Never Mind the Bestsellers…

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…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.


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

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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.


Top Children’s Books: Does Age Really Matter?

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Who Doesn’t Love a List Post?

To coincide with International Children’s Books Day (although on here, every day is children’s books day), the BBC produced a list of the top children’s books ever as voted for by a panel of adults. Fair enough, I’m all for adults voting here- they usually write them, so why not judge them? There was some controversy however, as none of the books listed were published after 1968. I read brilliant, newly published children’s books all the time so thought this was a bit of a shame. Until I produced my own list…

My Top Ten Children’s Books Of All Time:

paddington

the hobbit

lion

5

alice

snoopy

marianne

wind

box

enchanted

You’re Old, You Are.

There it is, my list. Each book published some years before I was born, but absolutely and definitely my top ten children’s books ever. Far more traditional than I imagined it would be, and at first I was disappointed about this, but the thing is, for the most part I still own them ( or the parts of them that are bunched together on the bookshelves) and love them dearly. Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach just missed out, as did Dibley resident Alice Tinker’s favourite Jill’s Gymkhana- a sadly underrated book of horsey glory.

So why no titles at least as new as I am? I know the answer here and there are lots of reasons: some were hand-me-downs that arrived with the bookcase, or older relative’s favourites that were passed down hopefully. Telly adaptations led me to a couple. One was a mobile library find I renewed time and time again until months later I handed it back reluctantly; another read to me at school by a very lovely teacher when I was eight and a not so lovely teacher again when I was eleven. I know how each and every book reached me and exactly who was involved. These aren’t interesting stories to anyone else, but to me they mean everything. All of these books however, on discovery, were new in my world and I can say with increased assurity the older I get, that age doesn’t matter.

Nice List, Wrong Title.

I could easily continue this post now with a list of my top ten books for children reading today and the list would be equally wonderful, mostly different to mine and mostly new releases. If I repeated that exercise in six months time, it would have changed. Another year, another list, more children’s books enjoyed as an adult- marvellous stuff! My list though, my personal list, wont have changed. I know this just as I know there will always be a place on my top ten albums list for Blondie’s Parallel Lines and Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. They just belong, they are me. They are moments in time, more than the sum of their parts, not the best books of all time, but my best childhood books.

So I can only assume that the BBC judges were judging as children, not adults; looking back at their own early reading. Not finding the ‘best books ever’, but their own precious favourites. If they’re honest, it’s really the own way to do it, as long as it’s kept personal and never done by committee.

Oh, hang on…

 


Wetter Than A Haddock’s Bathing Costume. Some of Fiction’s Soggiest Characters

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Dried Out From The Storms Yet?

puddleglum

A list post inspired by a recent visit to the West Country and the ever informative news that we’ve had quite a lot of rain this winter. Spare a thought for these fictional characters, destined to remain soggy long after the flooding has subsided… Thanks to my bruv and sister in law for coming up with all the good ones here!

md

 

Can anyone think of other characters who’ve had a soaking? It would be great if you could continue the list!