We invite any prospective children’s literature students to visit us next week and hear from current students and staff. All are welcome to the public lecture from Professor Karen Sands-O’Connor. See the poster for information.
The Occasional Diary of a Mature Postgraduate Student at Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit
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.
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, 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.
Alumna Lien Devos talks about her career in international children’s literature publishing
In the year leading up to my time in Newcastle as an MLitt student at the Children’s Literature Unit, people would inevitably say, upon hearing I was going to study children’s literature: ‘Oh I see, to learn how to write children’s books!’ I’d have to explain that studying children’s literature is in fact much the same as studying German literature and so that no, they weren’t talking to the next Roald Dahl. They’d be slightly disappointed by my answer and then would, full of hope for my future again, burst out, ‘Oh but I see, because that degree will much improve your prospects on the job market!’ Well, yeah but no. There’s not exactly that many jobs needing that qualification, but I’ve had the immense luck to find a job that suits my education perfectly.
I’m writing this blog post while seated in an enormous Boeing jet, waiting to take off in Brussels, Belgium (my home country), for Dubai, United Arab Emirates. You’ve just caught me in one of the busiest months in my ‘career’ so far, with the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Lakes International Comic Art Festival and the Sharjah Book Fair within three weeks of each other.
So what do I do and how did I get there? I work for an organisation called Flanders Literature, an autonomous government organisation that gets its funds from the Flemish Ministry of Culture. (In tiny Belgium you have Wallonia in the south, where people speak French, and Flanders in the north, where people speak Dutch. Then there’s the city of Brussels, which is an entity in itself and is officially bilingual. Lots of things, like education, culture, youth, health and so on, are the responsibilities of these regions and not of the federal government.)
Flanders Literature has a total of eighteen employees at the moment. In Flanders itself we issue grants to writers, illustrators, graphic novelists, playwrights and translators, so that they can ‘buy time’ to work on their books. The amount of these grants depends on the literary and artistic quality of their work, which is judged by advisory committees that are made up of experts in that particular genre (e.g. a writer, a bookseller, an academic).
About half of us are part of ‘the foreign department’, including myself. It’s our job to spread the word of the best literature from Flanders to foreign publishers, in the hopes of convincing them to translate and publish books by Flemish authors. You could say we do the work of an agent, but without the financial gain of sealing a deal (as we don’t own or sell any translation rights) and without the limitation of just a handful of authors. If it’s great and written or illustrated by someone from Flanders, we’ll promote it. And on top of that, we offer grants to help make the costly process of translating a book a little easier. There are a few other countries who have a similar system, like the Netherlands, Norway, Finland and Poland. You’ll notice these are mostly small languages who have to fight for their place in the international book world with different weapons than the English-speaking world.
So as Grants Manager for children’s literature and graphic novels I’m responsible for maintaining a network of foreign publishers, keeping them up to date on the books that might be of interest to them and helping them in every possible way to make it easier for them to translate and publish one of ‘our’ books. It means I get to read many books (and remembering the ending!) and have to bring across my enthusiasm for them to other people, i.e. foreign publishers.
An important part of my job is meeting as many foreign publishers as possible at a few book fairs we attend. Frankfurt (October), Bologna (March or April) and London (March or April) are very important each year. On top of that, there’s Angoulême for graphic novels and this year the Sharjah Book Fair. A first for me, and the second time for our managing director, who noticed there was a big demand for children’s books in the Arab world last year. I’m very excited to discover this whole new world!
And how did I get here? Well, pure luck. And a great boss. I’d been struggling to find a proper job for about eight months when there was a vacancy at Flanders Literature for a part-time temporary administrative job. Writing meeting reports, processing applications, that sort of thing.
Not my dream job, but with the foot in the door idea in mind I applied and got the job. And then someone got ill, and they asked me to start working full time. Temporarily. And then the Minister of Culture decided to get us extra money, and my boss promised me ‘a proper job for my qualifications’. And then the Ministry had to cut back on costs, so he had to take back that promise, but I could stay on. Temporarily at least. Until they ran out of money and they couldn’t keep me on. But perhaps – my boss asked me almost shyly – I could do the secretary’s work for a while until things changed? Temporarily, of course.
And things finally did change. Thanks to my boss and a wonderful team of co-workers I got the chance to grow, and after four years ended up where I am now. In a Boeing on its way to Dubai. Sometimes luck is on your side.
17 – 18 November 2018, Seven Stories
Once upon a Tyne
17 November, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm; 13:30 – 14:30 pm
Discover the original scribbles and doodles behind children’s books in this hands on session with the Seven Stories Collection. This insightful session will be led by the Seven Stories Collections Team and the Children’s Literature Unit at Newcastle University.
Inspired by the Tyne and the rivers, seas and oceans that feature within the Seven Stories Collection, explore manuscripts from authors including David Almond and Robert Westall, and artwork from illustrators including Polly Dunbar.
Session lasts 60 mins and is suitable for everyone interested in children’s literature. Tickets are free and can be found here. No visitor admission is required.
Undiscovered Land: Write like David Almond
17 November, 2:30 – 4:30 pm
‘Writing will be like a journey, every word a footstep that takes me further into undiscovered land.’ David Almond, My Name is Mina.
Join Ann Coburn, children’s author and Lecturer in Creative Writing at Newcastle University for a free creative writing workshop.
Through a series of creative exercises you will start your own story inspired the work of celebrated North-East writer David Almond. Learn how to convey a sense of place in your writing and incorporate elements of memory, history, magic and transformation.
Session lasts 2 hours and is suitable for adults. Tickets are free and can be found here. No visitor admission is required.
Tales of the Tyne
18 November, 2:30 – 3:30 pm
‘They thought we had disappeared, and they were wrong. They thought we were dead, and they were wrong. We stumbled together out of the ancient darkness into the shining valley.’ – David Almond, Kit’s Wilderness.
As the mines closed and the shipyards fell silent, the North East saw the end of a long and vibrant tradition. Where next for the communities who had grown up with the old industries woven into the fabric of their lives? David Almond’s wild and beautiful stories explore the end of the old North East, and the possibilities for new beginnings.
Join Dr Lucy Pearson from Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit for a talk on how David imagines these endings and beginnings, followed by a tour of our Where Your Wings Were exhibition focussed on David’s work.
Session lasts 60 mins and is suitable for young adults and adults. Tickets are free and can be found here. No visitor admission is required.
Find out more about the Festival over on the Vital North blog.
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.
- Developing collections, archives and exhibitions of children’s books, with a particular focus on how we tell national stories of children’s literature.
- Children/young people and heritage.
- Diversity and inclusion in histories of children’s literature.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com
Images from Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, photography by Damien Wootten.
Unfortunately, this event is cancelled with many apologies from Brian. We hope to reschedule these talks in the autumn.
Children’s books history expert Dr Brian Alderson will discuss:
“Maurice Sendak, but ‘sc.’ rather than ‘inv’.”
Dr Alderson offers expert insight into the history of children’s literature and his children’s book collection, which he is donating to Newcastle. The Looking at Children’s Books talks are presented by Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit in partnership with the University Library and Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books.
Liz Flanagan, teaching fellow in creative writing and author of Eden Summer (David Fickling Books, 2016), recently chaired an event at the School of English with Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan to explore their co-authored verse novel We Come Apart (Bloomsbury, 2017). Here are some of Liz’s thoughts on the evening.
I was delighted to chair this event. For me, Brian and Sarah are two of the most important contemporary YA authors, and I love the fearlessness of their writing, both in its form and content. They tackle urgent and complex subjects, while telling stories in unusual and innovative ways.
Sarah and Brian’s working relationship began at the award ceremony for the Carnegie Medal 2015, when Sarah was shortlisted for Apple and Rain, and Brian for When Mr Dog Bites. At that time, Brian was thinking of writing a novel in verse and he asked Sarah about the form. They began corresponding via WhatsApp, sending messages and chunks of text back and forth in what became a swiftly unfolding digital conversation. The whole novel was written this way, its authors working in different countries, not meeting in person until afterwards.
We Come Apart is a love story that doesn’t shy away from darkness and difficulty, beautifully told in verse, with two narrative voices. At the early draft stage, the authors each wrote a section and sent it to the other, in a kind of creative tennis match. At first, Brian wrote the character of Nicu and Sarah created Jess’s voice. Both authors spoke about how different this was from their usual creative process in having to relinquish control of planning and respond to what they received. They found the quality of their writing improved because they were working collaboratively. They also learned about their own process by seeing the differences in the other’s working style (it definitely sounded as if Sarah was more of a planner than Brian!). However, in the later editorial stages, the process slowed down, and both writers worked on each character’s sections. A love story seems perfect for this dual narrative approach, with its layered perspectives, so that each character is shown to be struggling via their own interiority, but is also seen with compassion and understanding through the eyes of the other.
The authors described their careful approach to the depiction of difficult topics such as the domestic violence of Jess’s home life. Sarah wanted to write the scenes just explicitly enough, so that any young person who had experienced similar abuse would recognise what was happening; but so that it wouldn’t be traumatic for those readers who weren’t yet ready to understand the violence of the situation.
I asked Brian and Sarah about the issue of writing in the voice of someone from an under-represented group: in this case, that of Nicu, who is Romanian, of Roma ancestry. Brian talked about his experience of working with Roma teenagers, and how that fed into the creation of Nicu’s speech patterns, and both authors cited the extensive research they’d undertaken. They discussed the importance of privileging and amplifying ‘own voices’ narratives, while also resisting the idea that, as writers, we can only create from our own lived experience.
The conclusion to We Come Apart feels nuanced and in keeping with the subtle balance of light and shade within the novel as a whole. Sarah spoke about one particular tantalising WhatsApp exchange as they approached the end. She could see the little dots told her ‘Brian is writing’, but it took long minutes for the response to appear. They finally wrote three versions of the ending. I had an odd experience on first reading the novel: I think the ghost of the ending not chosen was haunting my perceptions, and I was braced for a more brutal denouement that didn’t come. However, on second reading, I could more fully appreciate the satisfying end to Jess and Nicu’s story.
Inspired by speaking to Brian and Sarah, I now want to experiment with collaborative writing in my own practice. I’ve started a conversation with a writer I admire, intrigued by the potential for surprises and innovation that these authors describe, and I’ve also devised a workshop for collaborative writing that I’ve begun using in my teaching. I’m very grateful to Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan for sharing their experience of working together, and to Dr Lucy Pearson for inviting me to chair their conversation.
Wednesday 7th February, 3:30 – 5:30 pm
If you’re considering an MLitt, MPhil or PhD, come along and find out about studying children’s literature or creative writing for children and young people in Newcastle. Meet current students and discuss your research project with potential supervisors, and find out more about our outstanding research collections with staff from Special Collections and Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books.
We Come Apart with Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan
We would also like to invite you to the event We Come Apart with authors Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan, chaired by author and Teaching Fellow by Liz Flanagan. This event is free, and will be followed by a drinks reception and book signing. 6:30 – 8:00 pm. Find out more about the event and book your place here.