost a secret sign for identifying the ‘cognoscenti’ (another is knowing that Noel Streatfeild is spelt e-before-i). So it’s nice to know that this form of elitism was based on something just as dubious.

I came to Angela Brazil as an adult, and almost didn’t get to know her at all. The opening few lines of the first novel I downloaded (there are lots available for free from Project Gutenberg) were off-putting, filled with ridiculous slang and ‘harum scarum’ characters getting up to gratuitous mischief. A friend persuaded me to give it another go, and suggested starting with Bosom Friends (1910), one of Brazil’s earlier works, and a ‘holiday’ rather than a ‘school’ story. It was a completely different experience: set in a seaside town, it concerns a friendship between two girls who have very similar names, but are opposites in almost every other respect. One is kind and caring and intelligent – and poor – while the other is a selfish and dishonest spoilt darling with ‘fluffy’ blonde curls and a taste for finery (usually a sign of a bad egg in 20th century girls’ fiction). It’s a charming book and the heroine, Isobel, is a delight. Although her near-namesake, Belle, is a trifle overdrawn, and the plot is a little too coincidence-heavy, Bosom Friends is a fabulous gateway into Brazil’s other work.

For me, it led me to ‘binge’ on the other Brazils available on Project Gutenberg, and then to start collecting early editions of the books where I could find them. Most of them were published by Blackie, and are very attractive, with gorgeous covers, as well as being fun to read.

I was curious to know what had inspired Not Cricket Productions to pick on Brazil, and waited behind to speak to Stephenson, who is the director as well as the writer. She told me that she had started reading Angela Brazil when researching for her PhD, on the history of school uniform. Her thesis is that school stories influenced clothing codes that were adopted in schools, and she said that the works of Angela Brazil just kept coming up in her research, and the fascination started there. She’s trying to turn it into a book – but jokingly complains that theatre keeps getting in the way.

All in all, I felt it really worked as a show, and would recommend it if anyone wants to spend a pleasant and interesting hour at the Fringe. It has also inspired me to find out more about Brazil herself. Watching the play, I wasn’t sure what was based on fact, and what was speculation, but that didn’t mar the enjoyment; I’ve ordered a copy of the Freeman biography, and I’m looking forward to finding out more.


* The others generally included in the ‘Big Four’ are my particular favourite Elinor Brent-Dyer, who wrote the Chalet School series; Dorita Fairlie-Bruce, author of the Dimsie and Springdale books, and Elsie J Oxenham of Abbey fame. Your views may vary – if so, feel free to respond in the comments section below.


A Week in the North

Dr Eve Tandoi

At the end of the academic year, the University of Gloucestershire – at which I work – kindly agreed to fund a short writing retreat. At first I thought of taking myself off to an isolated cottage, but then I quickly realised that what I needed after a year working in Initial Teacher Education was to immerse myself in a stimulating and inspiring environment where I was not ‘the lecturer’.

As part of an earlier project I had started exploring the field of children’s theatre. Therefore, I was aware of Dr Helen Freshwater’s work on theatrical representations of children and childhood. I was also aware that Seven Stories housed the playwright David Wood’s extensive archive of original plays and adaptations. The coexistence of archive and individual in a place – Newcastle – that just happened to house a thriving community of children’s literature scholars was simply too good to miss. Dr Lucy Pearson and Professor Kim Reynolds have been incredibly kind – putting me in contact with the archivist Kris McKie at Seven Stories and Dr Helen Freshwater. They also organised for me to attend the talk that Brian Alderson gave at the Philip Robinson Library and to give a talk myself at CLUGG.

The staff at Seven Stories were wonderful and Kris McKie was brilliant at introducing me to the David Wood collection. On learning that I planned to look at material related to six productions, he subtly hinted that I might not quite get through all thirteen archive boxes in the time available. On his suggestion, I started with the boxes related to David Wood’s adaptation of Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958), which kept me busily occupied. I have written more extensively about the work I did there for the Seven Stories Collection Blog (coming soon!). The material related to this adaptation and to many others is incredibly rich and it has provided me with a range of questions and perspectives to consider. Just as a tantalising nugget – I am sure that you are aware of the controversy over casting choices for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child but were you aware of the colour-blind casting for the premier of Tom’s Midnight Garden (Unicorn, 2000)?

As well as working within the archives I had a number of opportunities to catch up with friends over the course of the week. When I first arrived at Cambridge to take an MPhil in Children’s Literature, someone told me that the people I met and studied with would become friends for life and I feel incredibly fortunate to still be in touch with so many of them. As Roberta Seelinger Trites once said, “We do not eat our children” and the children’s literature community is an incredibly friendly and stimulating one of which to be a part.

As an author, reviewer, collector and translator of children’s literature, Brian Alderson is perhaps one of the founding figures of the children’s literature community. Therefore, it was lovely to be able to sit back and listen to him speak about a handful of children’s authors and illustrators that I was either unaware of or who I want to know better. The talk was given in honour of the exhibition that he curated for the Philip Robinson Library and that is open over the summer. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the incredible work that Brian Wildsmith and Charles Keeping have done because I vividly remember pouring over their illustrations as a child. Needless to say, several of the picturebooks that Brain Alderson shared with us are currently winging their way towards me through the post!

My own talk that I gave to the assembled members of CLUGG was tightly focused on a reading event in which a Year 7/8 class read and responded to David Almond and Dave McKean’s The Savage (2008). It was a real luxury to have an hour to present and then discuss the children’s responses to the book and I felt that it provided me with a unique opportunity to ‘dig deeper’ and bring together ideas that had – until then – grown independently. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who came to the talk – the questions you asked have given me so much to think about and I am very much enjoying revisiting my work in the light of them.

I had a wonderful time in Newcastle and it has been such a pleasure to reconnect with children’s literature friends and make new ones. The resources available at the University and at Seven Stories for researchers interested in children’s literature are outstanding and I have come away buzzing, so thank you – yet again – to all those who made my stay to enjoyable.

A Fresher at Fifty

The Occasional Diary of a Mature Postgraduate Student at Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit

Jennifer Shelley

Episode Three

Making Connections: 20th-Century Style

When I was studying for my first degree in the 1980s, I knew just one person with a computer, a final-year PhD student. Unlike the rest of us (lecturers included) who were still wedded to paper and pen – he was able to commit his wise analysis of the works of Christina Rossetti straight onto hard disk.

Today, of course, it’s a very different story: looking round the seminar room, the majority of students are tapping away on tablets or laptops, with only the occasional diehard making use of an actual paper notebook as opposed to a computerised one.

The MLitt in Children’s Literature, for which I’m studying as a mature student, is a research degree, largely involving one-to-one study and working on research essays with a supervisor. But learning about research methods is a requirement of the course, so we are obliged to study a module with the students who are undertaking the MA in English Literature – hence being in the seminar room with other postgraduates.

Learning about various aspects of research – such as how to formulate a dissertation topic and how to go about doing it – is obviously useful in itself, but for me, as a mature student, the best thing about doing this module has been the opportunity to meet other postgraduates on a sustained basis. This has been good socially – I was hugely heartened after the first seminar to be invited for a drink with a couple of other mature students – but also academically. As the first year has progressed, the MA group has coalesced into a largely friendly peer-support network, setting up a Facebook group to answer each other’s last-minute panics and queries, and regularly meeting up in person to share works-in-progress, or just to let off steam.

Being an MLitt student, I’m in an insider-outsider position with this group, especially as I’m still based at home in Scotland most of time. But I’ve appreciated the opportunities (in class and out) to discuss ideas, talk about dissertation or essay intentions, and get input and fresh ideas from people with very different research interests to me (artificial intelligence, post 9/11 fiction, and digital apps, to name but a few). It’s also been rather nice to get the odd invitation via Facebook to student house parties – not something I thought would be happening at the age of 50.

Widespread use of mobile devices (my laptop seems practically archaic by contrast), and social media apart, the actual process of academic study and research has also undergone a technological revolution in the last 30 years. I remember learning to use microfiche to read archived copies of newspapers, and very fiddly it was too, but that was as good as it got; e-readers were the stuff of Tomorrow’s World, and journals and books were shelved on, well, actual shelves. Thinking about it, it’s absolutely amazing today to be able to gain access to such tremendous amounts of information without even having to make a physical trip to the library – in effect, you have a library in your hands.

Then again, sometimes the old ways can have benefits: just as attending the research methods seminars has led to valuable social and academic relationships, actually visiting the library can bring its own advantages. This was brought home to me in one of the earlier seminars, which included teaching about the university’s special collections and took place in the library itself. Sitting waiting for class to start, I idly turned over a letter that had been left on the table in front of me.

Wait, surely that wasn’t H.G. Wells’ signature?

Indeed it was. This was one a number of objects that library staff had strewn about to entice us – others included material from the Bloodaxe archive, and (most excitingly for me) an early edition of one of my favourite books, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s The School at the Chalet. Lifting it up, feeling its heft, and smelling its smell, I felt a connection that stretched back to the first half of the last century – even the fastest broadband can’t beat that.


Book Burning with the Borribles

Aishwarya Subramanian

To get to the archives at Trinity College, Dublin, you have to walk through part of what is generally considered one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. This isn’t quite as wonderful as it sounds—it also means that you have to navigate your way through a crowd of tourists, often walking in the opposite direction, many of whom probably think you’re jumping the queue. (You may be, as I was, told off by an indignant small child.) You are repaid, however, with the chance to flash your reader’s card and walk smugly through the cordoned-off door at the end of the room.


This is not a complaint about tourists—at least part of my smugness was borne of being allowed a shortcut through spaces I’ve had to queue up to see in the past. But there’s lots to be said about the library as an institution, as a site for tourism; about the fact that lists of the most beautiful libraries in the world are a phenomenon in the first place (for example, ‘The Most Spectacular Libraries Around the World‘, ‘Best Libraries Around the World‘, ‘16 Breathtakingly Beautiful Libraries from Around the World‘, ‘15 of the Most Beautiful Libraries in the World‘).

There’s a library in the book I was there to work on. Late in Michael de Larrabeiti’s The Borribles (1976), two of our heroes come across the library of their mortal enemies, the Rumbles:

It was a long, high chamber, with massively tall bookcases soaring up to an embossed ceiling that had been painted with the coats of arms of the richest and most ancient Rumble families […] Here was assembled all the knowledge, wisdom and power that the Rumbles had amassed over many centuries, and now it was being dismantled by a very busy Borrible.


The Borribles, along with the books that follow it, The Borribles Go For Broke (1981) and Across the Dark Metropolis (1986), has an uneasy relationship with the literature that came before it. Most critics, if they mention the series at all, will describe it as a parody of Elisabeth Beresford’s Wombles series—it’s hardly subtle either about its connection to those books or its opinion of them. In de Larrabeiti’s series the “Rumbles of Rumbledom”, with names like Oroccoco, Vulgarian, Napoleon Boot (corresponding to Beresford’s Orinoco, Great Uncle Bulgaria and Wellington), are acquisitive rodents who live lives that range from comfortably middle-class to outright decadent, and who are considered repulsive by the Borribles, to whom the concept of money is abhorrent. Borribles own nothing—even their names are fought for. (In The Borribles, our heroes adopt the names of the Rumbles they kill.) But the Wombles aren’t the only literary reference here—diminutive humans who often live under houses and sustain themselves by stealing only as much as they need, the Borribles are also reminiscent of Mary Norton’s Borrowers and this fact is echoed in their name. And perhaps most importantly, as children who run away and thus avoid ever growing up, they’re a version of Peter Pan‘s Lost Boys. These are not the only figures in the children’s literary canon to whom they can be compared, though. In Across the Dark Metropolis, a character attempts to restrict knowledge of the Borribles to “the realm of hobbits, boy wizards* and bunnies.”

The point, of course, is that the Borribles are not hobbits, not Borrowers, definitely not Wombles; they’re constructed in opposition to this literary canon and all that it represents. Their natural allies, we learn as the series progresses, are outsiders—immigrants, racial minorities, circus folk, the homeless; at one point we meet an all-woman punk commune of Borribles who to me are always coded queer. In the later books the Borribles are pursued by “the SBG”, a police group blatantly modelled after the Special Patrol Group (SPG) of the London Metropolitan police. In 1985, de Larrabeiti’s publishers would refuse to publish Across the Dark Metropolis because in the wake of the Brixton riots the book’s political sympathies were a little too clear.

And so the Borribles burn the library down:

[Napoleon] went over to a pile of dusty tomes, put a match to them, and stood back as they burst into flames on the instant.

“What I mean,” persisted Bingo, “is that it’s a shame; they’re good things, books.”

“Good things! You sound like a bloody Rumble […] What would happen if we left these books up here untouched? I’ll tell you what, there’d be another Rumble High Command on the go in five minutes. This is what it’s all about, Sonny—books is power! The whole world knows that.” And Napoleon threw another volume into the blaze.

Books are power—libraries, like literary canons, are institutions that oppress. It’s testament to the book’s power that here the reader feels something like triumph at the burning down of this library. But we also feel, with Bingo, that it’s a shame.

And for all Napoleon’s hardline stance, the books do recognise the importance of literature (and as intertextual as they are, they could hardly exist without it) and literary record. The adventurers in The Borribles are accompanied by a historian, a more experienced Borrible whose job it is to record their story for posterity. As the series progresses the importance of this alternative literary record, of actively telling this story, becomes more and more clear. The Borribles represent a history of resistance that their enemies want to un-write—want, in fact, to keep in “the realm of hobbits, boy wizards and bunnies.”

In our own political dark times, as it grows ever harder to imagine alternatives to the present, it has been important to me to remember that these books, and others, existed; that however imperfect, they offered models of strength and solidarity. For this reason above all others I’m glad that the de Larrabeiti archive exists, even if it is in one of the Most Beautiful Libraries in the World.

*Not that boy wizard; Across the Dark Metropolis was published in the 1980s. (It’s not hard to imagine what the Borribles would think of Hogwarts, though … )