Life in the kid-lit bubble

Every now and then someone will bemoan the difficulty of getting published if you happen not to be a celebrity. This week The Guardian have pointed out their proliferation in the field of children’s books, and lamented the way it restricts opportunities for talented mere mortals to get a look-in.

There is certainly some justification for this complaint, although I doubt very much whether the 1950s or 1960s were a golden age completely devoid of this kind of thing. Children have always loved long, crushingly formulaic series of books and seem to need such repetition to build up reading stamina. We may not have called Enid Blyton or The Chalet School brands, but undoubtedly that’s what they were.

There’s also the point that some celebrity writers are genuinely talented people; if you are already a famous stand-up comedian you’re likely to be extravert, good with words, and in tune with children’s sense of humour. So good luck to David Walliams. Some people are just good at more than one thing. Annoying if you’re plugging away at the day job, but undoubtedly true. I draw the line at George Galloway, however.

In fact, the marketing of children’s books is becoming ever more inventive (some would say desperate). This week I received 100 sample chapters of a new book for KS2, and the offer of a possible free copy if I agreed to post pictures of “happy children receiving the books” on social media. Chatterbooks is colonised by publishers offering creative craft kits for school and library book groups, and if you don’t tweet your pictures and appreciation you will probably be overlooked next time around. Whether we like such strategies or find them exploitative and creepy, there is undoubtedly a thriving and growing market in children’s books and a vast selection of beautiful ones around.

So all is well. Not quite. If all you ever do is follow the feeds of leading lights in children’s literature, you may get that impression. Anyone can be sucked into an online bubble and such bubbles soon inflate with indignation at the thought of their denizens’ ideals not being universally accepted. Some people would call such communities elites. Elites are not necessarily defined by vast wealth and sojourns at Davos. They can be driven by idealism, creativity and education. That doesn’t make them bad. But it does make them risky.

So I welcomed it when bookseller Leilah Skelton weighed into the kid-lit celebrity debate, pointing out the reality of book availability, selection and purchase opportunities for the majority of children in Britain today and their parents. “Can you imagine the only access to physical books being a Tesco chart?” she tweeted. “That’s a reality in more places than you’d think.” No wonder parents fall back on the known quantity of celebrity. Children devour books fast if they like them, and for many people £6.99 is not a trivial amount of money.

If we care at all about children’s reading opportunities we already know about the decline of libraries, book reviews in the press and trained librarians even where libraries for children exist. Leilah is absolutely right to identify these as the cultural changes feeding into the celebrity fixation. In fact, she doesn’t go far enough. Even in school libraries, there’s little money for anything other than donations and of course this only entrenches social inequality. Even if, as happened with one of my schools, you manage to stock a library with high quality titles, it will be a long time before Star Wars and Disney stop dominating your children’s book choices. Because that’s what entertainment means to them. They recognise what they see on screens.

Is the solution to ban the cheap and cheerful stuff? That’s likely to leave many of your children unmoored and overwhelmed with choice. The older they get, the more likely they are to walk out of the library completely rather than try to navigate it. That’s not because they are stupid, it’s because it’s not a place they are used to being in. If you put me in a shop filled with fishing tackle or motorcycle accessories I’d feel the same way. Over time, if you get the chance to work with them in small groups and resist the continual drip-drip encroachment of musical instrument storage, intervention groups, Y3 forgetting to tell you they’re out doing the Romans this week and losing Y5 and Y6 to SATS cramming for half the year, you will build up the trust to the point where they might try something unfamiliar. Opening the library is a great start. Eternal vigilance and a thick skin is useful if you want it to survive for long enough to make a meaningful impact on reading culture in the school.

There will probably always be wonderful children’s books around for those lucky enough to have access to them. But they are the tip of a huge iceberg of deprivation. In our little ivory towers we mustn’t lose sight of that. And we mustn’t despair either.


The importance of analytical reading

We all know how important it is to read to kids, and to start young. But the way we read is important, and more subtle than we might think, argues Bill Murphy in this excellent article. They are not just passive containers for stories. They need to engage in dialogue with adults about them, and that is how they learn.

If pushed, I think most of us would agree that such close shared reading builds empathy. Kids need to be able to imagine a situation from another person’s point of view, to walk in the skin of someone unlike themselves. Incidentally, we don’t grow out of this and it’s tempting not to move out of our comfort zones, as I recently discovered when I went to see Moonlight. Realising how unmoored I felt by an all-black cast gave me new insight into the importance of diversity in children’s books – how does a four-year old black girl feel when she’s confronted with the overwhelmingly white world of Princess Poppy?

Empathy has to be good, right? Well, yes and no. How many of the people who were moved by the photograph of little Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on shore went on to vote for politicians who denied asylum to unaccompanied Syrian child refugees? Emotional intelligence is rather different. It includes analytical skills, looking at the whole picture, at evidence, possible strategies, problems and outcomes. It means asking not just, “Do you think the duck feels sad?” but also, “The fox seems nice. Do you think the duck should believe him? Why not?”

In my work in school libraries, I involve children in these conversations all the time and their perceptiveness frequently surprises me. A good story is full of fork-in-the-road moments, all of which have consequences. And picture books abound in clues that, if decoded, yield vital background information. When we read to a child, we are inviting them to decode that information and theorise about where it could be taking us. Yes, empathy is involved; we can all feel sorry for the little ladybird that doesn’t fit in because she has no spots, or the little girl desperate for a kitten who ends up taking home a gorilla from the zoo. But why doesn’t it work out to keep the gorilla as a pet? Seeing the way he trashes a suburban kitchen, and why the gorilla isn’t happy, carries highly significant life lessons.

It seems that at the moment we are confronted daily with the awful consequences of people determined to maintain a coherent ideological position in face of all reasonable evidence. Too much reliance on feelings can lead into dark places, and the idea that you only have to believe something badly enough and find others who feel likewise to construct your own perfectly valid reality. I wonder if the large numbers of young children who don’t get exposed regularly to language and conceptual development through reading are contributing to the problem.

There is far too much passive consumption of entertainment. Cinema and TV can be wonderful but the emotional beats are frequently heightened and signposted in letters a hundred feet high. Ambiguity is rare, and far too many children are watching without any accompanying person to help them interpret what they are seeing through loving, open-ended discussion. The school day is crammed and even schools with libraries struggle to fit in every class for even one story time a week. After years of austerity, the effect of neglected maintenance is becoming all to apparent in the decline of roads and the built environment around us. The neglect of our children’s inner world and analytical faculties may not show up right away, but we ignore it at our own risk.

Pressure mounting for 5 year olds

Yesterday I wrote about the pressures I was experiencing at work. This depressing blog post from a parent (not at my school) helps set it in context, I think.

My son is 5 and a half and in Year One. In my opinion, his early experiences of education should be a good mix of social interaction, play and learning. As after all, the purpose of schooling is to…

Source: Pressure mounting for 5 year olds

Alternative Facts

As a general rule I avoid political comment here. There is enough of it elsewhere. However, education and any job involved with teaching people how to evaluate information is becoming increasingly politicised. The time may come when people with jobs like mine no longer have the option of inhabiting a bubble conveniently labelled “neutrality”.

There’s a point at which we should draw the line, and in this context at least I define it as the point where governments actively interfere with the dissemination of truth.

Most obviously, right now, this is happening in the USA. Already the National Parks Service has set itself on a collision course with the new administration by defying a gag on publishing the truth about climate change. Let’s focus on that for a minute. They haven’t been expressing opinions here. They’ve been publishing verifiable statistics. And they’ve been told to cease and desist.

But we should avoid complacency; such things are happening closer to home. Check out this FT item about what is happening in Poland right now:

Polish schools pare back science in push for the “New Pole”

Trump says he loves uneducated people. People who haven’t been taught what an unreliable narrator is. People who haven’t been taught what a trusted source of information is. People who resist reading, and who have been educated in schools where the time and resources are lacking to change their minds. People who have watched so much “reality TV” that they don’t know what reality is any more.

I resist conspiracy theories, but I can’t help reflecting that the austerity excuse for underfunding schools, closing public libraries and entrenching inequality might be about more than the money. An uneducated populace is a convenient tool for the wrong kind of politician.

So what do we do? I’m faced with a dilemma. Reading too much of the news right now directly impacts on my state of mind and my ability to do my job. I oscillate between paralysing despair and manic overactivity as I resolve to push back. I feel I have to be well informed but sometimes I need a walk, a workout or a spell of gardening even more.

And much as I love the Twitter feeds dedicated to the phenomenal stuff going on in schools now, the examples of best practice, the flood of beautiful information books, the author visits and the jaw-droppingly beautiful learning walls, we are where we are. We have the kids we have, we have the situation we are in and we may only have 20 minutes one crowded lunch time to run a book club.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

With the kids, we start where they are and we listen to them. I have to resist the temptation of spending whole evenings preparing for a session and showing up so in love with my materials and my vision that I don’t actually listen to the children. I have no way of knowing what exchange, what apparently off-the-cuff remark or question will bear fruit in years to come.

For example, one Head Teacher I work with asked me to do a weekly book review. Nobody seemed to be coming in and asking for the books I recommended, so I was starting to wonder if the exercise had any point. Then she told me that since I started them, the number of people coming in to hear kids read had soared.

Things do bear fruit, but we don’t own them. We have to keep listening, and we have to be faithful. It may be something as trivial as printing off a whole sheet of barcodes that you’d already laminated so that one child can have a named library card they’ve lost replaced.

We can get so caught up in the sheer, jaw-dropping awfulness of what is happening today that we freeze like a deer in the headlights. I think we are heading towards an abyss that will suck us in even if we feel we are isolated from it right now, and each one of us will have to figure out how to make a stand. But don’t overlook the little things. It might seem sad but unimportant if a library class or a nursery session goes. It’s not. Replicate that all over the country, and a few years down the line we have people who don’t think critically, who misuse their votes and who unwittingly turn their back on democracy itself.


In the Dark Times, will there be singing?


This Christmas my standout gift was an illustrated edition of Wordsworth’s autobiographical masterpiece, The Prelude. Wordsworth grew to adulthood in turbulent times, witnessed the French Revolution first-hand and, upon returning to England, became so disillusioned with English politics that he found himself in a church surrounded by people praying for a British military victory in the ensuing war, and petitioning God for the opposite outcome.

The Prelude, written primarily for his friend and soulmate Coleridge, tells the story of his life and spiritual education, from a childhood spent in the natural beauty of the English Lake District through college education, youthful adventures in London and on the Continent, the discovery of his vocation as a poet and the revitalisation of his inner life as part of a small circle of loved and trusted friends (plus his devoted sister).

What struck me about this poem written over 200 years ago is its feeling of immediacy. Many of the struggles Wordsworth goes through – the idealism that burns and is crushed, the confusion about the direction his life should take, and the powerful pull of his homeland, are fresh and contemporary. This great work, regarded as a pinnacle of high culture, has the freshness and vibrancy of a modern blog. Its central theme, of a passionate and sensitive young person working out their place in a turbulent world, has never seemed more relevant.

The other cultural experience I will draw on in the dark months that probably lie ahead comes from the opposite side of the high/low culture divide but I find it equally moving and powerful. It’s the elegant perfection of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing in Follow the Fleet, and the words and haunting tune of the great musical number, Let’s Face the Music and Dance.

There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance
Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill and while we still have the chance
Let’s face the music and dance

I’d forgotten how dark the setting of this diamond is. First, the political situation in 1936, when the movie was released, was ominous in the extreme. Secondly, just before Astaire launches into his musical appeal, Ginger’s on the point of throwing herself overboard. This, and the melancholy threaded through the exquisite melody and deceptively insouciant lines, gives this “cheap music” (Noel Coward’s line in Private Lives) a real emotional charge. It seems a perfect fit for this edgy New Year’s Day when any celebrations we feel are overshadowed by what is to happen in Washington on January 20th, and much else besides.

One of the most depressing political developments of 2016 was the increasing tendency to mock culture as the fiefdom of a privileged elite. There’s nothing new about this; the Nazis did it too. Why bother with the past? This is an increasing tendency in extreme political circles on both the Left and the Right. It has to be resisted at all costs. It is our ability to envision and create things of beauty that makes us uniquely human, that gives us empathy, courage and hope. The defiance of Irving Berlin’s lyrics speaks to the human spirit, which can manifest itself in forms and circumstances that seem trivial and banal, but are anything but.

In England we live in a culture controlled by a vicious tabloid press and a culturally bankrupt broadcasting scene that has thrown up the horrors of reality TV. Our Government starves local authorities of the resources they need to keep libraries and museums open and gross social inequality bars the way of many talented young people from underprivileged backgrounds into the arts. But the human spirit will not be daunted by such short-sighted blindness; people will face the music, they will help to write it in new countries and new societies (as Irving Berlin did), and they will need it to survive.

One final thought. We can often feel overwhelmed by horror, unable to decide what to do to make the world better. The answer is simple – find what you do best, and do it with all your heart. That was what Astaire did, what Wordsworth did, and what I will continue to do in my own work in 2017. Like the words of Irving Berlin’s song, this will turn out to be more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

See also: In the dark times, will there also be singing?





If you want me, I’ll be in the cave


The Muskrat – illustration by Tove Jansson from Finn Family Moomintroll


For the last few weeks, depression has had me in a gradually tightening grip. It started with the Brexit vote. Like many others, I spent too much time online, stayed up too late, and then couldn’t sleep. I caught a heavy cold, which worsened on a complicated trip abroad. Several challenging weeks at work ripened it into a severe chest infection; I worked on regardless until the schools I work at shut their doors for the summer holidays. Then I collapsed, and for the last few days even getting off the sofa has been a struggle.

I expect most people who know me will be unaware of all this, partly because socialising falls off in August anyway, and also because I’ve learned to hide it pretty well. If I told them I’d likely get sympathy, which I don’t particularly need or want, though I’d receive it graciously, I hope. Fact is, given the state the world is in, depression seems like a fairly rational state of mind to me right now. But also, the pattern I’ve just described tends to recur every summer. I finish work, I catch a cold, I go into my shell. Everything slows down.

I’ve started to regard this as a positive development. That’s not Pollyanna speaking; it’s based on my experience of previous slumps. If I’m going to go to ground, better to do it in August then in September, the most demanding time of year for anyone who works in an educational setting. It’s almost as if my mind and body have subconsciously co-operated to get it out of the way at the least harmful time. I could beat myself up staring at the overgrown garden or the list of unanswered emails. It wouldn’t make me feel any better or get well any faster. So what would help?

If you recognise this state of mind in yourself, I could advise that you get hold of Matt Haig’s wonderful little book Reasons to Stay Alive a model of compassion, common sense and realistic assumptions about the concentration span of anyone afflicted by depression. It should be available on what is left of the NHS. I’ve also learned to me very leery of any heroics regarding medication. If you need to boost the pills and your GP agrees, don’t just dismiss that and try to tough it out. I’ve always been very conservative about any kind of medication, to the point of almost collapsing with pneumonia before admitting that a course of antibiotics might be helpful. Antidepressants have had a very bad press in recent years and it’s fashionable to assume Big Pharma is out to get you. But they certainly beat being paralysed by suicidal misery.

That said, once basic functionality has been addressed (and that can be as basic as a daily shower and regular meals), there is a case for looking at the advantages of a period of withdrawal. What can I still do? I can read – maybe not the intellectually demanding stuff I think I should be reading, but I can revisit loved children’s books, discover new ones and absorb a few insights from that much-maligned genre, the self-help manual. I don’t mean the kind that promises to make you perfect in 7 days, I mean something from the popular science section that catches my eye concerning habit change, productivity, or self-control. If you pick up just one or two insights from each one and let them marinade in your apparently addled brain, you may be surprised by the way they come to your aid under stress at work in a few weeks’ time.

This year I’ve been working my way through the Moomins, a pretty good self-help manual in their own quirky way. I’ve read Boel Westin’s biography of Tove Jansson which has deepened my love and respect for this wonderfully wise and insightful writer. I’ve realised that for a practising school librarian, I’ve fallen shamefully behind on actually reading contemporary children’s fiction – somehow it got lost between the cataloguing and the overdue letters, so I’m addressing that. And a lot of the time, I’m just thinking. It pays off. Last year, it was a very similar fallow patch that opened my mind to a possibility that seems obvious now – that I’m lactose intolerant – but it wasn’t nearly as clear when I was trying to figure out why I had such awful IBS. And it was a few weeks of downtime that helped me break the dairy habit that had been sustaining me, but at too great a cost.

So I’m depressed. It will pass. I will reach the point, quite soon I hope, when I can actually look forward to going out and doing things (or even finishing that DVD box set) with enthusiasm and pleasure. For now, I’ll go into my den and wait. See you in September. Hopefully.

Entitled little snowflakes – or tomorrow’s democrats?


One of the many things that has saddened me over the last few days of post-Brexit chaos has been some of the invective directed at young people. Their generation, already facing much lower prospects of home ownership, secure employment and freedom from graduate debt than their parents, now face having to live with the consequences of a momentous decision that will affect them for decades to come.

Little wonder that they are taking to the streets in protest; yesterday a “March For Europe” in Central London, predominantly supported by young people, attracted international news coverage. And the inevitable comments, such as, “The vote was to leave the EU – that’s democracy for you. Get on with it, stop complaining.”

To address this remark to the 16 and 17 year olds who were denied the opportunity to vote in the referendum is offensive and hypocritical. Our society is fracturing down multiple fault lines at present and it seems to be open season for opposing groups to hurl insults at one another across the cultural chasm that divides them. Insulting and negative language towards young people (sometimes accompanied by outraged claims like, “They want to stop old people voting!”) are one manifestation of this. Articles about the grief they are experiencing invite mockery and abuse. None of it is helpful.

Grief comes in multiple varieties and it is a futile exercise to rank them in order of severity. If we have a generation capable of feeling genuine dismay at the turn that our national politics have taken, and they are willing to take to the streets peacefully in protest, that’s a very healthy sign.

Maybe papers like the Guardian are adding fuel to the flames by running pieces on anguished liberals, but better that than front pages based on lies and racist propaganda. It is also an oversimplification to assume that everyone protesting yesterday was demanding a rerun of the referendum. Some will hold that view, but others will be marching simply to show solidarity with the European ideal, or to support the argument that a decision of this complexity and importance should be debated by Parliament, not outsourced to an easily led angry public mob.

A sense of entitlement and a conviction that you are the centre of the universe and always right is not the sole prerogative of the under-25s. If you want young people to understand the responsibilities of democracy, you don’t let their leaders abuse its privileges and then tell said youngsters to shut up and suck it up. You give them the vote.