A Fresher at Fifty

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

Jennifer Shelley

 Episode Five

From Fresher at Fifty to Graduate at 52

The peacocks are quite possibly the most vivid memory from my first graduation. Back in the summer of 1988, we had lunch in Edinburgh’s Prestonfield House Hotel, where the savvy waiters hovered refilling glasses of red wine with the tempting mantra ‘you deserve it’. It’s hardly surprising that when we finished eating, and repaired to the garden for some photographs, this new graduate was spotted crawling along the grass trying to persuade the showy birds to play bonnie for the camera.

Unfortunately, Jennifer didn’t quite manage to persuade the peacocks to pose with her.

There were no actual peacocks* present in December when my fellow graduands and I gathered in the rather grand King’s Hall for graduation number 2 – or ‘congregation’, as it’s called at Newcastle University, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t memorable. For one thing, there was something rather awe-inspiring about walking the same route as Martin Luther King had taken when he received an honorary degree from the university back in 1997. For another, it was great to catch up with some of the friends and acquaintances who were graduating on the same day.

And frankly, it was also pretty great to have got to the point where I was graduating at all.

It was back in 2017 that I decided to study for a research degree in children’s literature, working for the MLitt part-time over two years. Looking back, I had dived into the application process in a fit of naïve enthusiasm, without any real idea of what it would be like. I had imagined it might be tricky to navigate professional commitments with my new life as a student (stopping work was never a financial option for me) but had blithely supposed it would all be fine, really. I also had vague apprehensions that academia might have moved on a bit in the last 30 years, but confidently felt that I could deal with that: bring it on, said my 50-year-old self.

I’ve written in a previous blog about the various challenges, particularly in re-learning academic writing and balancing the various demands that are inevitable at my time of life, including my dad’s increasing care needs. Surprisingly (at least to me), however, the experience of doing the degree was that, overall, it alleviated rather than added to these stresses. Even at the height of dissertation writing, with deadlines looming, I was able to lose myself completely in writing, rewriting, and yet more rewriting – so much so that I once ended up on a train to Glasgow instead of Edinburgh because I was engrossed. That kind of feeling is pretty wonderful.

On reflection, doing the degree also gave me some fabulous opportunities. As well as doing my own original research on mid-20thcentury girls’ books, I sat in on the undergraduate children’s literature course, which introduced me to things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise read (Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut was a particular favourite). I spent some time in the Seven Stories archive wallowing in Noel Streatfeild’s diaries and letters, which was great fun and a new experience. I heard some fabulous speakers at university events and made some good friends. I also learned to think and respond more with greater critical clarity – not just to literature, but in all aspects of life.

I can’t say that I really felt I truly got to grips with academic writing, and my dissertation (on radicalism in Mabel Esther Allan’s early books) could have been infinitely better. But I did okay, and my overall degree result was sufficient should I decide to apply to do a PhD in the future.

I miss my life as a student and my frequent trips to Newcastle. Yes, it was tough, but it was also wonderful. I’d very much recommend it; indeed, I might, at some point, be back…

*when I say there were no ‘actual’ peacocks there in December, I think my dad’s smile on the day suggests he was ‘as proud’ as one.

Jennifer with her father

 

Jennifer, we hope that you will soon be back at Newcastle. 

For blog readers wanting to know more about the MLitt programme, see the Children’s Literature Unit page on the Newcastle University website. Highlights of the Seven Stories Collections can be seen here

Seven Stories Northern Bridge Consortium Collaborative Doctoral Award

Fully-funded PhD opportunities

Wanted! Outstanding candidates interested in fully-funded doctoral projects in collaboration with Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. Seven Stories is a groundbreaking museum, archive and visitors’ centre with a mission to preserve and celebrate Britain’s rich heritage of children’s literature. As the National Centre for Children’s Books, Seven Stories hold manuscripts, artwork and archival material relating to British children’s books from c.1930 to the present day, representing over 250 leading authors and illustrators ranging from Enid Blyton to Michael Morpurgo, and correspondence and other material from editors and publishers. See here  for an overview of current holdings. Seven Stories shares this collection with the public through events in their visitor centre, and exhibitions which tour nationally. Through their award-winning creative learning and engagement programme they work closely with schools and community groups.

To take advantage of this opportunity you will:

  • be a resident of UK or EU
  • be seeking to begin a PhD in October 2019
  • have an outstanding academic record, including a first degree in a relevant subject and (in most cases) a master’s degree either in hand or shortly to be completed OR relevant and equivalent working experience
  • have an interest in working on a doctoral project in collaboration with Seven Stories, in one or the areas listed below.

Applications for a Collaborative Doctoral Award are invited in the following research areas:

Children’s and youth literature projects will make substantial use of one or more archival collections at Seven Stories. Critical and creative projects will be considered. While the Seven Stories collection represents material from the 1930s onwards, proposals on the history of children’s literature, as well as work focused on the 20th and 21st centuries, are welcomed. Themes of interest to Seven Stories in this application round are:

  • Makers of children’s literature: children’s book history; editing; publishing; education; bookselling
  • The art of children’s books: children’s book illustrations; picturebooks; comics; development of printing technologies; art history; visual experience; materiality
  • Childhood and place: national identity; global childhoods; cosmopolitanism; heritage and historical fiction

The child and the book: children; childhood heritage; literary heritage; the book as object; memory; childhood reading; reading contexts Museum and gallery studies projects will focus on Seven Stories’ role as a museum, focussing on our visitor centre and touring exhibition programme. Themes of interest to Seven Stories in this application round are:

  • Children and museums: children; young people; early years; museums; galleries; heritage; archives; digital technologies

Creative practice projects are invited in any artistic medium or discipline, that respond to our collections, spaces, work and audiences, and could adopt the form of residencies within our venues. Themes of particular interest to Seven Stories are:

  • The evolution of children’s books: children’s books; production; experience; distribution; experimental practice; participation; collaboration
  • The future of storytelling: storytelling; technology; artificial intelligence; machine learning; immersive technologies; interactivity; virtual reality; augmented reality; mixed reality In each of these research areas, we particularly welcome projects which explore themes around inclusion, diversity and representation: race and heritage; disability; gender and gender identity; sexual orientation; age; socio-economic status; religion; culture; children’s rights and human rights.

How to register an interest in a Collaborative Doctoral Award with Seven Stories:

Potential applicants are asked to select the research area they would like to pursue, and contact Dr Annie Tindley (northernbridgedirector@newcastle.ac.uk) to discuss ideas. They will then submit a project summary which will undergo an initial assessment in November 2018. Projects selected at that point will be supported into the main competition. For more information about Seven Stories please explore the website.

For queries about eligibility, suitability and for general enquiries please contact sarah.rylance@ncl.ac.uk

Current Northern Bridge Collaborative PhD Student Helen King says of the application process:

I found Seven Stories and my supervisors really supportive throughout the Northern Bridge process. It’s a lengthy process and I felt daunted by it at the start, but they were enthusiastic about my ideas whilst also challenging me to keep improving my proposal. I was made really welcome when I came for a visit so I got a real sense that I’d enjoy studying here. It’s important to remember that your potential supervisors have a wealth of expertise both on their subject and the application process. It’s also worth remembering that if they have accepted your expression of interest it means that they think your research is exciting and worth doing, and they will be rooting for you to get a place.

Two Postdoctoral Positions in the Children’s Literature Unit

We’re really excited to have two postdoctoral posts available here in the Children’s Literature Unit at Newcastle University, each lasting two years (if full-time). The successful candidates will work on projects funded by Newcastle University’s Research Excellence Academy and Research Investment Fund. These offer the opportunity to work closely on the Aidan and Nancy Chambers collection at Seven Stories, or to pursue a postdoctoral research project of the candidate’s own design. The former would suit someone with experience in working with literary archives and an interest in developing this experience further, as well as someone with an interest in one of the many areas covered by the collection, which spans the whole of Aidan and Nancy’s working lives. The latter will be more independent in scope since it involves a project of the candidates own, but we’re interested in work which aligns with research interests in collection and archives, heritage, or diversity and inclusion.

Research Associate in Children’s Literature (REA) – B131592R

This post will be attached to the project ‘New Stories of Modern British Children’s Literature: the Chambers Collection’, and will map research pathways into the Aidan and Nancy Chambers archival material newly acquired by Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books. Applicants for this post should supply an academic CV and a cover letter in addition to completing the electronic application form.

Research Associate in Children’s Literature (RIF) – B131593R  

This post will support research aligned with one of these three broad themes:
  1. Developing collections, archives and exhibitions of children’s books, with a particular focus on how we tell national stories of children’s literature.
  2. Children/young people and heritage.
  3. Diversity and inclusion in histories of children’s literature.
Details of how to apply for this post are given in full in the online ad.
Successful candidates will be based in the Children’s Literature Unit, within the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, and will be joining a large and successful team of academics, doctoral students, and other postdoctoral researchers.
Applicants should have been awarded a doctoral degree in children’s literature, children’s culture, 20th-century publishing or a related area (or be in expectation that the award will be made by 31 October 2018), and should be able to demonstrate ongoing research interests that align with one or more of the designated areas.

For informal enquiries relating to these posts, contact Professor Matthew Grenby(matthew.grenby@newcastle.ac.ukor Dr Lucy Pearson (lucy.pearson@newcastle.ac.uk).

David Almond Fellowships for Research in Children’s Literature

Newcastle University’s School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics and Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books are pleased to announce that the application process for 2018 David Almond Fellowships is now open.

Further particulars

The awards recognise both David Almond’s contribution to children’s literature and his connections with these partner institutions: he is a patron of Seven Stories and an honorary graduate of Newcastle University.

The Fellowships aim to promote high-quality research in the Seven Stories collections that will call attention to their breadth and scholarly potential. The two awards of £300 each are to facilitate a research visit to the Seven Stories collections in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK of at least two days by a bona fide researcher working on a relevant project.  Applications will be considered from candidates in any academic discipline. The successful applicants will have a clearly defined project that will benefit from having access to the Seven Stories collections (please see indicative information about the collections below). All applicants should consult the Seven Stories catalogue as part of preparing their applications.  A well-developed dissemination strategy will be an advantage. Priority will be given to the importance of the project and best use of the Seven Stories collections as judged by a senior member of the Children’s Literature Unit in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University and a senior member of the Collections team at Seven Stories.

Some previous David Almond Fellows have gone on to take up fully-funded PhD studentships at Newcastle University, others have disseminated their research into the collection through book chapters, peer-reviewed journals and conference papers. One of our former Fellows said of her visit that it was ‘a wonderful opportunity to work in the archive of Seven Stories… it is undoubtedly an invaluable asset for researchers internationally, and something the city can be extremely proud of.’

Eligibility for the award

Applicants must hold a first degree or higher from a recognised institution of higher education.

Note: non-EEA applicants are reminded that to take up a Fellowship they must hold an appropriate visa. Neither Newcastle University nor Seven Stories can help with this process. Please see the UK visas website for more information.

Responsibilities

Fellowships must be taken up before the end of December, 2018. Recipients are expected to spend at least two days in Newcastle and are encouraged to time their visits to enable them to participate in events organised jointly or separately by the Children’s Literature Unit and Seven Stories.  (Please note: successful applicants must contact Seven Stories and agree a date for the visit prior to making travel arrangements; normally a minimum of two weeks’ notice is required before any research visit.) Acknowledgement of the Fellowships must accompany all dissemination activities arising from the research.

The Seven Stories Collection

Seven Stories is the only accredited museum specialising in children’s books in the UK. Its collections are a unique resource for original research, particularly insofar as they document aspects of the creation, publication and reception of books for children from the 1930s to the present day. The steadily growing archive contains material from over 250 authors, illustrators, editors, and others involved in the children’s publishing industry in Britain.

Researching the Seven Stories collection could enhance a number of research topics. Examples of research areas and relevant collections:

Makers of children’s literature: children’s book history 1750-2000

Children’s books have been under-represented in book history scholarship. Seven Stories’ holdings can be used to investigate the forces which have shaped the children’s book. Areas of interest include editing and publishing, education and bookselling, diversity and race and changing technologies.  Key archival holdings include the David Fickling Collection, the Aidan and Nancy Chambers / Thimble Press Collection, and the Leila Berg Collection.  The recently catalogued Noel Streatfeild Collection also provides fascinating insights into the life and times of a leading children’s author during the mid- twentieth century.

New adults: the growth of teenage literature

Seven Stories’ holdings represent the opportunity to investigate the development of teenage literature from a number of perspectives: holdings include detailed evidence of the process of composition from early draft to published text; evidence of socio-political contexts, and evidence of the publishing contexts. Key archival holdings include the Aidan and Nancy Chambers / Thimble Press Collection, the Diana Wynne Jones Collection, the Philip Pullman Collection, the Beverley Naidoo Collection, and the Geoffrey Trease Collection.

Inclusion and diversity

Seven Stories is particularly interested in supporting studies which explore themes of inclusion and diversity within our archives: race and heritage, disability, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, religion and culture. Projects in this research field might be cross-cutting, looking at a number of different archives within the Seven Stories Collection.

Children on stage: twentieth century children’s theatre

Seven Stories holds the complete archive of David Wood, one of the most prolific and influential playwrights for children in Britain. Projects based in this archive may approach the topic of children’s theatre from a number of perspectives, including theatre history and adaptation. Other relevant holdings include the Michael Morpurgo Collection and the recently acquired David Almond Collection.

More information can be found on the Collection pages of the Seven Stories website. Most of the artwork and manuscript collections are fully catalogued*, and the catalogues can be searched online via the link provided on the website. A list of many of the authors and illustrators represented in the collection can also be found on the Collection pages.

(NB this is not a complete list of the collections).

Please see also the Seven Stories Collection Blog, containing a variety articles describing or inspired by the Collection.

Application process

Applicants are asked to submit the following items by 1 June 2018:

  • an application form
  • a curriculum vitae
  • a brief proposal (of 1,000 words maximum)
  • one confidential letter of recommendation (sealed and signed; confidential letters may be included in your application packet or recommenders may send them directly)

Applications may be submitted by email or post.

Email: Kim.Reynolds@ncl.ac.uk

Post: David Almond Fellowships, School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, UK

* NB Thanks to a major accrual, recently received, cataloguing of the David Almond archive is ongoing – the records are expected to be online by 30 June.  An interim listing is available on request. Please contact collections@sevenstories.org.uk

Images from Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, photography by Damien Wootten.

 

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

Dr Lucy Pearson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 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.

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.

screen-shot-2017-06-13-at-15-17-57

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.

screen-shot-2017-06-13-at-15-19-47

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 … )

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.