I qualified as a Primary teacher over 20 years ago, with a PGCE from the University of Leeds. Before that I studied English and Education and Community Studies at the College of Ripon and York St John, a college of University of Leeds- now a university in its own right. I studied social research methods at London Metropolitan University, which mainly taught me that social research isn’t really my cup of tea, then an MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. The MA really excited my interest in an interdisciplinary approach to the study of literature, which has informed my approach to my PhD.

My thesis is that working class children in children’s fantasy have become disempowered, and in some texts have almost become the Red Shirts, as protagonists become more privileged and protected. I intend to investigate whether working class children’s enjoyment of reading is affected by the depiction of working class children in the books that they read. My own reading enjoyment was affected at secondary school by not reading a book in English lessons with a girl in it for 3 years.

I live in Brighton with my wonderful partner (and soon to be husband Steve) and am a step-mum to my gorgeous little boy. The commute to East London is more than compensated for by living 15 mins from the beach.

Robert Leeson’s Reading and Righting: Culture and representation in children’s literature, 34 years on

Image: Walker Books

Introduction to the symposium 20th June 2019.

Robert Leeson was born on 31st March 1928 in Barnton, Cheshire. His father, a former soldier, worked as a labourer, and his mother as a cleaner and laundress. Leeson won a scholarship to grammar school, and on leaving school at 16, worked as a trainee journalist on a local paper. In his biography on the Walker Books website, Leeson describes roaming his local area, a post-industrial landscape of “abandoned salt workings, canals, villages” making up adventure stories, and the local Primitive Methodist chapel put on entertainments during WW2 where sketches that he wrote were performed.

At the age of 17, Leeson joined the army and was posted to Egypt. In the postscript to the Collins Modern Classics edition of The Third Class Genie Leeson explains that being stationed in Egypt led him to question Western interpretations of the Crusades, and to investigate other versions of the Arabian Nights (2000, p.186). On leaving the army, he returned to journalism and became literary editor and features writer at the Daily Worker (later Morning Star) while writing novels.

Leeson’s career as a children’s author started after his own children started school, because the range of genres interested him, but he was insistent on writing for working class children. His first 3 novels were historical fiction and his 5th was The Third Class Genie about which I will speak later today. Haru Takiuchi outlines in his 2017 book British Working Class Writing For Children that established middle class critics were often more unfavourable towards contemporary realist novels for children featuring working-class themes, protagonists and settings than they were fantasy or historical novels featuring similar themes, protagonists and settings. Bob Dixon outlines the opposition to the Nippers series of reading scheme books featuring working class characters and protagonists of colour written by Leila Berg and Beryl Gilroy; teachers felt that school should promote middle class norms to elevate children. Of course, this attitude persists to the present day; critics such as Anne Fine and journalists in newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express have objected to novels such as Melvyn Burgess’s Doing It and Jacqueline Wilson’s The Story of Tracy Beaker and My Mum Tracy Beaker all of which feature working-class protagonists.

Reading and Righting

As well as writing many articles for Signal Approaches to Children’s Literature, the independent magazine set up by Aidan and Nancy Chambers, Leeson wrote two books on children’s literature: 1976’s Children’s Books and Class Society Past and Present Edited by the Children’s Rights Workshop, and Reading and Righting: The Past, Present and Future of fiction for the young (1985). In the latter, Leeson asks why, when there had been two Golden Ages of children’s literature, there were still reluctant readers. As Leeson states, “A literature evolved out of the needs and concerns of one privileged social group could not simply multiply itself and expect to be accepted without question by the majority” (p. 13).

Girls reading comics

As Reynolds, Rosen and Rosen (2018) have demonstrated, in the early part of the 20th century children’s books and magazines were an important part of the work of politically radical groups to engage and educate children to build a better, more inclusive society in the future. The final chapter of radical children’s novelist Geoffrey Trease’s 1944 book Tales Out Of School is entitled “To You: For Action” and calls for all interested in the future of children’s literature to demand more of authors, publishers and readers; to eschew clichés such as stolen jewels, hidden tunnels, twins, riding stables and the French Revolution. He also called for more rigorous reviewing of children’s books. He quotes May Lamberton Becker, from her 1937 book Choosing Books for Children “The Best that any century can do for civilisation is to do its honest best to pass on to its children the ideals it believes to be best for its children”. The questions, of course, are whose ideals are being passed on, what we mean by best, and who are the children discussed.

So, today, we will hear from 6 researchers in children’s literature on politics and diversity in children’s literature, where we might unpack these questions further. I look forward to an enlightening and stimulating day with plenty of questions and discussion.

You can download my paper given at this symposium, ‘Working Class Fantasy: The Third Class Genie’ here: https://www.academia.edu/40860434/Working_class_fantasy_the_third_class_genie


•Chambers, C. (Wed 20th Nov 2013) Robin Leeson obituary https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/20/robert-leeson-obituary (Accessed 08/06/2019)

•Dixon, B (1977) Catching Them Young: Sex, Race and Class in Children’s Literature London: Pluto Press

•Leeson, R. (N.D.) Autobiography,  Walker Books online http://www.walker.co.uk/contributors/Robert-Leeson-1649.aspx (Accessed 08/06/19)

•Leeson, R. (1976) Children’s Books and Class Society Past and Present London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative

•Leeson, R. (1985) Reading and Righting London: Collins

•Leeson, R. (2000) Postscript to The Third Class Genie London: Collins

•Reynolds, K., Rosen, J. and Rosen, M. (2018) Reading and Rebellion: An Anthology of Radical Writing for Children 1900-1960 Oxford: Oxford University Press

•Takiuchi, H (2017) British Working-Class Writing for Children London: Palgrave McMillan

•Trease, G. (1948) Tales out of School: a survey of children’s fiction London: New Education Book Club

My Dublin WorldCon Schedule

I’m very excited to share my schedule! I hope that some friendly faces will be in the audience for some of these- WorldCon is so busy and there is always so much wonderful stuff to do.

‘The Countryside in Children’s Fantasy Fiction’

Format: Paper

In 1932, a mass trespass organised by working class people on Kinder Scout, Derbyshire, led to limited changes in the law allowing access to parts of the countryside in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. In the years following this change, there was a growth in family adventure stories that featured urban children on holiday in the countryside – camping, cycling, and engaging in other pursuits largely without adult intervention. The countryside and the people within it were largely portrayed as benign, and children who behaved responsibly were uninjured by it. 

This paper will seek to outline the supernatural countryside in the children’s fantasy fiction of Elizabeth Goudge, Alan Garner, and Peadar Ó Guilín. It will seek to consider the gender and social class of the protagonists, and their relationships to the countryside and to the supernatural. It will draw on the work of John Clute, Farah Mendlesohn, and Victor Watson to consider elements of fantasy in children’s literature.part of: YA

17 Aug 2019, Saturday 10:30 – 11:20, Odeon 6 (Academic) (Point Square Dublin)

YA book to film adaptation

Format: Panel

16 Aug 2019, Friday 10:00 – 10:50, Wicklow Hall 2B (CCD)

We all know text to visual screen adaptions are hard. What unique difficulties does the YA genre present in the translation from print to screen?

This panel will be chaired by Megan Leigh of one of my favourite podcasts, Breaking the Glass Slipper, and fellow panellists are Eoin Colfer and Ed Fortune! It’s sure to be very entertaining.

The story of the concept album

Format: Panel

16 Aug 2019, Friday 12:00 – 12:50, Wicklow Room-3 (CCD)

Concept albums and science fiction have been intertwined for half a century. Join our panellists for a trip down memory lane as they discuss mainstream classics of the genre like David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, their favourite obscure gems, and where modern performers like Janelle Monáe are taking the genre.

Riverdale and Sabrina: Small Town Gothic

Format: Panel

16 Aug 2019, Friday 16:30 – 17:20, Odeon 5 (Point Square Dublin)

The Archie Cinematic Universe? Really?  That’s what we’re starting to get, and it has a distinctly Gothic tone. We discuss how the two shows blend the familiar and the new to create an American Gothic for 2019. What reference points are they drawing from? What are their most striking innovations? How might this fledgling universe develop?

Send in the crones: older women in SFF

Format: Panel

17 Aug 2019, Saturday 21:00 – 21:50, Wicklow Hall-1 (CCD)

Very often SFF stories centre on young women, with older female characters being consigned to background dressing at best and cliched depictions of elders and antagonists at worst. Is anyone writing stories that focus on older women? Where are the middle-aged heroines?

Academics and acolytes: learning in SFF worlds

Format: Panel

18 Aug 2019, Sunday 12:30 – 13:20, Odeon 4 (Point Square Dublin)

Whether they’re apprenticed to an assassin, a grunt in basic training, downloading knowledge from an online academy, or learning spells from wizardly professors, characters often need to gain skills and qualifications of some kind. How and when they do this is an important element of worldbuilding and there are endless options. What does it tell us about the Discworld that wizards attend university and witches are apprentices? How does Starfleet Academy differ from the Imperial Academy? From Hogwarts to Brakebills to the Oha Coven, how does magical instruction differ?

This is chaired by Shaun Duke from another of my favourite podcasts, The Skiffy and Fanty show!

I am always very happy to chat to new people at cons- there’s no ice breakers needed! We like the same stuff! So please feel free to come and chat.

Goodbye, Judith

I was terribly sorry to learn of the death of the wonderful Judith Kerr, author and illustrator of the Mog books, When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit and sequels, and my eternal favourite, The Tiger who Came to Tea.

I never got to meet her, and I’m not sure what I would have done if I had. I’ve loved her books all my life- quite literally, since I was born the year that Tiger was published. I wish, however, I could have told her how that picture book led me to my path as children’s literature researcher. You see, this image from Tiger has stayed with me for probably 45 years:

Sophie, Mummy and Daddy walk down a street in the eveening. Car and bus lights are on, and a ginger striped cat is under a street light

Although I now know that Judith Kerr and her family lived in West London, and the bus is a red London bus, that street could have been the High Street of my small home town. The cafe that Sophie, Mummy and Daddy go to could have been the Golden Egg cafe where I used to eat egg and chips dowsed in salt and vinegar, with a slice of bread, and my Nana would let me make a chip butty. Therefore, adventures like a visit from a tiger could happen to me! Inclusivity, diversity and all children seeing themselves in stories is my passion, and what I research.

May Judith’s memory be a blessing to all who loved her and her books. Thank you, Mog and the Tiger, for my happy hours of reading your books to myself, to my classes and to my stepson, who loved Mog’s Christmas Calamity that we read it as a bedtime story for nearly 5 months.

Increasing engagement and confidence in critical thinking with Level 6 undergraduates

This is a paper I didn’t get to present at a research day at my institution in 2018. My university is inner-city post-92, where many students the first in their families to attend higher education. Most on my course are non-traditional students, many of whom had a break from study. They are wonderful, engaged and committed students, but are often unsure about what critical reading and thinking means. We ask students to be “critical” but we are not always effective in developing these skills. This paper outlines what I do to support Level 6 Early Childhood Studies students in developing criticality.

Critical reading group activities in Level 6 seminars: a work in progress

Alison Baker, Early Childhood Studies

In September 2016, I moved from teaching Primary PGCE to a module leader and lecturer on the Early Childhood Education and Care pathway of BA Hons Early Childhood Studies. My module was Level 6, with 49 students instead of 40 Level 7 students per P group so I had not anticipated a big change to my pedagogy. I had not realised the different needs of students who meet once a week for 3 hours from those who spend most of the week in the same group, when it came to group discussions and critical thinking.

The challenge

It was clear that some students were very uncomfortable with feeding back from group discussions in front of the whole group. The same 6-8 students would feed back every week. When I was circulating around the teaching space, it appeared that some students had not done the reading- some admitted that they had not; some would avoid my eyes and scroll through the reading on their phones or tablets. When students did respond to me in one to one discussions, they often required a lot of scaffolding to make links between readings, and between curriculum and theory. As a result, I felt compelled to over-teach.

Feedback from students

There was recognition from many students that I was over-teaching, and that I had lost faith in group reading discussion, even though module evaluations were very positive:

  • Term 1 evaluation:

“I do feel that there are times where the lecturer delves into a topic too much to the point where they say the same stuff just in different ways”

  • Term 2:

“Engage more on peer activities”

“More opportunities for independent working”

“Seminars to be more organised”

Literature circles

At the UK Literacy Association International Conference in June 2017, I attended a paper presented by Dr Naomi Boakye from University of Pretoria, where she discussed the difficulties many Sociology students had in reading critically, and her use of literature circle roles in developing critical reading with her students. In her 2011 article, Boakye quotes Elley (1996):

Instructional programmes that stress teacher directed drills and skills are less beneficial in raising literacy levels than programs that try to capture students’ interest and encourage them to read independently (Boakye, 2011, p. 116)

Duncan (2014) discusses the pedagogy of teaching adult readers using grouped reading activities, and he summarises features of group reading activities:

  • Non-hierarchical
  • Turn-taking
  • Collaborative, with peer-to-peer teaching
  • Involve discussion.

Levy (2011) discusses her use of literature circles in undergraduate English classes in the United States; a different higher education system where students complete a range of general education courses before specialising, so these students are not English Literature majors. She argues that students who struggle with writing will also struggle with reading; she argues for a “structured methodology of scaffolded, low-stakes and collaborative” approach to reading activities (Levy, 2011, p. 54).

Seminar reading activities 2017-2018

I decided to adapt Boakye’s approach to literature circles. Since I had a group of 39, I wanted to have no more than 7 groups, so I could get around each group in the 35-40 minutes of seminars I intended to give over to discussion groups. I allocated students to groups at random after week 1, except for the only male student in the group, who I asked which group he would be comfortable with. In the week 2 seminar, I gave the students a newspaper article to read with cards outlining the reading group roles:

  • Director- keeps the discussion going and ensures everyone has a chance to speak
  • Clarifier- predicts words and phrases which may be difficult to understand and suggests meanings
  • Connector- makes connections to other readings and to real life experiences
  • Questioner- thinks of some questions related to the reading to ask during the group discussion
  • Summariser- summarises the discussion and feeds back to the seminar group.

I explained that these roles will circulate weekly. Feedback after the first week was positive. As the weeks progressed, it was interesting to see that no students seemed to be reluctant to take the role of summariser, and that all students were engaging in discussion. As I circulated around the groups, it seemed that although there were always some students who had not done the reading, the peer pressure of the group activity appeared to motivate them to engage in discussion and to be conscious that they were inconveniencing their group.

Outcomes after Term 1.

After marking Assignment 1, a higher proportion of students passed the assignment at above 50% than Assignment 1 last year; 89% 2017 as opposed to 79% in 2016. (Of course, my own improved confidence, and a different group of students, may affect this number). Additionally, these comments from the mid module evaluation demonstrate a positive attitude to the literature circle activities:

  • “When in seminars we had reading groups. They were really helpful”
  • “We should continue with group activities as usual”

Inclusion issues

One student commented in the mid-module evaluation that they did not like group activities, and there are reasons why students may find them difficult. One student asked to move groups in week 3 due to previous conflict with another student. Students with social anxiety or other mental health conditions may find working in a group challenging, as may autistic students. Some dyslexic students may find the role of summariser hard. However, it has been made clear to students the pedagogical reasons why reading group activities are being used, and that both PGCE study and working in education settings are likely to involve group work, and students have accepted that. It should be noted that the most enthusiastic participants have been students with English as an additional language.

In conclusion

There is still another term to go for this academic year, so while outcomes for students appear to be positive so far, end of module evaluations and assignment 2 marking will determine how successful this approach has been. I hope to obtain ethical approval for interviews with students about their experiences of reading group activities and their recommendations for how the approach could be extended or modified in the future.

Reference list

Boakye, N (2011) ‘A Multifaceted model for designing reading programmes for L2 learners at tertiary level’ Per Linguam Vol 27 No 2 p. 114-132

Daniels, H (1994) Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in the Student Centered Classroom Markham: Pembroke

Duncan, S (2014) Reading for Pleasure and Reading Circles for Adult Emergent Readers: Insights in Adult Learning Leicester: NIACE

Levy, R. J (2011) ‘Literature Circles go to College’ Journal of Basic Writing Vol 30 No 2 p. 52-83

Neurodiversity in academia and fan spaces: building in inclusion

This blog post is inspired by my friend and colleague Farah Mendlesohn’s post on the difficulties people with hearing impairments can face accessing conferences, and I’m indebted to her work here as I start planning an academic event and plan for inclusion.

I am only speaking for myself here, as a mature white cis woman with dyspraxia, sensory processing difficulties and language comprehension disorder. I would really appreciate neurodiverse people with different neeeds commenting below.

two girls ice skating

I still can’t skate.

I am dyspraxic. Dyspraxia is a developmental coordination disorder, which used to be categorised as “clumsy child syndrome”- like many people with dyspraxia, I had difficulties with learning physical skills such as doing up buttons, riding a bike, swimming and handwriting. However, dyspraxia is a life long disability which can also impact memory, planning, time management, organisational skills and processing. It is often co-morbid with sensory processing difficulties, language disorders, dyslexia, ASD and ADHD. Coping mechanisms that people with undiagnosed or late-diagnosed dyspraxia can contribute to mental health difficulties and/ or social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. For more information, please see the Dyspraxia Foundation here.

So, I have used my experiences both in fan and academic spaces as a dyspraxic participant to make suggestions for an inclusive approach to event organisation.

  1. Explicit information about the event. Where is it? It’s astonishing how many Calls for Papers and other events don’t make that clear. A link on the event page, and information about transport, would be very useful. Dyspraxic people have difficulties with planning, so supporting us with making the decision whether or not travelling by public transport would be helpful. Did I mention that it took me nearly 3 years to learn to drive? I still prefer not to.
  2. Make the information about the event readable. Bullet points are easier than long paragraphs of text. Is it obvious how to respond and who to respond to? Make sure the email address is both obvious and easy to click through, copy or type. Academic email addresses can be very difficult: a list of letters and numbers can be hard for dyspraxics to process.
  3. Before the event: responding to calls for paper or programme ideas. Make it clear when this will happen. An acknowledgement of receipt can help with anxiety over whether the abstract or idea has been received.
  4. At the event: signage! If your event is on different floors or across difference buildings, this is vital. I can get lost in a building I work in 2 days a week, so I have no chance in a building I’m going to be in for a weekend!
  5. Give time for people to get from one room to another. Some attendees may have mobility issues, need to go to the toilet or get a drink between events. People with dyspraxia may need to decompress between times of intensive listening.
  6. Which leads on to: keeping to time. Dyspraics sometimes find it very uncomfortable to sit still for long periods. Additionally, if we have planned our day, it can provoke anxiety if sessions over-run, especially if we are speaking at the next session and may not have time to get to the toilet, get a drink and centre ourselves.
  7. During Q and A sessions, please ask participants and audience members not to talk over each other. Microphones can help with language processing at keynotes or bigger sessions, particularly later in the day: if I am not struggling to hear what is being said it makes language processing and understanding much easier, and therefore it is easier for me to participate.
  8. Think about lunch and refreshment arangements. It is very hard for dyspraxics to manage plate, cup, cutlery, food, drink and standing up. In fact I spent lunch times at an international congress sitting on the service stairs of a conference centre because there was nowhere for me to sit down and eat. A quiet space would make a big difference.
  9. Finally, a non-judgemental approach to phones. Somehow tablet and laptop users at conferences don’t attract the same disapproval as phone users. My phone is my diary, map, organisational aid and also my social space. I often take notes on my phone. A housekeeping announcement encouraging social media usage can take that feeling of shame away.

Thank you for reading. As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.