Come Study With Me

This year, 3 departmental PhD studentships are being made available in my department, the Department of Education at the University of York. They will be extremely competitive, but of course not impossible, to get. If you have any interest at all in doing a PhD on the topic of translation and children’s literature in Britain today, please do take a look at my named proposal here, and apply!

There are many other proposals on offer, too.

See you there? the deadline for applying is March 1st.



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A Child’s View of the Woods

Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure

Recently I read, one after the other, the two debut novels on the Booker shortlist:


Both Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves are (#imho), absolutely stunning novels and especially impressive for debuts – preciseness, delicateness and evocative power of the style, impeccable characterisation, a fabulous eye for detail, lively dialogues, etc. I won’t go into that too much as most reviews concur on the matter.
What fascinated me and is more relevant to our purposes here is just how similar these two books are and how much they hover in an uncertain zone between ‘adult’ and ‘young adult’. One is American, the other British – Yorkshire, to be precise; did I mention Fiona Mozley is a PhD student at my university? – but both are focused through a young person – no older than 14.
They show us a child’s view of the woods, and of traumatic events therein. We hear of grooming, sexual assault, psychological manipulation, health problems, fights, physical and mental decay, cults, the occult, nature versus industry, and pharmaceuticals lost and found among plants. I wouldn’t be able to attribute any of those things to one or the other book – they strangely overlap in that way.
And the whole time, reading them, I was wondering – what is it that makes them ‘for adults’? Why are they not ‘young adult’? We can have endless debates on the matter – and at the end of the day everything is decided by publishers anyway.
 But I think it might be down, narratively speaking, to the size and shape of what I’d call an ‘air bubble’ between narrator and events. 
The events are focalised through a young person, and none of the themes are out of the reach of contemporary YA fiction. But there is constantly time, space, and lots of other little things, pushing apart the narrative voice from the events. A slightly different, more distant voice, sometimes, commenting on the events from the perspective of the narrator become adult (or older). A more categorical judgment on the self that was then, and is no longer the same.
In other words, moments where the first-person narrator considers her/himself as a character. I don’t mean at all that YA fiction doesn’t do this – nor, in fact, am I arguing that it’s qualitatively superior to do so. There are of course narrative voices in YA with a lot of ‘air bubbles’ between narrator and events. Unreliable narrators are common. But I would argue that perhaps that tenuous line with something that ‘feels like a YA book’ and something that ‘feels like an adult novel’ might be set somewhere on that sliding scale of narrative detachment from the events.

Again, this is not at all (of course!) a value judgment. What they might gain in perspectival ‘distance’, adult novels might lose in intensity, sincerity, or even beauty. There is a kind of rawness, of honesty, in a perfectly crafted YA voice – a seriousness, one could say – which is pretty much unrivalled in literature for adults. ‘Adult narrators’ , even when they are children, tend to be apologetic about their feelings or about the gravity of what they are experiencing. Irony opens spaces in-between, but any such ‘air bubble’ is always also a cushioning: it protects and insulates the reader. In that view, perhaps adult novels, paradoxically, are more protective of their readers; less skin-to-skin in their contact.

This is of course an ongoing discussion, with very many parameters. But reading and analysing books like Mozley’s or Fridlund’s is particularly useful for working out those little nuances in our readerly and writerly experiences. I really recommend both, if you haven’t tried them yet. And if you have, tell me what you think…

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Two award nominations for Piglettes


I’m delighted to be able to report that Mireille, Astrid and Hakima’s improbable cycle trip has seduced a number of people into nominating their adventure for two very brilliant awards indeed:

  • The Books Are My Bag award – alongside an unbelievably high quality set of novels… Please do vote if you enjoyed Piglettes! it’s a reader’s voice awards, so get yours heard – with or without a comedy French accent.


  • And the Carnegie Medal, for which it is on the nominations list, alongside many other books by Pushkin Press – congrats Pushkin! – and, I’m super pleased to see, five translations.

Bourg-en-Bresse power!!! Good luck to all the nominees and thanks so much to the readers who’ve already read the book, reviewed it, recommended it to friends, etc.

And those who thought it was a good idea for it to be on those lists: merci times a million.


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‘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!


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:


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:


(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…


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.


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.


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


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.


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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