Festive Fun at the Seven Stories Archive

Lauren Aspery

It’s that time of year again, and nothing says Christmas like the scatological humour of children’s author and illustrator, Nicholas Allan. I was fortunate enough to spend a day at Seven Stories rummaging through his uncatalogued Christmas archive last Winter, and one year later I thought I’d take the opportunity to share what I found.

If you don’t know Nicholas Allan, he is best known for his toilet-tastic titles including The Queen’s Knickers, The Giant’s Loo Roll, Cinderella’s Bum, The Royal Nappy, as well as his more festive work, like Jesus’ Christmas Party, Father Christmas Needs a Wee and Father Christmas Comes up Trumps. Having been fortunate enough to vicariously enjoy these books via a younger sibling, I was absolutely thrilled to learn I could put them to use for an undergraduate assignment on Lucy Pearson’s Children’s Literature Module, ‘Home, Heritage, History’. In fact, I ended up enjoying my day at the archive so much, that I ended up sticking around to do an MLitt!

This was my first time visiting the Seven Stories Felling site, and was a perfect way to get me into the Christmas spirit. I was greeted by Paula Wride, who showed me the ins and outs of the archive before setting me up with my work – although I’d hardly call it work, it was like Christmas came early!

The first item I came across was a hand-painted mother’s day card signed by Allan, which features an image of Mary holding Jesus in the same style as the illustrations for Jesus’ Christmas Party. There’s no way of knowing which came first – the card or the illustrations for the story – but I’d like to think this is what inspired him. I was also surprised to see so many different cover designs for Jesus’ Christmas Party with such vast differences, including the version I have on my shelf at home. Some featured angels, some included the whole nativity and some even had the titles in different languages as well! There was even his final watercolour artwork for the figures later produced for the accompanying activity playset and designs for the cover of, what has now become, Jesus’ Christmas Party: The Musical! Here are some of the covers in circulation now, the middle being the most recent:

The image at the top of this article is, perhaps, my favourite painting by Allan. The final print of Father Christmas Comes up Trumps does not do justice to the original version I was fortunate enough to see. I was blown away by the vibrance of the colours against what ended up on the page, but what was even more surprising, is that a coffee stain in the clouds (top left of the second page if you look carefully) made it to the final text. I’ve since wondered whether the editor missed it, or if the picture was just too good to waste!

I couldn’t believe the intricacy of some of Allan’s drawings. The files were filled with tiny scraps of paper with detailed miscellaneous final artwork the size of a penny. There were bells, holly, gifts, and even a specific gift design for the Father Christmas Needs A Wee barcode! It’s clearly a lot of work being both an author and illustrator, but seems like a lot of fun to have so much input in your work.

Of course, the Seven Stories Archive is not just home to Christmas picturebooks, but is brimming with exciting resources all year round. With that said, I don’t think any Christmas will compare to seeing Allan’s watercolours of Father Christmas breaking wind in various locations.

It seems only natural to conclude by quoting the final pages of Father Christmas Comes up Trumps:

‘So the world wakes up, And the children all cheer…

Father Christmas has come up trumps, Now it’s the BEST day of the year!’

Nicholas Allan, Father Christmas Comes Up Trumps (2013)

Merry Christmas from all of the Children’s Literature Unit here at Newcastle University!

Book cover images courtesy of goodreads.com

A PhD in Children’s Literature: The Process of Applying

Rebecca Jane Francis

So, you’re partway through your MA (or maybe finished a long time ago and want to go back to school again!), and you know that you want to do further study, and that you want that further study to be centred around children’s literature. But where do you start? How do you even begin tackling such a task? Maybe you’re in a one-year MA course, so you haven’t even handed in any papers yet – how can you go about applying for PhD?

Well, we here in Newcastle University’s CLU have been there! Here are some thoughts and suggestions on how to go about it.

First of all, and MOST importantly: THE APPICATION DEADLINES ARE MUCH EARLIER THAN YOU THINK THEY ARE. Yes, even earlier than that. Seriously. Especially as you probably have deadlines starting to come up in December and January as well, and you really don’t want to be trying to get your PhD applications in at the same time as you are writing your first MA papers. Put the deadlines in red in your diary, and then set reminders for them at least two weeks before. Check when any other deadlines or breaks you might be having are (as the applications are typically due across the Christmas holidays), and block out times when you will sit down to prepare for them.

But where do you want to apply to? You can’t start thinking about deadlines until you know where you are going, as every university has a different deadline and a different application process! Well, that’s actually quite a complicated question, so let me try to break it down for you.

There are two main ways to go about deciding where to study. The first is looking at universities that have a strong children’s literature unit. A good indicator for this is whether or not they offer MA courses specifically for children’s literature (or, failing that, at least an undergraduate course) and exploring things like library resources for children’s lit. The second is looking at the major critical works that have influenced your thinking and your desire to study children’s literature, and then seeing if any of those critics work at universities that you could attend. You should also look at what kind of funding opportunities the universities and the departments have!

Once you have a list of places you think might be feasible, spend time finding out about the university and the literature department as a whole. I know how hard this is to do from overseas, but chat forums and the school websites are helpful – if you can’t even navigate the website, it may not be the place for you! If you possibly can, try to visit the campus.

While you are doing this, you need to sort out a clear idea of what you actually want to study in your head. ‘Children’s Literature’ is a vast and multi-faceted area of study that crosses over several departments (literature, linguistics, history, psychology, etc) and covers several centuries and many different cultures. Is there a particular period or author that you are interested in? Why? Is there a problem that you think needs addressing? Are you interested particularly in a specific language or country, or want to do a cross-comparison of, for example, American and Canadian literature?

The next step is to get in contact with the researcher that you want to work with. Send a quick email, explaining who you are, what you are studying, what you want to study, and why you think that your work would fit with this researcher, and ask if they think that they might be interested in supervising your PhD project. If you are not applying straight from a one year MA, then ideally you should do this in the summer, as university teachers are very busy in September and October and it may take them some time to get back to you. Don’t worry too much if you can’t, though. It is KEY to do this: your supervisory relationship will be one of the most important things throughout the process of your PhD, so you should at least get a feel for what your supervisor might be like to work with. Do they reply in a timely manner? Do they seem enthusiastic? Do they want to hear about your thoughts, or does it feel like they might take over the project? All of these you can get a feel for relatively quickly!

In my own case, I emailed multiple places. I was politely turned down by one person, which is not unusual, and you should not let yourself get too down about. I was invited to a Skype meeting to discuss my research plans by two other researchers, which gave me a chance to get a feel for what supervisory sessions might feel like with them. It is also great to get that encouragement that someone in the field thinks that your ideas are worth exploring! I also got a wonderfully enthusiastic and very encouraging email from my now-current supervisor, who offered to look over drafts of any applications to the school or for funding.

Once you have someone you think that you could work with, and whose work aligns with yours, you need to write the application piece. If you have managed to make contact with a potential supervisor and have already established a rapport with them, ask them to check over your application before you send it in. IMPORTANT: Bear in mind that you will have to order transcripts from your school and that some universities still require that these be sent by post! Make sure that you order transcripts, for both UG and your Masters, well in advance of the deadline.

In terms of writing the main body of your application: every university will require different lengths and levels of detail. My suggestion is to write the longest one first, and polish that one to the best that you can. Then, once it is as good as you can make it, choose what to cut out for the other applications. Make it as PRECISE AS POSSIBLE. Discuss your own particular projects, mentioning critical works that you have already read, to show that this is not a pipe dream but something that you have put serious thought into and already know what some of the discussion around your chosen area is saying. If the word count allows for it, try to give draft chapter titles, and a brief idea of what the thesis would look like broken down into these chapters. At the end, spend a paragraph talking specifically about why you want to attend that particular university. Mention that you already have someone willing to supervise you, talk about library and archival resources, and about any relationships the university might have with outside groups (such as Newcastle University’s partnership with Seven Stories). Make it clear that you have done the research into the place itself and that you are enthusiastic about studying there.

Finally – send it in! Check that you have filled out everything that the university wants (multiple checklists may be required). Once you have done that, though, don’t just wait: you need to get your funding application deadlines in a row next! Most of these will not be due until after you know whether you have been accepted by the school, but some require earlier applications, so keep a careful eye out. Make sure that you keep going back to what you want to study, and thinking it through more, as some of the most comprehensive funding bodies (such as the AHRC) often want far more detail than the general school application, partly because they want to see that your thought processes have moved on since your initial application.

Good luck! I hope that this was helpful, and that your applications go as smoothly as possible!

The Other Side of the Archive: Cataloguing the Laura Cecil Collection

The Children’s Literature Unit has a close working partnership with Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, an organisation committed to fostering academic research into its archive. As well as working with Newcastle University, Seven Stories also has a strategic partnership with Northern Bridge, the Arts and Humanities Research Council consortium of universities in the North East and Northern Ireland. This partnership connects doctoral researchers with the Seven Stories collections. Here, Durham University PhD candidate Antonia Perna talks about her Northern Bridge placement at Seven Stories.

The purpose of Northern Bridge placements is to provide PhD students with opportunities for professional development outside the academy, to develop new skills and to apply our academic skills in a new setting. From March to May 2019, I undertook a placement at Seven Stories, where I worked on cataloguing the Laura Cecil collection. My own research focuses on childhood in Revolutionary France, and I explore in particular how schoolbooks and children’s literature versed young French people in republican politics and civic conduct. In this way, I have worked with children’s literature for my academic work, and this is what sparked my interest in Seven Stories. However, although there is some foreign-language material at Seven Stories, most of the collection is in English, pertaining to British children’s books, and dates from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I was intrigued to learn more about such books, and also to find out what an archive looks like from the other side.

Most academics in the arts and humanities have at least some experience of working with archival material, and we all know how much difference a comprehensive catalogue can make! Cataloguing the Laura Cecil Collection at Seven Stories has given me a window onto the process of compiling a catalogue, and insight into the kinds of considerations a cataloguer is faced with—and thus into what happens before a researcher opens the catalogue.

The Laura Cecil Collection on the shelves at Seven Stories; © Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books

The Laura Cecil Collection contains over forty boxes of material from Cecil’s career as a literary agent. The first agent to specialise in children’s literature, Cecil worked with several well-known children’s authors and illustrators, including Robert Westall, Diana Wynne Jones and Edward Ardizzone. Upon her retirement in 2017, she donated her files to Seven Stories; they consist primarily of correspondence with and relating to her clients, c. 1970-2009.

Having been instructed to provide a description for each file, I was faced with the challenge of deciding what information to include. How do you decide what is significant, in a file that could contain any number of documents? How do you predict what might be pertinent to a research project that is, as yet, hypothetical? After an overview of each file, I selected letters and documents of note according to how they were distinct from others in the file, or how they contribute to our understanding of a particular book, perhaps in terms of its editorial process or reception. When uploading this to the catalogue, I also cross-referenced related documents in other Seven Stories collections to aid research across the archive. As an academic, my instinct was to address all possible lines of enquiry that the documents could be used for; I had to accept, however, that I could not anticipate every possible research project.

Similarly, as a researcher, I was drawn to arrange material in a logical order, to facilitate locating and retrieving files. Specifically as a historian, however, I wanted to maintain the files’ original order, as this is part of the collection’s history. Generally, it is considered good archival practice to maintain the original arrangement and structure of a collection, and so I tried to respect this. Where I could not discern any order to the arrangement of files, I highlighted this in the catalogue, and, in the case of the Robert Westall correspondence, I did re-arrange files chronologically. The pressure to make the right decision here, and not to make a mistake that was irreversible, was rather daunting. Although I had worked with archival material many times in my academic work, I had never given much thought to how material was arranged, and suddenly I felt an overwhelming responsibility to get it right! I hope I did!

Another challenge I faced was the need to remain impartial. Of course most academics try to write in an objective tone most of the time, but we nevertheless analyse and interpret our sources, working them into an intellectual argument. As a cataloguer, my task was simply to report what was in the box. I could try to anticipate and respond to academic enquiries to an extent, but I could not pursue them, nor could I make emotional or moral judgements on the material. Having read five years’ regular, amicable correspondence between Laura Cecil and Robert Westall, I felt some shock at Westall’s sudden death (in 1993), and I held back empathetic tears as I wrote, simply, ‘notable documents include… a note with costs for his memorial service (manuscript)’. The cataloguer sees and knows every document in a file; she observes and records, but her tone must remain detached.

The Laura Cecil Collection complements existing collections at Seven Stories, such as this original artwork for Sarah Garland’s book Going Swimming. SG/01/01. © Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books

Nevertheless, getting to know a collection can be an exciting process—not least because some boxes contain hidden treasures! For instance, I was fascinated to discover a mock-up for an unpublished book by C. Walter Hodges, with original artwork, and to see how Sarah Garland illustrated her letters to Laura Cecil. On the other hand, there can be disappointments too. After half an hour engrossed in a draft of Robert Westall’s novella, The Duplicator, I was left with a cliff-hanger when I realised the text was unfinished! I have since emphasised in the catalogue that this story is both unpublished and unfinished, so that researchers will not make the same mistake!

After three months at Seven Stories, I would say that cataloguing a collection is something every academic should have a go at, if interested in archival research. My experience on this placement encouraged me to explore a collection as a whole, making links between individual documents, and to think more about the provenance of material. It also highlighted the value of an open-minded approach to research, where research questions may not yet be defined, and may be shaped by the material discovered. Of course, as academics, we know these things, but often practicalities and time constraints compel us to pre-select material and not to widen our parameters. Sometimes, though, the most useful document is in the box you might not have opened… Sometimes it might not be specifically highlighted in the catalogue—despite the cataloguer’s best efforts to predict your project!

Banner image: A selection of material by C. Walter Hodges, within the Laura Cecil Collection. LC/01/07/01. © Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books.