York Antiquarian Book Seminar 2018 #yabs18

I recently had the pleasure to attend the York Antiquarian Book Seminar (#yabs18). As the title indicates, it’s held in York each year and precedes the well-known and slightly massive York Book Fair at the racecourse. I’ve been going to York Book Fair on and off since my teens, clutching my hard-saved pennies and birthday money and more often than not having a little cry over all the Chalet School hardbacks. I’ve collected these books for a long time, and I love the chase – whether it’s the quick glee of the unexpected bargain, or the years it takes to save up for a bigger volume. And so, when I heard about YABS (and I did a couple of years ago), I stewed in a vat of incoherent envy at this wonderful event happening on my doorstep that I couldn’t afford to attend.

And then I discovered the scholarships page. I applied for one being offered by Abebooks and I am endlessly grateful to say that I got accepted and they funded my place. I would not have been there without that support, and I am determined to pay it forward at some point in the future. I would urge you to similarly apply for such scholarships and to do so without fear. They have to give them to somebody and why shouldn’t that somebody be you? One of the great issues that I deal with on a regular basis is recognising the legitimacy of my voice and presence in certain circumstances (hello Imposter Syndrome), and I am conscious that this is something that impacts on a lot of other people. It is very easy to feel Other, particularly when you are engaging in brave new worlds, and Abebooks’ generous backing helped me feel a little bit more legitimate in this circumstance.

So to the seminar itself. It’s a fiercely packed three days, with evening events and you cover everything. The YABS faculty shares their knowledge generously on a wide, wide world of topics including (deep breath) business basics, buying books, bibliographical descriptions, cataloguing, theft & forgeries, selling to institutional libraries, book fairs, speciality dealing, and much more. There’s a core faculty that involves some guest speakers, and it’s kind of everything you’ve ever wanted to know about book selling and a little bit more besides.

I was particularly interested by the cataloguing workshops. I’ve a background in libraries, though I recognise my approach is slightly more avant-garde than the standard, and am currently wrestling with thoughts about the feminist nature of cataloguing. Many of the women writers I work with do not feature within notions of the Canon or indeed within notions of formal bibliographies, and so I asked about how you catalogue and recognise these absences. There’s a difference, in my eyes, between recognising  rarity and recognising an absence – due to, say, *cough* the patriarchal standards of the literary canon*. There are, say, bibliographies for Angela Brazil but not really (as far as I know) for Bessie Marchant, a similarly popular and groundbreaking author. This is something I suspect I’m going to continue wrestling with, but the seminar gave me some great ideas in how to address this and where I can take it. I have plans! Plans of the specific and niche and nerdy kind! (These are the best sorts of plans).

YABS has been a great and overwhelming and pretty brilliant experience, and it’s not over yet. I’m off to the York Book Fair this afternoon to see it being set up, and will be back over the weekend with my new-found knowledge. I’ll be studying stall set ups and playing ‘guess how much the book’s worth’. Unless, of course, it’s a Chalet School hardback and then I’ll just be crying quietly and cradling it.

My thanks to the YABS faculty for generously and frankly sharing their knowledge and experience over the past few days. And thank you so much to Abebooks for enabling me to be part of that. I am, of course, more than happy to answer any questions anybody may have about the seminar or the experience of applying for a scholarship. A journey of this nature is nothing unless you bring people with you.


A few updates

  1. I will be teaching a class with the LifeLong Learning team at the University of York on ‘Writing For Online Audiences’ on Saturday 17th November. It’s very much a creative writing class, so we’ll be doing a lot of exercises on understanding who you are as a writer and the strength of that point of view in an online context. We’ll also be talking about the ethical, legal and practical issues of writing for this space. I’d love to see you there if you are in the area!
  2. My online course on ‘Blogging And Writing For Online Audiences’ with the University of Cambridge Institute For Continuing Education goes live this Monday. It’s too late to sign up now, and the course is full, but I’m flagging it up in case this might be of interest to anybody in the future. This course is entirely online and structured over seven weeks. We cover everything from GDPR through to ‘Written? Kitten!’.
  3. Finally, I’ll be running an evening class in York, again with the Lifelong Learning team, on ‘Writing For Children’ in January 2019. It’s a creative writing class, so again we’ll be doing a lot of practical exercises to help break down the massive world of writing for children. We’ll also be looking at a lot of examples of best practice, ranging from picture books and board books all the way up to young adult. Again, I’d love to see you there if you’re in the area.




After Graduation

It’s a curious thing to realise that I am now a graduate of a university that I’d never have got anywhere close to when I was eighteen. Graduation itself was a tad surreal; I felt like something out of Harry Potter, and then during the ceremony I felt sudden waves of emotion rolling down the stairs towards where the graduands sat, and then afterwards it was done.

It was my first graduation, though not my first degree. I’ve never attended graduation before for various reasons, and so attending this one that was down the road felt appropriate. And, because, it marked something quite specific in life. I’d watched a lot of graduations online of the students that I used to look after. It was now my turn to participate in the process.

Learning isn’t easy. It’s not quick, nor is it straightforward, or is it ever really over. You graduate, I think, but your learning doesn’t stop. Your experience of your subject, your knowledge, your self continues to grow and be shaped by that which you have experienced. Graduation is a stage of that, but it’s by no means the end. I was heartened to see the University recognise that by emphasising that facilities, such as careers, remained open and available to graduates.

I am now moving on. I’m writing a PhD proposal around the idea of the ‘rebel girl’ and notions of transgressive identity in children’s literature between 1919 and 1939. I’m still working on the nuances of it, and trying to not take on the entire world of children’s literature all at once. Still, to write even the sentence that opens this paragraph is to write a sentence that betrays me for I intend to return to academia and to stay in it. In a sense I am not graduating at all, but then, when you have found your space in the world, why would you?

I am available for private research in the meantime, working particularly with the resources at the British Library (for which I charge an hourly rate), and on my own writing. Stories continue to want to be told. Spaces continue to speak. I’d like to continue to listen to them.

There Was Something Here Once

Some messy, quick free-writing on space, place and memory, for a hot July day…

There was something here once

and I remember it –

that rhythm of foot and hip and heart.

My body steals itself

aching for the ways it wants and knows

and I go with it

because I can’t not

because of the quickness

and the way it defies me

Sometimes I think cities are to be found

that they are spaces to be

known and unknown

but more often these days

I think they are spaces to be lost in

and consumed by –

Sunlight and Redwater

The moorland stream is a curious thing, cutting from out from heather and behind banks to flare suddenly into view, like some oasis in a parched and bare desert. And I found this one by accident, only noticing it after I let myself see the land and the patterns held within it. For there are patterns in the moor, but they are not patterns that we see easily. They are patterns of ice and stone, patterns of erosion and geographical movements, patterns that are so big and so distant that they are almost incomprehensible to those of us who go by on dry July days.

Continue reading

The Earth Belonged To Women

I’ve been reading a lot of Simone de Beauvoir recently. Not just because it’s something that I should do, considering the sort of thing that I’m interested in, but also because it’s something that I want to do. I’ve always been interested in the power that language gives to a voice, and particularly to those voices that identify as female. Speaking as female is a complex, nuanced thing that so often requires a negotiation against those patriarchal structures in place.

I’m also a fan, unbearably so, of the work of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. When it comes to art, I have always been of the school that you find what you love very early on and stick to it. Something like medieval iconography or, indeed, the old masters, does tend to leave me cold. I can admire the skill of it, but my emotional attraction to it is fleeting and in some cases non-existent.

Jenny Holzer.jpegI don’t have a particular favourite when it comes to Holzer but I adore the thematics of her work; this is language embedded in place, and in many senses, overruling the nature of that place. The ephemerality of projection, the quality of the text, and indeed the blunt, raw honesty of these pieces! I could talk about her for hours but I won’t do that here. Instead, I will move onto Barbara Kruger, and share with you one of my most beloved artworks in the entire world.

Love Is Something You Fall Into

I did one of those comedy halts when I saw this for the first time. You know the sort of halt I mean? Everything stopped. The world moved on about me, but I was frozen. This was the first thing I’d ever seen that used language as art,  and understood the quality of line, of space and of weight that can be found as much in the word as in the line.

And it’s this background, this cultural heritage, this leaning towards word and space and place, that brings me to my current thoughts around Simone de Beauvoir. I am new to her work, newer than I should be, and so I am underlining and taking notes and allowing myself to read this slowly and indulgently and to understand just who and what is being said and why it’s being said.

York Mediale SDB.jpg

I’ve been experimenting, as well, with isolated fragments of her language. I am always excited by the way that, in disconnecting a sentiment from its context, you can gain a new level to that original context. I don’t think that makes sense, so let me examine it from another perspective. If you read, say, the phrase: the cat sat on the mat, and then see a picture of a cat with the word cat written on it, then that cat, that represented cat, comes to influence your idea of the original cat which is sat on the mat. Language is tidal, in some senses, it flows in and out and everything that happens in a sentence, can be connected with that which has come before it and that which is yet to come.



Language in place, language laid over place, talks to the place that is there and the place that was there and the place that will be there. Place is an inherently humanist construct; we make places out of space on a daily basis. Space is space, right, but when we name it, when we label it, it becomes place. It becomes that table in the cafe that we like, the bus stop we get to go to work, our front door in a street full of others. Language labels, language claims. Are you sensing the patriarchy here? Because I am.


And in writing of the earth as feminine, in making me pause and study the page and have a lightbulb turn on metaphorically above my head, Simone de Beauvoir makes me think about the role of language in our dialogue with earth, and space, and place, and ourselves. I will be submitting a proposal for a project with these images in shortly, but for now I just want to let myself dream of text and of language and of landscapes that bring all that together.

I suppose, in a way, I’m searching for a way to understand the world as space, place and word.



I’ve never been the sort of student who could manage to attend conferences in Montreal or Yale, and so when such events come within my grasp, I try my utmost to attend them. Recently, I had the pleasure of going to an event run by New Writing North, an organisation that supports writers working and living in the North. Digi-create was a series of talks from people who were writing, working or commissioning pieces located within the digital space. You can check the tweets here, and New Writing North were filming pieces on the day which, I think, were intended to be published later.

Emma Hill, a senior content producer for BBC Children’s Inhouse Interactive spoke on how they were using storytelling to engage with younger audiences. As a specialist in children’s literature, this had a lot of interest for me – not only in her points that they could not talk to children through social media for practical and safeguarding reasons (Facebook and Twitter both have a minimum age of 13, for example), but also in how their work must exist on established platforms and within the world of the work that they already produce. With regards to pitching, she pointed out that visibility was vital, as was a confidence with platforms such as Instagram. If, as she said, you were pitching to write on Instagram you need to understand and to be able to exploit the “wholeness” of the platform.

Kate Pullinger was one of the great incentives for me to attend. I’ve followed her work at a distance for a while, being interested in her engagement with ‘ambient literature‘ and also her creative piece ‘Breathe‘. Breathe is a piece of interactive, spatially aware fiction which, with the help of a series of APIs, manages to tailor itself to the location and context within which you read it. It’s clever, sharp work, and she spoke a little bit about the genesis and background to that project. She also talked about the nature of storytelling that she was interested, and in particular the idea of ‘form’. How is the form of the smartphone different to that of a book? What’s the impact of object upon form upon reading?

David Varela was another interesting session for me and one that made me forget to take notes and instead think jealous thoughts about all the great work he’s done and is doing. He’s a writer who’s worked in a series of forms and platforms, whether that’s threatre, radio, interactive narrative, apps, live work and more. His session left me with the thought that I need to think of myself as a producer of my own content, and to start to consider what I can do with it and where – and indeed, recognise the strength of what I do.

Here’s a couple of websites / apps / resources / project that were mentioned throughout the day :-

BBC Writer’s Room

80 Days

A Place Free Of Judgement

Ambient Literature




What is the potential of using creativity and story to help young people develop wellbeing, understanding and learning about themselves?

(I recently attended an interview for a job. At time of writing, I don’t know about the outcome of the job but, irrespective of that, I wanted to share the transcript of what I said. A couple of things to finally note, I gave them a copy of this poster as a handout and I’ve taken out any reference to names in the below.)

Thank you for letting me speak to you today. I’m here to talk about the relationship between creativity and story, and young people’s self-awareness; namely the relationship between something very externally rendered and visible, to something more internal and perhaps much less visible.

That in itself is a sweeping statement but it’s one of those statements that talking about creativity perhaps engenders. You have to start big, to go small; you can’t focus in on the nuts and bolts without understanding the overarching concept itself.

And yet even that itself is a sweeping statement because creativity is one of those concepts that presents a different face to nearly all of those who participate within the act. Can we pin it down at all? And can we pin it down within the educational framework itself; can we define this skill that we require children to exhibit on a regular basis – whether that’s through drawing a picture for the fridge, or solving an elaborate piece of algebra?

So let’s try and do precisely that. I’m going to begin in fact, by recognising the useful criteria that appear in ********* strategic plan for 2015 – 2020. There,  ********* talks about the need to engender integrity, inclusiveness, community, professionalism and academic excellence in all that it does.

Those factors for me seem to underpin the idea of creativity to a rather eloquent degree, and in fact come to highlight how best the ‘creative act’ can help young people come to realise who and what they are within contemporary society.

Integrity is, as  ********* itself defines it, openness, transparency and honesty. When applied to story, these qualities have a potent reach particularly when applied to the fantasy – reality judgements of the developing literate. According to the work of Laville et al (2013) children of that age, namely 3-8, are more likely to trust the make-believe as real when it comes from a positive source. Therefore, if a character that you trust tells you to do something bad, you are more likely to do it because of that character’s qualities for yourself. This is perhaps the emergence of fake news, as much as I dislike that expression, but I’d instead like to argue for it as a challenge towards the act of reading. That is to say, it should be considered as one of the earliest points where we can start to question the integrity of a text and discuss with children whether or not the textual act as rendered is something that can, or indeed, should be replicated in real life.

The problem with such an assertion is that the text has to allow that flexibility.

A good piece of children’s literature manages to do that. It allows that flexibility of interpretation by allowing for that flexibility of readership. A bad piece doesn’t. A picture book, for example, with a rhyme that works when read in a publishing office in London loses a quality if that rhyme is not precisely reproduced elsewhere. It is not the same book. And so the integrity of that text starts to lose itself amidst the noise of interpretation until there’s very little of that text left.

So – if you take somebody like Shirley Hughes – an author who has lasted for years with her work – and simply just study those images and the construction of her books and the rhythm that’s present therein, you start to understand the relevance of integrity towards children and indeed, the enduring appeal of her work. Hughes has nothing to hide from her readers and I think that’s a really interesting thing to present to the child – that the model of the book, that space between front cover and back, can actually give you a very specific form of truth that you do not get easily elsewhere in the world.

We read to find ourselves within children’s and young adult literature, that much is obvious, but I think we also read to find models of behaviour and being. We’re starting to touch on the second criteria of ********* strategy here – the notion of inclusiveness, of a text that is representative of the world that we live in. It’s important to note that this isn’t a tokenistic act and I don’t ever want to argue for it as being such. It’s a realistic act, and it’s fallacious to deny that act to a readership because, in doing so, you are denying both the integrity of the world that you’ve created but also of the world that you live in. And that matters, whether it’s a maths textbook where the people in the answers are all of the same ethnicity or a novel which denies the existence of differently abled individuals.

Representation, I suspect, is the more potent way to describe it, and the representation of values and behaviour matters. I’m not asking for Victorian didacticism but it’s important to recognise that children can and do model themselves after that which is found within story. Indeed, as ********* project, carried out by *********showed, children are able to recognise the behaviours located within a text and to understand the impact and potential that these behaviours may play within the ‘real’ world. I’m going to stay on that notion of potential for a moment longer because I think that’s a key one for us to consider.

We are individuals within the world. We inhabit a space and make it place through our lives, labelling the shops down the road as the one with good bread or the one with the offers on on an evening, or the bus stop as the one we take to work, and we understand those spaces through our story.

And when we’re adults, that’s a relatively fixed story. We recognise our pattern and we stick to it and we very rarely diverge.

But children’s literature – story –  allows us to figure out what that pattern can be in the first place.

When we read and experience story, we experience the community of the world in a shape that might not be familiar to us, in fact in the case of something like The Hunger Games it may be so wildly dissimilar that we label it as dystopia but in fact, even in that, we recognise similar virtues, faith and morals. We recognise the commonality of ourselves.

We recognise the strength of togetherness, the corruption of absolute power, the bravery of the individual. And that’s what I mean about potential. The idea that ‘if you get the right book to the right child at the right time’ exists for a reason. Because that sentiment is more than that, it’s a truth. Stories show young people their potential in how to be.

I wondered if I should be giving you more facts and figures in this presentation, whether I should be talking more about reports such as Clark and Foster’s 2005 study for the National Literacy Trust on reading habits and the benefits of reading for pleasure, or even the Yale report that was released only a few days ago, but then I realised that I am giving you data. I experience qualitative data on a daily basis, with the readers and adults that I support in their reading habits, through my blogging, librarianship and advocacy, and with every single passionate ‘yes’ that I get whenever I talk about the injustice of Amy ending up with Laurie in Little Women.

I am a visible supporter of literature and the power of experiencing story, and I will fight for your right to read how and what in the way that you want. I am no advocate of those lists you find that are written by somebody who hasn’t ever seen a child but tells them what they should have read before they are three months old.

But what I am an advocate of is the reader and their rights and I think that sometimes we forget the role they play in this discussion.

Let’s go back to the overarching theme of this presentation: What is the potential of using creativity and story to help young people develop wellbeing, understanding and learning about themselves?

I don’t think you can fully realise that question without understanding the position of the reader themselves. Somebody like Daniel Pennac – who, as you’ll see on the handouts I gave you – is really interesting to consider at this point because he argues for the importance of developing readers as much as the reading itself. His ‘Rights of the Reader’, illustrated here by the incomparable Quentin Blake, are really interesting because they recognise that the impact of story itself, of everything good and bold and brave within that story, is almost nothing without an empowered reader. And those behaviours that he highlights – the right to read out loud, the right to read anything, the right not to finish a book, the right to read it again – this start become basic human truths. These are behaviours that we want in adults, members of our community and society. The freedom to read anything, in any shape that it’s presented. freedom to read again, to devour and re-engage with something throughout our lives, to return to it over and over again.

These are vital notions for the development of our selves. Even now, I’ll read something like Black Beauty and find something new in it that reflects against the person that I am now. And I suppose that’s it, right there, that’s the crux of this presentation. Creativity and story, the act of storying, stays with you throughout your life. You may finish the read, but the act of reading, of finding yourself in Neverland or in Middle Earth, that act of self-location, of identification, of empathic connection with something other, that’s the act that stays with you forever. And in a way I suppose that’s the answer to the question I posed at the start of this talk, that’s it right there. Potential.

Thank you.






Information Wants To Be Found (So Here’s How To Find It)

I’m not one for peddling some sort of academic alchemy, but I am one for helping to demystify the process wherever I can. As somebody who works in the humanities, and also is a bit of a librarian every now and then, this demystification tends to centre around the nature of research. Research is hard. It’s complicated, and quite often feels like a stab in the dark.

Here’s the thing though: information wants to be found. You might not necessarily be looking in the right medium for it, or even in the right century, but let’s say that you’re looking, in this instance, for something quite specific and working with newspapers. Let’s say you’re wanting to record every time X is mentioned. Here’s how I’d go about that…

    1. Words have a shape and a feel of their very own. Caterpillar does not look like dog for example. First step: write out the words you’re looking for, and put them somewhere you can see them. Perhaps on the wall, or next to the source you’re looking at. Somewhere that’s within your eyeline so that you can focus on them. Every now and then, look away from your source and back at that word to remind yourself the shape and size of what you’re looking for.
    2. Newspapers want their information to be found. Mr and Mrs Smith want to read about their kids and show off a bit. If you’re looking for something to do with, say, chrysanthemums it’s not going to be in the sport section. If you’re looking for the mention of a sport team, it’s not going to be in the weather. Look at these sections, sure, but remember the likelihood of X not being there. Newspapers are commercial vehicles and they want to be sold, and that doesn’t happen if you bury the big news in town on page fifty two.
    3. Related, newspapers have a sense of priority about them. If you’re looking for mention of Mr Smith the Milkman, and the newspaper does a particular font size and style to talk about Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant, then in all likelihood, Mr Smith won’t be in the same style or size font. He may not even be in the newspaper at all, unless he’s delivered milk to Bogey. Newspapers have a level of interest about them, and news has to be news. 
    4. Newspapers also have a sense of rhythm about them. There are smaller columns called NIBS (news in brief) where you get the little things that can’t sustain a full story, or fit elsewhere. You’ll recognise the shape of these and the position of them more than anything; often to the side, or the bottom of a column. Again, remember your priorities of information – news about Humphrey Bogart probably isn’t going to be here, so you can skim this area quite happily.
    5. Let yourself forget things. You’re reading everything at this point, but you’re looking for clues not comprehension. Check the headlines, the body of the article, and if it’s about a crime and you’re looking for kittens then let yourself move on. You’re not reading to understand, you’re reading to find. 
    6. Remember the patriarchy! If you’re looking for a woman, if she’s in the newspaper to begin with, then she may be under her name, her husband’s name or indeed not even deserving of a name at all. Related, I’m very fond of this headline: (1939, Manchester Evening News)



It’s worthwhile mentioning at this point that I am available for freelance research on a flexible basis! You can get in touch with me below to discuss your requirements and I look forward to hearing from you 🙂




We took back the cities with our feet

stood heel to toe with unknown faces

and thought of revolution

in deserted streets.


Nobody spoke,

save for a baby who babbled

and cried into the silence

and the birds who

wheeled overhead.


Our defiance hadn’t been planned

hadn’t been orchestrated

by words and rage.


We were simply an open fire

of hope.


(prompted by wandering, I guess, and the way that wonder/wander are such similar words; the city found, through not being found at all).