Before I start writing about the book, I want to explain why I am writing this short series of blogs. Like many people I suspect, I initially thought of the lockdown as an opportunity. Since I don’t have to spend 4 hours a day commuting, I thought, I will have all the time in the world for reading and thesis writing! How wrong I was. The extra time online teaching, meetings and professional development would take up with slow internet used by 3 people, alongside the additional time preparing, cooking and clearing up 3 meals a day… anyway, I don’t seem to have the mental space for reading new adult fiction at the moment.
I can’t now remember what led me to pick up this novel. It was first published in 2004; possibly the cover attracted me. Anyway, I was hooked, as I still am. I re-read it recently, because of the announcement of a seventh book in the series, published after a gap of 10 years. I could remember elements of the stories, but I wanted to reimerse myself in the world of Torak, and Wolf, and Renn before joining them again.
Within the first page, I was back in the ancient forest, in Stone-Age Scandinavia. These books are incredible. Michelle Paver has such respect for her characters; their technological and problem-solving skills, their knowledge of their environment and their ability to make efficient use of their resources (in particular, the importance of honouring a hunted animal by making full use of it- meat, internal organs, skin, bones- everything has a use) and in particular, the voice of Wolf, the cub who bonds with Torak of the Wolf Clan, adopting him as a pack brother.
Paver did an impressive amount of research on these books, travelling through Scandinavia up to the Arctic Circle, observing wildlife and meeting members of nomadic Sami communities. However, this knowledge is worn lightly, and serves to deepen the atmosphere of the books, including the supernatural elements, which come from the animist religious beliefs of Torak’s world.
I’m steadily reading my way through the series; I’m now on the 3rd book. I’m still finding it hard to leave Torak’s world, especially when I’m out walking. The grass, trees and birds of Brighton have much more significance for me at the moment.
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.
For my final PhD thesis chapter, I have been reading a range of research on children’s reading preferences. The research from the 60s and 70s discusses social class as a factor, particularly that carried out when the school-leaving age was 15 and when there was a separation of children at 11, with working-class children largely being educated away from middle-class. Within the work of Aidan Chambers, there is a sense of lived experience; writing from the experience of having been a teacher in The Reluctant Reader (1969) and drawing on his experience both as a young adult author and critic in his other work.
The 1977 Whitehead Review Children and their Books is drawn from both qualitative study carried out in 1972, questionnaires sent out to schools and featuring responses from children aged 10, 12 and 14 (there is that reminder of some young people leaving education aged 15 again) and the researchers determined the social class of families by asking children what their fathers did. The authors (Frank Whitehead, A.C. Capey, Wendy Maddren and Alan Wellings) reflect on this approach, stating that children may exaggerate their father’s status, or may not know. I have found that the current measure of social class in education (Free School Meal entitlement) is problematic, because it is based around family income rather than class. A family may have owned a business but lost it and be in receipt of benefits, but that does not necessarily mean that they are now working-class.
Since the mid-1990s and the New Labour government, there has been a greater interest in children’s literature in the domain of education, with children’s literature itself being seen as having the responsibility to inspire reading rather than schools, families and libraries working in partnership to teach children reading behaviour. This may be linked to both the role and importance of libraries in communities, but also the rise of neoliberal capitalism in publishing as media and tech companies become involved in publishing- buying the correct book is more important than enabling children to investigate books through school and community libraries. During lockdown, with children being unable to access books at school, parents (and particularly mothers) took to social media in greater numbers to ask for recommendations. In the science fiction and fantasy world, we often encounter self-described precocious readers who read well beyond their chronological years. I was struck by the list of quality books in Children and their Books, recommending texts and authors that many would now consider far too young for the children being recommended them, which does seem to disprove the received wisdom that everyone was reading much more challenging texts in The Olden Days.
Yesterday I was moderated an Eastercon panel on Sherlock Holmes in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The panellists were fabulous: Fran Dowd, D.C., Nik Vincent and Aliette de Bodard. The conversation was fun, informative and enaging; thanks everyone.
With such knowledgable panelists, lots of properties were mentioned. I hope that I’ve captured all of the, but if I haven’t, please let me know!
Today my amazing stepson shares the recipe for his favourite lunch, Eggcundles: egg and cucumber noodles. You will need an egg, some cucumber and a packet of instant noodles. He wrote the recipe to share with his teacher.
1. We have to boiled the egg 2. We slice the cuecumners 3. We put the noodles with boiling water 4. Put and draind the noodles 5. We pulled the egg 6. We put sauce on the bowl 7. We make eggcundles
Home learning at its best! I hope you enjoy your eggcundles.
These are techniques that work for me. Other brains may differ.
It is better to actively read one section of a text for 10 minutes than to stare passively at pages for an hour and take nothing in.
What I mean by “active reading” is to read with a purpose; to get specific information.
By the end of actively reading you should have some information that you can use in a text.
Step 1- find the section need to read by using contents page, index and skim-reading.
Step 2- consider whether this is relevant to your assignment. If it is:
Step 3-generate a question. What do you need to find out? (for example, what does theorist X have to say about the phenomenon I am researching?) Create a table like this:
Author, year, page reference
Paraphrase in my own words
Do not copy down quotations. Use paraphrase and if you need a direct quotation, use quotation marks and jot a couple of words as aid memoire. This will avoid issues of academic misconduct.
Step 4- go back to the original text and read again to check that you have paraphrased accurately.
I find it helpful to time myself- I have 20 minutes per text. I have a 5 minute break after each one. So after just over an hour I should have enough reading to write a section of an assignment. You should have enough information to write an assignment if you do this for a day.
There have been many discussions over the years of what to read after the Harry Potter series ended in 2007, and over the last couple of years, for reasons that are eminently google-able, this subject has come up again. This list on the Australian broadcaster website ABU is a great resource, but being a children’s fantasy literature scholar, I think I can add to it.
Tamora Pierce has been writing children’s fantasy since 1983, starting with Alanna- the First Adventure, but my favourite sequence in the Tortall universe is about Keladry of Mindelan, who is the first girl to openly apply to train as a knight after Alanna’s trailblazing, where she had to hide her gender. Kel has several challenges ahead of her: not only is she a girl, but she is also tall, broad and strong so she deals with body shaming as well as outright misogyny. She was brought up in the Yamani Islands, former enemies of Tortall, so is unprepared for the levels of snobbery/ class prejudice and bullying she encounters. Kel refuses to change who she is; she will not hide her gender and challenges the bullying in the system as well as overcoming her fear of heights to get through her training. 12+.
Pierce’s Circle of Magic books are more consciously diverse- there are 4 protagonists from different geographical parts of the universe, and from different social classes. The two women in charge of the 4 children are in a relationship, and in later books the relationship is polyamorous. Each of the initial series is told through the perspective of all protagonists, so the reader gets the perspective of aristocratic white Sandry, nomadic Black trader Daja, white middle class Tris and Brown former street boy Briar.
Unfortunately these books are not easy to find in the UK, but they are available as e-books.
Coincidentally Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series was also first published in 1983. It is an intrusion fantasy along the lines of E. Nesbit or Edward Eager, where two children discover that magic is abroad in the mimetic world, in New York. Both protagonists are Latinx and lower middle class, dealing with bullying, family issues, school and their feelings for each other throughout the 11 novels. Diane was a guest of honour at Dublin WorldCon last year, and she was funny and engaging. Again, these books have not had a wide publication in the UK, but are available as e-books.
My third suggestion is Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor books, starting with The Trials of Morrigan Crow. These books are playful, inventive and thought provoking, with a great relationship between Morrigan and her mentor, Jupiter North, and his nephew Jack. So far there are two books published in the series, with a third to come in September (hint to my loved ones- it would make a fantastic birthday present…) The second book in the series has the school story element, and has a diverse cast, though Morrigan is fully the protagonist and the story is limited third person. They are delightful.
Finally, for young adults and adults, I recommend Gabby Hutchison-Crouch’s hilarious Darkwood and Such Big Teeth. Gabby is a former writer for BBC’s Horrible Histories, News Quiz and Now Show, so the funniness should not come as a shock. I first encountered her through her brilliant podcast Portenteous Perils in the Twenty Third Century, which has frequently made me laugh aloud on train journeys.
I think I first encountered Artemis Fowl in the now sady defunct Teachers’ TV programme Reading Aloud with Michael Rosen, which can be accessed on YouTube. The elevator pitch summary, “Die Hard with Fairies”, really appealed to me. I see that my copy is a 2002 Puffin edition, which suggests that I may have bought it second hand. It was also one of the books touted as the “anti- Harry Potter”, which in some ways it is: Artemis, son of a vanished millionaire, is a genius master criminal at the age of 12, and we meet him at the age of 12, hunting down a fairy in Ho Chi Minh City in order to get hold of a copy of the Book of the fairies, in order to learn their language and kidnap a fairy to demand fairy gold in return.
It is not a spoiler to say that he succeeds in this enterprise, thereby setting off a chain of events which nearly results in war between the fairies and the humans. A centaur, the fairy police and a flatulant dwarf burglar all feature, and it it is enormous fun. But, importantly, Artemis remains devious and secretive until the end. The good guys- the fairies- are not entirely good, and the bad guys- Artemis and Butler, his butler, are not entirely bad, but Artemis is not wholly redeemed by the end of the book.
It is this lack of a pure moral ending that has led some reviewers to pan the book, and some contemporary reviewers compared it unfavourably to Harry Potter, and it seems that Artemis is still a genius, but not evil, in the forthcoming Disney adaptation. Of course, this isn’t the first time that a book for young people has been considerably watered down for cinema: see, for example, the reent adaptation of Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve. The books still exist, and can be enjoyed, even if the film is disappointing.
So what would an adult get out of this book? Well, in my opinion, anyone 10+ would enjoy this book if they enjoy an exciting techno-thriller with a twist of magic, a brilliant range of well-defined characters and audacious puns. Enjoy the books, even if you have no intention of watching the flm on Disney +.
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.
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).
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
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.