Katherine Rundell: Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise
Bloomsbury Publishing 2019
This insightful and beautifully written essay fits into a slim 63-page hardback but contains as many worthy gems as many a longer study. In nearly a dozen sections Katherine Rundell, herself a children’s author, makes a powerful case for juvenile fiction not being inferior to adult fiction but worthy in its own right; and, more than that, it can offer what much adult fiction can’t or won’t.
The author tries to put her finger on what those qualities are and, in my opinion, pretty much succeeds. All this review will aim to do is to give a flavour of the main points she enumerates.
You may not remember me but we were introduced at Shona’s party. There wasn’t time to say hi or anything because Shona’s surprise present interrupted everything just then! Anyway, I hope you don’t mind me contacting you out of the blue but I thought nothing ventured, nothing gained. Hope you don’t mind.
To Scott From Trudi
So, hi Scott Sorry I don’t remember you from the party, things were a little bit lively. Not sure why you’re contacting me, where’d you get my email?
Sorry, didn’t mean to spook you. I got your email off Shona’s newsletter where she’d cc’d everybody. It’s just that I heard you’d gone to do History at Leicester Uni at more or less the same time as me, and I didn’t remember our paths crossing. I was in the same year as Natalie and her gang but I guess you must have been the year ahead or behind. Anyway, no worries, I’m not stalking you or anything, just wanted to compare notes if that was OK.
Anyway, I’ll back off if you’d rather not chat.
All the best, Scott
Hi Scott You were in Natalie’s year? Wow, she was something else, wasn’t she, what’s she doing now, you any idea? Sorry I was a bit suspicious, you hear so much about weirdoes contacting you out of the blue. Did you know Jeremy too? I had a bit of a thing for him but he didn’t come back for his third year and we kinda lost contact, but then I was with Kevin for two years before finals. And you? What are you doing?
That’s weird, Jeremy was at school with me! But when we went to Leicester we kind of made new friends. I know he suddenly swapped courses to do French, but then I lost contact too. He must have done his year abroad then, you know his mum was Swiss so perhaps he skipped a year. Me, I’m in some boring job, I’m not sure you really want to know, do you? Just really wanted to chat to someone about uni, life, the universe, anything rather than office politics. But that’s OK, just happy to get this off my chest. Don’t worry if you don’t want to chat.
Scott, don’t be a misery! I remember, you must be the guy that had the tee saying Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost! Look, where are you, are you close to town? Do you want to meet up for coffee somewhere? I often meet friends in Caffe Nero behind the Exchange, when’s good for you? You don’t need to wear a flower in your buttonhole but for goodness sake don’t wear that t-shirt or I’ll pretend I don’t know you!
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So, this is how the emails between Scott and Trudi could have panned out. But they could so easily have taken a very different direction, couldn’t they?Continue reading “Winter chills”→
When, in the early 70s, I spent a year or so as a library assistant (not ‘assistant librarian’, as I was firmly told) life seems in retrospect to have been a lot simpler. Information technology was in its infancy, microfiche was cutting edge for library users, and fiction was arranged on library shelves according to a simple fourfold system: Fiction (by author, in alphabetical order), Detective, Western … and Romance. (Teenage reading, what we might now call Young Adult, was still shelved under Children, hived off in its own ghetto and marked Juvenile. How fashions change.)
‘Fiction’ — that is, the works shelved by author surname from A to Z — is such a broad canvas: I’ve seen it referred to as mainstream (that is, ‘popular’), literary (niche, that is, not so popular), commercial (makes piles of money, usually in inverse proportion to its literary worth) and contemporary (probably published in the last year or so, certainly excluding classics like Dickens, Hardy and Austen). In truth these are categories with very fluid boundaries, often overlapping. (To my mind there are in reality only two types of fiction, fiction you like and fiction you don’t, but you can’t plan a public library based on personal preferences.) Where, then, does the Romantic Novel — the last genre we looked at in the creative writing class — sit? Continue reading “Romancing the novel”→
Fairy tales was the next genre to be discussed in the creative writing class, though I have to say that, following the precedent of ‘folktale’, I prefer the single-word form fairytale since fairies aren’t always the litmus test for this category. As usual this post will incorporate notes from the class with comments of my own.
Stith Thompson (editor of the Aarne–Thompson tale type index) suggested in The Folktale (1977) that fairytales are “of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes”. Further defining features include “an unreal world without definite locality or definite characters and […] filled with the marvellous”. In this Never Never Land “humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms and marry princesses”.
Another week, another update to the creative writing classes I attend where we look at literary genres: this last week we looked at Science Fiction. And already we’re in difficulty. Is it ‘science fiction’ (where the emphasis appears to be on science), ‘sci-fi’ (which already looks rather passé as an abbreviation, and is often used in a derogatory sense), ‘SF’ (which seems to be the preferred acronym), ‘speculative fiction’ (which is less constrictive, encompassing elements which may otherwise be counted as fantasy) or ‘SFF’ (=SF+fantasy, an acronym which seems to have had its day)? I’m going to use SF, but you can read it how you like.
The creative writing course I’m attending, looking at various genres, this week turned from Gothick horror to 20th-century Horror fiction, though not without a look first at 19th-century antecedents. These included Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Stoker’s Dracula (1897), James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) and, not long after the turn of the century, Blackwood’s The Empty House (1903). Even a short romp through these key titles reveals a singular lack of female authors.
However, one female writer whose name did crop up in discussion was Gertrude Barrows Bennett. Writing under the masculine pseudonym ‘Francis Stevens’ (given her by a pulp magazine editor) she is now credited with having invented the genre of dark fantasy in the years around 1920, maybe influencing H P Lovecraft’s writing in the twenties (though the connection is disputed).
I could have added, of course, Edith Nesbit, better known as a children’s writer. Between 1893 (with collections called Something Wrong and Grim Tales) and 1910 (Fear) via 1897’s Tales Told in Twilight she published several short horror stories; many of these have recently been republished in a new collection by Wordsworth Editions as The Power of Darkness: Tales of Terror (2006).
Thereafter male domination of horror seems to have continued, usually with supernatural overtones (as in M R James’ ghost stories).
It’s been a while since I did evening classes. The last course I attended was for learning Welsh; I was a tenacious attendee — those like me who didn’t fall by the wayside managed, over some two years, to get through three different tutors with very different teaching styles — but I can’t say I have any proficiency in the language. It’s a difficult tongue for English-speakers to become acclimatised to, very different from Italian, the language I also lasted two years with; English shares so much more in the way of word roots with Latin languages, and for me familiarity with French made things so much easier.
Before that I took a course in teaching English as a foreign language, and even got a qualification for it. Now can you see a pattern here? Language, language, language — it was surely time to do something different. And so it was that I found myself signing up for a creative writing course.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.