Fantasy Worlds with Frances Hardinge

Last month, Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit and Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books were delighted to welcome Frances Hardinge, award-winning author of The Lie Tree, to Newcastle for a very special event.

In conversation with the Children’s Literature Unit’s Aishwarya Subramanian, Frances talked about the borders between fantasy and reality and the inspiration for her writing. I asked Aishwarya about the experience of hosting the event…

Frances Hardinge signs books after her talk. Image: Newcastle University
Frances Hardinge signs books after her talk. Image: Newcastle University

Hi Aishwarya! Thank you so much for chairing Fantasy Worlds with Frances Hardinge. How was it for you?

It was terrifying! I’ve interviewed people before, but in print, where you have the luxury of editing (and of not being in front of a big audience). Once we’d got past the first couple of questions, though, it was a lot of fun.

How did the opportunity to take part in this event come about?

I’d discussed Frances’ last two books with other people in the Children’s Literature Unit as part of our Carnegie shadowing group in 2015 and 2016, and so everyone knew I had an interest in her work. Plus, my research is on British children’s fantasy, so I think they were hoping I’d have lots of things to ask.

What do you like about Frances’ writing?

Her books are odd and twisty and full of joy in language. Those are things I really responded to as a child (and still do). They’re also full of important things like moral complexity and revolutions and angry little girls. As an adult, I really appreciate that her books are pitched at a more middle-grade than young adult audience (insofar as those categories mean anything), because middle-grade fiction just doesn’t get enough love and it’s really good to see someone doing it so well and being celebrated for it.

Frances Hardinge reads from her novel, The Lie Tree, with Aishwarya Subramanian. Image: Newcastle University
Frances Hardinge reads from her novel, The Lie Tree, with Aishwarya Subramanian. Image: Newcastle University

How did you prepare for the event?

I speed-read (or tried to) my way through all her work again and wrote down many questions, most of which I ended up not asking because they were too specific. I didn’t quite manage to read every book—it was probably obvious to the audience which of the books were most fresh in my mind!

Were you surprised by any of the answers Frances gave to the questions you asked?

Not really—in most cases I was asking things I genuinely just wanted to know, so had no prior expectations of what she would answer. I did have a broad outline of what I wanted to discuss during the conversation, and had to reshuffle my questions a bit as things went on.

Tell me about your PhD research.

I study the presentation of physical space in British children’s fantasy over the mid-twentieth century, and connect that with the spatial politics of the end of the British Empire—essentially reading British fantasy as a form of postcolonial literature. I promise it’s a lot more fun than it sounds (and I get to write about some of my favourite books!).

Frances Hardinge signs copies of her books. Image: Newcastle University
Frances Hardinge talks to readers after the Fantasy Worlds event. Image: Newcastle University

Fantasy Worlds with Frances Hardinge was jointly hosted with Seven Stories. How have Seven Stories enhanced your studies at Newcastle?

My work is mostly text-based, so I’ve had less chances to use the archive than some researchers. But my research means that I have to think about things like what “British” children’s literature means, and nationhood, and heritage, and so having the national archive to hand is great. Plus, Seven Stories is a big part of why we’ve been able to establish a community of people who work on children’s literature, and having access to that community and the conversations it generates has been invaluable.

What have you learnt from hosting Fantasy Worlds with Frances Hardinge?

To rehearse my introductions, and not to try to speed read seven books! (Alternatively, never to interview prolific authors.)

Thanks Aishwarya! Aishwarya will be blogging as part of the Children’s Literature in Newcastle blog and maintains a personal children’s literature blog, Practically Marzipan. You can also find her on twitter @actuallyaisha.

Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit launches new blog

Interested in children’s literature? Then have a look at the new Children’s Literature in Newcastle blog!

It’s written and maintained by postgraduate students and staff from Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit Graduate Group. I’ll be contributing to the occasional post so I asked some of the other members of the group to introduce themselves, about their plans for the blog, and what they love about having Seven Stories in Newcastle…

Children's Literature in Newcastle blog.
Children’s Literature in Newcastle blog.

Roisin Laing

First Children’s Literature in Newcastle blog post: Children in Nineteenth-Century Australia

I plan to blog about: My research into nineteenth-century records about the education of Indigenous Australian children in New South Wales.

Favourite Seven Stories experience: I attended a Children’s Literature Masterclass organised by Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit in 2015 and enjoyed exploring the Seven Stories archives during this event.

Aishwarya Subramanian gives a presentation at a meeting of the Children's Literature Graduate Group. Image: Newcastle University
Aishwarya Subramanian gives a presentation at a meeting of the Children’s Literature Graduate Group. Image: Newcastle University

Jennifer Shelley

First Children’s Literature in Newcastle blog post: A Fresher at Fifty

I plan to blog about: As well as my diary talking about the experience of going back to study after a 28-year gap, I expect to be blogging about mid-twentieth century fiction for girls. Subjects are likely to include career novels, Noel Streatfeild, Mabel Esther Allan and, for local interest, Lorna Hill and Elinor M Brent-Dyer, the author of the Chalet School books.

Favourite Seven Stories experience: Chatting to staff about the exciting treasures in the archive and plans for the future.

Lucy Stone

First Children’s Literature in Newcastle blog post: Imagining Wordsworth

I plan to blog about: A workshop on archival research for doctoral students held by the Wordsworth Trust and Northern Bridge at Dove Cottage and the Jerwood Centre in the gorgeous Lakes village of Grasmere.

Favourite Seven Stories experience: Every experience at Seven Stories is my favourite! There are no words to describe the sheer joy and excitement of looking at Judith Kerr’s juvenilia.

One of Judith Kerr’s watercolours made as a child, included in her memoir Creatures (2013). You can view the original at Seven Stories.
One of Judith Kerr’s watercolours made as a child, included in her memoir Creatures (2013). You can view the original at Seven Stories.

Talking of blogs, the Vital North Partnership blog has now been live for 6 months and has published 14 posts. And remember to take a look at the Seven Stories Collections blog and their All the Family blog too!

Seven Stories Research Scholarship: Q&A

Earlier this year, a Speech and Language Sciences student, Zoe, spent 8 weeks with Seven Stories’ Learning and Participation Team working on a Newcastle University Research Scholarship.

In November, Seven Stories’ Business Development Manager John Beattie and I caught up with Zoe at Newcastle University’s Research Scholarship celebration event, where she presented a poster about her work with Seven Stories.

Hello Zoe! You undertook a Newcastle University Research Scholarship with Seven Stories. What’s that, and how did you secure it?

A vacation Research Scholarship is offered to students in their middle or penultimate year of their degree from Schools across the University. Back in January 2016, we were notified of this opportunity to conduct some research and receive a bursary. My supervisor Professor James Law notified me that Seven Stories would like some research to be conducted in collaboration with them. I organised a meeting at Seven Stories where I met members of the Learning and Participation Team. We decided on a topic and wrote a proposal that was handed in February 2016. In March I found the proposal was successful and began the scholarship in June 2016.

What did you do during your Research Scholarship with Seven Stories?

We decided to do a study about Hooks into Books at Seven Stories and sent Snow Dogs book packs into two schools to evaluate how they were received, and if anything could be improved.  This involved doing a literature review surrounding reading for pleasure and its implications. After packs were delivered I then attended each school, carried out questionnaires and observed a session. This was great, seeing the school staff and children’s reactions to the books.

Zoe's research poster: How do children engage in reading for pleasure?
Zoe’s research poster: How do children engage in reading for pleasure?

What were your research findings?

Children’s reading habits did not differ between the schools (regardless of pupil premium percentage).

Teachers and Schools have different definitions therefore different approaches to reading for pleasure. School A:  ‘Enjoying stories for the sake of it and being able to be comfortable laying down in a nice environment.’ School B: ‘Having enough knowledge and understanding to be able to read for fluency.’

Schools took different approaches to reading the story (one read all one read half). They also had different ways of choosing the story (one asked colleagues, one looked at illustrations). The activities they did using the books were also different: one was purely creative and artistic whereas the other followed more closely the curriculum with creative writing and pictures.

How did you find working in a cultural education setting like Seven Stories, in comparison to a speech therapy role?

I really enjoyed working with Seven Stories and felt very supported throughout my time there.

It was enjoyable working in the office, then experiencing the hustle and bustle of schools. In comparison, as a speech therapy student every day and placement can be different, from hospitals, to children’s centres, to community clinics and schools.

Newcastle University's Research Scholarship celebration event in November 2016. Image: Newcastle University
Newcastle University’s Research Scholarship celebration event in November 2016. Image: Newcastle University

What have you learnt from your Research Scholarship?

I have learnt lots of research skills from my project, particularly how to form child-friendly questionnaires and write literature reviews. I have also learnt how to format and design posters.

What impact will your Research Scholarship and time with Seven Stories have on your future studies, research and career plans?

I hope to incorporate my experience into speech therapy in the future, particularly the links between ‘reading for pleasure’ and speech and language difficulties.  The formatting skills I learnt will help me in the future to make assessed posters whilst still at university, but also in the future when making information sheets for colleagues of clients.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

I would encourage anyone to take up the opportunity of a summer vacation Research Scholarship. It was a valuable experience which will definitely have benefits for my future.

The Catherine Storr Experience: From Collection to Cardboard

This digital age of ours poses a challenge to both museums and higher education. How can museums present physical collections digitally? And how can academic research into these collections engage the Google Cardboard generation?

The Catherine Storr Experience, a new augmented reality exhibition based on the work of author Catherine Storr, launched by Newcastle University and Seven Stories: the National Centre for Children’s Books, attempts to meet that challenge.

The content for the experience was provided by Kim Reynolds, Professor of Children’s Literature in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics. Kim wanted to produce a digital exhibition based on her research into Seven Stories’ Catherine Storr archive. Discussing this with the Seven Stories Collections Team, it quickly became apparent that Kim’s ambitions for the project were to do something really new.

So I put Kim in touch with Dr Tom Schofield in Digital Cultures in Culture Lab at Newcastle University to see if they could help. Tom worked with developer Dan Foster Smith, Seven Stories’ Archivist Kris McKie, and Kim to put The Catherine Storr Experience together.

The Mirror Image Ghost. Image: Newcastle University
The Mirror Image Ghost. Image: Newcastle University

The result? The Catherine Storr Experience explores the unsettling novel of Storr’s Marianne Dreams (1958), and the house that Marianne draws. Using the context of Marianne’s room, the augmented reality experience introduces a number of Storr’s books and illustrators, as well as some aspects of her life. The experience allows you to explore different objects, characters and settings by moving your smartphone or cursor.

It uses the very latest in WebVR technology. I haven’t seen anything like this yet in digital collections, so I asked Dan about the technological innovation:

“This is new and experimental technology, which is on the edge of a breakthrough into the mainstream. It has the ability to take information that has traditionally been displayed in a flat, 2D way and literally add another dimension to it!

Websites have the great advantage of allowing the viewer to navigate the information at their own pace. Video and TV captivate and engage the viewer. This sort of experience combines the best of both; I like to think of it as a guided tour with the ability for you to ‘ask’ questions along the way.”

Inside the house of Marianne Dreams. Image: Newcastle University
Inside the house of Marianne Dreams. Image: Newcastle University

Throughout The Catherine Storr Experience you can spot illustrations, photographs and other items from the Seven Stories Collection. Some of the materials included in the experience also relate to Storr’s personal life and were kindly loaned by her family, extending the Seven Stories material. The project has also enabled Seven Stories to digitise all of their Storr holdings so this is available to readers and researchers around the world.

From Seven Stories’ perspective, Kris commented that this partnership had brought a new dimension to their digital collections:

“It was interesting to see how a group of talented people from outside the museums and heritage sector were able to respond to the challenge of representing an archive in a new way; Kim was able to bring her expertise to write the content, and Dan and Tom were able to envision a unique platform to present it. It will be intriguing to see what people make of The Catherine Storr Experience and the additional content on our website.”

'Marianne draws a house, and the house is Marianne.' Image: Newcastle University
‘Marianne draws a house, and the house is Marianne.’ Image: Newcastle University

And I’ll leave it to Kim to have the final word:

“Working with colleagues in Culture Lab and Seven Stories made it possible to experiment with new ways of presenting archival mterial and reaching out to audiences all over the world. It required new ways of writing, and Dan and Tom approached the task in adventurous ways that re-engaged me with the material. It was an exciting and challenging – in the best possible ways – collaboration.”

Discovering home, heritage and history at Seven Stories

In this guest post, Dr Lucy Pearson, Lecturer in Children’s Literature at Newcastle University’s School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics and Gavin Hetherington, a BA English Literature with Creative Writing student, reflect on the third year students’ visit to Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books in October.

Dr Lucy Pearson

My third-year module ‘Home, Heritage, History’ asks students to think about these three themes in the children’s books of the twentieth century, and to think about how English Literature might use archives and museums. This module evolved from my close working relationship with Seven Stories – I’m taking full advantage of having a heritage organisation devoted exclusively to children’s literature right on our doorstep! One of the highlights of my teaching year is the module field trip to Seven Stories, and this year’s trip was extra special.

The team at Seven Stories stayed on after hours to give my students exclusive access to the Seven Stories Visitor Centre in the Ouseburn Valley. The Collections Team brought along some archive material for students to have a closer look at: we explored some of Helen Craig’s original artwork for Angelina Ballerina, looked at some of Robert Westall’s correspondence and his manuscript drafts of The Machine Gunners, and investigated the creation of Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Borrowers through correspondence, artwork, and drafts. Mary Norton’s letter to her illustrator Diana Stanley in which she writes about the horror of the blank page when starting a new work struck a chord with us all! It’s a special feeling to handle the original material and see authors’ false starts, crossings out and uncertainties.

Dr Jessica Medhurst gave the students a guided tour. Image: Newcastle University
Dr Jessica Medhurst gave the students a guided tour. Image: Newcastle University

Students also had a chance to explore the galleries and think about how Seven Stories shares our heritage of children’s literature with the public. This was especially exciting this year because our KTP Research Associate Jessica Medhurst came along to give students a tour of Michael Morpurgo: A Lifetime in Stories and talk about the ideas behind the exhibition. Jessica has been working closely with the Seven Stories exhibitions team and conducting research to support their development of the exhibition, so she knows everything there is to know about the Morpurgo exhibition. The exhibition theme of storytelling was especially interesting to members of the group who are also creative writers: student Gavin Hetherington gives his account below.

In the Rhyme Around the World exhibition, Storycatcher Lawrence gave students a taste of the experience regular visitors to Seven Stories can enjoy – and they had some fun exploring the interactive aspects of the exhibition!

Interacting with the exhibitions. Image: Newcastle University

We finished the evening with a quiz, where students showed an expert knowledge of children’s books (and a healthy competitive streak!)

If you’re envious of the students’ exclusive access to Seven Stories, it’s not too late to sign up for our Being Human event on 24th November, which will offer all the fun the students enjoyed plus a little bit more.

Gavin Hetherington

As a creative writer, visiting Seven Stories was not only educational, but also inspirational. The biggest part of this children’s literature archive is that they have acquired original materials from iconic authors in order to preserve and protect them from being shipped elsewhere. In doing so, this material is available to be admired, ensuring that visitors can always walk away with something from the experience.

Students exploring the Michael Morpurgo exhibition. Image: Newcastle University
Students exploring the Michael Morpurgo exhibition. Image: Newcastle University

To go from Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Dreamtime’ in his exhibition, to the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ – a short walk away – shows how deeply connected every part of his writing process is, from his creative ideas whilst walking through the pastoral, to the illustrators that have collaborated on his work, boasting watercolour paintings that reflect some part of his stories. We are submerged in his mind and are able to interact with the pieces that make up his imagination, and it spills over into the visitors’ reality. Morpurgo himself, in a very cosy setting of a shed and a recording of the famed author speaking directly to us, said that we should ‘fill our heads with this world of which you are a part’ and that, for us creative writers, it is not ‘magic’ that conjured the words we seek to write, but ourselves, as we write the story we truly believe in, from our minds to the paper before us.

I could not help but be fascinated as Morpurgo himself comes to life, as do the other writers who have created such timeless children’s stories, with the manuscript of The Borrowers and the facsimile of Tom’s Midnight Garden. These personal objects reveal the process of their writing, that the finished product we all cherish began in a way that the creative writer can relate, and thus helps us to aspire to be like them. The exhibits in Seven Stories humanises the writers, shows us the processes of their hard work and how they each used their own modes of magic to bring their stories to life.