‘Piglettes’ is out!

(… and I somehow managed to forget its date of birth, which is a bit careless and doesn’t bode well for the future if I ever have kids…)

So, erm, while I was in Spain for some work-and-holiday time, Piglettes, written by me and translated by me but published by the great people at Pushkin Press (thank you Daniel and Mollie in particular!), came out into the world!

And here it is!

piglettes

It’s lovely and pink (but not too pink) and LIGHT, which means you can tuck it into your cycling shorts to take it around on a bike ride. Sorry, what? Why would you do that? Well, because that’s what it’s about. Cycling. And sausages. And ugliness competitions… also about gate-crashing the July 14th Presidential garden party at the palace of the Elysée in Paris.

It all makes sense, somehow, in the book. I think… Here’s the official summary:

Awarded the Gold, Silver and Bronze trotters after a vote by their classmates on Facebook, Mireille, Astrid and Hakima are officially the three ugliest girls in their school, but does that mean they’re going to sit around crying about it?

Well… yes, a bit, but not for long! Climbing aboard their bikes, the trio set off on a summer roadtrip to Paris, their goal: a garden party with the French president. As news of their trip spreads they become stars of social media and television. With the eyes of the nation upon them the girls find fame, friendship and happiness, and still have time to consume an enormous amount of food along the way.

Piglettes is strange for me because it’s new news and old news at the same time. It came out in French as Les petites reines in 2015.

It's about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

By then, I’d published a few books already, which had had modest echo (very very modest).

And then Les petites reines came out and within a year, my life (at least, the side of my life that’s French and writerly) had changed quite a bit. This is the part where I say that it was a bestseller in France and sold rights to the stage, the cinema and many translations, and also won tons of awards, including some of the most major national ones, and was on the IBBY International Honour list the next year. I also starting getting many more invitations to come speak to schools and in book fairs. It was the beginning for me of a much stronger involvement with the French children’s literature community, its debates, its questions, its politics, and its people. 

And more importantly perhaps, I started receiving many, many emails from young readers, and from their parents (and even grandparents) sometimes. And I still do, often. And I know it’s being borrowed hugely from school libraries, which makes me very happy.

Right, I have now said those things which are kind of required of anyone self-promoting I think. Ah no, wait, there’s more. There are already some really nice early reviews of the book in English – thank you SO much to the bloggers and journalists who have already read it – in France, word-of-mouth was absolutely crucial to the success of the book and I’m indebted for absolutely ever to the bloggers and vloggers who pushed it so much from the beginning. So here are some early comments here:

  • Did you ever stop to think and forget to start again?: There is a special place in my heart for young adult books that dance with joy over sausage recipes. What an utter treat this book is. I want to wrap my arms around it and never let it go.
  • Blogger’s Bookshelf:  This is an uplifting story, guaranteed to make you giggle. Beauvais handles the issues in this book with a light hand and an excellent sense of humour and I would definitely recommend it to all teenage girls and anyone else who wants a truly fun and funny read about friendship, growing up, and selling sausages in the French countryside.
  • The cosy reader: I absolutely adored this book. It was fun and sweet and heart warming, but it also tackled some pretty big issues-cyber bullying, disability and war to name a few, in its stride, dealing with them in a sensitive and refreshing way.
  • The book bag: I found this a rich and intelligent read, able to get away from the straightforward diary-of-the-journey format, willing to surprise us, and at least able to make us all (even me) fall in love with Mireille.
  • YS Book Reviews: This beautiful and funny book explores the troubles and triumphs of being a teen through the eyes of a witty, philosophical, and slightly awkward teen. … Mireille’s voice and character are wonderfully authentic with unflappable confidence and inelegant missteps mixed together for a potent storyteller on a journey of self-discovery.
  • On The Copper Boom‘s Summer Reading List! Alongside my friend Robin Stevens’ amazing Murder Most Unladylike, which I can only approve of…

I hope you like the book as much as the French readers seem to have done. I hope it’s a bit different to things you might have read before.

And more importantly I really hope it makes you laugh, because it was the whole point of the endeavour to begin with.

Happy reading!

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Summer posts

As usual, this blog is half-asleep, even though I’d planned a grand blog post to celebrate what is, today, my 10-year anniversary of arriving in the UK. Funnily enough, after Brexit, my anniversary enthusiasm declined a bit, and I never got round to it.

However, as the new academic year is just starting, let me  – literally in-between two supervisions – post a tiny update with some blog posts I’ve written over the summer on other platforms, mostly about (surprise!) children’s literature, some academic, some not so much:

As always, I’m much more active on my French blog. And as always, a lot has been happening on the French side. I can now announce, however, that my French YA book Les petites reines, which I’m apparently allowed to call a bestseller, and which has sold to the cinema, the theatre, and won a good bunch of major national awards in France (yeah, yeah, bragging is bad, don’t do it, etc.) – that novel, then, will come out in Britain in summer next year thanks to Pushkin Press; carefully, perhaps clumsily, and to no small degree creatively, translated by me.

It's about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

It’s about bikes, sausages, rural France, and friendship. It won’t have that cover in the UK.

More on that, including title and cover, closer to the date.

The Sesame Seade series, meanwhile, has crossed the Channel in the other direction: it will come out in French next year with publisher Rageot. I still don’t know what they’ll call Sesame! (not translating that one)

Next supervision about to start! Till next time…

 

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A Different Conference Bingo (The 2016 CSCY conference)

I’ve just come back from Sheffield, where the 2016 Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth conference was taking place from Tuesday to Thursday. It was a Childhood Studies conference, focusing on the ‘social, biological and material dimensions of childhood and children’s everyday lives’.

This was my first Childhood Studies conference – I generally go to Children’s Literature conferences, but in the past three and a half years, save for a couple of articles, my research has reoriented itself towards neighbouring fields, such as the cultural sociology of childhood and of education, and the history of childhood. While I’m not an empirical researcher, I’m tending towards questions and topics close to Childhood Studies, and I read their journals; so I thought it was high time I went to one of their conferences.

This isn’t going to be a detailed report, but rather some thoughts on the interesting differences between Children’s Literature and Childhood Studies, as far as I can tell from my admittedly limited experience of the latter. Mostly, it was fascinating to see how different those two neighbouring fields are.

This can be visualised in a very scholarly way by looking at the completely different Conference Bingos. Here’s my Children’s Literature conference bingo:

confbingo

At the Childhood Studies conference, however, I had no Conference Bingo in mind. I had to make it up as I went along, noting resonances, repetitions, funny little tics of language and turns of phrase that were new to me but extremely familiar to CSCY veterans. And there was interestingly very little overlap with current concerns in Children’s Literature studies. Here’s what struck me in particular.

  • Concerns with method

There was a lot of thinking about method going on, almost as a matter of course, both within presentations and in the Q&As. This is probably in part because so much of Childhood Studies is empirical, and so much of that empirical work ethnographic; method and methodologies, ethical considerations and the place of the researcher were constantly probed. This may seem simply like good practice, but it was clear that presenters weren’t just going through the motions; their reflections on method were indissociable from their conceptualisations and theoretical commitments, and practice, theory and method mingled fluidly, in a way that I haven’t really seen happening in Children’s Literature. Method, to put it simply, wasn’t a tool; it was always already thought.

This isn’t to pit Childhood Studies against Children’s Literature – it’s just an observation. If we need a ‘conversely,’ then I observed that at CSCY there was little to no engagement with the aesthetic aspects of the cultural objects studied. When children’s TV, books, films, etc. were observed, literary criticism, aesthetic visual analysis, film criticism, etc. were (at least in the talks I saw) not at all mobilised.

  •  Latourian frameworks, and ‘assemblages’

Granted, this was a conference focusing on the material and biological child, so, as one of the professors there rightly pointed out to me, it had Latour written all over it; and the Frenchman has been a reference for some major Childhood Studies thinkers for quite some time. But there are other theorisations of materiality; so it was interesting to see how much Latour and Actor-Network Theory specifically resonated in the field. It’s easy to see why; ‘the child’ is a textbook example of a Latourian (quasi)object, involved at the same time with many different types of other actants, objects, knowledges, etc. and irreducible to any in particular. Entanglement was one of the recurring keywords.

Another keyword was ‘assemblage’, pulled from a rather different tradition but used almost interchangeably, as far as I could tell, with ‘entanglement’, ‘networks’ or similar expressions.

  • Some unease with both traditional and emergent social categorisations

I didn’t see a lot of criticism of Latour, but in a brilliant presentation on children’s engagement with TV, Fiona Scott of Sheffield University highlighted the necessity to buttonhole Bourdieu once in a while, too, so as not to risk leaving class aside. That’s the problem with Latourian or equivalent approaches: fearing reductionism, it’s hard not to spend all your time describing relations, and shying away from explanations – especially from social causes.

I had a feeling that presenters were tiptoeing around explanations involving traditional social categories; they didn’t mention class, gender nor race as much as I would have thought. It was nothing like Children’s Literature, where such categories are hugely mobilised in analyses of texts. Similarly, I didn’t hear much about emergent categories. There was a little bit of disability studies. Strikingly, I heard the word ‘intersectionality’ uttered only once (obviously, I didn’t go to all the talks – I don’t have a Time-Turner); a major difference here from Children’s Literature.

Yet at the same time, almost inevitably the Q&As triggered reflection on gender, race, class, etc. I’m not sure if it’s because the conference theme kept those categories at bay, only for them to be reintroduced after the talks; or if it reflects some wider discomfort, or incompatibilities, within the apparently current ‘turn’ of Childhood Studies towards materiality.

  • No consensus on ‘agency’ and ‘voice’

Relatedly, the concepts of ‘agency’ and ‘voice’ of the child were in a paradoxical position. Routinely there were calls to transcend them or move beyond them; at the same time, I observed that those concepts were much-used in presentations by researchers who were also educators or teachers. In other words, there seemed to me to be an interesting discrepancy between the apparent theoretical obsolescence of these concepts, and their continued usefulness in pedagogical practice.

From a Children’s Literature perspective, that discussion maps nicely onto the question of child and adult ‘powers’ within and around the children’s text, which is of course one of my obsessive concerns. That’s where I saw, perhaps, the most resonances between the two fields.

  • Reflections on the constructedness of childhood are still important

I was expecting to find that ‘constructions of childhood’ was now a taboo expression in Childhood Studies, but I was happy to see that it was not the case, with the appropriate caveats in place. I think it was clear and uncontroversial that childhood remains a social construct – and one that is structuring for ‘people currently occupying the space socially defined as childhood’, in the words of Nigel Thomas in his keynote on the matter. Those meandering ways of saying ‘children’ are awkward, of course, but they show that the (important) work on reclaiming (as per above) the child’s ‘voice’ and ‘agency’, and the current work on the interconnectedness of children with everything, still allow for space to reflect on what effectively does construct childhood.

  • A lot of political and ethical commitment

Like Children’s Literature, I found Childhood Studies to be an intensely moral and political arena (in the good sense of the word). There was a lot of preoccupation for the future not just of the discipline but, quite literally, of humanity – a remarkable amount of comments and reflections on climate change, for instance – and of the role of children and researchers in this space. All the keynote speakers exhorted other researchers to be politically and ethically committed; they didn’t necessarily phrase it in that way, but it was very clear.

Perhaps the most inspiring bit of the conference for me was Spyros Spyrou‘s keynote, in which he highlighted the power of method to ‘create alternate realities’ – by which he meant, not alternate representations, but truly alternate realities; an effecting shaping of the world. Faced with that, we must resist relativism; we have an obligation to make ethical choices as to which realities we want to come into being.

————

So what’s my Conference Bingo for Childhood Studies? It can’t be complete nor representative, of course, from a sample of just one, but here’s a try, from my semi-outsider perspective:

confbingochildhood

(You will note that ‘As a parent’ is present in both.) With that in mind, I look forward to next year’s IRSCL conference at York University, Toronto (not to be confused with the far nicer superlatively better University of York, UK), whose theme is, appropriately, ‘Children’s Literature and Childhood Studies’.

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An unearthly amount of voices, whispering: Creative Writing with Young and Even Younger Students

Last week, thirteen young teenagers and their English teacher took a coach from Hull to the University of York. What happened next will amaze you.

(How am I doing for buzzfeed-like academic blogging?)

What happened next for the students of Kelvin Hall was an afternoon of creative writing in the company of 2nd-year undergraduates, all enrolled in the Children and Literature module of the Education degree.

The group was composed of the most enthusiastic young storytellers and writers from Years 7-9 in the school – and the point was to get them to write, with the help of undergraduates who’d been taught for two terms about children’s literature in theory. This was an opportunity to interact in practice with actual young readers and producers of texts.

Each undergraduate was paired with one of the Kelvin Hall students (by some favourable twist of fate, they were in equal numbers) and the writing started…

IMG_2061

They looked optimistic at first. Maybe it sounded like it was going to be easy.

Close Encounters with the Third Years

It wasn’t. (They looked happier at the end, though, I promise. This is their concentration face.)

The event had been organised by Amanda Naylor, who lectures that module at York, and by Ryan Eskrett, who teaches the children at Kelvin Hall. Two other English in Education lecturers, Nick McGuinn and me (Clementine) were there to help set up some of the writing activities.

Me, clearly trying to compensate with my long necklace for the lack of dangling card necklacey thing

Me, Amanda and Ryan. Nick isn’t on the picture because he was taking it, but as I realise now, clearly the true reason was that he wasn’t wearing a long-necklacey-thing likethe rest of the gang.

We got them to write flash fiction, which, in case you don’t know, is like short stories, but shorter. Like, really much shorter, we’re talking a story that’s as long as… No, no, not that long. No, really, even shorter. Almost there… Yep. Exactly.

Flash fiction is a really interesting kind of text to write because it forces you to condense into a very small space all the central ingredients of an actual story: characterisation, narrative arc, atmosphere, distinctive style. It’s hard. Anyone can be a novelist, but you have to a pretty good writer to write flash fiction.

To get into the mood, we started with the famous 6-word-memoir: your life, in six words or less.

Before you start accusing me of PowerPoint nepotism, I should specify that I have no idea who Sylvie Beauvais is, but she happens to write flash fiction.

Before you start accusing me of PowerPoint nepotism, I should specify that I have no idea who Sylvie Beauvais is, but she happens to write flash fiction.

Now, to be fair, one would expect that the younger you are, the easier it is to pack your life into six words. Presumably, a two-second-old child could just write ‘Born,’ and that would be about it (though it would doubtlessly trigger some media interest). But the undergraduates and high school students had apparently got much more to say than Ryan (‘Marking. Eat. Sleep. More marking’, was, I think, his memoir) or than myself (‘Still not writing real literature, sorry’):

A cocktail of strange and boring.

Maturely developed peculiar sample of youth.

I love coffee, coffee is life

(Bit concerned that a young teen should be drinking so much coffee already, but at least it’s not whiskey, I guess.)

Then, for the remaining hour and a bit, the Kelvin Hall students and our second-years worked on an actual flash fiction story – less than a page, for some less than half a page.

IMG_2068

This picture is so picturesque I’m kind of worried about putting it online as it will doubtlessly be used by every university in the world in every single undergraduate handbook forever.

IMG_2066

Thinking of things to write about (with a photographer on your right and an undergraduate on your left; but no pressure)

IMG_2067

Pretty much what I’d like my life to be like: reclining on a comfortable chair while a nice young person types up my stories into a Word document.

At the end of the afternoon, each Kelvin Hall student had their own flash fiction story printed, and both groups seemed delighted with the experience. Amanda and Ryan’s idea of bringing high school and higher education students together was brilliant: original, fruitful, fun, and remarkably easy for the three of us as we just sat in the back of the class and talked about academisation while they worked.

Here’s a particularly spooky and atmospheric example of flash fiction, by Axel:

Thursday, 5th 1901.

Dear journal,

After investigating the manor in which my young brother, Marcus, vanished I found myself close to death (or worse). The manor which housed my loving sibling which is upon the Quaking Mountain that, I have uncovered, houses an insidious force. This hideous goliath resides within the terrain of the mountain which explains why it constantly shakes. This horrendously coloured colossus has a disturbing amount of extremities and an unearthly amount of voices, whispering.

I’ve learnt from the remains of my dearest brother and thousands of other small remains that this beast expels acidic vomit upon it’s hostages to devour its prey. The manifestation of pure malevolence calls itself ‘Eloth’. This crustacean-like being rasps horrific yet interesting conversations which echo through the cave, bouncing of the rocky walls. It’s dark in here but overtime my eyes have adjusted to this darkness. I can see the waxy remains of my brother staring back at me.

The creature is currently singing me a lullaby in its unknown language, in a way it is ethereal, I’m feeling the need to rest…

Disturbing amounts of extremities, horrific yet interesting conversations, acidic vomit: sounds uncannily like those parties after academic conference dinners. Interestingly, the students chose very many different genres to tell their stories, from diary entries to letters to tales to prose poetry. Flash fiction is very modulable, and the groups were extremely imaginative and open-minded in their choices.

This is just a little window on the kind of thing that goes on in universities, alongside all the life-saving, paradigm-shifting, Ted-talk-worthy things you hear about on the news. In-between all the big, muscular, über-funded customised random trolls – sorry – randomised controlled trials – there’s daily, small-scale, zero-budget events, involving local communities and real people – enthusiastic teachers and academics, motivated undergrads, keen children.

And while they won’t feature on The Conversation, they stick in individual memories and bring a little bit more good to the world. That afternoon in the computer lab of Alcuin College, University of York, thirteen new stories were born.

Thank you Amanda and Ryan for setting up the event, and Nick for the pictures! Thank you also to the children and their parents who have given their permission to be featured on the pictures in this blog post, and to Axel for the stories.

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Insulting the Child

From the academic-reading cave, here’s a little 1923 clipping from The Argonaut, a Californian journal that ran from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. I wasn’t even looking for anything children’s-literature related, but those things have a tendency to find me…

I’m sure anyone familiar with contemporary children’s literature debates will appreciate the lovely pluçachangeness of this opinion piece.

insulting122oct1910

insulting2 insulting3 insulting4

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A plus, Louise Rennison!

This blog post first appeared on ABBA

Keren has already written a lovely post about it, but I still wanted to add a small tribute to Louise Rennison who died last month. Being part of the ‘Georgia Nicholson generation’, it was moving to see what seemed like the whole of Facebook (well, at least the female half of it) shedding tears, but also sharing the funniest extracts, at the news. It’s difficult to think about Louise Rennison without smiling – even at such a sad time.

I’ve never actually read Georgia Nicholson’s diary in English. In the early 2000s, when the first book was left for me under the Christmas tree by a prescient Santa, it was in the form of Mon nez, mon chat, l’amour et moi: “My nose, my cat, love and me”: a much more prudish title than the original. I read, reread and rereread the whole series in French throughout my teenage years.

Thankfully, Catherine Gibert’s translation for Gallimard was exceptionally good. It takes a bit of genius to translate funny books in general, but it takes a lot of genius to translate funny books for teenagers. To keep up with Rennison, Gibert had to make up many words (not an easy exercise in French), twist and break traditional syntax (even less so); she pretty much invented a ‘funny teenage voice’ in French.

The neon-coloured covers were a bit of a novelty in the very ivory/cream/white aesthetic of the French literary landscape of the time (even for children):

Gallimard had hired, to illustrate them, one of the punchiest and most famous French female cartoonists, Claire Brétécher, whose legendary renditions of slightly ugly, very endearing teenagers fit perfectly with the theme.

At the time, there were few authors in teenage literature who rang true, who were funny and modern and spoke to us. Louise Rennison was one of them, and my friends and I couldn’t get enough of it. But interestingly, while everyone in the UK says that they found themselves in the books – that they identified with Georgia – for us French girls it was a very foreign world. We didn’t have all-girls’ schools, we didn’t have uniforms, we had much less P.E. (seriously, I couldn’t understand why Georgia was doing sports pretty much everyday – in France we had 2 hours a week, and spent them half-heartedly playing ping-pong). And, at least in Paris, we didn’t have those residential streets with cats sitting on walls – though I was familiar with that concept from Harry Potter. And what??? teenagers drove motorbikes???

Only later (when I arrived in the UK) did I realise that Georgia Nicholson’s diary also gently mocked the British suburban middle-class, with its bored yummy mummies, its numerous opportunities for gossip, its populations of slightly immodest teenage girls looking for love by rolling up their uniform skirts. All of this very British lore felt just as unreal to me as the daily routine of Narnian fawns.

Yet it was still hilarious, and I still identified, because there’s no need for social reality to make immediate sense when everything about the characters and their reactions feels so true. Rennison’s teenagers were entirely contextual, and absolutely universal. They could not have been anything else than British, and yet they were every teenager in the world’s best friends.

Louise Rennison was a teenage-literature genius, a redeemer of sad days, an exquisite social satirist, one of the best comedy writers in this country. I’m very sad I never got to meet her and thank her in person.

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Childfree adults in children’s literature

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, January 2016]

Recently, I’ve started paying attention, when reading children’s literature, to adult characters who don’t have children. This started as I was rereading Matilda last year to write an article on it; it struck me that the Trunchbull and Miss Honey shared one characteristic: their childlessness. But while the formidable headteacher hates children, Miss Honey’s own narrative arc in the story sees her eventually adopting Matilda (spoiler alert) (oops, too late). While Miss Trunchbull is quite clearly childfree (childless by choice), Miss Honey’s happy resolution seemed to entail being finally ‘completed’ by a child.

‘Childfree’ adults denounce the degree to which adults, in society, are seen as incomplete when they don’t have children; to them, it isn’t the case that any adult in possession of a good mortgage must be in want of a child. Children’s books, in this respect, seem to me in general to perpetuate the idea that adults need children. Worse, they often appear to imply that childless adults have a problem that needs to be rectified (= they need a child), and childfree adults, meanwhile, should be either completely in the service of children, or suspicious, monstrous, or dangerous.

Here’s a vague taxonomy of childless and childfree adults I’ve been playing around with in my head. Feel free to add, criticise and nuance! Children’s literature seems to me to categorise childless and childfree adults broadly according to those lines:

The childfree (childless by choice):

– The monstrous and the murderous: Dahl’s Witches, Carroll’s Red Queen, Barrie’s Captain Hook. Ogres and giants. They hate children. But they are also clearly obsessed with children. Their whole raison d’être is to kill a lot of them.

– Cool uncles and aunts, nice godmothers: Those childfree adults are equally obsessed with children, but devote so much time to children who are not their own that presumably they don’t need their own; in fact, that would probably come in the way of the affection that the protagonist needs exclusively. Basically, they’re surrogate parents, but allow for the necessary fifty shades of authority that are germane to children’s books. Godmothers in fairy tales, Rowling’s Sirius Black, Dahl’s BFG, Jules Verne’s many travelling uncles, and my own Sesame Seade’s lazy student boss Jeremy.

– Anthropomorphic animals and picturebook adults: This category of adults who are basically children doing adult jobs, and who mostly appear as protagonists in literature for the very young. Those adults by definition cannot have children, since they are essentially placeholders for children themselves.

The childless: (not by choice)

– Those who are mourning a child, or mourning never having had a child: melancholy figures who, explicitly or implicitly, appear sad to not be parents; or have lost their child, or a child very close to them, and are generally on their own path of mourning and grief. Often, this translates as some emotional investment in the child protagonist of the story. E.g. Lois Lowry’s Giver, Ma Costa in His Dark Materials, and even Dumbledore who lost his younger sister. They are, I think, a sad or more profound variation on the childfree ‘in loco parentis’ adult described above.

– Those for whom being childless is fairly unproblematic, but who end up looking for a child for various reasons: E.g. Miss Honey, as mentioned earlier, but also for instance the bizarre Willy Wonka, whose name implies that there might be something wonky with his reproductive organ, leading him, at the age of I have no idea how many years, to have to look for an heir.

Blurry zone: Teachers

Teachers are an interesting, huge category of childfree/ childless adults in children’s literature. To my knowledge, no Hogwarts teacher has children. In fact, many teachers in children’s literature seem mysteriously to have no kids at all. Whether it’s by choice or not, teachers seem to devote their whole time to other people’s children. I wonder if it’s because teachers’ children (who do exist in children’s books, but not that many) would distract from the total absorption that child protagonists require from their teachers. It mirrors the narcissistic impossibility, as a young child, to imagine that one’s teacher might have a private life, or – horror!- other children than us to look after.

It seems to me that children’s literature shows a lot more empathy for the childless than for the childfree; and presents the childfree as being still very invested in children, whether nefariously or positively. In other words, children’s literature doesn’t really let adults, at least in leading or secondary roles, be indifferent to children.

Of course, indifference towards children couldn’t be very frequent among adults in children’s literature, because of clear narrative and generic reasons: this type of text, obviously, is rather centred on children, so adults in children’s literature need to work within that narrative. But as a result, of course, we grow up thinking that adults must be interested in children, by nature and by necessity; and if not, it makes them suspicious.

Please add your own thoughts! This is a very quick and not very deeply thought-out taxonomy, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten lots.

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Publishing is not a charity

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, November 2015; original post has interesting comments.]

On November 14th, at the IBBY UK conference which took place at Roehampton University (see reports there), Nicky Singer gave a fantastic, passionate, moving talk about her struggle to get a ‘quiet book’, as she called it, published in the UK – a struggle which eventually led her to crowdfund her work, which worked beyond all expectations, ending up with Island, a novel with a cover designed by Chris Riddell.

Lest you should think that this was a fairy-taleish sort of talk, Nicky sternly reminded the audience at the end: “Crowdfunding is not a long-term solution. It worked this time but I won’t be able to do it each time I want to publish a not-easily-marketable book. And it ate up nine months of my life. Nine months when I had to teach myself how to raise money, promote the book, reach out to people. I don’t want to spend nine months of my life doing that; I’m a writer – if I don’t write, I die.”

She could barely finish her sentence as she was choking back tears – and then she actually started crying. Her emotion was extremely contagious, and I don’t think I was the only one in the audience who welled up. It was extremely poignant, and indeed it should be extremely poignant, to hear about an enthusiastic, sensitive, committed writer having so much difficulty getting a good book out. The kind of book that many children will cherish and reread: the kind of book that was written with passion and talent. But the kind that isn’t franchisable, and would not have sold in the tens of thousands.

The kind of book we’re constantly told by the publishing industry is funded by the big bestsellers. You’ve heard this as much as I have. “We need the big bestsellers because they fund the quiet books”. Thanks be to the big bestsellers! Glory be to thee, benevolent worldwide franchise! It’s thanks to them that they exist, those authors whose books do not sell in the hundreds of thousands. They are constantly reminded that they’re indebted to those big franchises.

But where are all these quiet/ politically committed/ socially aware/ aesthetically daring books that we are told get funded so generously by the big bestsellers? sure, there ARE some, but I’m not the only one who doesn’t think there’s enough of them. Julia Eccleshare, in an equally passionate talk at the International Research Society for Children’s Literature conference in August, denounced the sameyness, indeed the copycattiness of much of children’s literature production in the UK, and deplored the domination of a tiny number of authors, genres and types of books. And every single author I’ve talked to about this has had a similar experience: a manuscript or proposal rejected because it was too quiet, or too niche, or too different. Why is it so difficult for Nicky, in a world of publishing bountifully funded by bestsellers, to publish her book with a traditional publisher?

David Maybury, in his talk that same day, gave us a few clues: no book will be a bestseller if you don’t invest at least £30,000 in its promotion. These days, he added (I think it was him, but I may be wrong), you can more or less buy your way into bestseller lists. And we authors all know, though we don’t mention it very often in public, that publishers split books into two groups: those that will become bestsellers, and those that won’t. Those that will are the ones for which there is fertile ground: they might be a bit like another recent bestseller, or very intense/ adventurous, or likely to be turned into a film, etc. They’re ‘hot’ books. And they put their money and promotional push where the ‘hot’ book is. Some books, but very few, are surprise bestsellers.

Well, in this context, it’s not exactly shocking that bestsellers should ‘fund’ the quiet books. It’s only fair, seeing as they’d had a head start the whole time.  No?

But perhaps that’s not the right way to look at it. Perhaps those ‘hot’ books are just more funded and more pushed because that’s what a majority of people want, so that’s what brings in money. And UK/US publishers are very relaxed with the idea that publishing is mostly about the money. That’s another oft-repeated mantra of publishing: ‘Publishing isn’t a charity’. We hear this over and over again. So quiet books which don’t make money shouldn’t actually expect to be funded, even by bestsellers. This is a business. Why would we make books that we know will not sell?

Because we will have made them. I think we really, really need to adopt a different attitude to failure and success. A quiet book, a politically committed book, a book about a slice of society or a theme that doesn’t appeal to everyone, succeeds by the very fact of its existence. We need to be much more open to the possibility that a book might sell less than a thousand copies and still be a success, because that book exists.

This isn’t just wishy-washy let-everyone-have-their-chance hippie dreaming. It’s not like this initial openness to ‘failure’ would mean never making back that first investment. Because a thousand quiet books that sell a thousand copies each will be ten thousand quiet books spreading their quiet ideas and quiet tone, which gets readers, and, perhaps more importantly, the publishing industry itself, used to the idea that such books are not pointless luxuries or a waste of money, but an important slice of the market.

No one’s asking publishing to be non-profit, but it’s not true that it’s simply enslaved to the market and condemned to producing ‘what sells’. It can create its own readerly niches. It can foreground its values. It can pave the way for difference. Children’s publishing needs to stop hiding behind the claim that it’s ‘not a charity’. It needs to accept the fact that it has social and a literary responsibility beyond money-making.

At the peak of the refugee ‘crisis’, for want of a better word, Fred Lavabre at Sarbacane, my French children’s publisher, issued a rallying cry to the whole of children’s publishing in France. Being children’s publishers, ‘We have a social responsibility’, he said, ‘to talk about this to children’. This launched a never-before-seen collaboration of 57 publishers (!), who published in just two months a picturebook promoting empathy, respect and welcome for refugees, Eux, c’est nous (They are us), written by Daniel Pennac and illustrated by Serge Bloch (two major figures in children’s literature), with a lexicon by Jessie Magana and Carole Saturno. All proceeds to a refugee charity.

They were going to print 70,000 copies, they had to print 100, 000, by popular demand (especially from bookshops).

It’s been top of the children’s bestseller list since it came out.

EDIT: thank you to Pippa Goodhart for drawing my attention to Nosy Crow’s similar initiative, with Refuge, written by Anne Booth and illustrated by Sam Usher. I should add that my point was not necessarily that everything’s better in France, but that it is possible to act in a way that reflects one’s awareness of the social responsibility of being a children’s publisher. I’m not surprised Nosy Crow did this, by the way. Amazing.

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Adapt at your own risk

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure]

This is one of my French books, La louve, fabulously illustrated by Antoine Déprez:

When I say ‘fabulously’, I mean it in both senses of the term: they’re brilliant illustrations, but they also reproduce very well the fable-like feel and texture of the story. La louve is an original story, but it is what is generally called a literary fairy tale – a new story made to feel like it’s a classic folk or fairy tale.

This might be why, when La louve recently appeared in the White Ravens list at the Munich International Youth Library, it was described as ‘a retelling of a Russian folkale’. To my knowledge (and that of my Russian friends), it isn’t. There are many folk and fairy tales around the world that involve transformation, wolves and curses, but this one isn’t a retelling of any one in particular.

After La louve, however, the publisher, Alice Editions, has asked us to work on a second opus which would be an adaptation or reinterpretation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I immediately agreed, because I’ve been fascinated by that weird tale for a long time. So I started to think about how to do it. The idea was not to retell the tale, but rather to write an original story inspired from, or reactivating or reimagining, the tale.

I soon realised it was an enterprise fraught with interesting peril. First I thought I’d focus on the rats, perhaps make the main character one of the rats. But immediately, a problem emerged: the glacial contemporary political and ideological connotations of a narrative that involves hordes (“swarms”?) of rats “invading” a village, spreading an illness, being thrown out, and drowning. The portrayal of a population identified as parasitic, swarming the streets of a nice little traditional village and taken away to die – in the water – in exchange for money, has a very unpleasant ring to it; or at least, it should, to anyone who’s even vaguely concerned with what’s happening in the world today. You’d have to be the most candid person on Earth not to realise.

A simple retelling of the story just about gets away with those connotations, because the literal explanation proposed by the story – the plague – works sort of fine, and you can sort of turn off the metaphorical reading. But with an entirely new story, you can’t claim innocently that you don’t mind that extra layer of meaning. It just invites itself, whatever you do.

So of course you can play with these political connotations, and turn the story on its head, getting the rats to be the good guys in the story; the misunderstood, the oppressed and the silenced. You can even write an interesting story where the plague is an invention of the humans to create suspicion against the rats. You’d turn the story into a politically committed tale, preaching compassion towards a marginalised group.

Yeah. But it’s a really tricky thing to pull off, because in this roman à clefs you’re still identifying a group of people as rats – whether or not you’re arguing that it’s someone else’s vision, that’s pretty dangerous.

I know Art Spiegelman’s done it. I’m not Art Spiegelman though.

In other words, I couldn’t see a way of adapting the Pied Piper of Hamelin story without grappling with the metaphorical political implications. And while I’d be happy to do that in another context, it absolutely wasn’t what I wanted this particular book to be. It was supposed to be like La louve: intemporal, slightly frightening, low-key and poetic. Not political.

So I took the story differently. I decided to get rid, so to speak, of the original tale, by putting it in its entirety on the first page. The story begins with a young girl whose grandfather tells her the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. And then the story starts, seemingly unconnected to the tale. But it loops back onto itself… and connects, at the very, very end, with the very, very first page.

Dealing with this adaptation, I felt like I’d spent quite a while, at least a month or two, thinking about how to catch it, a bit like you would observe a scorpion thinking of the best way to pick it up without getting stung, and getting it to do what you want it to do. Coincidentally, the YA book in French I’m currently working on is also an adaptation. And there again, I spent many train rides looking out of the window, thinking of how to catch that particular scorpion.

I’d be curious to hear your stories of adaptations, retellings or reimaginings of classical tales or novels – I’m sure there are many around, as it’s quite a common thing to do.

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News and Mayhem

It’s been a very long while since I last wrote anything here; Russian and Spanish (see post below) have enjoyed a very durable top spot on this blog. Most of the action has been happening over there on my French blog, which I keep up much more diligently than this one. But a lot of things have been happening since this summer, bookwise (academia-wise too, but I’d better talk about it separately).

Firstly, The Royal Babysitters, or rather Les royales babysitters, came out in French in August. This was the very first time ever that I ever had a book translated from English to French – and it wasn’t by me, but by the very talented Amélie Sarn. She did it so amazingly that I actually laughed when reading it, which is no small feat since I’ve read the damn book something 24540536 times in English.

royalesfrancaisesThen The Royal Bake-Off came out in September. In that third book in the Anna, Holly and Pepino tetralogy (that’s four books), the three aspiring holy-moly-holidayers go to Americanada (on an uncomfortable Kryin’Air flight), where the Emperor, Sam – who is also King Steve’s brother – has organised a huge baking competition between various royals around the world. The tasks take place in the Grand Yeswecanyon, the N.H.E.A.G.A.R.A falls (the Nobody Has Ever A’crossed the Gigantic Awful River Alive Falls), and a spaceship. Many invasions are repelled and enemies puréed.

Don't they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

Don’t they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

I also finished A Very Royal Holiday, which is the last book in the series – scheduled to come out next April – and which turned out to be my personal favourite, so I’m particularly looking forward to seeing that one in print.

French-book-wise, this summer has been a busy one for my latest YA novel Les petites reines. We sold the full rights to the cinema in September, and a film script is currently being written, which is an exciting and weird thing to happen. It’s been nominated for lots of awards, and the book will also represent France for ‘Writing’ on the IBBY international honour list, nominated by the children’s literature people at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, whom I feel very grateful to for chosing it.

It's about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

It’s about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

Meanwhile, my and Antoine Déprez’s picturebook La louve, which had slipped by unnoticed when it first came out at the same time as Les petites reines, has gathered steam. It’s been nominated for one of the top children’s book awards, the Prix des Incorruptibles, and recently I saw that it’s in the White Ravens list of remarkable international children’s books at the Munich Youth Library. I’m delighted about that, because it’s a book I’m particularly fond of and which works very well with children. I love reading it to whole classes when I do school visits. Antoine and I are currently preparing another one together.

couvIMG_20140204_142431Last but, proverbially, not least, and leaping back to the English side, I can announce the release in May 2016 of a book of detective short stories in which I have a story myself – it’s with Egmont, it’s edited by the astonishingly talented and murderously imaginative Robin Stevens, and it looks fantastic, look:

Mystery and Mayhem front coverGorgeous gorgeous cover, amazing all-female crime club, and deliciously murderous stories – not all murders, also thefts and other kinds of crimes. Mine is very definitely a murder though. Or is it? Look out for Mystery and Mayhem when it comes out next year and you’ll know all about it.

 

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