On working with popular fiction : a question of canon

It makes me protective. Defensive, sometimes. Is that a strange thing to say? Can one be protective of somebody else’s work?

I think one can. I think one can be protective of it but also resent the absence of it from critical work. Think about Enid Blyton for example. I suspect, rightly, that your impression will be coloured by several of the quite public debates that have happened over her work in the past few years. The appropriateness of her register. The quality of her work. The suitability of her work. Quite often, work around Enid Blyton often focuses on that key term around. To investigate Blyton is to investigate cultural semiotics, and the appropriation of an author. To investigate Blyton is to investigate the discourse around Blyton and ever so rarely, the texts themselves.

I’m not arguing that we discount that discourse; I am, however, asking whether there’s a space in that for the text? For research that focuses on the quality and relevance of the text at textual level, as opposed to situating it within a cultural discourse and frame of a very particular context?

I suspect, sometimes, this is a false construct to make. Can one absent the text from its paratextual elements? Is an ‘a’ always an ‘a’ wherever it is writ? Is it the same ‘a’ or different? Of course, it’s different; every letter bears the weight of context upon it, and construction when formed into words. Every mark, every line has construction and intent upon it. Meaning. Significance. Context. 

But I yearn for this distinction; I yearn to separate my texts from the discourses around them and, in the case of many, to forcefully place them within a discourse. The relevance of these writers. Their popular appeal. The fact that they were the literary equivalent to Zoella et. al. The fact that popular fiction was, is, and should be considered as important.

And yet, absence. Denial. Restriction. I work with popular fiction. I’ve just finished a chapter on A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian : one of the most perfect coming of age novels that exist within the children’s literature pantheon. My literature review for this novel? Less than forthcoming. A handful of articles, nothing more. Novels such as The Secret Garden are written about to the nth degree, but others? Breathless gasps in the wind; an absence of thought, and yet these books matter. Did, have, shall.

Perhaps it’s a question of canon; that weighty, laden, complex term. Think of the classic pieces of children’s literature you know, the ones that pop up in Important Surveys and Angry Thought Pieces About The Rubbish We Read Today. I’ll guess that they are not things like In The Fifth At Malory Towers. And yet, perhaps, they should be. We become blind sometimes, I think, to the relevance of popularity. Of the critical interest of popularity.

This isn’t a plea for every book in the world to be academically critiqued and to be parsed through a thousand theoretical frames.

It’s a plea for the awareness of those frames, of what they include, and what they exclude.

It’s a plea, perhaps, to recognise the other.

A trip to the special collections at University of York

In mid September I was privileged enough to be given a behind the scenes insight into the special collections at the University of York. Special collections always bring out the Hogwarts in me; they’re a part of the library where magic happens. The holdings are so, so precious and so important that to witness them and to be able to engage in the story of them is always a gift. And that’s the thing about literature, books, pamphlets; all of them come with story. Everything that’s ever been published has been a part of somebody’s life. They were read, they were held, they were loved. I find that fascinating and oddly moving.


The Juvenile Guide to Scarborough (ca 1837)

As somebody who specialises in children’s literature and researching literary space and place, I obviously had a particular area of interest. I was fascinated to be shown a Juvenile Guide to Scarborough. It’s a delightful thing, speaking directly to the young reader and deeply evocative. It references several distinct areas with rather wonderful italics (look at how they slide into their respective sentence on the page, look how coyly they reach out to the reader , look how a pact of trust is established).

This is the sort of literary space and place that intrigues me so much. I think, perhaps, this is why I librarian. I’m fascinated in the alchemical space of the book itself and its relationship to things outside of that frame. I love teasing out the connections, whether it’s from one book to another on the shelf or whether it’s from a book to an author to a place to a food. Books are like spider webs, and the reader gets trapped in them along with a thousand other things. The enticement of otherness, of knowledge. It is a wonderful thing.

Another item which made my absolute day was a copy of The Golden Staircase. It’s a book with a distinct mythos in the Chalet School series, another series I collect, and so I fangirled slightly when I saw it. The Golden Staircase is the title of a collection of poetry published by one of the characters of the series who is a writer. You can find a list of the titles she ‘publishes’ here (and somebody, please do me a PhD on books written by fictional authors..)

I also got to see fore-edge paintings which are the nearest thing to bookish magic that I know. If you’ve not seen these in action before, this link will elaborate. There’s such skill in fore-edge painting, and it’s almost exuberant skill. This is art, really, exuberant and skillful and magical art.

My thanks to the wonderful Special Collections Librarian Sarah Griffin for showing me round and being kind enough to facilitate such a glorious visit.

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Third year reflections on studying children’s literature

It’s been two years. I’m settling down for my third year of research into children’s literature, literary space and place. Or, as I referred to it the other day, let’s write a thesis about all the books I really, really like.

I’ve shifted from doing a PhD into an MPhil. I’ve redrafted my entire thesis. Made a thousand new arguments. I’ve presented papers at Cambridge and Reading. I’ve had sleepless nights and wide-eyed afternoons. I’ve made best friends with Imposter Syndrome. I’ve had knotty arguments with my supervisor and loved every second of it.

I’ve lived, really, in a way that I never thought I could.

Studying – researching – this is a privilege. It’s one that I don’t understand, even now, but I know I love it. The rules and regulations of this world are gloriously opaque to me; it is a space full of known unknowns. And sometimes that frustrates me immensely but other times I find it exciting. It’s like walking down a road for a thousand days and seeing something new every day. Something different.

I love language. I love writing. I don’t think I’ll ever be the best at academic writing, but I think so much of it is about finding your voice and having confidence in your own voice. Advice I give, and understand in the creative context, but have found it hard to come to terms with here. But writing is writing is writing, really, always.

I long to write a guide for the mature students like me who have had jobs and existences outside of the university before returning to study. People who haven’t studied for eight or ten years straight, but rather have come back to study after doing other things. This doesn’t lessen your contribution. Rather, it enriches it. Imposter syndrome will do its best to tell you that it doesn’t, but imposter syndrome is an idiot.

I think I’m almost there.

1000 points in England related to children’s books

A pithy title, I know, but you wouldn’t believe how long it took me to boil that down from something substantially longer. Anyway; today I wanted to share a sample of the project I’m trying to get funding for (and if you’d like to fund an app of this, dudes let’s talk…). One of my great personal principles about doing this research is that I make it accessible and open; I work in children’s literature, and I work to make that field open and ownable by all. I don’t work in a bubble.

So: map. Enjoy! 1021 points set in England mainly. This isn’t the limit of my data, but it’s some of it. A sample. A taster… If you’d be interested in me putting together some custom maps for your authority or area, or exploring the potentials of this further please do get in touch.


“I dunno, but … I think it’s about to attack the Enterprise”


The great thing about having a clean dataset, and a slight lull until you hear back about funding applications, is that you can play around with what you’ve got and see if anything new comes from it. I’m fairly confident that what I want to do with this data will work, but it needs money to make that work. Until I get that, I get to play around with my data and test a few other visualisations.

I’m oddly fond of the below outtake – a .svg file interpretation of a .kmz file (I know, I know, who knows what all that means?) Anyway, this image reminds me a lot of concrete poetry and, on a less scholarly note, it also reminds me of this moment from Friends….



GLOOK update : building the dataset and customising icons

A couple of posts ago, I spoke about how I was building a custom app which would allow customers to navigate their way around England via children’s books. A sort of bookish Google Maps meets Pokemon Go affair. Today, I want to talk about the next steps of that process and show you a few screenshots of the sort of potential of the project. You can also follow updates and general map / mapping related news on my project dedicated Twitter.1.PNG

The first step of developing GLOOK to custom build a limited and fixed dataset of approximately 1000 points of interest. This decision centres itself mainly around ideas of practicality. I have a lot more points of interest across England (and Scotland and Wales too) but more points involves more data to manage and more data management has the practical implications of time, money and hosting space. Therefore this version is going to act as a sort of ‘calling card’ to give people an idea of the nature of my research but also the potential of it. Consider it the exciting little starter before the main meal!

2.PNGWorking on this specific dataset involves a lot of cleaning. Misplaced spaces, typos, consistent spelling all matter when you’re doing database work. I’ve also given each site a lat / long reference which in itself involves some fairly specific map reading. After that was done, I am now creating custom map icons for each book featured and these are what’s included in the screenshots. These are from Google Earth and though the icons are a little small at the moment, I rather love them. You can see in one image the contrast between the traditional red push pins and the book cover and I think the book cover wins.

The final image shows two references from the same series. Special bonus points if you recognise the area!


Visualising Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

This, if the embed works accurately (and in case it doesn’t, click here), is a map of all of the locations referenced in Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. I’m indebted to @tiggerbumble and @ladygeeke for helping me clarify the position of one in particular.

I’m experimenting a lot with visualisations and maps at the moment, trying to both find a package that works in the way I want it to work but to also find a package that can help me investigate these books in the way they deserve to be investigated. I’m no coder nor a programmer, so it’s an interesting journey!

Mapping literature, placing literature into the real world and examining the impact of that is complex because you’re working with a series of unknowns on both ends. When a book mentions the A1, do you reference the start of it, the end of it, or the idea of it? Maps like these can never be wholly 100% accurate but what they can do is form the start of a very distinct conversation.As Franco Moretti phrases it:

“Placing a literary phenomenon in its specific space – mapping it – is not the conclusion of geographical work; it’s the beginning. After which begins the most challenging part of the whole enterprise: one looks at the map, and thinks.” 

So, in this map,you’ll see I’ve chosen a deliberately bland and relatively imprecise background. It’s the United Kingdom, clearly, and the main roads are suggestive enough, but there’s no finer detail on it. There’s a balance to be drawn between such detail and the swamping of the points on it, I think. I want people to read these maps for their textuality first, for their book-bound-beginnings, and then I want that reading to almost exist somewhere between the fictional and the real. A liminal space, perhaps. Liminality is a lot of fun.

Pokemon Go, apps, maps, oh my!

With Google Maps having been available via Android since 2009, location based apps are heavily established within the public psyche. The recent advent of apps such as Pokemon Go, have introduced an element of gamification to such an idea through the merging real life environment with Pokemon themed augmented reality. Pokemon Go is free to play and earns revenue both from micro-transactions within the game and the sale of additional accessories in the real world. It is estimated to currently gross $1.6million + each day from its iOS app in the USA[1].

I don’t think apps have ever been more in the news than they have right now. The above quote comes from a proposal I’m putting together and the numbers are phenomenal. Pokemon Go seems to have captured (no pun intended) something quite distinct in the zeitgeist and it’s fascinating to watch where it goes. This article, in particular, is a fascinating read on the topic.

You might, though, be asking what the relevance of this is to a blog devoted to literary tourism and space and place related adventures? The swift answer is: quite a lot. Augmented reality thrills me immensely when applied to a literary spectrum (and, to give you just one idea of how this has been applied, take a look at the Alice Town Trail set in Llandudno.). This piece on locating digital fiction in Southampton is also fascinating (“this mysterious realm they called location-based hypertext fiction”) and I’d also recommend keeping an eye on the Ambient Literature project.

Part of my research focuses very distinctly on mapping places which feature in children’s literature. I have over 1000 points of interest in the UK that relate to this and they range from books which reference Alderley Edge through to those that explore London or hike through the Lake District. Every day, I pick up some more references and so the dataset continues to grow.  One concern of mine has been how to handle this data and how to integrate it effectively into my research. Over the past few months I’ve been figuring out how to do this and I think at last I’ve settled on a solution.

I’ve been building an app which will allow users to navigate their way around the country by children’s books. You can follow this journey on my dedicated Twitter account: Glookapp and I’ll also keep you updated here.

It’s early days, and I’m in the process of applying for funding and figuring out the numbers, but every journey begins with a first step. This is mine.


[1] Think Gaming (2016) Pokemon Go : Revenue estimates, app rankings & installs https://thinkgaming.com/app-sales-data/130634/pokemon-go/ [accessed 10/07/2016]


Lyra’s Bench

I missed it the first time.

I was on a tour of literary Oxford; a thrilling, indulgent day which saw us walk around Christ Church and the Pitt Rivers and there was a moment where the guide said ‘That’s the Botanic Gardens over there, you know, where Lyra’s Bench is’ and I filed it away for the next visit. But the next visit was for work and I didn’t have time, and the next visit was for a meeting and I didn’t have time, and then the next visit didn’t happen because I had moved up North and back home and away, away.

The thing about literary tourism is that it stays with you. I was reminded of the way I had messed up every time I read Northern Lights by Philip Pullman and found myself wallowing in the great reach of the His Dark Materials series. Those books are big, stretching, universe-grasping books, and every time I reached the end, I thought about that moment where I had been able to visit that bench, that bench at the end scored by tears and memory and love and loss, and I was reminded at how I had let it go.

But then I got back there; a trip down for Alice’s Day and the Sunday was marked for Lyra. A bare blue sky, the sort that is seared with colour, and every step further into the love of Will and Lyra. The soul-changing, soul-making sort of love. This is the peak of the books, for me, the way that everything hinges on this small, precise place in the worlds; a place of significant insignificance. The smallest of places, really, for the biggest of things.

I think, perhaps, a part of me is still crying at how wonderful this place is.

…Lyra led him almost to the end of the garden, over a little wooden bridge, to a wooden seat under a sprawling low-branched tree.

“Will, I used to come here in my Oxford and sit on this exact same bench whenever I wanted to be alone, just me and Pan. What I thought was if you – maybe just once a year – if we could come here at the same time, just for an hour or something, then we could pretend we were close again – because we would be close, if you sat here and I sat just here in my world -”

“Yes,” he said, “as long as I live I’ll come back. Wherever I am in the world I’ll come back here -”

“On Midsummer’s Day,” she said, “At midday. As long as I live. As long as I live…”