Stranger Visitors

Five years ago we lost Maurice Sendak, or at least we lost his continuing ability to create. It was an amazing, richly endowed talent. In this post from BrainPickings, for instance, we are presented with his anarchic, triumphant pair, Jack and Guy – it was the eagle-eyed Mat who first pointed out the illustration of Trump Tower in it to me – whose carnival through the chaos of modern times has lots to tell us about how to live well. For me, it is his pictures of the outside breaking in – the Goblins and the menacing sunflowers in Outside Over There – that always make me wonder about the complexities of breaking-in from outside in stories. What is so bad about things breaking in?

Two texts, then, quickly, about monsters calling. The first is this:

The Strange Visitor I knew from my son’s telling of it, but here is the text from a general sharing site:

Once upon a time there was a house in the middle of a deep, dark forest, and in the middle of a deep, dark night, the only sound you could here was the creak of a rocking chair, and the clacking of knitting needles.

A woman sat in a rocking chair, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting.

She was lonely.

“How I wish I had some company!”

And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of great big feet, which sat down by the fire.

The woman sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, and in came a pair of skinny skinny legs, which sat down on the feet.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of great round knees, which sat down on the skinny skinny legs.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of thin thin thighs, which sat down on the great round knees.And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of huge huge hips, which sat down on the thin thin thighs.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a teeny tiny waist, which sat down on the huge huge hips.

The old woman kept on knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, and in came a pair of big broad shoulders, which sat down on the teeny tiny waist.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of teeny tiny arms, which sat down on the big broad shoulders.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of great big hands, which sat down on the teeny tiny arms.  Still, she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, and in came a pair of scrawny scrawny neck, which sat down on the big broad shoulders.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in rolled a huge huge head, which sat down on the scrawny scrawny neck.

And the mysterious visitor sat there, and looked at the woman.

And the woman looked at her visitor, and then she said, “And how did you get such great big feet?”

Much tramping, much tramping

“And how did you get such skinny skinny legs?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such great round knees?”

Much praying, much praying.

“And how did you get such thin thin thighs?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such huge huge hips?”

Much sitting, much sitting.

“And how did you get such a teeny tiny waist?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such broad broad shoulders?”

Much sweeping, much sweeping.

“And how did you get such small small arms?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such huge huge hands?”

Much grabbing, much grabbing

“And how did you get such a small small neck?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such a huge huge head?”

Much thinking, much thinking.

“And what have you come for?”

For you !

and the Tailypo, which occurs on a number of sites, but of these sites, this is perhaps the richest – certainly one I would treat with care, despite its name, if working with children.  I think this telling from the Galdones’ book, is the closest to my own version, because I got it from them! Both stories are real shockers, designed to scare: the uncanny interrupts the solitary life.

As Sarah Maitland vividly puts it in her essay in Arboreal, the demigod Pan is “seldom found in the bright courts of Olympus…”  – but she still places him “deep in the ancient wood [where] he will still drive even the innocent -hearted to irrational, senseless, panicked fear.”  But the question is, for me, what is the significance of the outside-coming-in motif from Tailypo and The Strange Visitor? It is again the Green Knight and Long Lankin: the challenge, the threat, Beware the Moss, Beware the Moor.  The breaking-in brings redemption for Gawain, but wholesale death in the folk tales I’m citing and in Long Lankin. What happens when we go out is our conscious exploration of the anything-may-happen world, but what does that imply for our own world? How comfortable do we want it to be? How comfortable can we keep it? These are the fundamentals of the current political debates in UK and US, the appeal of a controlled past of known certainties (if such a thing every really existed), of comfort and “meetable” challenge. The riddle – not exactly a new one –  is something like “How do we want our world? How should we live in it?” When we “attempt to unriddle the world” as Susan Cooper suggests, we often think in terms of quest, of going out, something I have written about here, but the quest in Gawain begins at home, the quest in A Monster Calls is about the breaking-in to the life-half-lived of chaos, with truth in its wake.  Is our dream of a comfortable life irrevocably gone? Or only to be bought at the price of strong and stable and (unacceptably conformist) control? What is the risk of letting in the dark and the dead? Learn or be destroyed?

So I’m ending on a different tack, another BrainPickings post, where we are greeted by other views from the genius Sendak. “Dipping into yourself” to find the wonder for children is important, as Sendak points out in his interview with Studs Terkel (linked in BrainPickings), being “foolish and silly…but you tell the truth in some way.” Even in 1970 he describes us as “ringed round by liars.” These monsters impinge to challenge or destroy perhaps: truth, “seeing what we shall see, hearing what we shall hear,” – even dressed in fantasy – is our way to conquer. And since this has turned into a sermon, let’s finish with the hymn that taught the 7-year-old me about how fantasy and life meet: When a Knight Won His Spurs. 



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Medieval MSS

If ever there was a book that tempted me to regret the professional path I took away from manuscripts and monastic history, it was this one: Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts . Today, a blog post is both a delight and a cause of just a small twinge of jealousy: Lisa Fagin Davis on the New Bedford Book of Hours. Not only does she go to town on this lovely MS with erudition and enthusiasm, she writes with a lightness of touch that, even if I weren’t a lapsed medievalist, I would find enviable.

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Susan Cooper

Here, to start us off, is Susan Cooper at Pembroke College last week.

I really can’t better it – how could I? – and it was so well put together it would be hard to take any one thing and say “this (and not that) was the best bit.” Maybe just watching her in action here in the JRR Tolkien lecture is enough.

I almost wish I could take time, however, to write on some of her more gnomic  statements:

When I began, children’s literature wasn’t literature.

…the human race invented myth because they needed it.

In a world off fleeting image and fake news, people need more than ever the truth that lies at the heart of fantasy..

But perhaps her best line – which also gave us her title – was simply this shock that good fantasy writing can give:

The catch of the breath, the lifting of the heart.



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Visual Methodology of Politics?


Or of education? Two pictures which, posted side by side, say a lot about the ways politicians manage – or don’t manage – their image when they are with children. One shows David Cameron seemingly failing to engage with a child; the other shows Jeremy Corbyn engaged with a well-known and lively text. I am presenting them here as examples to be discussed: what demonstrates engagement? How do they exemplify the educational process?


Note, for example, that the politicians are both sitting down; look at their facial expressions. Look at the ways in which Corbyn is able to use eye contact – dare I say it “like a real teacher” whereas side by side gives Cameron no real way of engagement.


Sitting back gives Corbyn the advantage of looking at ease; Cameron leaning forward may be an attempt to look engaged, but the girl undermines this, and the Cameron pose is made to look pleading.

The two poses might be seen as typical of the successful and unsuccessful new teacher: demonstrating how to read for pleasure, for example, or lost in the attempt to interest a child in an activity. Irrespective of who the adults are, they are trying to show involvement in education.

What message do they give about what education is?

As I post and edit this, Theresa May is on the TV talking to apprentices in a toothpaste factory. To end, therefore, I want to think about this deeply unflattering picture (at the bottom of this post)  of The Prime Minister. Theresa May is pulling a face that may look disgusted – but this needs to sound a note of caution. She is, I think, immersed in the activity. Emotional engagement may mean joining in all sorts of conversations with children, and the picture itself gives no clue as to what she is talking about. Is she feigning fear? Is she caught as she looks surprised? It’s not the best of pictures, but actually might be evidence of her really trying to connect with the children.

As the next few weeks roll on, we need to use sone criticality when images of politicians are used to promote some message about children’s services or education: we need to remember the decisions made by the politicians, their agents, the photographers and editors. What message is intended? Is it successful or not- and why?




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Lists and Canons

As I write the title I am aware of the ways both “lists” and “canon” (or at any rate “cannon”) have military connections. There is also a certain sense of struggle or battle  when meeting the kind of lists that come my way. I am referring to the “Hundred Books to Read Before You Die” (HBTRBYD) variety. Here is one, the Fifteen Best Children’s Books of All Time.  Yes, Of All Time.

Little White Horses, Hobbits, Boys in Dresses  and Velveteen Rabbits are all in place, along with Pippi Longstocking and the Philosopher’s Stone (I may be wrong about this one). I looked in vain for Michael Rosen hunting bears. I really like Francis Spufford’s The Boy that Books Built, although I wasn’t at all sure why that was there. Perhaps the writer’s lists got muddled, and that was the reference tome. I would have preferred the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature as a guide, but maybe I am misreading the Spufford and it really is “for children” rather than “about childhood” (for a lengthy argument on targets and destinations for older young readers, I’m sure the eloquent and energetic Patrick Ness will give anyone a run for their money, but my mind changed on this – or at least any certainty I had blown up –  when I read The Case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction).  It’s interesting to note how age-skewed these are, although there is some material published in this millennium. I rather suspect there has been a quota system applied, about date of publication, translated or not, maybe even something about “target gender” or some other such idea.

The Bestness has to apply in all sorts of areas.

The Best of All Time has a canonical feel to it.

HBTRBYD is like that. Maybe it’s the intimation of mortality does it.

And here is another, the Top Ten Books About Trees. Because I feel a lot of sympathy for this thoughtful list – and indeed for the project of literature and landscape, I felt I could use this one to explore the idea of a list and a canon. Ignore the fact that the writer is in part writing a plug for her own book, The Long, Long Life of Trees: her motive is subsumed into the choices she makes, and in any case her book does look good. Here is Fiona Stafford’s list, shorn (pleached? pruned?) of her evaluative comments.

Howards End by EM Forster
Meetings With Remarkable Trees by Thomas Pakenham
The Dead by James Joyce
Outline by Paul Nash
Dante’s Inferno
Sylva by John Evelyn
Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin
Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery by John Clare
The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
Apple Acre by Adrian Bell

And of course my removing her comments really removes the point of the article: the list is nothing without the critical commentary. What is Dante doing there? What does Apple Acre have that Wild Life in a Southern Country doesn’t have? Where are the books that are on my desk (somewhere) even now as I type: the rich Arboreal, or the enlightening poetry collection Into the Forest or the quirky Gossip from the Forest?  The chapters from Landscape and Memory? Robert Macfarlane? Rob Cowen? The point of the articles, from Telegraph to Guardian is not that they are canonical, but that they stimulate debate.  You, dear writer, can dress it how you like, but I may not agree that Emile and the Detectives is one of the best children’s books of all time, although I remember it fondly. You might equally howl at my suggestion that we replace it with The Owl Service (a commentary website here) or More Than This or a graphic work such as Nimona.  These are your choices, I have mine (and I would probably include We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, but what might I get rid of?). Trying to make it into something with should and must (and death) is sensationalist.

The debate is what this is about. The danger comes, I think, when it is couched in terms of what you must read. HBTRBYD works on the premise there is an implicit failure in your not having read The Great Gatsby (“The BAE across the Bay” as my daughter described it on the bus to me this morning)  or The Glass Bead Game. Tick, I win: I have read more than you.  There might be arguments, of course, for literary works that are the building blocks of one’s cultural capital, although endless quizzes on the computer don’t seem to be able to come up with a decent answer, and shifting cultural experiences make this a Protean task to say the least (“What book of the Odyssey does Proteus come from, Swarbrick?”) . These arguments seem to me to be ones in which we do see a piece of literature as a building block: no Milton without the King James Bible, no Lord of the Rings without Beowulf, no Matilda without Oliver Twist &c., &c., and I have said enough about Alan Garner whose breadcrumbs of harking-back to other myths and landscapes through all his writings are almost a pedagogic approach in themselves. No Thursbitch without Gilgamesh?

So is there a difference between a list and a canon? At a basic level, no: a canon is just a list. However, the idea of a canon as somehow a required list, a hallowed thing in itself, makes me worried, especially when we come to thinking about children in school. “I think Y6 will love this” is a good day’s trek for Michelle Paver‘s young shaman/hunter Torak away from “They must have read this before Y7 or before University.” Several contributors to the Oxford Reading Spree gave us lists of books that had inspired them, but what was noticeable was that no-one (unless I saw the whole thing through rose-tinted specs) told us what children must read. These were lists, not a canon: an invitation, not a rule.

So what purpose do these lists really serve? They can do one of three things: one, the HBTRBYD method, is to score points like first year undergraduates did to me, to my near-compete despair, in 1976/77; the next is to stimulate debate about what might be on this list or that; the last is to stimulate the reader to move into a new area, pick up a new book. Whispers in the Graveyard sounds worth a look; what’s A Boy and a Bear in a Boat like? I can then make up my own mind about what quality looks like – and the more I read, the better my guess about that might be.

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This is a quick post, prompted by the observation of people’s behaviour on Twitter – no, not the self-righteous “I’m right because I know everything” stuff about phonics or why Early Years has it wrong or why Secondary Schools are something out of Dickens: all of this is getting tired and lacklustre, ossified opinions led by mansplainers. And since I am given to mansplaining myself, I am avoiding it here in particular. Or trying to.

No, the practice I’m picking up on is following other people’s reading – bookstalking, if we want something more anglosaxon than the title of this post. At the moment I am watching Mat read through The Dark is Rising and report inspirational phrase by inspirational phrase on Twitter; I have similarly seen other people’s reading on Goodreads. Some of them are “my” Brookes Education  students and honestly it fills my heart with joy.

I love this ambiguous relationship between text, reader and the community of readers. In many periods, reading has been a communal activity, either through reading out loud or through the distribution of books in a community; it must have helped create a sense of common enthusiasm, or at least a ground for debate and opinion.  It is wonderful to watch this happening in a Primary class; it was inspiring at the Oxford Reading Spree – and continues to be so, since the event was such a springboard for people to talk to one another; it is great to see people challenging, suggesting and discussing, too, at the Spree and the afterwards – but perhaps what I’m enjoying is simply watching the steps through the forest, seeing phrases I had missed in previous reading or thinking “that looks worth reading.” Not so much “Booktalk” and “Book-stalk.”

Reading, I often forget, is essentially community-based communicative activity, and the community around children’s literature is generous, committed, patient. We are not so far from the communal reading of the middle ages after all.

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Partnership, Obedience and Trust

I think the Oxford Reading Spree went well. There were notable stars, of course, and followed some way behind by a man looking like a grizzled version of Basil Brush, rabble-rousing rather than really presenting a case on parents and partnerships and how that might sometimes involve a loss of power for the professional. Me voila, along with many – but alas, not all – the speakers.  It has been immensely gratifying to read praise from serving teachers such as Kiran, here.  Yes, it really does mean a lot.

What I want to return to is the notion of parents as school agents. I know I was pressing my case too hard in my talk on Saturday – but equally I now see there were people in the audience who do, in fact, keep children in at playtime if the child’s reading record has not been filled in. All I think I could do is point out the ambiguities in both doing this and not doing it – something I had been planning to do until I read Sue Cowley’s reflections on school absence. She has moved the argument on from my moans about whether this action or that in the teaching of reading is in the best interests of the child, in the light of the news that Jon Platt, who in effect queried the use of the word “regular” in “regular attendance,” and whether a school has a right to determine what “regular” means.

I find myself caught. Head teachers sometimes seem like dreadful killjoys – “You know it’s a trend, the Head’s thinking of banning it” – and maybe sometimes they are, seeking an even sailing rather than any choppiness, conformity and compliance rather than real partnership. However, does the perceived need for a big holiday somehow overrule the professional judgement as to what why a child might be in school – still less the organisational complexity of a curriculum in which children may or may not be there for this or that piece of learning? The tensions are – or seem – very either/or in the matter of term-time holidays. As Sue acerbically sums it up, ” your personal circumstances have ceased to matter.” Holidays, healthy packed lunches, uniform, whether you have the time to fill in a reading record, whether your shared reading with a child is about Charlie and Lola, or Smash Hits, or Biff and Chip, whether… Oh, enough.  It comes down to the idea that somehow the parents (“the most important job in the world, and it’s left to amateurs”) can have a right to disagree with a professional. Sometimes they do. Sometimes the school makes a mess of the message the team is trying to convey. Been there, on both “sides,” and am always struck, as I look back at the highs and lows of parent-teacher relationships by the dilemma: Does a school demand obedience, or does it inspire (or work to inspire) trust?

In this case, tonight, I think Sue is right: this parent and teacher playground bundle is the wrong battle. Fighting about school term holidays or absenteeism during SATs seems a bit of a distract-and-redirect, if the stories are to be believed (I’m not doubting them) about teacher recruitment, low morale, chronic funding. There are worse ogres to fight than a (perhaps) over zealous head or (perhaps) a belligerent parent. These everyday squabbles need to be seen for what they are, or at least could be: the school-by-school, sometimes family-by-family storming and forming of relationships. We have other dragons hatching, and we will need all the strength we can muster, all the friends we can get.


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Come and Join the Dance

This weekend I will be doing something – I am so nervous I can’t really talk it up, although the event itself will be marvellous – at the Oxford Reading Spree about reading in the EYFS. I could

  • fulminate about phonics
  • chide people on child-initiated learning
  • do other things on how to share books in group time that could have an alliterative title, but I can’t be bothered.

but in fact what I’m going to talk about is parental partnership and particularly about books.

Gillian Morrow and Nigel Malin, in the heady days of reasonably funded Early Years, proposed a model of parents and professionals working together. They suggested that partnership “which is often depicted in terms of a hierarchy of levels, for example from non-participation to partnership and control” can sometimes be seen by professionals “as a matter of ‘giving’” – and I wonder whether this means a giving but with the right to take back. Power really remains with the setting, and the role of the educator is to make up for parental deficiencies.  In Morrow and Malin’s more dynamic model, we see this undergoing changes. Most teachers will, I think, recognise that  changes in relationship between parent and professional are not necessarily easy, but their research is primarily into parents’ decision-making through committees, and one of the workers’ responses to the increased empowerment is telling:

…one of the good things has been becoming a lot less precious about your professional status. People on the Parents’ Committee respect you not because of your job role but because of their relationship with you

I return to this as I think about reading.

How well do we act as advocates for reading? How easy is it to fall back on institutional lines of power?

I have recently heard (but now cannot trace) the story of the school that threatened a child with detention if the parents didn’t read with the child three times in a week; I remember a parent’s anger at reading in the child’s reading record a telling-off for not keeping the reading record up-to-date…  These are indicative of a power relationship in which a home-school agreement is for the parents to agree to comply. They/we comply with what the school deems fitting. This is, I think assumed in the legislation, which states that a home-school agreement must contain “the responsibilities which the parents of such pupils are expected to discharge in connection with the education of their children” – assumed, I think, that it is the school that sets those expectations. This seems to me a far cry from the EYFS statement that

[c]hildren learn and develop well in enabling environments, in which their experiences respond to their individual needs and there is a strong partnership between practitioners and parents and/or carers…

So what is this strong partnership – and especially when we are talking about fostering literacy in EYFS – what does the professional have to do? Assume or require compliance? Or become the dancer, inviting parent and child to join? And if the latter, how much does the professional need to understand that long story from the first, cuddly book-sharing to the child making their own choices in a library?

This is what I will be exploring, all in 20 mins, on Saturday. No pressure, then.



Gillian Morrow  & Nigel Malin, (2004) Parents and professionals working together: turning the rhetoric into reality  Early Years Volume 24, 2004 – Issue 2, Pages 163-177






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Memory, Narrative and a Reader

First off, note the title, gentle reader: I am going to avoid the notion of “the Reader.” I simply don’t know what those words mean, although I can see they are a convention for “anyone who picks words off a page, screen, clay tablet, &c.” And I am not talking about the named and nameless writers and readers who have gone before me over 8000 and more years, from unnamed composers of lists and spells through Aeschylus (neatly explored here)  to Baudelaire (“Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere!”). This is a blog post – as I’m afraid they all are these days –  about me, a personal snippet of a pale reflection of Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built. I have begun this sketchy narrative before.

A reader. Nine, ten, as I said before. His first read of Narnia is still in his mind, as is Batman. He is read Clive King at school (22 Letters) and on TV (Stig of the Dump), likewise Rosemary Sutcliff,  and Moomins, Green Knowe, Elidor come into his reading life (enough of the third person: it’s getting tedious), sorry.  The children’s librarian in Harlow suggests I try The Hobbit after one of the Sutcliff books – possibly The Shield Ring. She gets special permission, when I finish Lord of the Rings, for me to borrow the LPs of Wagner from the adult library. This much, at least, is in praise of a woman whose name I do not know, whose task was to take an interest in young people’s reading.

I suggested in an earlier post that the rupture of my reading brought me to read and re-read Tolkien because he represented something bookish, grown-up and at the same time a continuation of my “top Junior” reading. Hollindale’s keen eye spots, in Catherine Storr’s use of “childish” a word that makes her sound apologetic. Perhaps when I got to secondary school in Burnley  I was apologetic for my earlier childhood, unable to frame myself as a reader as convincingly as I had in Harlow. My reading was wide, or at least quirky, and my clumsy medievalism, founded on a family view of English Catholicism, starts here, as does my reading of Buddhism through the seriously strange writings of Lobsang Rampa: my dad’s influence both times. My mum bought me adult C S Lewis and we read Daphne du Maurier or listened to dramatisations on the radio. I read her Dennis Wheatley stories of demonic rituals and posh people – and the appendices to Lord of the Rings. So I was still reading new stuff when we moved again, back to North London. So much for story, now to some thinking.

What has often struck me is the fact that I had big pockets of my childhood that appear fragmented or unrecognised. Burnley is vivid, with Gilbert and Sullivan, lots of Church, wild countryside and (at the time) troubling explorations of sex. Harlow had retreated into a time I couldn’t quite remember.  It was as if I had lost the thread of the narrative, skipped a chapter so that it didn’t make sense. I loved the windy hills, I ogled the harp in a music shop in Blackburn, but as an adult  couldn’t quite put these into place. This is where I am struggling at the moment: not the very idea of why I love children’s literature, but why the rediscovery of books from my own past reading are such a revelation. What memories return.

The Shield Ring gives me a clue to harps and wild hills: what astonished me is that I had forgotten my love for the heroes Bjorn the Harper and Frytha through whose eyes we see so much of Lake Land. So – although this really does need to go on and on – I’ll stop with Hollindale’s idea of what childness might do in an author’s purpose. “The past child as a living agent in the adult self” is acknowledged in some authors as part of why they write. Authors from Garner and Sutcliff are explicit about this; it can be guessed (only guessed, I think) in a wistfulness for a past time in Tolkien. I wonder however whether this is also present me for as I read again books I loved before we moved north: they awake for me a real and steady set of pictures of my “middle childhood,” brief years from eight to ten, and they do so because the literature, the text (not the interpretation) remain constant, there for me to discover, at an opportune moment, ideas, story lines, phrases, characters “that I had loved long since and lost awhile.”


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What gives me pleasure in reading?

This post, as I begin it, is an instant “Save Draft,” since it will take a lot of unpicking. Even as I write I see the CLIP Carnegie Kate Greenaway list is out with Tidy, Wolves of Currumpaw and Wild Animals of the North in there. Popularity, pleasure, professional judgement come together. Complex stuff.

Do I read because something is popular?

Not always, but sometimes I have to, if only to keep up to date with other people’s ideas or trends in production. A Hello Kitty version of Red Riding Hood recently stands out as a low point. I persevered with Harry Potter because I thought I should, and was glad I did.

Do I read children’s books for pleasure?

For my own pleasure, as well as the pleasure of sharing? I get pleasure from the innocence – whether knowing or otherwise on the author’s part – which  I can see even if I don’t really participate in it. Granted , as Hollindale so gnomically says “ours is the age of Lord of the Flies,” where even the bear-protagonist of Jon Klassen is vengeful and murderous, there is in much children’s literature a lightness that is engaging.

I like the simplicity, whether (again) knowing or unknowing. The foxy-looking gentleman leading Jemima Puddleduck astray; the bromance (an anachronistic term) of Esca and Marcus Flavius Aquila;  the inversion of roles in the Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig: they are tricksy, or challenging, funny and poignant but simple in the storytelling in some way I haven’t yet teased out, somehow.  I know I am in danger here of seeming as if I like the descent into liking the easy read, and I will only protest (using Julien Benda’s phrase (revisited by Hollindale) Le Trahison Des Clercs, the way that intellectuals do not stay true to their “calling”) that it is the subtlety and playfulness of the design and language that I find attractive, not the easiness.  There’s so much more to say on this, but this will do for now.

I get pleasure from good design, from inventive use of colour, interesting cadences in prose, from irony and jokiness. I get pleasure – and did as a child – at the knowing wink towards the world of the adult in the Moomins (I like it less in Dahl). I suppose I get pleasure in the play of ideas: it’s a bit like reading poetry, where rhythm and cadence and imagery and word choice and the appreciation of all of them together makes for the biggest part of my pleasure in reading. Look at these lines from R S Thomas for example:

What is the Christmas without
snow? We need it
as bread of a cold
climate, ermine to trim

our sins with, a brief
sleeve for charity’s
scarecrow to wear its heart
on, bold as a robin.

My pleasure comes from appreciation of the shared experiences, but also from the way the words are placed, with care and attention, the slipperiness of simile and metaphor, of sacrament and observation.

And I get pleasure from the debate I have with colleagues about something we delight in together. Children’s literature is one of the reasons I came to Brookes, with my original work title of “Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies, Communication, Language and Literacy. ” It is a joy to find that discussion still alive in the last years of my work.

Professional Judgment comes in somewhere?

Because of my job and my chosen area of research (now here’s a circular argument bowling down the hill of criticism!) , yes.

I can cite two voices in announcing the prize lists today :

There are journeys to be made, friendships to discover, characters to fall in love with and worlds to truly immerse oneself in.
Questions of identity, friendship and responsibility, both to others and to the natural world, are key themes this year. It is also hugely heartening to see our shortlisted writers and illustrators tackling potentially difficult and big ideas…

And I like those descriptions of the values that professionals see in books. I’d like my students to appreciate these views.

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