When is a Young Adult not a Young Adult?

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Newnham College, Cambridge, library

Weeks later, I’m still chewing over something that came up in the Writing for Children Event I spoke at in Cambridge recently. A quotation was put to me and fellow panellists Mary Hoffman and Sue Limb, from an article written by children’s literature critics, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig:

‘The sense of moral obligations, which governs all writing for children, has acquired a new bias. It used to entail keeping your stories as anodyne as possible; now if anything, the opposite holds true. Painful topics have become virtually de rigeur.’

Tracy BeakerI tackled the moral obligation assumption bit already, plus the truly weird idea that anyone would strive to create anodyne stories for any audience, let alone children.  As for the last part of the quotation, given that these critics were writing about trends since the 1970s, I wondered what had upset them.  The answer? Writers such as Jacqueline Wilson, it turns out, with her realistic portrayal of children from broken homes like The Suitcase Kid and Tracy Beaker.

From a social history point of view, this is fascinating. You could argue that Wilson is actually following her Victorian predecessors in depicting children in difficult, lonely situations; all that has changed is that’s she’s updated the reason for their plight from parental death (The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Kim), to the present day realism of divorce and single parenthood.  KimHer heroes may go through painful predicaments but they learn to deal with and surmount them, just as the unloved and neglected orphans of the century before. Tracy’s acute sense of abandonment leads her to behave badly; but then so does Sarah Lennox in The Secret Garden, until she finds friends who actually care about her. Rather than children being disturbed by such realism, fiction can do a valuable job of making those struggling in similar situations feel less alone.Houghton_AC85_B9345_911s_-_Secret_Garden,_1911_-_cover

I’d have had more sympathy with Cadogan and Craig if their quotation referred to the more recent genre of Young Adult fiction. While not strictly intended for children, YA books are allowed to compete against children’s books in literary prizes, with the result that in the last 7 years, 5 of the winners of both Carnegie and Costa Children’s awards have been books whose plots involve dystopia, war, violence, rape, death, torture, incarceration, terminal illness, suicide and other equally cheerful themes. maze-runner-trailer-2-11Topics not so much painful as positively agonising. Of eight books on this year’s shortlist, all bar one – Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth – are classed as YA.

Our author panel at the Newnham Literary Archive Event mused on possible reasons behind this flowering of such depressing literature, much of it wonderfully written by some of the best authors around today.  My theory is that the genre has grown out of computer games, with their linear narratives involving fantasy kingdoms, fast action and blood all over the screen. But I was much taken by an audience suggestion that its roots may lie in the overwhelming bureaucratisation of the education system, allowing teenagers to escape to a simpler world where you can just fight your way out of the endless pressure of SATS tests and GCSEs.

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Fighting their way out of SATS tests

Whatever the reason, it is unfair that YA is allowed to dominate the children’s book awards, simply because there is no separate category for this genre. And I wonder if publishers realise that their biggest readership – far from being teenagers – is young people in their 20s and 30s. Go to any YA event at a literary festival and you’ll see what I mean. If Patrick Ness is appearing, you’ll probably find my sons there (26 and 29). YA fiction being read by young adults, then.

Or as we used to call them, adults.

Not at Hogwarts on World Book Day

IMG_0011Charms, pacts with demons, magic spells, astrology and crystal balls aren’t normally subjects taught in schools (unless you’re lucky enough to attend Hogwarts). Yet for one hour last week, talking about my book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, I managed to squeeze such dark mysteries into the curriculum of three different schools, in groups ranging from 140 primary school children to smaller classes of Years 7 and 8.

Yup, that’s right, I’m talking World Book Week here, that glorious time of the year when authors are invited to descend on classrooms and school libraries, celebrating with young people the joys of reading, writing and dressing up as dubious literary figures. (Overheard in one school: ‘Sir, sir, can I come as Karl Marx?’ ‘[wearily] Well, Alex, if you can prove to me that Karl Marx’s work is literature….’)

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Books by pupils at SS Philip and James

It’s tiring and by the end of the day my voice needs much tlc (oh all right then, several cups of tea) but I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I write stories about things that excite me and to be able to pass on that excitement to young readers and see their imaginations fired up gives me a huge thrill. Each audience reacts differently: some are bursting with questions the whole way through about magic, alchemy, and how I think up my characters; others wait patiently till the end of my talk and grill me then about my ideas and way of writing. Either way it is heartening to see so much enthusiasm for books and writing among young people: well done to them, and to the teachers and librarians who inspire them!

How to write for children: be anodyne. Apparently.

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Mary Hoffman, Anne Rooney, me, Sue Limb

Last Saturday I was invited back to my university college to take part in a fascinating Literary Archive Day discussing children’s literature, inspired by the Rogers Collection, a wonderful treasure trove of children’s books donated to Newnham College in the late nineteenth century. No other college library in Cambridge – or Oxford, I believe, though someone will probably put me right – has anything to match this. What better reason to gather together a bunch of Newnhamite children’s authors?

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The Rogers Collection

Christina Hardyment and Caroline Lawrence gave superb talks on Arthur Ransome and Mythic Tropes in Children’s Fiction respectively, while I made up a panel with Mary Hoffman and Sue Limb to discuss how children’s writing has changed over the last few decades. An excellent opening speech from Dr Gill Sutherland (‘A child who does not feel wonder is merely an inlet for apple pie’) gave us plenty to, um, chew over, but one phrase in particular bothered me so much I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Dr Sutherland quoted those authorities on children’s literature, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig, who talk about ‘the sense of moral obligation, which governs all writing for children’.

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Apple pie awaiting an inlet.

Now, I have no problem with children’s books having a moral framework, indeed it’s quite hard to write one without. The main characters should feel like real people with strengths and weaknesses; for the story to be satisfying, they need to develop, to be affected by the things that happen to them, just as they would be in real life. They learn from their mistakes, they come through trials and are stronger for it. This works for much adult fiction too. But – a sense of moral obligation governing all writing for children?

No. The moment the message is put above everything else – plot, character, structure, credibility – any hope of a decent story is lost. Preaching about current moral issues – discrimination, inclusiveness, immigration – is no more appealing to present day children than such ‘improving’ books as Eric, or Little by Little, can have been to Victorian ones (though perhaps brought up with less choice and more rules, Victorian children endured such works with greater stoicism).  If you want to extend your readers’ understanding and sympathy, bind themes you care about tightly into your story. But the story must come first.

Nor was that all. Cadogan and Craig went on to lament that this sense of moral obligation ‘has acquired a new bias. It used to entail keeping your stories as anodyne as possible; now, if anything, the opposite holds true. Painful topics have become virtually de rigeur.’

This statement opens up so many issues I scarcely know where to begin. First, did writers really seek to keep their stories anodyne, eschewing all painful topics? Not E Nesbit, who has one of the Wouldbegoods become dangerously ill when his siblings make him catch cold so they can try out their homemade medicine on him.
Not F Hodgson Burnett, whose Little Princess suffers cruelty and deprivation at the hands of the mercenary adults entrusted with her care. Not C S Lewis, portraying the sick mother in The Magician’s Nephew, or the heroes of The Last Battle being overwhelmed by tyranny and treachery.

In fact, something much more interesting has happened. Themes that were judged acceptable in the works of earlier children’s writers would cause outrage now. What exactly is ‘anodyne’ about Jo March’s pet bird being allowed to starve to death – with her mother’s knowledge – in order for all the Little Women to learn a lesson about responsibility?
Or take one of my all time favourite children’s books, The Log of the Ark by Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey: a delightfully warm, hilarious account of the Great Flood in which, unbeknownst to Noah, an evil animal slinks on board, corrupting the gentleness of the other beasts and ensuring the weaker ones go to the wall. I can’t see this great classic being reprinted in today’s climate – or ever. Much too painful for 9 year-olds to read.

In other words, good writing for children has never been anodyne. The books that have endured and become classics didn’t shirk difficult topics, indeed only by presenting moral conflict realistically at the heart of a gripping story can authors engage the reader, allowing him or her to absorb any ‘lessons’ without realising it. No adult wants to read an anodyne novel; why on earth should a child?

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The library of Newnham College, Cambridge

Of course there was no time to say all this on Saturday. Instead, Sue, Mary, our skilful chairman, Anne Rooney and I thunderously agreed to disagree with Cadogan and Craig, using their views as a jumping off point for much fascinating discussion of subject matter, structures of myth and traditional tales, the rise of Young Adult books and who reads them – all of which will have to wait for another post.

And speaking of YA, did you, like me, assume that the offending statement came in the last year or so, in the wake of so many children’s book awards given to stories whose themes number war, dystopia, terminal illness, cruelty, incarceration, torture and violence, all graphically described?

Nope. They were talking about the 1970s.

Sigh.

Will the Real Winnie-the-Pooh please Put Up His Paw?

Right, people, a quiz question to get those sluggish winter brains going: which of these quotations is the odd one out?

  1. “Then would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?”
  2. … and this is what he wrote:    HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY.
  3. “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”
  4. …when you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.

wedged-in-great-tightnessYes, I’m talking Winnie-the-Pooh here. The most wonderful books for children ever written, not just because of their cute cuddly characters but because of their glorious, inimitable, uniquely subtle literary style. Analyse an A A Milne sentence and you’ll find a rhythmic build up of words that manages to convey meaning, warmth, character, emotion and a delightfully absurd humour that deflates pomposity in language in the kindest way.

My generation seems to have been the last for whom these rhythms and phrases are part of our DNA. ‘Astute and Helpful Bear,’ I might call my husband. ‘GON OUT BACKSON BISY BACKSON’ he might leave as a message for me. And no greeting in a card can ever compete with Owl’s way of writing Happy Birthday.original_owl

It’s because we know these books so well – and their enchanting Ernest Sheppard illustrations – that when something isn’t right in Winnie-the-Pooh world, it jars. As one of the quotations above does. Yup. It grieves me to say that the most often quoted lines from A A Milne, the ones you will find plastered all over the internet, that clearly warm the hearts of millions of Winnie-the-Pooh fans out there – these lines are not by A A Milne at all. If you haven’t spotted the imposter yet, I’ll give you a clue: no English writer in the 1920s would have used the word ‘smart’ to mean anything but ‘well-dressed’. Whoever – and I’m guessing it was someone at Disney – wrote ‘smarter than you think’ (No 3) was clearly not referring to the bear’s red jacket or his owner’s short-sleeved shirt and shorts. (Another clue – who is supposed to be speaking this drivel, Pooh or Christopher Robin? A A Milne’s dialogue is so well crafted you know at once which character is talking.)

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A A Milne – not a writer of drivel

Nor is this the only fake A A Milne quotation out there. The internet is awash with them. Winnie-the-Pooh has appeared in many different forms – films, television cartoons, hundreds of spin-off philosophy and instruction books – and of course all of these will depict him in their own way, coining new aphorisms and images. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as all the origins are made clear.

The problem arises when these nuggets of sickly wisdom are blithely attributed to A A Milne, who’d have plunged his head into Eeyore’s Useful Pot to Put Things in before writing lines like ‘Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart’, or ‘Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.’ head-in-hunny-potBut Google either of those quotations and you’ll find them attributed to him over and over again because the vast majority of people don’t know his books and don’t bother to check. And when a highly respected organisation like English Heritage (who should know something about, er, English heritage) celebrates Winnie-the-Pooh day by tweeting Quotation No 3, attributing it to A A Milne, the battle feels well and truly lost.

So we can now add #MockMilne to #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts.  What next – #ShamShakespeare perhaps? How about:

‘This living or dying thing, I just can’t get my head around it.’

‘Romeo, Romeo, who the hell called you Romeo?’ It’ll catch on.

 

How Grimms’ Fairy Tales can lead to even grimmer fairy tales

It’s amazing what you find out about yourself when someone slips you a few searching questions.  I loved doing this interview with fellow (if a little, ahem, younger) university graduate and writer Amna Boheim http://akboheim.com/newnhamwrites-never-ever-underestimate-a-child/.  Who knew that early exposure to toadstools, matryoshka-red-fly-agaric-mushroom-mushrooms-forestgingerbread houses and angry kings could set you on the path to Hell and pacts with demons?  I mean, they could have led to botany, cookery and, oh, I don’t know, the Wars of the Roses.

But in my case they didn’t.

 

 

pexels-photo-185360Discover more about the tangled roots of Ante’s Inferno and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst on Amna’s blog:

http://akboheim.com/newnhamwrites-never-ever-underestimate-a-child/ 

How to celebrate New Year: with physics and hot chocolate.

Anno 1676 1 January

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London coffee house, 1674

‘On the first day of this month, I met Mr Hooke at Child’s coffee house in St Paul’s Churchyard after he had addressed the new Philosophical club within the Royal Society. We stayed until 11 pm, eating meat and drinking chocolate.’ John Aubrey My Own Life by Ruth Scurr.

I challenge anyone to find a better way of spending New Year’s Day. It has everything: a lecture from one of the founding fathers of modern physics, an evening spent in conversation with the great man, sustenance – how well-cooked isn’t mentioned, but the dinner sounds solid enough – accompanied by, oh joy, a steady supply of hot chocolate. Somehow this last detail sharpens the immediacy of the scene (though that may say more about the place of chocolate in my own life than in John Aubrey’s or Robert Hooke’s).

I belong to a very small book group. There are three of us. So disorganised are we that managing four meetings a year is good going; agreeing on a book to read, a bonus; and the possibility that at least two thirds of the group will have read the book by the time the meeting takes place, a positive miracle. john-aubrey-my-own-lifeShocking, such lack of discipline, and of course we could do better; yet even such unpromising circumstances have led us to read books we wouldn’t have otherwise done, surely the ultimate achievement of any book group. And in 2016, John Aubrey My Own Life by Ruth Scurr became one of these.

I was daunted at first by the book’s length (just shy of 500 pages, yes I’m a wuss). Nor do I read many biographies (why not? Or as John Aubrey would put it, Quaere). But this isn’t a biography as the word is normally understood. How do you write the life of a man who dedicated himself to recording details and anecdotes of the lives of others, surveying the counties of Surrey and Wiltshire, noting architectural styles, inscriptions on buildings, place names, items of natural curiosity, folklore, ancient manuscripts, all with a passion to preserve things that would otherwise be irretrievably lost? Engaging, self-effacing, easily distracted and financially chaotic, Aubrey saw his role as enabling the talents of brilliant contemporaries to find expression, quoting the Roman poet Horace: ‘I perform the function of a whetstone, which can make the iron sharp, though is itself unable to cut.’

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John Aubrey

Friend and supporter to so many scientists, architects, doctors, antiquarians and other prominent contemporaries, a writer who compiled reams of notes on all subjects that fascinated him, yet succeeded in publishing only one, relatively minor, work in his lifetime (Miscellanies; A Collection of Hermetick Philosophy 1696), Aubrey as a subject might, Ruth Scurr feared, ‘vanish inside a conventional biography.’ If only he, like Pepys and Evelyn, had kept a diary…

And there Scurr found her answer. Using Aubrey’s own few pages of autobiographical writing combined with the immense amount of correspondence with his contemporaries, she has constructed his life in diary form. She invents nothing: if there’s no evidence for where he is or what he thinks in one particular period, then those months are thinner than others for which there is much more. Some 35 pages of Endnotes cite sources for the diary entries, proving how scrupulously Scurr adheres to Aubrey’s voice alone, resisting all temptation to embroider or speculate. As a result, John Aubrey leaps from the page, his charming, inquisitive, modest, intelligent, forgiving and, at times, infuriating personality growing organically as the book progresses. Other well-known historical figures are fleshed out along the way: the hard-headed Elias Ashmole, bequeathing his antiquarian collection to Oxford on condition the University built a museum to house it; or a surprisingly devious Antony Wood, borrowing manuscripts from Aubrey which he ‘forgets’ to return for months despite his friend’s pleas. One of my favourite characters is Mr Wylde, if only because, according to the ‘diary’, his main role in Aubrey’s life seems to have been to go to coffee houses with him and annoy Mr Hooke with assertions such as ‘the blood of a black cat can cure chilblains.’

We owe much to John Aubrey. Today he’s most famous for his collection of short biographies of such 17th century figures as Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, John Dee, Thomas Browne and others in Brief Lives. Yet his passion for preserving the past led him, while still an impecunious student at Oxford, to commission a drawing of the ruins of Osney Abbey: a vital record, since what remained of the buildings collapsed only a few years later.

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Stonehenge

He discovered a series of holes at Stonehenge, now named after him, and fought to prevent the megaliths at Avebury from being chipped at by the locals for building material. His suggestion that druids built Stonehenge, while making the date too recent by thousands of years, brought him still nearer the truth than contemporary beliefs that the stone monument was the work of the Danes or – as asserted by Inigo Jones – the Romans. (For a clever, well-written and amusing discussion of theories about the monument down the centuries, see Stonehenge by Rosemary Hill.)

And I needn’t have let the book’s length daunt me. The diary device allows information about these achievements and much more to flow easily across the pages, interspersed with such gems as ‘Jane Smyth, who is somewhat better, and I met Mr Hooke this evening at Cardinal’s Tavern in Lombard Street. We drank until past midnight and Mr Hooke vomited up wine’ (12 March, 1677).hot-chocolate

Note to Mr Hooke: next time, stick to hot chocolate.

Shall I compare thee to a Sonnets Day?

img_2917In these uncertain times, it’s good to be able to report that the Shakespearian sonnet is alive and well.  This was my conclusion after a delightful Sonnets Day at the Weston Library (the airy, austerely beautiful new wing of Oxford University’s Bodleian library) a couple of weeks ago.

By way of celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Bodleian decided to create a special edition of the bard’s 154 sonnets, inviting letterpress printers from around the world to print a sonnet each in any style or language they chose. Sheets of widely differing sizes, colours, design, fonts and languages flooded in and are being collated at the library, and to mark the conclusion of this Sonnets 2016 Project, the Bodleian held a brief exhibition of some of these wonderful hand-printed offerings, many on handmade paper.img_2919

Earlier in the year, half a dozen Oxford primary schools took part in a Sonnets Alive! Project, run by writer in residence Kate Clanchy.  Pupils wrote their own sonnets, a selection of which were gathered in a charming letterpress booklet, magically titled I Feel That the Heart of June is in Me (the title of a poem written by Windale School pupils), hand printed by children from Pegasus School. Some of these contributions were read out by their authors and the quality was astonishingly high, showing an acute understanding of metre and some breathtakingly beautiful images.img_2925 Even Oxford Professor of Poetry Simon Armitage’s warning in his welcoming speech that he planned to steal a few of these lines (and for praise you can go no higher than that) didn’t prepare me for gems such as

‘….I am the dawn when children

wake and see the pale sunrise piercing the shorn

shadows. I am the flame which yet burns on.’

(Flame by Jemima Webster & Khanh Pham).

After the readings it was time to look at the exhibition, which included an enchanting Sonnet Tree: a structure hung with couplets, quatrains and full-length poems, all written by schoolchildren during the Sonnet’s Alive! workshops.  Here again, richness of poetic imagery, instinctive understanding of rhythm and metre, together with a positive revelling in Elizabethan vocabulary showed just how much these young people had immersed themselves in Shakespearean sonnetry. As Simon Armitage wittily implied, with budding poets like these hammering at the door timg_2915he current generation of poets had better watch their backs.

As for Shakespeare’s own place in the canon… I defy anyone to put this more succinctly than 5 year-old Inigo: