A Fresher at Fifty

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

Jennifer Shelley

Episode two: an Ancient Monument

Driving to the station to catch the train to Newcastle University last September my mind went back to 1984 when I was starting university for the first time. Back then, my mum and dad drove me from Dundee to Edinburgh, where I was to spend four years studying English literature – and making friends that I’m still close to today.

Now, however, my mum’s sadly no longer with us, and rather than being an 18-year-old excited about leaving home for the first time, I’m 50 years old, married, and living in the Perthshire countryside with my husband, greyhounds and chickens.

But the me of today still has a few things in common with that eager teenager: for one thing, my taste in music hasn’t changed much – David Bowie is blasting out of the car’s CD player, just as he was back in the 1980s, although back then it would have been a cassette player. And the 50-year-old me was also excited about starting a new degree, although a bit nervous about what it would entail.

Jen in her halls room back in the 80s
Jen in her halls room back in the 80s

Even getting to this point had been a bit of a journey: having decided to apply to do an MLitt in children’s literature, one of the first steps was pulling together the information to prove I met the entrance requirements. Essentially what I needed was a 2:1 or higher in a related subject, so that should have been tickety-boo: but I hadn’t reckoned with my great age.

The application form required ‘transcripts’, by which it meant a documentation that showed all the courses I had taken – and the marks achieved – in my undergraduate degree. I had my degree certificate, but had never even heard of transcripts.

A call to my alma mater – the University of Edinburgh – confirmed that they could send me an academic statement, but the kind young man on the other end of the phone explained it might take some time. ‘You see, our records don’t go back that far, so we’ll have to dig it out of the archives,’ he said. Yes, it seems there is a room somewhere in Edinburgh University filled with big books containing the details of past students – and to retrieve mine would involve someone physically going to the room and wading through these tomes and taking a copy. This process was set in motion, and when the document finally arrived, it turned out to be merely confirmation of my first degree and overall result. The ever-helpful and patient postgraduate admissions staff at Newcastle confirmed that this was okay – they are happy to be flexible with mature students, it seems – so the application progressed, and ultimately was successful.

Arriving at the university campus in all its freshers’ week pomp also brought back memories, although there were of course some differences: this time, I was (sadly) largely disregarded by the eager young students peddling leaflets about societies, or offering cut-price beers or nightclub entry to people who looked like they might be freshers. ‘I’m a student too,’ I screamed (but silently).

After the process of registration was completed – one member of staff kindly confirmed I wasn’t quite the oldest she’d seen that day – I had an initial meeting with my supervisor, Lucy Pearson. More of an informal chat, we discussed my areas of interest and she recommended some initial reading. She also reminded me of events set up to welcome postgraduates, including a get-together (with quiz!) held by the Children’s Literature Unit, and a drinks reception organised by the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics.

The latter, I confess, was an eye-opener: chatting with a couple of recent graduates about to embark on PhDs, I enquired about their subject areas, and realised I didn’t even understand what they were. What on earth was ecocriticism, for example (when I found out I immediately started wondering if I could apply it to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books – and why not?).

All in all, it was a lot to take in, and a lot to think about – would this ancient monument be able to cope?


We really hope so! In the meantime, if you missed episode one of A Fresher at Fifty, read it here.

Racism and Nineteenth-Century Australian Children’s Literature

Roisín Laing

The stereotyped ‘redskins’ in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904), Enid Blyton’s The Three Golliwogs (1944), the Oompa-Loompas in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964): children’s literature is saturated with racism. Whether the racism is naïve, or ironic, or intentionally offensive, it is consistent in one respect: it calls into question the humanity of its object.

The humanity of various races was openly debated, and hierarchically organised, in the nineteenth century. Indigenous Australians were at the very bottom of this hierarchy of humanity. British men, as the most influential contributors to this debate, were at the top. This provided a paternalistic rationale for a range of British colonial activities in Australia.

Cover of The Little Black Princess, 1905.
Cover of The Little Black Princess, 1905.

Jeannie Gunn’s The Little Black Princess (1905) typifies a superficially benign form of that paternalism. The eponymous child, Bett-Bett, ‘must have been a princess, for she was a King’s niece’.[1] She is also, however, ‘just a little bush nigger girl’, whom the narrator endeavours to assimilate into white society for her own good.[2] In other words, Bett-Bett is a fictional pilot run for the reality of the Stolen Generations.

The narrator implies that Bett-Bett fails to become a little white princess because of her irredeemable blackness. The text itself, however, implies that the narrator fails to control Bett-Bett’s impertinent and energetic resistance. Despite the racist ideology underlying the narrative voice of The Little Black Princess, its child-protagonist suggests that Indigenous Australians are not incapable of attaining white civilization. Rather, they are unwilling to adopt it in exchange for their own civilization.

Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894) is more insidious. ‘In Australia’, Turner begins;

a model child is—I say it not without thankfulness—an unknown quality. It may be that the miasmas of naughtiness develop best in the sunny brilliancy of our atmosphere. It may be that the land and the people are young-hearted together, and the children’s spirits are not crushed and saddened by the shadow of long years’ sorrowful history. There is a lurking sparkle of joyousness and rebellion and mischief in nature here, and therefore in children. [3]

Turner’s version of Australia has been expunged of Indigenous Australians altogether.

Moore, May. (1927). Portrait of Ethel Turner.
Moore, May. (1927). Portrait of Ethel Turner.

Seven Little Australians therefore attains an end in fiction which nineteenth-century evolutionary theory had predicted would come about in fact. When Charles Darwin claimed that ‘The thoughtless [Australian] aboriginal…is delighted by the approach of the white man, who seems predestined to inherit the country of his children’, he lent scientific legitimacy to Gunn’s paternalistic effort to protect Bett-Bett and her community from their supposedly self-inflicted annihilation, and presented Turner’s whitewashed Australia as the inevitable outcome of the difference between Indigenous Australian and British people.[4] Of course, Darwin, Gunn, and Turner thereby erase the countless massacres of Indigenous Australians by British settlers throughout the nineteenth century which, along with disease and enforced starvation, actually propagated the decimation of the Indigenous Australian population.

Around the time when Darwin was writing up his ideas about ‘thoughtless Aboriginals’, two Indigenous Australians were recording their experience of white men in Australia. Thomas Brune and Walter George Arthur wrote and edited The Flinders Island Chronicle, the first Aboriginal newspaper in Australia. The Chronicle was heavily censored by G. A. Robinson, the British commandant of the Flinders Island settlement. This accounts for the many passages devoted either to praising Robinson himself, or to promoting Christianity.

The dissent and disgust of the newspaper’s self-signed ‘Aboriginal youths’ become clear, however, on closer reading. On 17th November 1837, for example, Brune seems to praise the commandant:

so kind to you he gives you everything that you want…he brought you out of the bush because…he knowed the white men was shooting you and now he has brought you to Flinders Island where you get everything and when you are ill tell the Doctor immediately and you get relief.[5]

But the final paragraph belies this account of Flinders Island as a safe haven for Aboriginal people:

The brig Tamar arrived this morning…Let us hope it will [bring] good news and that something may be done for us poor people they are dying away the Bible says some of all shall be saved but I am much afraid none of us will be live by and by as then as nothing but sickness among us. Why don’t the black fellows pray to the king to get us away from this place.[6]

Brune becomes even franker about the conditions on Flinders Island in later issues of the Chronicle. On 7th December 1873, he wrote that ‘I got rite to you the same things over and over again. Commandant has directed me to work and if I don’t attend to it I must be put in to jail’.[7] Robinson ended the Chronicle’s run shortly after this issue.

The Flinders Island Chronicle falsifies the observations nineteenth-century evolutionists made about the intelligence (and the humanity) of Indigenous Australians. It also provides a salutary point of reference for the colonial Australian fiction which emerged in dialogue with this scientific racism. Turner’s Seven Little Australians erases Australia’s Indigenous peoples, and thereby erases the atrocities of the British colonial project there. Gunn’s The Little Black Princess attempts to idealise a British colonial encounter with an Indigenous child, but is only partially successful. The Flinders Island Chronicle emblematises the difference between Turner’s version of British Australia and Gunn’s: its content and eventual fate indicate that it is easier to establish British colonial supremacy by eradicating Indigenous Australian voices than by attempting to control them.

Ultimately, the Chronicle suggests that one way of addressing racism in children’s literature might be to attend to those voices which such literature ignores or misrepresents; to read an era’s most popular and most literary fiction in dialogue with its neglected, obscured, or undervalued texts. To do so would be to recognise the humanity of the authors of these abandoned texts, and might thus help to contradict the dehumanising effect of racism itself.

Roisín Laing completed her PhD at Durham University and is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sydney.

Lead Image: Message stick, Kimberley Aboriginal peoples, collected from north-west Western Australia by Sir Frederick Napier Broome in 1884, 25.4 x 2.3 x 0.5 cm. British Museum Oc,+.2424.


[1] Jeannie Guun, The Little Black Princess: A True Tale of Life in the Never-Never (London: De la More Press, 1905), p. 1.

[2] Gunn, p. 1.

[3] Ethel Turner, Seven Little Australians (London: Ward, Lock and Co., 1912), p. 9-10.

[4] Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (London; Wordsworth Classics) p. 641.

[5] Thomas Brune, The Flinders Island Chronicle, 17th November 1837, in For the Record: 160 Years of Aboriginal Print Journalism, ed. Michael Rose (St. Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1996), p. 17.

[6] Brune, p. 17.

[7] Brune, The Flinders Island Chronicle, 7th December 1837, p. 18.

George Him – and the kindness of strangers

Professor Kim Reynolds

One of the most laborious – and often dispiriting – aspects of preparing a manuscript for publication is obtaining permission to reproduce words and images. However, I had some heartening and illuminating experiences when contacting the estates of the writers and artists whose work I wanted to reproduce in Left Out: the forgotten tradition of radical fiction for children in Britain, 1910-1949 and the companion volume, Reading and Rebellion, an anthology of radical writing for children, 1900-1960 (co-edited with Jane Rosen and Michael Rosen, forthcoming 2017). It seems progressive thinking and generosity of spirit passed on through generations. Many of the creative individuals whose work is central to both books gave their time and talent for free as a way of helping the rising generation prepare for the task of managing the challenges confronting what was then called ‘civilisation’. Those who represent them today were generally excited about the two books and generously gave permission for the work to be reproduced at no cost. More importantly, they also shared information and material about their relations.

An example is Jane Rabagliati, step-daughter of the brilliant graphic designer and illustrator, George Him (1900-1982). As well as giving me permission to reproduce material, Jane invited me to her house to see the archive she has assembled relating to Him’s work, including his fertile professional partnership with Jan Le Witt (1907-1991).

Working under the name Lewitt-Him, the pair, who began working together in Warsaw in 1933, arrived in London in 1937. They had already produced some ground-breaking children’s books such as Locomotive (1938, first published in Poland) based on the text by the distinguished Polish poet Julian Tuwin. Tuwin’s sound-poem is perfectly complemented by the modernist style of the Lewitt-Him illustrations (a new edition of the book will be published by Thames and Hudson later in 2017).

Once in England, the pair created several high-quality children’s books, being among the first illustrators working in the UK to introduce modernist elements for this age-group: their style leaned towards abstraction and borrowed elements from Surrealism and Cubism. A typical example is Blue Peter (1943), with text by Jan Le Witt’s wife, Alina. This story about a blue dog born to a white mother who is persecuted but eventually finds a home on Blue Dog Island is a parable that no doubt appealed to George Him, a Jew who witnessed the Russian Revolution, was living through the persecutions and atrocities of the Holocaust at the time of publication, and was a supporter of the project to create a Jewish state.


Children’s books were a relatively small part of Lewitt-Him’s output, but after they disbanded in 1955, George Him went on to illustrate a number of popular works on his own. When no longer working as part of a team, his style became more traditional and decorative, but the richness of his palette and the narrative intelligence that informs his compositions is impressive. It is possible to view his illustrations for Frank Hermann’s Giant Alexander books (more than 600,000 copies sold world-wide) at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books. Him also worked with Leila Berg on the Little Nipper series; Berg’s archive, too, is held at Seven Stories.

Several of the books in Jane Rabagliati’s archive were entirely new to me, among them the books about King Wilbur the Third which were among several Him did for television. This link takes you to a page where you can see samples of his television graphics. These are not as innovative as the earlier work, but they capture well the style of the times and the particular fusion of book and television associated with programmes such as Jackanory.


I wrote a bit about some Lewitt-Him books in Left Out, but there is much more to be said about them and the work of Him on his own. A couple of years ago the publishing wing of the Tate Gallery reprinted The Football’s Revolt, and now Thames and Hudson are reintroducing Locomotive. It seems a good time to be thinking about how, together and singly, Lewitt-Him influenced children’s publishing in Britain.

A Fresher at Fifty

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

Jennifer Shelley

Episode one: deciding to go back to study

At a recent family meal my nephew was bemoaning the difficulty of getting back in the way of studying after taking a year out to gain some work experience.

I’m afraid I just laughed – and told him to try it after 28 years.

Because that’s the gap between my first graduation (in English Literature from Edinburgh) and the decision to study for an MLitt in children’s literature at Newcastle.

So why did I decide to do it? Of the many reasons, the first impulse probably came from children’s books themselves. A long-time collector and enthusiast, I had agreed to give a paper at the Fourth Bristol Conference on Twentieth Century Schoolgirls and Their Books this summer. My talk was on the Drina books by Mabel Esther Allan (written under the name Jean Estoril), a series about a young girl’s fight to learn to dance and subsequent rise to become a ballerina. The books were written between the 1950s and 1990s and most were updated once or twice. What fascinated me was how the books unwittingly provided clues and evidence of the social and other changes that were going on in the second half of the last century – from the building of the Forth Road Bridge to whether it was okay for young girls to go out without a hat and gloves.

I thoroughly enjoyed doing the research for the paper and realised that it made me feel very alive – as if my brain was working in a different way, and waking up an enthusiasm I hadn’t felt for a while. It almost felt like a drug and I wanted more of it.

A couple of people asked afterwards whether the paper was part of a formal research programme, which probably planted the seed, but there were other reasons too. Like a lot of people, I’d often vaguely thought about studying for a second degree. I lived through my husband’s PhD (as a mature student) a few years ago so knew it was no sinecure, and had thought it might be something I’d like to do when I retired. But a couple of wake-up calls (in terms of friends’ and colleagues’ early deaths or illnesses) made me think that waiting wasn’t the best plan. Plus, although I enjoy my work (as a freelance journalist and health writer) I’ve been doing it for a long time. All in all, change was in order.

Having made the decision, I then started looking around for the best course. Living in Highland Perthshire, I checked the Scottish universities first, but the only children’s literature courses seemed to be hooked in to education departments, which wasn’t really my interest.

A friend suggested a distance learning MA in children’s literature in the south of England, but the content of the course didn’t particularly grab me – then another friend mentioned the MLitt at Newcastle; it sounded very good.

I’d already checked out the Newcastle University website, partly because I’d heard about its collaboration with Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, and partly because I know and love the area having worked on one of the local newspapers 20 years ago (although I must say the city has transformed since then).

The beauty of the MLitt, or so it seemed to me, was that I could structure it around areas that fitted my interests, rather than what some great authority thought should be part of a children’s literature degree. The course involves writing three or four shorter research assignments totaling up to 24,000 words, then a dissertation of the same length, in a year full-time or over two years part-time. It was also, somewhat to my surprise, given that there is a lot of contact with a dedicated tutor, cheaper than even distance learning options elsewhere. This was a consideration as I’m self-funding.

A telephone call with one of the lecturers, Dr Lucy Pearson, confirmed that this would be a good option for me, so I decided to apply…


Did you know Seven Stories is a member of IBBY, the International Board on Books for Young People? Earlier this spring CLUGG had the opportunity to explore the latest IBBY Honour List. Learn about it on the Vital North blog

Books from the IBBY Honour Collection. Image: Newcastle University
Books from the IBBY Honour Collection. Image: Newcastle University.

North East Teenage Book Award

Dr Lucy Pearson

The North East has long been a hotbed of activity around children’s books, and one example of that is the North East Teenage Book Award, now in its eighteenth year. I was lucky enough to be invited to this year’s award ceremony, a gala occasion hosted by the Centre for Life. I have a particular interest in children’s book awards – I’m currently working on a history of the Carnegie Medal – so I was excited to be in on the action.

Unlike the Carnegie Medal, the NETBA is judged by teenage readers themselves, and I arrived at the Centre for Life to find it full of excited young readers. The queue for the bookshop (run by our friends from Seven Stories) was a mile long and there was a huge sense of anticipation in the air. This was heightened by the fact that every single one of the shortlisted authors had made the journey to Newcastle for the awards ceremony. After several months in which the young people participating had read and discussed the books, researched the authors, and taken on the hard job of picking a winner, they were clearly thrilled to meet the authors in person.

This year’s shortlist is very varied, running the gamut from historically-tinged fantasy through dystopian thriller to contemporary realism. You can see details of all the shortlisted books, along with short video interviews with the authors, on the NETBA website. I was impressed by the variety of the shortlist, and by the fact that many were first novels. Book awards – both children’s and adults – can often feel as though they are defaulting to the usual suspects, and it was refreshing to see so many new authors on the list. This seems to me to be a huge strength of an award chosen by teenage readers themselves, especially now that the internet makes it so much easier for young people to discover new books directly. As a children’s book professional, I’m only too aware how hard it is for adults to stay current with everything that is coming out – teenagers can be much more responsive.

Each author was introduced by a team of young people, and once again I was struck by how much the teen-centred nature of this award adds to the whole experience. The introductions were all fantastic: well-researched, professional and funny. I hadn’t read any of the shortlisted books beforehand, and I got a really good sense of what they were like and which ones I might enjoy based on these short introductions. Bravo to all the presenters.

The winning novel was Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal, a dual narrative novel focused on a trans teen. This was a book that was already on my radar, and after the introduction to it at the ceremony it’s definitely moved up my list. One thing I really enjoyed about Williamson’s discussion of her own book was her emphasis on the light-hearted elements of the story – I’ve read quite a few books focusing on trans characters, but they do tend towards the angsty. I’m looking forward to reading Williamson’s book, and the rest of the shortlist.

The North East Teenage Book Award is aimed at ‘Getting and keeping young people reading’ and it’s clear that it’s a massive success. Indeed, although I often hear adults talk with dismay about young people’s lack of interest in reading, this event reminded me that people have been voicing such concerns as long as books have been around. I was struck by the fact that all the authors spoke of the possibilities involved in writing for young people, who they characterised as more open-minded and more flexible in their approach to genre. (This kind of flexibility is certainly one reason why I enjoy researching children’s books.) And based on the young people I met at the award ceremony, reading is far from dead: there are plenty of engaged, adventurous and enthusiastic young readers. I’ll be looking to the NETBA in future to find new and exciting authors to read.

Fish Boy

The display at Blackwell’s

‘People call me fish boy. My skin goes up and down like the waves. My mind goes in and out like the sea. They say I’ve always got my mouth open, that I ask too many questions. But what’s wrong with that?’

Heading to the Newcastle University main campus, it was impossible to miss the spectacular display in the window of nearby Blackwell’s bookshop: rows of Fish Boy, the first novel by local author Chloe Daykin, nestled beneath a watery blue banner featuring illustrations from the book.

This was rather apt because Chloe herself had agreed to come along that day (16 March) to talk to members of the university’s Children’s Literature Unit Graduate Group (CLUGG) to share her experiences about writing and publishing what is being hailed as one of the hottest children’s books to come out this year.

Chloe Daykin with Fish Boy

It was great to welcome Chloe, who already felt almost like a colleague because she is a Newcastle alumna, having graduated with distinction an MA in creative writing. She spoke to us about why she decided to be a writer (sitting on the sofa contemplating life after having children, she thought that writing was something she’d like to do) and how she went about it. Her approach was part chutzpah – for example, she had plays put on at Newcastle’s Live Theatre and Northern Stage, and The Traverse in Edinburgh as a direct result of emailing or calling and offering her work – and part sheer hard graft, and being prepared to pick herself up and start again when things didn’t go brilliantly first time round.

In a way, Chloe’s journey to become a published writer sounded like a seamless fairytale: she quickly found a literary agent, for example, and had publishers competing to win the chance to have her first book. But she also generously shared with us some of the hurdles she had to cross, including the very lovely problem of having to decide which flattering publishing deal to accept. Chloe also discussed how the MA had helped, particularly in teaching her about the craft and structure of different forms of writing.

Fish Boy has now been published by Faber Children’s, and a very beautiful job they’ve made of it too, partly due to the exquisite illustrations by Richard Jones. The story of Billy, a young boy who is having a hard time in life – his mum is ill, and he’s being bullied at school – it tells how his world changes when he is swimming in the sea and is addressed by a talking mackerel. His subsequent adventures are a mixture of working class family and school life, and a world of magical realism, where normal rules don’t apply. Billy himself is an enchanting character, obsessed in equal measure by swimming, and by David Attenborough (who has apparently been sent a copy of the book; verdict as yet unknown!). The book has already been reviewed very positively, with verdicts including words such as ‘magical’, ‘original’ and ‘uplifting’ and Chloe has been hailed as an imaginative and accomplished new voice.

One of the great delights about Fish Boy is its grounding in the North East – Chloe is very clear that it is set here, and there are nice touches such as including local landmarks like the Merz Barn Wall.

With great good nature, Chloe submitted to some grilling from CLUGG members about her literary influences and the reasons behind particular choices – why a mackerel, for example, and why did it speak Hungarian? We also spent some time jokingly debating what language the fish would speak if the book was translated into Hungarian in the future.

Chloe is now working on her second novel, which will also be published by Faber. It would be great to see her back at CLUGG when it comes out, if not before.

CLUGG is a group that meets several times a term, with a varied programme that includes staff and postgraduates sharing ideas, research and work-in-progress, as well as visits from others with an interest in children’s literature. Read about our guest speaker on Paddington Bear and learn more about Children’s Literature at Newcastle University. 

Jennifer Shelley

Celebrating World Book Day: Some of Our Favourite Children’s Books

Liam Owens

So unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll probably know that today is the 20th anniversary of World Book Day! A day dedicated to our favourite heroes and heroines of children’s literature, World Book Day brings together children of all ages and promotes the importance of literacy and reading for pleasure.

In my part time job at an arts and crafts store, I’ve taken much delight in offering
advice and guidance to screen-shot-2017-03-01-at-19-39-22children and parents looking for supplies to put together fancy dress costumes inspired by their favourite characters. (For the record, I’ve had a Cat in the Hat, Thing 1 and Thing 2, two witches from Room on the Broom, a Katniss Everdeen, a Willy Wonka, and a Gandalf the Grey – all in one day, I might add!)

As a group of researchers interested in children’s literature both past and present, we simply couldn’t let the day pass by unnoticed. So to celebrate, we thought we’d get together to discuss some of our own favourite children’s books (albeit without fancy dress, unfortunately!) As you can see, we’re an eclectic bunch – our personal favourites cover virtually every aspect of children’s literature: post-millennial LGBT teen fiction, girls’ boarding school narratives set in the midst of the Second World War – even picturebooks illustrated in the traditional art form of the Bhitti Chitra!

So what are you doing today to celebrate World Book Day?

Do you have a favourite children’s book you’d like to share with us?

Let us know in the comments!

Postgraduate Open Day

Our second Children’s Literature Open Day for this academic year was held on February 8th 2017. It was a great chance to welcome visitors to Newcastle and to showcase the kind of work we do here at Newcastle. We were also lucky enough to welcome Costa Award-winner Frances Hardinge to Newcastle for a public event.

All about the Children’s Literature Unit

We kicked off with an introduction to the Children’s Literature Unit by Dr Lucy Pearson, who is just one of a great team of children’s literature scholars here at Newcastle. Professor Kimberley Reynolds (19th and 20th century children’s literature), Professor Matthew Grenby (18th century children’s literature), and Dr Pearson (modern and contemporary children’s literature) are at the heart of the Children’s Literature Unit, but they are joined by Creative Writing colleagues Ann Coburn and Zoe Cooper – both award-winning authors for children – and by a host of colleague whose work deals with children and childhood, including Professor Kate Chedgzoy (Renaissance childhoods), Dr Helen Freshwater (child performers and family theatre) and Dr Martin Dubois (Victorian nonsense rhyme and fantasy literature). This diverse team takes a whole range of approaches to children’s literature studies, but perhaps the most distinctive aspect of children’s literature at Newcastle is a common interest in historical approaches and book history. In different ways, CLU scholars are interested in how children’s books came to be and how they live in the world.

Alongside the staff who work in this area, there are of course our brilliant postgraduate students, who meet twice a month to share their work (and to create this blog!). Having a thriving group of scholars and students working on different aspects of children’s books means there is always someone to share your ideas with, a chance to learn something new, and a place to get a bit of moral support.

Studying at Newcastle

The Percy Building, home to the School of English at Newcastle University.
The Percy Building, home to the School of English at Newcastle University.

Two of our postgrads came along to share their experiences of Children’s Literature at Newcastle. Masters student Liam Owens spoke about the research he’s been doing on the MLitt in Children’s Literature. Liam says:

“Studying the MLitt is fantastic. It gives me the freedom to research the areas of children’s literature which interest me, and the structuring of the course means I’m able to write on as few or as many topics as I like. This term I’ve just completed a research assignment on the representation of the posthuman in the works of twice Carnegie winner, Patrick Ness. Now I’m in the middle of conducting research on digital story apps and arranging empirical research with a local primary school. Without the MLitt, I would never have been given the opportunity to research children’s literature in such diverse ways.”

One of the illustrations from 'A Monster Calls'.
One of the illustrations from Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls (2011).

Lucy Stone spoke about her PhD research, which draws on the amazing archives at Seven Stories:

I was 13 and beginning to learn German when I first read Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971). The story stuck with me over the years. It was at the University of Cambridge while I was undertaking an MPhil in Education that I learnt of Seven Stories here in Newcastle where Kerr donated, along with the manuscripts of her published picturebooks and novels, her childhood drawings, paintings and writings. I was struck by their colour, light and life, which appeared to be in contrast to the childhood of exile I understood Kerr to have led, despite the light and warmth infused in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Newcastle University works in close collaboration with Seven Stories and I was very fortunate to be awarded first a David Almond Fellowship and now a Research Excellence Academy Studentship to study the Collection and find out how and why Kerr’s juvenilia resounds with such joy and shows a humanity and remarkable talent.

Seven Stories, National Centre for Children's Books, www.sevenstories.org.uk
One of Judith Kerr’s watercolours made as a child, included in her memoir Creatures (2013). You can view the original at Seven Stories.

Seven Stories and the Robinson Library

Students visit Seven Stories.

One of the most exciting aspects of working on children’s literature at Newcastle is our partnership with Seven Stories: the National Centre for Children’s Books. Archivist Kris McKie came along to share some details of the collection, which now represents over 250 authors and illustrators! You can explore the collection on the Seven Stories website, and if you’re interested in coming to work on archive material keep a look out for our annual David Almond Fellowships, which provide small bursaries to support work on the Seven Stories Collection.

The University’s Robinson Library also has fantastic children’s literature collections, including the Book Trust collection, and an extensive collection of modern and contemporary British children’s books.

Fantasy Worlds with Frances Hardinge

Frances Hardinge

We were beyond thrilled to finish our Open Day with a fantastic event with Frances Hardinge! Frances’ books are favourites here in the Children’s Literature Unit and when our partners at Seven Stories suggested we might be able to invite her for a joint event we were very excited. The event was an in-conversation with PhD student Aishwarya Subramanian, whose research on British children’s fantasy after Empire has given her lots of thoughts on fantasy worlds and the way that authors play with them.

Frances and Aishwarya in conversation.
Frances and Aishwarya in conversation.

The discussion ranged from the role of the YA writer to the place of the fantasy author in our current political context. Frances spoke about her interest in times of transition: many of her books focus on historical moments of change (the impact of Darwinism in The Lie Tree; the aftermath of World War One in Cuckoo Song) or feature actual revolutions (Gullstruck Island and Twilight Robbery to name just two!). These ideas of transition seem especially relevant now, and Frances spoke about her desire to encourage readers to ask questions and the pleasure of writing for young people, who are naturally given to this.


Frances also spoke about the flexibility of young readers, which affords her the opportunity to write books which don’t conform to any one genre. In merging genres, she also takes the opportunity to pull in lots of interesting ideas she’s picked up along the way – her approach to history was a great reminder of just how much fun research can be!

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was Frances’ spontaneous recitation of the whole of ‘Jabberwocky’, which was word perfect. The poem helped to instil a love of language in Frances at a young age – one which has gone on to enrich and enliven her books. We can’t wait to see which worlds she wanders into next, and whether she finds a good use for place names such as Clenchwarton (a small village in Norfolk).

Find out more

If you’re interested in studying children’s literature at Newcastle, find out more on our children’s literature pages or contact one of the Children’s Literature Unit. If you’d like to know about future public events, join our mailing list.

Exploring the Catherine Storr Archives

Professor Kim Reynolds

I recently completed a project based on the Catherine Storr archives at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, in Newcastle, UK. The task was to find a digital equivalent for visiting Seven Stories for those who can’t travel to Newcastle. The result was ‘The Catherine Storr Experience’: a 3-minute interactive virtual reality exhibition. You can read about it and view the exhibition here.

The Storr archives are a good example of the kinds of materials held at Seven Stories for they contain manuscripts in many formats, correspondence, contracts, illustrations, materials relating to adaptations, unpublished work, books, and memorabilia. The materials were deposited by Storr’s daughters, who loaned additional items and shared memories while the project was being developed. No exhibition can do more than indicate what an archive contains, and the nature of digital media means that the text for ‘The Catherine Storr Experience’ was quite limited. This is an opportunity to say a bit more about Storr, her work, and the shape of the project.


Before her success as a writer, Catherine Storr (1913-2001) qualified as a doctor, completing her training in 1944, the year her first daughter, Sophia, was born. By this time she had already published a children’s book, Ingeborg and Ruthy (1940) under the pen-name, Catherine Preston.


Writing had always been her chosen career, and though she worked as a psychotherapist at Middlesex Hospital from 1950-1960, being a mother inspired her to try her hand at writing again. Several of the stories she told, and sometimes turned into hand-made books for her three daughters, found their way into print. These include Stories for Jane (1952 which was originally called Stories for Sophia; Clever Polly and Other Stories (1952), written for her second daughter, Cecilia, known as Polly, and Lucy (1961), dedicated to her youngest daughter, Emma.

Storr’s mother was a talented book-binder and photographer and she bound some of Storr’s manuscripts, including Stories for Sophia, shown here.


Later Storr assembled books for her children and grandchildren herself. The binding is less expert than her mother’s, but the stories are very amusing. Here is a page from her first attempt called ‘Naughty Sue’. Loosely based on Victorian cautionary tales, this contains the first of the Clever Polly stories.


Seven Stories also holds some of the manuscripts for the plays she wrote each Christmas for her children to perform in their puppet theatre. Although short, these were fully formed, with stage directions, songs, and special effects. Here’s a page from ‘Jack-and-the-Beanstalk’:


From the 1970s, Storr was a significant figure on the children’s publishing scene, speaking at academic conferences, contributing to scholarly publications, and reviewing books. Her most popular and enduring works are the Clever Polly stories (1952-57) and the novel Marianne Dreams (1958). Both have been reprinted many times, and Marianne Dreams was adapted for television, stage, and screen as well as being performed as an opera for which Storr wrote the libretto.

A prolific writer, Storr produced more than 30 novels for children as well as a number of picture books, retellings of classic tales, 6 novels for adults, 3 works of non-fiction, some music books for children and 2 libretti. Her last published work, The If Game (2001) was published posthumously.

Although her work is very varied, certain themes recur. For ‘The Catherine Storr Experience’ I decided to focus on the motif of the double or doppleganger, which sometimes involved parallel worlds. The image of the double seems to have fascinated not just Storr, but also her mother. The family photo albums include images of Catherine Storr’s daughters reflected in mirrors or turned into twins using early examples of photographic illusions. Storr’s mother developed and printed these visual versions of doubles. Their textual equivalents fill the pages of Catherine Storr’s stories and novels.


In her books for younger children, doubles and other selves are often used to explore tensions in families: the desire to be more clever or special than siblings, for instance. For older readers, Storr uses doubles to explore growing interest in (and anxiety about) the opposite sex and as metaphors for the way selves can be lost through illness, drugs, toxic relationships, and despair.

The novels for older readers are often dark and sometimes frightening: Marianne Dreams was turned into the horror film Paperhouse (1989). Ultimately, however, all Storr’s young characters prove resilient, and healthy normality is regained. This combination of optimism and fear arising from emotions arising from aspects of the growing, changing self are grounded in the period in which Catherine Storr was writing. These were the formative years of children’s literature studies, when pedagogic, psychological and other professional aspects of childhood informed academic research on writing for children and young people. Much can be learned about the development of our field by spending time in the Storr archives – and many of the others held by Seven Stories.

Paddington Bear: Liberalism and the Foreign Subject

CLUGG Meeting Report 

In a week where issues around immigration and borders are so high up the news agenda, our guest speaker’s talk on Paddington Bear could scarcely have been more timely.

CLUGG is the acronym for the Children’s Literature Unit Graduate Group, and meets around once a fortnight during term-time. It’s a space where postgraduates and staff can discuss and get feedback on work-in-progress or share interesting research or ideas; it’s also an opportunity for exchanging knowledge and learning from other disciplines and organisations.

On 26 January, Dr Kyle Grayson, a senior lecturer in international politics at the University of Newcastle, who specialises in popular culture and world politics, visited CLUGG to present some of his research on liberalism and the foreign subject in Michael Bond’s A Bear Called Paddington.

It was fascinating from a children’s literature perspective to hear how a scholar from another discipline – politics – approached and analysed this classic British children’s book which tells the story of a marmalade-loving bear from ‘Darkest Peru’ who settles in London.

Kyle explained that he’d first become drawn to the text when he was reading it to his daughter, and its relevance to world politics leapt out at him. He shared a little of his thinking around how Paddington, as an immigrant in a supposedly liberal society, illustrates the tensions and ambivalence in such a society, as well as the precarious position the ‘different’ or ‘other’ character finds himself in. As Kyle said, you don’t get much more ‘other’ than a bear.

He spoke about how Paddington got his name – from the railway station where he met the Browns, who took him home to live with them – because his Peruvian name would be too difficult to understand (an experience that will be familiar to many from non-Anglophone cultures) and explored the challenges faced by Paddington in settling in to a strange land.

In the discussion that followed the interesting presentation, topics ranged from the recent Paddington film – which most of us felt heavily underlined the political messages that were perhaps more subtly dealt with in the book – to the importance of remembering that Paddington, as a child and a refugee, should have had rights rather than having to rely on the Brown family’s good will.

Inevitably, however, the discussion turned to the relevance of Paddington to the current geopolitical situation and West’s response to the refugee crisis caused by conflict in Syria and elsewhere. This led to people sharing ideas about how children’s literature can and does reflect and potentially influence attitudes and values around such issues.

We also discussed other books written for children that involve borders, whether they be between countries or, indeed, between ‘real’ and other worlds.

Thanks to Kyle for coming along to CLUGG and sharing his thoughts – and listening to patiently to ours – and we hope to see him again.

Jennifer Shelley