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….

 

Capture

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!

3.PNG

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…”

The AHRC Commons

I spent today at the AHRC Commons at the University of York. It was a fascinating, inspiring event which brought together aspects of research across the arts and humanities sectors; topics ranging from memory and comics through to films on human trafficking through to 3-d printed skulls. A smorgasbord of stuff, and presented in a way that I felt was quite unusual for the academic world and brave; seminars ran alongside performances, and hackathons formed the backdrops to live performances. I loved it. I’m at the stage in my research where I’m thinking about evolving certain aspects of it and so, to get to see projects where people have done that? It’s a gift.

I wanted to share some of those projects and events that I found most relevant and intriguing here. I’d recommend a check of the programme as well, even though the event has ended; it’s one of those programmes full of names and projects to google. The hashtag is well worth a look as well.

Rachel Smith from Seven Stories (the blessed holy grail of children’s literature) spoke about their collaborative work with Newcastle University. The focus that Seven Stories has on broadening access to literature is something very important to me and I am a frank admirer of their work. I was particularly excited to hear about the Warrior Women Book-Hack which was ‘ A book hack with female ex-service personnel, to change the missing or misrepresented lives in picture books for children.‘ Unfortunately I wasn’t able to speak with the team themselves regarding this (the pitfalls of such a short time with so many people to see!) but trust me, I’m determined to find out more.

I enjoyed hearing about Poetic Places; an app which allows you to discover locations referenced in poetry and literature. The app itself is currently focused on London but is accessible at a distance meaning that you don’t need to be walking down Oxford Street to find a poem set in the area. I particularly loved how the app is set up to run in the background and to send you a notification when you’re in a tagged area.

Another app which intrigued me was Artcasting. This app allows individuals to ‘cast’ an artwork into the future or a different location. So, for example (if I understood it correctly!), if you’re stood in a gallery in Edinburgh, you can cast an image from that gallery through to Munich and people there with the app can receive that cast. It’s a gorgeous premise; this releasing of art and I was excited to chat with the team about the text based potential.

The event today was, as I understood it, the first of its kind. I really hope it’s not the last. There’s something quite indelibly exciting about such a tumultous, vivid, clash of research that covers such a vast, diverse area. My thanks to the organisers and thanks to the people I chatted with. I am inspired.

 

 

Girlish freedoms in the St Clare’s series by Enid Blyton

I’ve been writing a lot over the past few weeks about the St. Clare’s books by Enid Blyton. A joyful side quest has been realising just how obsessed I’m becoming with Enid Blyton front covers and I’d urge you to enjoy the replies to this tweet as much as I have. I suspect there’s a whole separate thesis in the topic of illustrating Enid Blyton (and also, dear me, those Bratz-esque front covers!)

In this post, I wanted to talk in particular about spatial liberties in St Clare’s and the impact this has played upon my reading of the series this time round.St Clare’s is a book full of some striking freedoms. Consider the first book in the series, always a scene-setting sort of affair with the school story and in the case of The Twins At St Clare’s, particularly carefully so.  The girls are allowed to go down town in pairs, whilst the elder girls are allowed to go independently. The girls are able to spend money there, get cakes, visit the circus, go for nature walks ….

There’s a moment where the girls go to the cinema instead of doing their homework. Upon coming home, they do their homework and hand it in to the mistress in the middle of the night (the argument of “she didn’t say when she wanted it done by” is particularly lovely).  This is a fascinating incident because it shows something quite distinct, I think, to this mid-century twist of the boarding school story, namely it shows the girls flouting both the temporal and spatial restrictions placed upon them. Think about it. Would you see somebody in an Angela Brazil popping out to the cinema and then going to hand their homework into the relevant mistress at 11pm? It wouldn’t have happened. The restrictions of space, the hierarchies of space, within an Angela Brazil are absolute. The girls function within girlish space, the staff remain within staff space and ne’er the twain shall meet.

The liberties within St Clare’s are potent. This isn’t a school of rigid seclusion and absence from the world; this is a school of spatial liberties, arbitrated by the authorities but enforced and mediated by the girls.And that’s something quite fascinating and powerful (and intensely brave, I think) to give to the reader. Read these books. But also challenge them. Question them. There’s  so much more to St Clare’s than it gets given credit for…