Two Friday updates

Happy Never-Ending January! This month, honestly, it is the worst. Luckily enough I have some news to share with you all that, I hope, serves to brighten things a little bit. The first piece of news is that I have a third book on the way.

How To Be Free is the third in the How To Be… series and she’s all about Hanna. You will learn all about my beloved little bookish soul and how she came to be the amazing person she is today. There will also be cake. And ducks. That’s all I can tell you about the book for now but I promise that when I can spill more, I will do precisely that.

It’s also important that I tell you that, while technically it’s a sequel, it’s also going to be able to be read as a standalone just as with How To Be Brave and How To Be True. You can enter this series at any point, at any time, and as long as you bring cake, you’ll be doing just fine.

My other piece of news is that I will be doing an event with York Literary Festival on March 25th. Come along and say hello! I will be doing a reading and then a concertina book making session. I’m looking forward to it!


What happens before and after your PhD viva

Following the last post on what happens before and after you hand your thesis in, I wanted to write a follow up as to what happens at and after your viva. I am very passionate about sharing the parts of the academic process that I can share because so much of it was (is?) a mystery to me. I am the first of my family to go into research and the first to get a doctorate (I passed with minor corrections, insert screaming forever.gif here) and I knew nobody prior to going back to study who had done such a thing. I knew that doctors existed, of course, and in a rather mythical way (like unicorns, I think), but I did not know anything about what that actually meant. Hence these posts. I think they are for the person that I was, googling for some sort of information about this mysterious world. I hope they find you if you need that support or information. And I hope that if you’re reading this now, that you go for it.

So! Viva preparation, for me, consisted of setting the whole project aside for a good month before revisiting it and reading it. I am somebody who needs distance when they work with something and so that’s what works for me. At this point, however, you’ll have discovered your own process and needs when it comes to gaining perspective and being able to edit do what you need to do. Just make sure you can come back with fresh eyes.

Read slowly and – immediately – spot a hideous mistake or a typo. Chill. You can do literally nothing about it at this point, as much as it hurts. Read through. Slowly. Ask yourself if it makes sense to you. Ask everybody around you to ask you questions about the thesis. Provide them with a list of questions to pick from (you can find a ton of sample viva questions online). Practice talking about with them. Do it in the car, on the way home, wherever you can’t get away from it (and they, you). Getting used to talking about your work – particularly for those of us who researched through Covid and perhaps didn’t have the conferences / networking opportunities – is key.

On the day, do what works for you. Give yourself plenty of time. Give yourself a little bit more. You will freak out a little bit. Let it happen. You’ve been building up to this moment for years. It’s big. Have some breakfast (eat). Have your lunch (eat). Put a snack in your bag (eat something, seriously, god). Take in some water. It might be there but if it’s not, you’ll need it. What else? Double check (triple check) your timings. Get on the wrong bus. Get on the right bus. Stare out of the window. Take none of it in. Suppress the urge to scream into the aisle. Get off the bus.

As for the viva, it will be both too quick and too long. You will stare at weird little details in the room and talk to them. Try to talk to the people in the room as well. Be honest. You do know your subject. You actually do know it really well. Remember to have faith in the people who have believed in you this far. Go slowly. Check you’ve understood what they’re asking. Clarify things if you need to. Answer the question they’ve asked you.

When you have to go out and wait for them, do not panic. Breathe. If you see anybody you know at this point, you will not be able to talk to them. If you do, you will have no memory of what you said. You will be told the result fairly promptly when you go back in. It will feel like forever. Clarify what you need to do now.

Have a tiny cry. Stare out of the windows on the bus as you go home. Remember none of it. Remember all of it. Realise, all of a sudden, that you did it.

What happens before and after you hand a thesis in

I was always rather fascinated by this period when I started my research. I would occasionally see a student wandering the corridors or in a training session and whenever they introduced themselves or spoke about their stage of studies, they would always have just handed their thesis in. Well, I thought, but what does that mean? (Admittedly I have thought that about much of this process…). What do you do with yourself in the period after you’ve handed in and before your viva?

Well, it turns out that you sleep. At least, that’s what I did. I submitted my thesis roughly a month ago and was just exhausted for the week after. Much of this comes from the work I did in the last few months prior to hand in. There is a point when you will think you have enough hours in the day and then you will realise that you do not. (The truth that you do have enough hours in the day will elude you at this point because, life). Weekends? No. Time off? Not really. Locking yourself up in a deserted room on campus with an inordinate amount of snacks and not letting yourself leave until you’ve hit your target for the day? Yes.

The smallest things will take you forever. Get your references and citations and hanging indents in order now, otherwise you will spend hours reworking them and tidying them up. Similarly your styles and headings if you’re using Word. There is always a fun moment when you rejig one and it rejigs thirty seven others and then your computer cracks down the middle and shatters in two. Take the easy wins when you cannot take the hard ones. Tables of contents are the worst, whatever programme you use. Write your abstract earlier than you think you need it. Run it past some friends. Stick it up on the wall in front of you so you remember what you’re doing. Set up mutual support sessions at lunch when you all come out of your deserted rooms to share your woes over a university sandwich (always a unique thing) before going back to work. Cultivate your calm but just a little bit hysterical laugh when people ask you how things are going. Stretch. Work harder than you ever thought possible. Work better than you ever thought possible. Find a banging playlist on Spotify. Get up and dance when the bangingest song comes on. Eat your packed lunch by 9.10am. Look longingly at the outside world. Type.

And just. keep. going. That’s the thing of it, really.

(In between all of this, How To Be True got nominated for a Carnegie! Thank you so much librarians. You really are the best. I admire you endlessly and will do your shelving whenever you need me to).

Once you hand your thesis in, and bemoan the fact that you do not get to thrust a hardcopy at a member of staff any more, all of it sort of stops. I took a week off. I slept. I got ill. I got better. I walked. I read for pleasure and not for a deadline. I wrote an academic article. I began to work properly on book three. I cut out some leather to make shoes with. I had a weekend. I did all of the little and tiny jobs I’d simply not had time to do for months. I went to an art gallery. I breathed.

My viva is in December. I’m rereading my thesis this week and I’ll begin to do some preparation for that. I also have another article I want to put together about Queen Victoria’s juvenilia but that needs a little bit of reading before I fully commit to it. Alongside that it’s book three which I cannot – as is the way with publishing – tell you anything about it. But I shall tell you some of the books that I have been reading to help me think about it. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. The Far Distant Oxus by Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne. The Sea Egg by Lucy M. Boston.

And all of that’s what happens before and after you hand a thesis in.

Children’s Literature Research Podcast

If podcasts all about children’s literature are your jam, then you might be interested in this. I was very delighted to join Mark Carter on the Children’s Literature Research Podcast recently to talk all things children’s books. Our conversation covered imposter syndrome in academia, How To Be Brave, How To Be True and the magic that is picture books. It was an absolute pleasure and I hope you enjoy!

Some updates

My second children’s book is out in less than a month (what a sentence! forgive me for having a moment over that!). How To Be True can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher here. It’s the second book featuring the characters from How To Be Brave and if you’re after buns, adventures, and a particularly Parisian flair, then you should do alright 🙂

I am also pleased to say that recruitment for my course on Blogging And Writing For Online Audiences is now open! The course starts in September and runs for seven weeks. If you can’t make that, then I’ll be teaching more throughout the next academic year. I enjoy teaching this course because I get to see students really kick their creative work into the next gear – it’s a privilege to witness!

And finally, I was down in London this week for some meetings and took some time out for doing a little bit of sightseeing. Along with walking far too far on a very hot day and signing some books at Waterstones Piccadilly (a delight!), I managed to make the detour to visit children’s literature royalty. If you’re ever at the Victoria and Albert museum then I recommend making the trip because he’s really very breath-taking in person.

How to be edited (and how to edit)

I’ve been thinking a lot about editing recently, not only in terms of my own books and academic work but also in terms of the teaching I offer to others. It was interesting to realise that a lot of my approach can be summed up as: “get to the choppper” which, for those of you unfamiliar to the term, roughly translates to “get to where you want to be as quickly as you can”. Now, this isn’t necessarily to argue for cutting out the entirety of the story (because there’s value in everything and what do we have if the eagles simply drop Frodo and Sam off at the mountain?) but rather to emphasise the necessity for deftness. Get in. Get out. Find your rhythms. Embrace your patterns.

When it comes to the work of others, you have to flip that and recognise their rhythms and their patterns. Not everybody writes the same (nor should they). I am a firm believer in everybody being on their own journey when it comes to writing and the destination that you may be heading to is not necessarily the same destination I, or one of your colleagues, may be off to. My job is to make sure you and your work get to where you’re going in the best shape possible. It’s not about making everybody Dostoyevsky (because, dull) but rather making everybody the best version of the writer that they can and indeed should be.

One of the things that I’ve learnt about being edited is that, when it’s done well, it’s never personal. It’s not. It’s very easy to take it as personal because we are humans and that’s what we do. It’s all about trying to shape and craft the piece of work. The bones are always there already, every piece of writing has them. It’s all about putting the flesh onto them and building it up from the inside out.

For me, the thing to recognise is that when people spot something that needs fixing, it’s up to you to provide a solution. You don’t necessarily have to agree with the solution that they’ve proposed or do it quit in the way that they want to but you do need to fix it. You also need to pick your battles. It might be that certain things are very deliberately the way they are and you’d like them to stay the same. It might be that other things, if you change them to fit, really don’t matter in the bigger scheme of things. Editing is a conversation.

When I’m editing, I’m trying to figure out what that best might be for you. It depends of course as to the context I’m working in but I’ll think about things like the final goal of the assignment, the other assignments that you’ve shared with me, and the things we’ve talked about in our discussions. I’ll think about the writer that you’ve told me you want to be and the books that you read and the writers you enjoy. We are all stars when we write and all of this tells me whereabouts in the constellation you want to be. My job is to help you to get there.

I like editing and being edited. Can you tell? I think there’s something deeply exciting about being able to get your hands dirty with words, about being able to pull the sticky stuff apart to reveal the clean and shining underneath. Sometimes I think we forget how intimately text is connected to textuality, that all of these little marks on the page and screen are stuff we can feel and move and touch, that we can control and move and remake everything here, that we can find one shape and then the next. Writing is never still, never static. There’s always something else to find within it.

A few updates

It’s been a busy few weeks and I’m long overdue an update here. So let’s do precisely that!

First up: How To Be True is out in July and I am so excited to share the next adventure at the School of the Good Sisters with you all. This book focuses on Edie and delves further into her background and family life. Let’s just say there’s a lot of (wo)manning the barricades. You can pre-order through this link and I’m so grateful if you do.

Don’t forget, you can also ask your library to get a copy in! I know not everybody can afford to buy new books so do remember your library and think of them.

Second up: I’ve been working on some resources for teaching in and around the books. I’ll embed a quick video of writing tips below and I’m working on some more in-depth sessions about ‘what makes a classic’ when it comes to children’s literature, and also about writing the modern school story. Please do get in touch if you’d like to discuss a virtual / remote / in-person session! I’d love to hear from you!

Talking of World Book Day, I had the pleasure to speak to Joanita Musisi on BBC Radio York to celebrate all things bookish. You can catch up at this link (from about 1h10 onwards). The link only lasts 28 days so make sure you catch up sooner rather than later.

Finally, I’d like to mention the Book Aid For Ukraine auction. Like, I suspect, all of you, I’ve been appalled and heartbroken over what’s been happening and this felt like a positive step in an awful situation. I have donated a signed and personalised copy of How To Be Brave here – if you can, please do bid, and if you can’t, please do spread the word. It all helps.

Data analysis and craft

Here we are then, the data analysis chapter. It’s as much as a magical mystery tour as the rest of them are but I’m increasingly conscious that is simply the way that writing is. Some days you figure things out the moment that you begin to work and some days you don’t. There are moments in my books that haven’t got changed from first draft to publication and I know that they’re right because of how they feel. Is that helpful? To talk of writing as a textured, three-dimensional thing? I am not sure that it is and yet I want to for that is the only way that I understand it.

Perhaps it’s better to talk about craft then, that well-used phrase within the world of writing. The craft of writing. Crafting sentences. Crafting this and crafting that, but always kind of keeping that separation between the act and the thing. Writing is crafted. Crafting makes writing. Writing is an act of craft. But perhaps something happens when you ignore all of that and kind of just push the words together; writing is craft, craft is writing, writing is craft. There’s something interesting in that for me, something that kind of moves back to the ink and the quill and the marking of the page with the ink, the sort of something that makes me think here is a tangible thing that didn’t exist before and I have made it and it has made me and together, line to page, black on white, something had happened in the world and it is good.

Making, making, always trying to see what comes of it, and you know when it’s right and you know when it’s wrong, but here’s the thing: you can’t build when there’s nothing there. Making needs stuff, it needs you to be full and the world to be charged and ready and some days, that doesn’t happen, but when you’re writing something long and something big then it has to. You can’t wait for circumstance to allow it, you need to force the context and make it happen. You need to craft, you need to make, you need to will these lines into shape and form and meaning.

I talk a lot about muscle memory with my students, the training of the body as much as the mind, for writing is a muscle and you must work it. I am not sure where the muscle is based, I loathe, somehow, at locating writing solely in my head when walking in sunlight can tease the words out of my heart as much as a cold night in December; perhaps the muscle is simply us and writing is all about learning how to find that part of you that wants to craft, wants to make, needs it to happen.

Data analysis then, to data and the search for form and shape and meaning; an arcane act, a mysterious act, but it’s just writing at the end of it and you can’t have something good unless you have the bad, and so you write the bad and the poor and the wordy and the sentences that you know need to make better sense at some point but that point isn’t now, and you have to have faith in that and allow it to happen. The making, that first moment, it’s messy and it’s loose and sometimes it’s perfect and all you have to do is let that happen and trust in the process. (rewriting, rewriting, remaking, remaking, rewording, editing, deleting, questioning).

We all have a process, even writers who do not think they are writers, even people who doubt their every scratch upon the page, process is within all of us and what’s important is trying to figure out what that is, what works, what doesn’t, what is just fear made flesh upon the line, what is doubt, and letting yourself delete, letting yourself stop. Letting yourself be unafraid and deleting because the words will come back, they’ll come back and they’ll be better. Sometimes I worry about losing drafts, backing up, backing up, backing up, and sometimes I sort of long for it to happen because I know what I write next, how I replace it, that will be the good, great stuff.

Data analysis then, the chapter that needs to tell you why you came to the party and what’s in the party bag, the chapter that’s halfway through the thesis and kind of feels like it should be at the front, the chapter that’s built initially on sand and shale and water, all of it so soft and so friable and so dangerously brittle that you don’t even want to look at it for fear that it might fall and fade, the chapter that suddenly starts to find form the more you work it, the chapter that suddenly starts to feel right, the chapter that suddenly starts to sit in the world and work in the way that you knew it had to all along.

The denial of doubt, the assertion of order, the patterns making themselves seen, the knowledge that they were there all along; the form, the fit, all of it known, all of it flesh.

How To Be Brave has been nominated for the 2022 Carnegie Awards

I am so thrilled to be able to share this with you…

Daisy May Johnson

Buy now: / amazon

When I knew that How To Be Brave was going to be published, I made a little bucket list for it and this was one of those things. I still cannot quite believe that it’s happened. Thank you to everyone who’s supported the girls in their adventures so far. You’re the best.

Do take the time to have a look at the rest of the nominees as there are some wonderful titles and authors represented. I have to say that I’m especially thrilled to see Hilary McKay represented in the Carnegie (I mean, can’t we give her the freedom of children’s literature already?) and Harry Woodgate, Jessica Love, and Chris Mould in the Greenaway nominations. Honestly, I think I need to go and move into the picture book section in the library for a bit. So much inspiration!

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Tales of analysing data : a PhD update

It’s hard, right? I think there’s a point in every PhD journey where you stop and go “wow, so … this is hard”. My most recent point came when I had to begin to analyse my data and really didn’t know where to begin. This isn’t because I didn’t know my subject (although the whispers of imposter syndrome always begin there…) but rather because it felt a little bit like I had a cake that I had to cut and all I had was a banana and a ladle. Torturous metaphors aside, this was – is – a question of tools and utilities. How does one cut the cake? Do you follow the patterns that other people have set (and if so which…) or do you slice transversally? haphazardly? Do you even slice the cake at all?

One of the things that helped me was looking at how other people have worked this. I thought Qualitative Text Analysis by Udo Kuckartz was immensely useful – not in the least, because it recognised how complex and messy this phase can be. It also recognised the kind of silence that exists about the step in this research. Analyse this! Yes, but how? What’s the way to cut the cake? And is it even a cake? Should I be scooping from the middle of it or putting more icing on top of it or what?

(I think the universe is telling me I need cake).

I also found Qualitative Data Analysis by Jamie Harding a very reassuring book, ditto: Interpreting Qualitative Data by David Silverman. There are of course others, but I think these worked for me because they reminded me of what I did know. I think that sometimes we forget the value of that for students – they are learning an immense amount of stuff at this point, and yet they already know a lot of stuff. The stuff that’s being learnt adds a new quality or dimension or texture to that which has come before. Everybody’s story – their personal journey, the things they’ve experienced or learnt or interacted with – influences their approach to that which is yet to come. Sometimes I think the PhD process can be a little bit like ‘well, you know nothing’ when in fact, it’s more of a ‘here’s how to look again at the stuff you do know’. Maybe. Sort of. And yet, here I am doubting even that assertion! Irony!

In between all of this, I have had my first book published. How To Be Brave came out in the US and UK this July, and it’s been very lovely seeing the girls find their feet in the world. How To Be True, a sequel featuring MYSTERIOUS THINGS I CANNOT YET TALK ABOUT BUT YOU WILL FIND A LITTLE CLUE AS TO THEIR CONTENTS IN THE BACK OF HOW TO BE BRAVE, is on its way and I am planning, plotting, dreaming the third book. It will be called How To Be ??? (the question marks are to indicate a kind of mysterious final word and not, as it might seem, a love of grammar). How To Be Brave has received lovely reviews from a lot of people including Kirkus and School Library Journal and I am so immensely grateful for that. How To Be True has been a lot of fun to put together and I can’t wait to tell you more about it.

And now, back to that data analysis. I am trying to pluck up courage to start formulating the chapter where I talk about it. Maybe writing this update will have helped. I think that sometimes writing is like that. You have to creep up on it and start before you’ve quite realised what you’ve done. When you’ve begun, the only option is to keep going. Let’s test that theory!