Your homework is to go to the library : on teaching writing for children

I’m teaching a class at the moment on writing for children. There are a lot of writing classes out there, and I think it’s easy to get lost in a world of conflicting advice. Make your chapters short. Make them long. Make them do the washing up while you relax with a nice cup of tea. These are all good things (the relaxing part particularly so) but I don’t think they help you write good stories. I think that comes from a certain confidence in yourself; the ability to recognise a story within yourself that you wish to express, and to have the tools to do that. It’s perhaps no surprise to many of you that I think those tools are to be found in the library. Storytime. Children being read to. Children reading out loud. Parents picking books off shelves; children eating the corners of the board books; words and language and story being thick in the air. It’s important as a write to know your voice. It’s also important to be able to listen and discover your voice in the first place.

I was thinking about that today when I read this article about Lauren Child and Oscar’s Book Prize. She argues that “we need to talk about children’s books in a grown-up way” and that “We know that a child’s life can be changed by what they read, so why don’t we spend more time thinking about what that material is?” . As somebody who does this on a daily basis, I found this an interesting piece (she says carefully). I do grant that in doing what I do, I am in a fairly select minority. But then, I’m not the only person who thinks about books in a ‘grown up way’. Every adult does it when they pick up a book, or when they go to the library with their kids. I suspect what Child means here is instead a more theoretical exploration of the themes and meanings of a text. A more mature reading, but certainly not one to characterise as ‘grown-up’. It reminded me of a recent post on a mailing list I subscribe to where the writer said they look towards Amazon reviews of children’s books because they are written by adults – and thus able to recognise ‘good’ literature. Goodreads, free to anybody, was discounted. Another individual rightfully pointed out that adults don’t have a privilege on good literary taste. I, in the background, quietly died.

I also noticed a tweet the other day from a journalist asking for academics to write about their ‘low’ cultural interests for an article. I thoroughly enjoy ANTM and I’ll not say no to watching some WWE. I’ll also theorise the world out of them if needs be. (My beloved Barthes, for examples, has this on the topic of wrestling). It will be interesting to see in what shape the article comes to be – indeed, if it comes to be at all.

(A brief sidebar: I would give my metaphorical right hand for a university to have an open day, for example, where anybody could go and attend a lecture. Anybody. Anything on that day, free of charge. An open door. An open world. Free parking. God, let’s go wild, even free childcare.)

Writing for children isn’t hard. Anybody can do it, but not many people can do it well. I ask my students to go to the library because that’s where the knowledge lies. And it’s not just in books, or noise, or those encounters between page and person. It’s in the silence.

I’m asking them to listen because, in the middle of all this noise, I think it’s the first step towards being heard.

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Geographies of Gender

Sometimes when you see a CFP (Call For Papers), you get a little shiver down your spine. I confess that the me of five years ago wouldn’t have known that such shivers existed, but I barely knew that academia existed despite having skirted on the edges of it for quite some time. But that was then, and this is now, and this brave new world has shivers in it. Specifically when a conference promises to intersect your two key delights in the world.

I pitched a paper to said conference (Geographies of Gender, being ran by the very welcoming and rather lovely Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Winchester – who helped me out with a dietary request and couldn’t have been more lovely). I was delighted that they accepted the paper. I am at a curious stage in my research, being on somewhat of a gap year during which I’m aiming to get funding for a PhD starting in September. (And the notion of funding, let me tell you, is one of those things that the me of five years ago would have barely begun to comprehend, let alone fight for). Being able to continue to participate in the world – despite my free radical (ish!) status is a good and important thing.

My paper was on Spatial Notions of Gender In Contemporary Children’s Literature. I talked about how the ‘rebel girls’ trend in recent children’s literature was (imho) masking a wider concern about adults and power, and that you could start to unpick the edges of this through applying spatial analysis. It’s a slightly messy open-ended topic, because it’s something that I’m really just starting to figure out myself. I long for ragged, unknowable, complex feminities in children’s literature that aren’t easily located nor confined to the spatial, local, or practical circumstances. Think of the last ‘complex’ girl you read about in children’s literature. Now think of the last ‘complex’ girl you read about who wasn’t solved or punished or managed in some way by the time the novel ended. That’s my point

The other papers were uniformly fascinating (which is always a bonus). I particularly enjoyed hearing Stephanie Spencer talk about her forthcoming publication with Nancy Rosoff. It’s all about girls’ school stories in Britain and the United States (1910-1960), and basically ticked all my nerdy little boxes. It’s not every day I get to hear a talk referencing the Chalet School and Dorita Fairlie-Bruce.

I also enjoyed a preformed panel called: Liberated? Women, Public Space and Emancipation in World War Two Europe. I read a lot of historical children’s literature of this period, and was fascinated to hear more about the real world situation of this time. I was particularly interested by Dr Ayshka Sené‏’s work into ‘British Women In Transition : Gender and Decision Making in France Between September 1939 and December 1940’. She spoke of how these British women who lived in France were often ‘caught’ (and ultimately interred) due to indecision, confusion and familial ties to their respective locales. It made me think a lot about The Chalet School In Exile, and how definitive it makes the girls actions. Yes, much of this is driven by circumstance and reaction but their actions are definitively their own. Similarly something like the Peace League locates a definitive sense of agency with the girls. This is something they can do. I’ve always seen this as a form of empowerment towards the relatively disenfranchised figure of ‘the girl’, but now I’m wondering if there’s something there about this being a reaction towards adult indecision. Something like a reactionary empowerment… but I’ll ponder this and hopefully reach some sort of coherency.

This has been a really lovely conference, not only due to the warm welcome of the centre themselves, but also the chance to visit Winchester itself. I checked out Jane Austen’s grave, accidentally discovered the memorial to Charlotte M. Yonge, and picked up a new Elsie Oxenham from a second hand bookshop on the way to the uni. A job well done, I think. (I’m so on brand!).

Tracey Emin, Handwriting and Mapping Newcastle to York

A handwritten map of the Newcastle to York train

I was in Newcastle yesterday for a funding workshop, and on the way home on the train I decided to make some freehand maps.

I am no cartographer, but I am somebody who’s interested in that rough edge between mapping and art. I’m interested in how that space of the line, and how the edge of that line can be something quite else entirely.

Some of this comes from my love of writing in art – I’ve spoken before about my adoration of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer but I haven’t mentioned my admiration for Tracey Emin’s neon work. Written with ferocious intimacy, these pieces have a very particular power for me. They speak both to the intimate nature of thought but also that need to proclaim, to express, to capture that moment of life and living. They’re enclosed, open, desperate to be heard and yet desperately held within themselves. A contrast; a rough, wild edge of expression.

And so, I map. I have moved away from mapping through computerised systems and digital applications, aching instead to find something intimate in that action of capturing. Place is an intimate experience; space is human, global, but place is ours. That intimate scratch of the pen on paper, that personal connection between thought and action – as opposed to the filtration of that through other systems – seems to be a good thing for me.

A close up handwritten map of the Newcastle to York train

I’m not claiming for these to be something remarkable, or some reinvention of the cartographic wheel, but I am claiming for them as maps. Every line on there, every movement, renders a shift in the carriage or a bump on the tracks. The slowing down into a station, or the moment the train sped down a long straight. The quality and meaning of ‘line’ is something that interests me on an immense level, and these act as a useful provocation towards our ideas about that. Can a map be a series of lines? Can it be rendered in such a fragmentary, unstable manner? This is cartography on that rough edge, and something about it interests me beyond word. 

Storying Place with @NAWEWRITERS @Mini_Stories @Place2Be #Nawe2018

It’s always good when a conference is held on home territory and when that conference is in a relevant subject area, it’s even better. It was with great pleasure then that I submitted a proposal for a joint workshop at NAWE – the National Association of Writers in Education – and I was so pleased when the proposal was accepted.

The conference was a packed three days full of diverse sessions. As is the way when your time is limited and you’re also presenting, you miss out on several of the sessions you’d have loved to attend. It’s a problem I’ve come across with conferences before and I do tend to yearn for some sort of communal passworded pool of knowledge where people can share slides / resources (something like a padlet?) for those who miss a session, or for those who can’t be in fifteen places at once. Nevertheless, this isn’t a specific comment on NAWE, and indeed I was rather pleased that they’d shared a comprehensive list of delegates and biographies in the welcome pack. I’m going to be following up on one or two people and projects that I want  to find out more about.

One of the sessions that I did make it to was called “Anemotions: How Writing Short Films Helps Children Talk About How They Feel” – led by Jessica Randall from Ministry of Stories. As somebody with a background in children’s literature, and an interest in emotions (I manage reading lists on anger and bereavement for example…) this was very much up my street. I was particularly interested on the role of volunteers in this project and how they were supported in managing potentially very complex issues.

The Anemotions project was a collaboration between the Ministry Of Stories and Place 2 Be. It paired children with animators in the aim of developing several short videos about feelings and emotions that could be used in schools to provoke, incite and support discussion. Jessica spoke of the importance of accessible terminology – this was not about “mental health” but rather “feelings and emotions”. She also spoke about the importance of showing the children that any emotion was valid to feel, say and express.

I was struck by the locality of the project. One animation studio was just across the road whilst the children they worked with went to local schools or lived within 500m of the centre. This is remarkable, intimate community work and one that really struck home to me. It’s so easy to do a thing and then end and for people to return to the ‘real world’. But when your ‘real world’ integrates the place where you did that life-changing thing? When you see that place every day or the people who work there? That’s an amazing shift and something quite powerful.

One of the other things Jessica mentioned was that the animators were asked to offer the children character designs that reflected their own appearance. When these were presented to the children, they invariably picked those that reflected their own cultural background and appearance. This careful, considerate and subtle facilitation is brilliant work. It also touches on a key discussion in children’s literature at the moment on the nature of representation. I am a white woman, and I’m conscious that British children’s literature tends towards reflecting my experience above others. Darren Chetty writes about this in “You Can’t Say That! Stories Have To Be About White People!” where he talks about the struggles of multicultural children to see, find or even locate themselves within stories. It is a searing piece, and if you have not read it please do. It was published as part of The Good Immigrant – a book I’d also wholly recommend.

The work produced by the Anemotions project was/is remarkable, and I’ve added the playlist below. There is one, I won’t tell you which, that almost moved me to tears.

And so finally to our session! We were part of a joint panel with Dr Belinda Castles, from the University of Sydney. Belinda spoke fascinatingly of the work she was doing in a paper called Walking workshops: Traversing the landscape of the mind. She has been trialing walking workshops with members of the public and creative writing PhD students, and seeing if these can be used as a generative writing technique. It’s intriguing stuff – she spoke of Rebecca Solnit and how she linked the idea of walking to writing (see Wanderlust in particular). She’d asked the students to consider specific prompts as they walked or to come with the aim of resolving a particular issue in their work. I was fascinated to hear about the thought process behind these workshops and how she linked walking to her own creative practice.

Our workshop was called Storying Place. I co-presented with Claire Boardman, a PhD candidate in the department of Archaeology at the University of York. Claire’s looking into the role of digital archives, and one of the key techniques she’s using to do this is the idea of Deep Mapping.  There’s a lot of connections between her work and mine; we’re both concerned with the nature of story and place and how to connect that with users / writers / individuals. Deep mapping offers a formal theory and methodology on how to do that.

One of the particular resonances for me about deep mapping is how it brings stories out of the woodwork wherever you may be. I believe very firmly in story as a lived, performed thing – the ‘book’ is merely one facet of such. We live and breathe and perform story with every step we take. We make a story with the bus we get to work, or the shop we call in on the way home. The left-turn we take on the way to mum’s house, or the road that’s always busy after half eight but never before seven – these small webs of story, these fragments of narrative – that’s what I’m interested in. And I’ll use everything at my disposal in order to get to these stories and bring them to life. Creative writing is not just about daffodils in the Lake District – it can be about the crisps you get in Tesco’s. I seek for a practice that integrates both. 

We spoke about our background, the theory, and then asked the participants to create a deep map of the room together. There were a few constraints applied due to the nature of being against the clock and in a very particular context – write without stopping, write for ten minutes straight.Here’s a snapshot of what I wrote in this session –

NAWE-storying-place.jpg

After they’d written, we then asked the participants to read their work. This reading was recorded (with permission) and the final map was created.  Room E became something remarkable, populated with ideas about light, fruit, Vikings, colours, food and so much more. Thanks to everyone who participated so generously in this session – we loved having you with us.

 

“That moment when, you know, that thing…”: a few thoughts on story and how to find it in unexpected areas

I have been thinking a lot about story at the moment and I have come to realise that it is best when it is found in unexpected places. I did not find story at school, not for a long time. I remember the day that I lost it:

We were told to write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. We were told that we had to know what would happen. We were brought up to the front of the class to tell each other about it.

I didn’t know. I never have and I never will plan a story easily. I admire those who can, but the nearest I can come towards a plan is to write the whole thing, pull it apart, and then write it all over again. I write my way into things, and I find the foundations of the final project in that thing.

I didn’t write for a long time after that episode in school. Of course I wrote, but I didn’t write. I didn’t believe in what I did and what I wanted to do, until I realised that there was a legitimacy for it. That words are owned by the person who makes them, and they have the right to make them in whatever shape they want. I believe in a democracy of expression. I believe that everybody has a right to tell their story, and to be supported in telling it in the way and means that work for them. And I believe that there are societal, personal and private factors that work quite hard against the telling of that stry.

In a way, it’s miraculous that we tell our stories at all.


When I turned away from story, I turned towards film. I went to film school, briefly, a conspiracy of circumstances allowing me to study and revel in the fine art of the edit. I can’t handle a camera. I can barely storyboard, but my goodness I can edit. Give me a handful of files and I’ll craft you something great from that.

Learning to edit was one of the things that bought me back towards writing. This – this screen right here, these tiny black marks? They’re an image, an icon, laid sequentially. They are an image that we accept means something quite particular, and so we’ve learnt to read them and interpret them as words. But they’re not perfect first time round. Nothing ever is. Unless you’re KM Peyton, and then because you’re KM Peyton it is.

So; to editing. Story. It’s not found on the first level of a sentence, it’s found underneath it. It’s found in the space behind the letter, the meaning, the interpretation. It’s found in the image you make inside your head, the voice you hear reading these sentences. It’s found in the rhythm of the sentence, the internal structures, and the soft subtle stylistics that colour every paragraph in the entire world.

It’s in the meaning.

Here, presented in no particular order, are a few of my favourite moments of story in cinema. Spoilers, obviously, apply. Even if you haven’t seen the film.

But that’s what you get when storytelling is as brilliant as this.

 

The Secret Garden – in poetry

I’ve been playing around with a very on-brand project for the last couple of months, and that project has been to rewrite The Secret Garden as a verse novel. I think that poetry, particularly under these circumstances, helps to expose the themes underneath it; namely, the story of a girl and her fight to survive. Here’s the first three poems from the collection.

Introductions

This is the story of a girl
who lived defiantly
until she was wrapped in leaves
and locked behind walls. Tell me of the life she lived,
how her unruliness shone,
and how her loss did not define her.
Tell me of the girl
who survived.

With one hand in the soil

It begins with soil;
the crumble of it between her fingers,
and a mother trying to forget.

Mary’s mother was beautiful
and Mary was not.

Mary learnt this before
she learnt her own name
and what names were.

Sometimes her mother would come to her room
and look at Mary
as though they had never met
and Mary would stare back at her
and never speak.

She was scared of her mother
but proud too;
proud of her beauty,
of the way that people would talk of her
in hushed tones.

When Mary looked at her mother,
she could not speak.

Instead, she became a contradiction
of silence and flushed skin.

Sometimes she would not see her mother for days
until she came home with friends,
and the noise arrived before they did.

On those days, the servants took Mary to the back of the house
filled her mouth with food to earn her silence,
and listened to her mother laugh
too long
too loud
too much.

The darkness

One night, Mary’s mother came to her room
and lit a cigarette in the dark,
let the ash slide onto the floor,
and spoke about how she was a soldier
in some great battle and if she had to,
she would fight alone and she would win
despite everything
despite her.

Her voice was calm,
but the red tip of the cigarette
moved like a mosquito through the dark.

The next morning, she left
for a party in the hills, and Mary told her Ayah that
she did not want her,
that she did not need her
or anybody, and she threw soil
at her; the crumbs, sharp as knives,
and when that did not work,
she threw words instead,
the words that she heard slide
through the walls
in the dark.

Her mother came home in the grey,
thin, light of the dawn,
and as the sun rose,
she smashed glass against the walls
and scored the sky with regret.

Mary screwed her eyes shut
and lied sleep
as the doctors came to their village
and whispered cholera
for it was a word that,
unlike the others, she did not yet understand,
and so it meant nothing to her
when her Ayah did not come to her room
and her mother turned silent
and her diary remained
unfulfilled.

That morning, the silence woke Mary
and she realised that she had slept,
despite everything, and for a moment
she did not know where she was

or even who.

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 –