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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’:

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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.

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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