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 … )

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!