Never Mind the Bestsellers…

Posted on

…Here’s the Alternative Kids’ Lit Reading List!

The Lesser Known Movers and Shakers of Children’s Literature

Summer holidays and book recommendation posts go together. To be read piles usually consist of the most recent bestsellers to come to your particular genre of choice. I could tell you about these books but the chances are you already know.

So here’s something different. A few forgotten (and free) Victorian children’s books that will rock your world because:

  • Out of the five authors featured, four are women.
  • One could arguably be described as the first author writing in a YA LGBT genre.
  • One is a comic genius whose stories are as fresh and funny as anything you’ll pick up today.
  • One defied all odds: was blinded as a child and escaped Ireland’s Great Hunger before going on to write many children’s books.
  • One was the childhood favourite of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, with both ‘using’ it to influence major parts of their most famous books.

If you’re an adult who likes children’s literature, you need to know these books. If there was a family tree for children’s literature, these guys would be the movers and shakers, there just as it was all getting going. If they’d been late 20th Century musicians, they would have been in the audience for the Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in the summer of ’76. Legends and influencers the lot of them and well worth your time.

A Sweet Girl Graduate by L.T Meade (1891)

“You are a clever girl, Prissie, and I’m going to be proud of you. I don’t hold with the present craze about women’s education. But I feel somehow that I shall be proud of you.”

Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith: feminist and original YA author. She wrote many books in her lifetime and can be seen as a forerunner in LGBT fiction. She was a bit of a marvel.

A Sweet Girl Graduate is right there at the start of women in higher education, sharing it as a fiction and encouraging its readers to think about this world. It’s diverse too. Protagonist Priscilla, unlike the other girls at her college, is poor and struggles to make ends meet. She is quiet, hard-working, has a “careworn” face older than her years and a “too serious mouth”. For anyone out there who rolls their eyes each time they are told yet another  YA female protagonist is extraordinarily beautiful (without knowing it of course), I give you the reassuringly normal Priscilla and her true depth of character as a square peg in a round hole.

Priscilla expects life at her all-girls’ college to be all about study, but soon discovers that forming and maintaining relationships with the other young women there is equally as time-consuming. There is a spirit of intimacy between the girls that’s been described as an early depiction of lesbian relationships. This is a brilliant read and a much-needed insight into late Victorian social history from a woman’s perspective.

Free online text with illustrations 

Holiday House by Catherine Sinclair  (1839)

If you read just one of these books, make it Holiday House.

Sinclair introduces us to Harry and Laura, the Victorian answer to Horrid Henry. They live comfortably in Edinburgh with their doting uncle and grandmother. They are stringently policed by the formidable Mrs Crabtree whose old-fashioned methods of  ruling with an iron fist hold no truck with the children or their guardians. Like Blyton’s hopeless village policemen, she doesn’t have a chance against her young opponents and goes off regularly, like a kettle left too long on the heat.

The first half of Holiday House is a chronicle of Harry and Laura’s amazingly naughty escapades that they happily never learn from. Sinclair’s voice is everything: she writes with a humour similar to the much later PG Wodehouse. Socks will be laughed off. These adventures would go down well in any Key Stage Two classroom today.

Be warned though: the second half of the book drops off into the more usual moral tale and leaves behind the pioneering style of the first half. Sinclair later spoke of regretting this move and wished she could rewrite it. My advice is read up to chapter ten and stop. Even so, this is a classic that should be more widely enjoyed today.

Free online text here.

The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs Molesworth (1877)

"ARE YOU COMFORTABLE?" INQUIRED THE CUCKOO

Griselda and the Cuckoo Inside the Clock

Mrs Molesworth was using inanimate objects to travel to magical lands long before Enid Blyton ever wrote about her wishing chair. A wonderful story from the start in which a young girl (Griselda) comes to live with elderly relatives and senses something unusual about the house. It turns out she is right in this first impression as there is magic in the air. Young Griselda finds that the cuckoo in the cuckoo clock can come to life and the clock has the power to take her to fantastic lands. A story of magic and finding new friends mixed with a nice bit of Victorian didacticism, as you would expect.

Link to free online text with illustrations

Granny’s Wonderful Chair by Frances Browne (1857)

Talking of magical chairs, here’s another. Back in 1857 Frances Browne was using this as the key form of transport in her latest book Granny’s Wonderful Chair. In it, Snowflower leaves home to travel to a fine palace where she tells her fairy stories to the lords and ladies present.

It’s a sweet book that will touch your heart and gets even more poignant when put into context. Frances Browne was a remarkable woman who was born in Donegal with no benefit of family wealth. She was blinded by smallpox as a young child but wouldn’t let this hold her back. She loved writing and particularly enjoyed the fairy stories her mother told her. Browne was forced to leave Ireland because of The Great Hunger in 1847 and when you read Granny’s Wonderful Chair you’ll most likely notice references to morality in relation to greed and hunger. This is a beautiful piece of story telling that rings through so clearly that the author might well be reading it aloud to you.

Free online text with illustrations

 The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (1872)

Princess Irene Explores the Castle

Young Princess Irene lives a lonely life in a castle in the mountains with only her nursemaid for company. One rainy day she is forced to play inside and stumbles upon a series of strange rooms and a beautiful woman who says she is Irene’s great great grandmother. Irene’s world takes a magical turn from here as her adventures take her under the mountains and into the world of goblins, although always under the protective gaze of her newly found relative that no one else believes exists.

Ring any bells? It should do. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S Lewis and The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien were heavily influenced by it. Both authors cited The Princess and the Goblin as a favourite childhood book and a big influence on their own stories. You’ll spot even more things in common as you read. A fascinating book with the pleasing extra of having an extremely old lady in a position of agency and central to the plot. Best mentally visualised in Japanese Anime style, because it’s that wildly imaginative and distinctive.

Free online text with illustrations

Top image credited  to The National Library of Scotland, with thanks.


Paula Harrison The Darkest Dream Guest Post

Posted on

Robyn Silver: The Darkest Dream

 

I’m delighted to have Paula Harrison stopping by the blog today! Paula is here in celebration of the release of her new book Robyn Silver: The Darkest Dream. This is the second story in a wonderful adventure series and you can follow this link to read my review from earlier in the week.

Paula is sharing a guest post today that will give lucky readers some extra insight into her latest book.

 

Five random things you didn’t know about Robyn Silver: The Darkest Dream

  1. Robyn was born when the clock struck midnight which is why she can see monsters that other people can’t see. Luckily she meets two other people who were also born at midnight. Being the only one to see monsters would be pretty terrifying!
  2. The most ridiculous monster in the book is the mimicus which looks like an enormous pale jelly with eyes that can spring out on stalks from any part of its body. The mimicus can also copy people’s voices which is how it got its name.
  3. Weapons made from silver are the most effective against the monsters. But knowledge is also a powerful weapon in this story. Robyn, Nora and Aiden need to discover the truth about what’s terrorising their town and for this they have to raid an enemy’s library.
  4. Robyn has four brothers and sisters. Her sister Sammie, who is fourteen, is the person who annoys her most in the whole world.
  5. Grimdean House is where Robyn and her friends do their training. There is a Mortal Clock on the side of the tower which contains the power to awaken new monster hunters… when the clock strikes midnight

Paula Harrison

Paula Harrison is the best-selling children’s author of The Rescue Princesses series. Her books have sold over one million copies worldwide. Paula wanted to be a writer from a young age but spent many happy years as a primary school teacher first.

 

Thanks so much to Paula for visiting today and to Olivia at Scholastic for sending me this lovely book.


The Robyn Silver Series by Paula Harrison

Posted on

This Friday I’m lucky enough to have Paula Harrison stopping by with an exclusive guest post for fans of the Robyn Silver series. For those of you who don’t know the books already, I’ve reviewed them below and added some really brilliant links to resources to use in class. Enjoy!

Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes

Until last year, Robyn Silver was an ordinary ten year old girl living in an ordinary town doing ordinary everyday things. The middle child of five, Robyn was used to being a little overlooked and the greatest danger in her life was missing out on the last slice of pizza at the dinner table.

That is, as I said, until last year…

In Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes, released last September, Robyn’s life is transformed by the discovery that she is a Chime Child: one who through the circumstances of her birth can see monsters. And suddenly with the waking of these powers, she finds herself having to protect those around her from things they cannot see. Robyn has a choice: does she ignore this strange new world or does she become a secret hero?

Luckily for Robyn, she’s not alone. Alongside best friends and fellow Chimes Nora and Aiden, Robyn is trained by the mysterious Mr Cryptorum and (the frankly magnificent) Miss Smiting. Together they strive to keep the town safe from unseen invaders of a beastly kind.

Paula Harrison merges the fantastic with the everyday, making it tantalisingly easy for middle grade readers to let their imaginations run absolute riot. Children will be enchanted by the premise, excited by the action (there is so much here to keep kids glued to the story) and asking for more!

Robyn is far too marvellous to be contained in just one story and this July sees the plucky heroine return for another adventure:

Robyn Silver: The Darkest Dream

“Fettle cleared his throat and began reading: ‘At 12:53 on Wednesday 9th March, the Grand Master of the Clocks measured a spike in dark energy readings. This matched a similar but smaller spike last December, and after many calculations he believes that a monster of significant power is about to rise here in Wendleton.'”

Robyn’s got more experience of dealing with the vast and scary monster community this time round, and boy, is she going to need it! If Mr Fettle from the International Federation of Chimes is to be believed, something wicked is heading for the town. There are even more deliciously scary monsters to battle, but with The Federation watching every move it isn’t going to be easy.

In The Darkest Dream, we share in even more of Robyn’s world as she develops her skills as a Chime and continues to be a smart cookie and a bright and brilliant role model for readers.

Robyn Silver in Class

The Robyn Silver series are the sort of book that make children want to write as well as read, so I was delighted to find a wide range of terrific resources over on the Scholastic site to go with the Robyn Silver books. Children can use templates to draw their own wishes, make a monster compendium and complete a crossword amongst other activities. Here’s the link.

I’d also really recommend you check out Paula Harrison’s Five Writing Tips over on YouTube: link here. I love Paula’s approach and can’t wait to share it in class. It’s very accessible and Paula also shares that she uses drawing as part of the writing process: something I would love to see schools encouraging more of in lessons.

 

Thanks so much to Scholastic for sending me these fabulous books!

 


Stories & Art Should be Connected- So Why Isn’t it Happening?

Posted on

1979

1979: top year at Stivichall Infant School, Coventry, one afternoon. My teacher asks me to do a painting of the unflinching Mrs Blue-Hat of  Shelia McCullagh’s book series One, Two, Three and Away. She’s proved too much for one of my class mates and a replacement is needed for display. Despite having my eye on Jennifer Yellow-Hat, I’m more than happy to do this. I love art and this is my chance to show I’m good at it. I complete a big, bold vision in blacks and blues on buff sugar paper. My teacher likes it and it makes the display.

Connecting Art and Stories

I so clearly remember that afternoon and what my picture looked like. Using our reading books as our inspiration was something we often did at primary school. We read and we listened to stories; we thought about them and together we talked about them. We painted and drew freely, visualising them within an A3 framework.

When I was about  nine or ten, we read The Hobbit. We were halfway through the book and the teacher asked us all to paint a scene we’d enjoyed. Mine (I recall) was of Bilbo Baggins being dangled upside-down and poked in the belly by one of the soon to be turned to stone trolls. In the background I added poster paint glints of a rising sun. Nearby were the other two trolls arguing. I’m not entirely sure it was a very accomplished piece (in fact, I’m almost entirely sure my Bilbo Baggins was for some reason a real dead ringer for Captain Caveman) but I do remember spending that whole lovely long lesson caught up in the magic of the story and trying my best to re-imagine every last detail. We loved our class readers and wanted to spend time with them and we were given the space in which to do this.

A Common Bond

Years later, I trained and worked as a secondary art teacher before I became a primary practitioner. I transferred down with anticipation of creativity without bounds and space for stories and pictures. I was told straight off that I needed to find another main subject because I wouldn’t get anywhere with art. Opportunities were few and far between for educators and pupils, I was to discover.

Although big budget projects were something most children got to experience at some point (and that was brilliant), the bread and butter of art- the drawing and painting I’d grown up with – was becoming a more and more elusive part of the curriculum. Class teachers were often not part of it at all. The bond of a teacher sharing a book with their class and being able to enrich it with art wasn’t just vanishing though, it was being swept under the carpet. It became, and still is seen as a waste of learning time with no measurable benefit.

The Primary Curriculum

A lot of us have direct experience of this. I was pulled up in a literacy lesson observation for allowing my Year Fives to illustrate their written work. I was told it wasn’t writing and had nothing to do with it. That the children would rush their writing in order to do the art. I disagreed: by illustrating, they could explore the text through use of a different language. The children had enjoyed their writing and now could explore ideas,become more proficient and enjoy contributing to a great cultural history of words and art in collaboration. They were engaged in their reflection of the written work and contributing creatively to the school environment. And yep, the bold type relates to our current national curriculum.

Means and Minds

I wished I’d said this. In reality I just nodded a lot and didn’t illustrate another extended write. Looking back though, what was implied was that children don’t like writing and that art is an excuse to not do it. This is not just a shame, but also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children pick up on this stuff.

The primary curriculum offers many possibilities if we let it. Observe, review and revisit can easily be used in relation to enriching our class readers. With The Hobbit all those years ago as one tiny example, we were observing: observing our own relationship with the story. We were reviewing the scenes we’d listened to and choosing our own to depict. By revisiting the story and applying and expanding our own knowledge and abilities, we owned a world of imagination. We have curriculum guidelines now, but they are open to interpretation and can allow us to adapt them to our own children’s needs. We have the means and the minds to justify what we do.

A Thousand Genius Lesson Ideas

Last week I asked my Year Six class how they would want to respond to a book if they could choose a way. Overwhelmingly, they wanted to draw. They wanted to do art about their books in wonderful and imaginative ways. They wanted to picture their favourite book character at different points in their lives: imagine a teenage Dumbledore or Matilda as an old lady. How cool is that? They just wanted to draw with thought and then see it on the wall afterwards. They had a thousand genius lessons at their fingertips that they’d always wanted to experience.

Children haven’t changed. They want to be read to and they want to draw about it. Regularly. Not in ‘Golden Time’. Not during wet break. With value and worth attached. As teachers and leaders, we ‘re working so hard to encourage reading for pleasure, to move away from reading as an assessed task or even worse a punishment. With art, and in particular drawing and painting, we need to do a really different job: step back from art as a treat or reward and lose the given ‘hobby’ tag. Bring art and literature back together and let them meet in the middle.

Making Art and Stories Happen

As an enthusiastic amateur artist and long-time promoter of reading for pleasure, I’m going to be doing my best to champion this and encourage more art back into the primary classroom in connection with the brilliant books you’re all reading to your classes. Nothing expensive or hard to resource, but relevant though, and hopefully also  enjoyable, valuable, reflective, individual, inspiring and memorable. I’ll be looking at the amazing children’s books I’ve reviewed and giving you art plans you can bring to your teaching. Please let me know of any books you’d like me to focus on as a priority and I’d be more than happy to do that. Let’s reconnect art and stories in the primary classroom.


Odd Job Frog by Colleen and Zed Jacey

Posted on

“‘I’m bored,’ said frog. ‘Bored, bored, BORED.’

‘Well you’d better get used to it,’ his friend, Mouse, replied lazily. ‘Nothing exciting is going to happen in the middle of this field.’

‘You’re right!’ Frog jumped up. ‘But the city is full of exciting things. I’ll go there.'”

Odd Job Frog

As amphibians go, Odd Job Frog is a bit of a dynamo! When life gets a tad boring in the countryside, does he languish on his lily pad? No he does not! He hops off to London in search of excitement. Unfortunately, all the marvellous things he wants to do cost money so he has to try to get a job. But what sort of work is most suited to a go-getting frog? It’ll need to be something pretty special…

Make a Leap!

Odd Job Frog is a really entertaining and original picture book that shows we’re all wonderful in our own way. As well as being a lovely story told alongside beautifully painted illustrations, Odd Job Frog promotes creative thinking and self-confidence. Teachers in Key Stage One and those running nurture groups will find this to be a valuable addition to their resources. I love that Odd Job Frog has the potential to really get children thinking about themselves and how they too are extraordinary.

As another famous frog once said, ” Life’s like a movie, write your own ending”. We can’t promote diversity enough and when it comes as fabulously presented as this, what’s not to like!

 

Thanks to the author for sending me this lovely book.

 

 


The Big, Fat, Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig

Posted on

By Emer Stamp

“Hello.

Me I is Pig. I is big and pink (sometimes a bit brown if I has been rolling in mud). My best friend Duck says I has stopped growing; that I has reached my maximum size. But I don’t think this is true. I is sure when I eats a lot I gets a bit bigger and when I don’t eat so much. I gets a little bit smaller.”

Pig is Back!

Pig is back and he’s on hilarious form in this, his fourth diary in the bestselling series by Emer Stamp. Action and adventure await young readers as Pig finds himself faced once again with those most dastardly of book villains, the Evil Chickens. Stitched up by the atrocious avians and forced to leave the farm, Pig’s life takes a Big, Fat, Totally Bonkers turn that kids will thoroughly enjoy. Old friends and new join in with the fun, farts and frolics as Pig faces danger (and chickens) in order to save the day.

A Poster from Pig’s Website!

A Book With Style

With cracking characters, surprising plot turns and fab illustrations, The Big, Fat, Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig is certainly a book with style. Open it up and you’ll see something different with each turn of the page. Fonts are easy to access and change for each character, which makes for exciting reading. Emer Stamp understands what kids want from a funny book and delivers it impeccably; every teacher looking to inspire reading for pleasure should have a set of her books in their classroom. Also, do check out Emer Stamp’s Pig website- it is ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT: there are so many great resources and things to explore. Here it is.

Children across the middle grade age range will love Pig not only for his adventures, but also for his impressive variety of farts which are described in gratifyingly specific detail. I just hope somewhere out there there’s a primary school teacher who’s prepared to take the leap and make this a class reader alongside the science topic ‘The Digestive System’. That would be just too wonderful.

GIVEAWAY!

The Big, Fat, Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig is an absolute corker of a book and you can win not just this little beauty but the whole series by following the blog tour on Twitter and retweeting my review. Good luck!

Thanks very much to Scholastic UK for sending me this copy of The Big, Fat, Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig and for asking me to be part of the blog tour.


Gaslight by Eloise Williams

Posted on

It isn’t every book that wins the whippet seal of approval, you know.

” My mother disappeared on the sixth of September, 1894.

I was found at the docks in Cardiff, lying like a gutted fish at the water’s edge.”

And so starts an intriguing prologue that leads us into Nansi Howell’s life.

Nansi

In chapter one, we find Nansi five years older and in the dubious “care” of Sid who runs a theatre along with other less salubrious ventures. Under Sid’s control, she has learned to take on other identities as both an actor and a thief. Still, Nansi is determined to hold on to her hopes and dreams doing what she can to uncover any clues as to where her mother might be.

Then the arrival of two new theatre acts have an impact on Nansi’s life that means things will never be the same again. Readers aged nine years plus will thrill at being plunged into Eloise Williams’ tale of Victorian Cardiff. Nansi is a character to take to the heart and one who children will find a great empathy for. Gaslight is full of surprises and as good an adventure as you could possibly want and as I’ve come to expect from Firefly Press who consistently publish amazing children’s literature. And look at that cover! Isn’t it just beautiful?

Gaslight

I’ve been looking forward to reading Gaslight for a long time and now I’ve finished it the one thing that strikes me as amazing is the amount of heart and drama Eloise Williams has created in less than 200 pages.  There’s huge depth of story and as I read, I felt like Gaslight functioned as an ink and paper time machine, with surroundings as real as you would wish for. This is exactly what makes me want to share it in class: to see the response from children to not only a cracking adventure plot, but also to the wider picture of Nansi’s life. I fully anticipate mass gasping and holding of breath and hands raised with questions that just can’t wait. I’m pretty convinced Gaslight is one of those books that keeps kids glued even after the home-time bell has rung. I’m looking forward to finding out!

Gaslight: a vivid and breath-taking piece of story-telling brilliance.


Evie’s Ghost by Helen Peters

Posted on

“A high metallic strike made me jump. But it was only the living room clock. It struck twelve, and the last stroke faded away.

And as it faded away, the wind stopped whistling in the chimney. The water stopped gurgling in the pipes. The breeze stopped rustling in the trees. 

I had never known such silence. It was as though the world was holding its breath.”

Christmas Eve, the air just before it snows, getting ready to go out somewhere special. Things that hold a sense of delicious anticipation that make the main event even better. Evie’s Ghost by Helen Peters has this from the very start;  a tantalising piece of children’s historical fiction that gives me this exact same feeling. And being surrounded with such a compelling combination of anticipation and action, it’s wonderfully easy to get caught up.

We join Evie as she goes to stay with godmother Anna while her mum’s on honeymoon. Thrown into the unknown setting of Anna’s flat in an old converted manor house, Evie begins to pick up on the history around her and learns about the tragic Sophia Fane: a previous inhabitant who left an intriguing inscription on the window of Evie’s room.

Later that night as the clock strikes twelve, Evie finds herself invited into the past- specifically to 1814 and Sophia’s time. She has a role to play in Sophia’s fate, but even in the past time marches forward. Will Evie manage to help Sophia and still get back to her own time or will she remain trapped in the past?

Evie’s Ghost is a beauty of a book that will have young readers and listeners on the edge of their seats asking for the next chapter. Teachers looking for a riveting class reader will appreciate this and will love the way Helen Peters creates drama and empathy, especially around Evie’s perceptions of the past and the people she meets. There are differences to consider throughout and the author strikes a sensitive balance between noting advantages of the modern world and suggesting sacrifices made for it.

There is enormous value beyond the pages of Evie’s Ghost, especially for Upper Key Stage Two classes looking to study the past in a really meaningful way. Use it to create great drama opportunities in relation to the story, then take it further and encourage children to find their own inner Evie to explore their own slice of local history outside of the classroom and away from the internet.

Evie’s Ghost: perceptive, inspiring, absorbing, and a must for fans of historical fiction.

 


Uncle Shawn and Bill and…

Posted on

…the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure

By A.L. Kennedy

Illustrated by Gemma Correll

An excellent book, but apparently not enjoyed by whippets.

“Badger Bill was having a very bad evening, maybe the worst of his life. He was stuck inside a bag. “

“Meanwhile, on the dark side of an incredibly rainy hill, four llamas were trying to find shelter.”

“”Meanwhile, an extremely tall and quite thin person called Uncle Shawn was sitting near the river. His lanky arms were folded round his gangly, big legs at around about the height of his bony, big knees, which were tucked up under his chin. He was wearing no socks because he had given his last pair to a young squirrel who wanted to play at camping and use it as a sleeping bag.”

Uncle Shawn and Bill (and Some Llamas)

Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure is the first book in a brand new series from Walker Books sure to go down a storm with humour loving readers aged seven years plus. The first three chapters (or sections) each introduce a character or group of characters, as shown in the quotes above, and the story takes us on their adventures which are linked by the magnificent and heroic (and ever so slightly dishevelled) Uncle Shawn.

Having pretty much snorted with laughter throughout my own reading, I’m really keen to spread the love with Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure. It’s a pure pleasure: thoroughly heart-warming with a fun and exciting plot and everything a class reader should be. It conveys the joy of a really great story. Kids will care about the characters and want to know what happens next and adults will enjoy A.L. Kennedy’s rather nifty turns of phrase.  Gemma Correll’s illustrations are blooming brilliant and perfectly suited to the story. I could have photographed so many for this review, but in the end I chose this beauty:

Grinning Cheesily

Other illustrations you can look forward to include depictions of the differences between good and bad adventures, a mean looking man in a rubber suit carrying a bucket of hot porridge with bananas and raspberries, and also a friend with soup. As I say, blooming brilliant.

I’m delighted that Uncle Shawn and Bill is part of a new series as I can’t wait to see what they get up to next. A book that’s sure to stick a big, cheesy grin on everyone’s face!

 


When is a Children’s Book Not a Children’s Book?

Posted on
  • The Importance of Taking Children’s Books (& Adults Who Read Them) Seriously

“You blog about children’s books but you don’t have children? Has anyone ever questioned that you’re not qualified to do this?”

” I see you write about children’s books. Do you have your own children? No? Oh, you’re a teacher. So you’re coming from a professional point of view then.”

These are a couple of examples of responses I’ve had in relation to me and my children’s book blog www.booksagogo.co.uk.  Being questioned by strangers about my suitability as a reader of children’s books has always struck me as a bit odd (and a bit rude). I find it embarrassing and uncomfortable and I’m ashamed to say that in order to avoid these sort of comments I find that I self-justify before they can begin.  I get in there first and say that as I teach and am also doing an MA in Children’s Literature it makes a lot of sense for me to be interested in children’s books. The truth is it’s actually the other way round. I’m a teacher because of my love of children’s books. I’m doing the MA because of my love of children’s books.

Children’s Books for Everyone

What if I wasn’t a teacher? What if I had no reason deemed ‘proper’ for writing about children’s books? What if I simply loved to read them- would that not be justification enough?  To be a proper champion of children’s books, I need to be up there waving my copy of Jill’s Gymkhana with pride and claiming children’s books on behalf of everyone. So here I am, waving.

Back Up

C.S. Lewis had it right. He wrote this brilliant piece on writing for children and shared his thoughts on being a reader of children’s books at any age:

(In defending children’s books) “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.”

Also:

“They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two.”

Children’s Literature as a Genre

If we consider children’s literature as a genre open to any age, it begins to make sense. For a start, childhood is not a static state of being. Children (like adults) are all different depending on time and circumstance. Children today read books written for the children of 20, 50, 100 + years ago without any thought to it.  For example, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden might be a ten year old child of The Empire who has never been to school, but she remains credible today because she has a spirit children can identify with.  It works because children recognise the similarities rather than the differences. So should we.

What is children’s literature anyway? Robinson Crusoe was written for adults but has always held a fascination for children. It has been abridged over time and is considered by most now as a children’s book. Tom Sawyer is a children’s book but not one I’ve seen in any of the schools I’ve worked in, which is a shame and a loss. The picture book Rosie’s Walk is one of the most satisfying reads I have had the pleasure to analyse as part of my course. Fairy tales are not always about the happily ever after. Accepting that children’s books are complex is essential. This is something you can remind yourself of every time there’s a controversial winner of a children’s book prize. There is nothing that children’s literature doesn’t deal with: war, poverty, death, cruelty, violence, abandonment, it’s all there. Can you handle it?

 You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Children’s fiction has come a long way from its moralistic and didactic roots. We are in a new golden age and the choice out there is astounding. I can only begin to touch on all the good things going on in the children’s book world. I encourage you to take a look and ask yourself what you expect from a good book. I suspect it will be very similar to what you hope a child will get from reading.

Expectations for All & Some Suggested Reads

  • Expand Horizons. (The Lie Tree, Doomspell Trilogy, Bartimaeus Trilogy, Deathscent)
  • Feel Empathy. (Wonder, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, The Incredible Journey, Perijee and Me, The Arrival)
  • Learn new things. (Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm, Voices in the Park, The London Eye Mystery)
  • Be Delighted (The Bell Family, The Little Grey Men, Holiday House, I Capture the Castle)
  • Fire imagination. (The Earthsea Quartet, Strange Star, The Snow Merchant)
  • Have a laugh. (Who Let the Gods Out, Pugs of the Frozen North, I Can Only Draw Worms)
  • Get emotional. (Black Beauty, Skellig, Listen to the Moon)
  • Lose Yourself. (If You Find Me, Five Children on the Western Front, Darkmere)
  • Think. (Tape, Picture Me Gone, Noughts and Crosses, Winter Damage, Wells & Wong Mysteries)

Children’s books are for everyone. Have the hock and the lemon squash. Be enriched.