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.

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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/ 

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:

The lost library of Dr Dee

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John Dee (1527 – 1609). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

SLIDE 9   John Dee

John Dee (1527 – 1609). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee is the title of a wonderful exhibition now on at the Royal College of Physicians, Regents Park, London. For a show dedicated to the most famous magician and alchemist England has ever produced, the RCP doesn’t strike one as the obvious venue. Yes, John Dee was a doctor but not that kind of doctor – unless you count drawing a patient’s astrological chart as an aid to diagnosis. Which in John Dee’s day – the Sixteenth Century – it would have been.

John Dee (1527 – 1609) was an extraordinarily gifted mathematician, engineer, navigational expert and astronomer. He was also an astrologer, magician and alchemist who devoted much of his life (and a considerable fortune) to discovering what he thought would be the key to the universe: the language God used to talk to Adam in the garden of Eden, the ‘Enochian alphabet’.

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John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth 1. By Henry Gillard Glindoni. Wellcome library, London

Cracking this language, he reasoned, would open up to him the secrets of nature, God’s creation. Bonkers, yes, but what I love about Dee’s fantastical ideas is the spirit of enquiry they sprang from; at heart he was a scientist, using – as other natural philosophers did – magic and alchemy as tools of discovery alongside more factual disciplines like mathematics and astronomy. In my research into Elizabethan magic for my children’s book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, John Dee provided the perfect example of a conjurer using spells and charms in a positive – as opposed to a destructive – way.

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De Septem Secundeis by Johannes Trithemius, published in Cologne 1567. Royal College of Physicians.

A great scholar, Dee amassed 3.000 books in his house in Mortlake.  Unfortunately judgement of other people’s trustworthiness doesn’t seem to have been one of his strengths and in 1583 his own brother-in-law, left in charge while Dee travelled abroad, allowed the library to be plundered. Around 100 of the missing books were stolen by a man called Nicholas Saunders, and these were eventually bequeathed to the RCP, giving the college possession of the biggest portion of Dee’s original library still in one piece. This exhibition offers a fabulous chance to see 50 of them, together with a number of Dee’s own magical implements such as his obsidian mirror and crystal ball (useful for showing angelic spirits with whom he tried to converse).

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John Dee’s crystal ball. British museum.

Doodles in the margins – astrological tables, geometric shapes, human profiles and in one case, a splendid ship in full sail – give a delightful sense of the man who originally owned and loved these books. Go see! You have until 29th July, 2016.

https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/events/scholar-courtier-magician-lost-library-john-dee

5 best reads of 2015

Interesting to see what’s happened to my reading tastes this year.  I read far more children’s books – all highly regarded – than any other genre but only one stood out for me. Of my other 4 top reads, 3 are memoirs of lives, extraordinary, all of them, for very different reasons. Perhaps sometimes truth isn’t just stranger than fiction but a good deal more exciting.

Stet by Diana Athill

Stet

If I were to make one New Year’s resolution (which I don’t, being far too weak-willed), it would be to read more Diana Athill. Having read a number of her short stories, I knew I’d be in for a treat with this memoir of her long, distinguished career in publishing. She writes beautifully and sparingly, looking back with a clear, unflinching eye. Her description of what it was like working for the brilliant but volatile Andre Deutsch is hilarious, while several other colleagues and authors do not escape her sharp pen. Frustratingly, when she describes the second worst career mistake she ever made (something to do with V S Naipaul), she leaves dangling the teasing question of what the worst one could have been… did she tell J K Rowling not to quit the day job?

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

So much praise has been heaped on this book I feared it would prove to be a disappointment – especially when the premise seemed so weird. A mystery centering on the art of making tiny pieces of furniture for doll’s houses? I dreaded another My Name is Red,  which I found unreadable (fans of Orhan Pamuk, feel free to pelt me with illuminated manuscripts now).

To my joy, The Miniaturist proved very readable indeed. Inspired by a magnificent 16th century doll’s house in the Rijksmuseum, Jessie Burton has concocted a dark, gripping tale of young Petronella Oortmann leaving a poor but sun-filled childhood in the Dutch countryside for incarceration in the gloomy house of a prosperous merchant in Amsterdam. To give her something to do, her new husband tasks her with furnishing a doll’s house, as if control over an imitation of real life could compensate for none in reality. Yet even that small power is gradually eroded by the unknown miniaturist, whose exquisite creations reveal an uncanny, almost supernatural knowledge of details of the family and household and the threat hanging over them all… Brrrr.

Forever X by Geraldine McCaughrean

Forever X

Not a new book – published in 1999, in fact, and possibly out of print.  I hope not. Geraldine  McCaughrean is a terrific children’s author who writes in a wide range of genres – historical, contemporary, fantasy, myth, literary classics – excelling in all of them.  This delightful, slightly bonkers tale of a car breakdown which lands Joy and her family in a hotel that celebrates Christmas all the year round moves from surreal beginnings to a warm, funny, very human story about overcoming family difficulties.

 

I Will Try by Legson Kayira

I Will Try

Researching Malawian history, I stumbled on this extraordinary book and had to download it to my kindle. In 1958 a 16 year-old boy, inspired both by the motto of the Livingstonia Secondary School in Karonga and his own thirst to learn, decided he was going to study in America. Not having any money or other means to get there, he walked through Nyasaland (Malawi), Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan, where in the library in Khartoum, he found a directory of American universities and chose the first one to meet his eye: Skagit Valley College in Washington State. Astonished US consular officials helped him take up the scholarship that Skagit Valley, who must have been astounded by such motivation, promptly offered him, and he started his degree course a mere 2 years after setting out on his journey.

Kayira’s clear, detailed account of every step of the way is very readable, and his difficulties in adapting to American culture amusingly and touchingly drawn. A memoir added in 2012 by his widow, Julie Kayira, sketches out his subsequent life as a gifted writer and successful civil servant. An extraordinary achievement, by any measure; yet I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for the family left behind in the village in Malawi.

Lifting the Latch

Lifting the Latch

You know how, when a friend presses a book on you ‘because you’ll love it’, you almost don’t want to read it; you already have a stack of unread volumes teetering by your bedside and weren’t looking to borrow another one just now. So you put it aside and, coming across it 3 months later, open it guiltily, intending to skim it before returning it to the poor friend who by now wants it back… and then are absolutely hooked. So hooked that the last thing you want to do is read it quickly; you want to take time to absorb every tiny detail, every ring of Montgomery Abbott’s voice that Sheila Stewart has captured so beautifully.

Born in Oxford in 1902, Old Mont recounts his life growing up in a tiny cottage in Enstone before spending a long, hardworking life bound to the land, as a farm labourer and later on, shepherd. I expected a prosaic read with some interesting historical detail: what I got was a vivid, lovingly-observed memoir from a man whose greatness of soul left me with no words to describe it. Old Mont’s voice bursts from the page with such warmth, freshness and a vision frequently poetic, that I can’t tell where his account ends and Sheila Stewart’s masterful shaping of it begins. Mont’s good humour, kindness, appetite for hard manual labour (and I mean, hard) and sheer stoicism in the face of some really awful bad luck (minor setbacks and heartbreaking tragedy are met equally with his cheerful ‘Us’ll get over it’) had me often in tears. Of all the books read in 2015, this is the one that has stayed with me most and I can’t stop telling everyone about it.

Which just shows that my friend was spot on.