Black dogs in children’s fantasy

IMG_6131 (Edited)

At the moment I am writing a chapter of my PhD thesis on working class children in British fantasy fiction from 1965 to 1991. The fantasy fiction of the 1960s and 70s was rooted in the mythology of the British Isles, as Catherine Butler’s Four British Fantasists and Dimitra Fimi’s Celtic Myths in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy. However, I have noticed a repeated figure from British folklore in children’s fantasy literature: the Black Dog, also known as the Gytrash, Barghest, Black Shuck, Grim or Skriker. The Black Dog often foretells death or disaster, as 19th Century literary examples demonstrate: in Jane Eyre Jane mistakes Rochester’s dog Pilot for the Gytrash. Of course, Jane meeting Rochester does bring about death and disaster. Dracula adopts the shape of a huge black dog when he lands at Whitby.

The Giant under the Snow (1968)


Jonk, the splendidly sullen teenage protagonist of The Giant Under the Snow, is attacked then stalked by a menacing black dog during and after a school trip to an ancient burial site. The black dog is accompanied by a stone faced man, who, the children learn, is an ancient warlord wanting to reclaim a golden belt buckle, so he can regain his power.

This book was recommended as a follow up after the Twitter re-read of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. If I had read it as a child I think I’d have enjoyed it more than I did as an adult; while parts of the book were tense and atmospheric, once Jonk and her friends gained the ability to fly from the wise woman Elizabeth Goodenough (a welcome woman mentor figure in a genre populated with many old bearded men) much of the peril is diminished. Black paw print score: 3.

The Whitby Witches (1991)


Ben, 8 and Jennet, 12 were orphaned by a car crash, sent to live with unsympathetic relatives, then they are put into the care system. Ben has second sight; he sees the ghosts of his parents, but also other ghosts, and this has caused trouble for the children, until they move to Whitby to live with elderly Miss Alice Boston, a distant connection of their mother’s, who also has second sight and respects both children- not only “special” Ben, but also tough, determined and empathic Jennet.

Miss Boston tells the children the stories and legends of Whitby- Dracula landing at Whitby as a Barghest, legends of St Hilda and Caedmon, and the Hand of Glory, which can still be seen in Whitby Museum. All of these stories and legends are woven into the narrative, a fight between good and evil, and Jennet is attacked by an enormous black hound with glowing red eyes, which appears to be controlled by the witch Rowena Cooper. Thankfully the distruction that this Barghest is foretelling is not carried through, though it does predict a death. Black paw print score: 5

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)


Image: Chilliravenantart via Deviantart

The third book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) introduces a vital character: Sirius Black. As Beatrice Groves points out in Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling is very deliberate when choosing names for characters. Sirius Black’s name gives us a clue to his nature: Sirius is the Dog Star, and he is an animagus- a wizard who can shape shift. Harry’s first introduction to Sirius is when he is in the shape of a huge black dog, which leads to Harry accidentally summoning the Knight Bus and travelling to Diagon Alley. During Harry’s first Divination lesson, Professor Trelawney reads his tea leaves, and sees a Grim- a black dog that foretells death. This is the first in a long sequence of the Professor predicting Harry’s death; her divination is very Harry-specific. Harry sees the Grim alongside Dementors during Quidditch, leading him to faint and fall from his broom.

Harry is given the Marauders’ Map by Fred and George Weasley, and this is the first time he encounters the names Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs; Padfoot is a name for the ghostly Black Dog of West Yorkshire. Ironically Prisoner of Azkaban the book in the series with the lowest bodycount; thanks to Hermione’s Time Turner, both Buckbeak the hippogriff and Sirius Black are saved, but the arrival of Sirius Black does foretell the darker tone of the next four books, and the return of Lord Voldemort. Black paw print score: 4.

What are your favourite ghostly black dogs in literature?



Call for Papers

A call for papers that may be of interest to anyone working on children’s/ YA literature, youth media and culture, and politics.

Call for Papers

Neville Longbottom’s origin story

Over Easter weekend it was the 68th British Science Fiction Convention (Eastercon- this year called Follycon) which this year was held at Harrogate. I’ll be writing a couple of posts about it. Firstly, I did a very silly 3 minute presentation at Rapidfire Infoshots. I laughed so much writing this, but unfortunately choked presenting it.Neville 1

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  1. So, what do we know about Neville? He was a pureblood, so both his parents were magical. He was born in the summer, and could have been the Chosen One instead of Harry Potter (and some argue that he probably was, but Harry was too self absorbed to notice).

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2. But nothing about his mother’s family. Is her name really Alice?

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3. Well, could it? Let’s examine the evidence:

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4. I mean, who would keep the name Mildred?

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Well, what do you think?

What to read after #theDarkisReading

I’ve been following the wonderful #thedarkisreading  hashtag Twitter with delight. There is amazing fan-art, as well as readers old and new, has been a midwinter treat. This question from Robert McFarlane, who first proposed the re-read, got me thinking.


I was given Dr Dimitra Fimi’s Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy for Christmas from my wonderful and supportive parents (academic books aren’t cheap, you know!) and coincidentally have been researching and drafting a chapter for my PhD thesis- a timeline of British children’s fantasy fiction from Alan Garner’s Elidor to Robin Jarvis’s The Whitby Witches- so I have been thinking about developments in children’s fantasy fiction over 50 years. Elidor features a mix of Welsh and Irish myth; The Whitby Witches is strongly rooted in Whitby and contains a mixture of legends of Whitby, such as St Hilda, the Hand of Glory   from the Whitby Museum and the Barghest.

It is not surprising that both Garner and Cooper write mythopoeic fantasy, since they (as well as Diana Wynne Jones and Penelope Lively) studied at Oxford during the era of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein, as C. Butler’s Four British Fantasists (2006) discusses. Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn‘s 2016 Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction posits the positioning of Britain as a melting pot, a mongrel nation, by the British left of the 1970s. In the face of National Front marches, Robert Leeson’s A Third Class Genie was explicitly positioning racist and classist attitudes as both wrong and against the spirit of Britain that won the war, although it uses the myths of the Arabian Nights rather than British or Celtic myth.

I recommended three books in response to Robert McFarlane’s tweet. One I have already written about: Recent reading: James Clammer and Louise O’ Neill. The other two are Peader O’ Guilin‘s The Call and Alex Wheatle‘s Crongton Knights. 

The Call

The Call is not, like the books above, written about Britain. The book is set in the North West of Ireland, a dystopia where the Sidhe, terrifying fairy folk, have risen to take back Ireland from humans. They are stealing teenagers and taking them back to the fairy realm. Most do not return, and those that do are altered, either mentally, physically or both. Because of this education is focused in boarding schools, on training students to survive the call for three minutes. The use of Irish mythology is unsettling; it disconnects the students from the land, rather than reinforcing their place in it. The body horror is vivid and, well, horrible. The sequel is published in March and I’ll be waving my money at a bookseller soon after.

crongton knights

Crongton Knights is also set in a dangerous, alienating landscape: that of the fictional London borough of Crongton. This is the second in a trilogy, but I first read it as a stand-alone book and it’s easy to pick up the narrative and the characters from the first book, Liccle Bit. McKay, Jonah and Liccle Bit are 14 year olds, living on an estate in South Crongton. They go on a perilous quest on the bus to North Crongton, to retrieve the phone of the beautiful Venetia, stolen by her ex-boyfriend, Sergio, who took naked photos of her, that her strict Christian family cannot find out about. A simple enough task, apart from the ongoing feud between North and South Crongton youth, and the gangster Manjaro, who has a score to settle.

McKay is an engaging character; a boy who has been teased for his weight, and who takes joy in becoming the cook in his family following the murder of his mother. Touchingly, as well as appreciating how attractive Venetia’s Turkish friend Saira is, he also picks up the scent of lamb kofta at her house; a delightful detail. The story is told in McKay’s voice; he loves both Star Wars and Tolkien, and uses imagery of chivalric Arthurian quests along with Black London slang to create a new language that is distinct and metaphorical: castles for tower blocks; drawbridges for doorways; McKay goes to his dungeon rather than his bedroom. The book even has a map at the front of it. It’s a beautiful book, well worthy of its Guardian award for children’s literature.



A Third Class Genie in Manchester

third class genie

At the moment, I am reading and researching for a thesis chapter that creates a timeline of children’s fantasy from Alan Garner’s Elidor to Robin Jarvis’s The Whitby Witches (do read Daisy Johnson’s wonderful review of the latter here) and enjoying catching up with some old favourites.

Robert Leeson was the literary editor of socialist newspaper the Morning Star before becoming a children’s author. He was a prolific writer, in many different genres: social realist (including tie-ins with long-running children’s TV school drama Grange Hill), historical, science fiction, and fantasy- including The Third Class Genie (1975). Set in the outskirts of Manchester, it is what Leeson states he set out to do when he first started writing for children: a modern story about ordinary children, involving adventure: a mixture of fantasy and reality (Leeson, 2000).

Alec, the hero of the story, is a comprehensive school boy from a working class family: his dad is a train driver, his mum is a housewife who was formerly a crane operator, and is big sister works at a biscuit factory. While running away from another boy, Alec finds a sealed, but empty beer can, which when he opens it, releases Abu Salem, the Third Class Genie. Alec of course is excited by the possibilities of having a magical being to do his bidding- but a genie from ancient Arabia has no concept of 20th Century Manchester, and the expected hi-jinks ensue.

So far, so cliched- of course Nesbit and Eager have made magical mix ups a familiar trope in children’s low fantasy. But Leeson was also writing in an era of extreme racism in Britain; it was only 10 years on from the openly racist election campaign run by the Conservative Party in Smethwock, West Midlands. The Ugandan Asian refugees, escaping Idi Amin’s murderous regime, stoked the fires of the far right Nationa Front party, whi came close to local election success in the early 1970s. Enoch Powell MP’s anti-immigration Rivers of Blood speech was only 7 years old. The boy Alec is running away from at the beginning of the book is Ginger Wallace, who is Afro Caribbean. Ginger is insulted and bullied at every turn. A local councillor is obsessed with illegal immigration (clearly shown to be a thin veil over his racism) and Alec must team up with Ginger and his sister, Eulalia, to hide Abu Salem from him. Ginger’s family are accused of spreading disease through over crowded, poorly maintained housing. Although these aspects are handled lightly,  they are there, with Leeson’s sympathies clearly lying with Alec’s famil, Abu Salem and Ginger and his family, and a delightful comeuppance for the racist characters.

This book deserves its Modern Classic status. I wish Leeson’s other work, including his wonderful non-fiction book on children’s literature, Reading and Righting, was better known.


Leeson, R (1975, 2000)  The Third Class Genie London: Collins Modern Classics

Leeson, R (2000) Postscript to The Third Class Genie London: Collins Modern Classics

Post-Veronica Mars blues

Earlier this year, I finally watched all of Veronica Mars (except the film; I haven’t bought that yet!) and I loved it. It’s a combination of Buffy and Philip Marlowe, with Veronica coping with social ostracism, the murder of her best friend and the growing realisation that she has been raped while passed out, all with a millenial soundtrack and pink crop hoodies.



At Worldcon 75 I went to my first fan meet up, on wonderful iZombie TV programme, showing on Netflix in the UK. Liv is a medical student who goes to a party, where zombies attack. She wakes up to discover that she is a zombie. She gets a job as a morgue assistant, handy for the brains she needs to eat to stop her attacking humans, and discovers that she temporarily takes on the personalities of the person whose brain she eats. Loosely adapted from the DC comic, it’s a great, fun TV series that has recently had season 4 commissioned.

The other piece of media I enjoyed was Lois Lane: Fallout by Greta Bond. A Young Adult novel, it is the story of Lois Lane, future journalist on the Daily Planet and love interest of Clark Kent, Superman, albeit set in the present day (hey if Smallville can get away with it…) The Lois Lane series is about Lois before she meets Clark; she is an army brat and has just moved to her umpteenth high school, in Metropolis, but has a friend that she has met through interaction on an online paranormal forum. She has a history of getting into trouble, often through standing up for her beliefs about what is right. The first book sets up Lois as a high school reporter, discovering the use of a Virtual Reality game by a shady arms company. It also sets Lois up with her own Scooby Gang.

This is something I love about all these stories. The Chosen One in effect chooses herself, but at the same time, her friends have vital skills and knowledge that support her. The friends are often excluded too; Wallace, the black nerd and Mac, the computer geek girl in Veronica Mars; Ravi the British Asian medical examiner and Peyton the high achieving but isolated district attorney. The Daily Scoop, the news website under the Daily Planet‘s umbrella, is staffed with teenagers from Lois’s high school: a secret geek, a girl with a passion for obscure band t-shirts, and a poor little rich boy, whose politician father has been at the centre of a scandal.

And if you’d like to know what it is like to be one of the other kids in the high school where the chosen one and the Scooby gang are doing their thing, then I recommend Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here.

Wizarding schools pre-Potter

This August, I managed to go to two cons in a week: Nine Worlds in London, and Worldcon 75 in Helsinki. Both were fantastic, with really interesting content and meeting old friends and making new ones. As someone who is quite introverted, I do love spending time in a space with people who are all enthusiastic and happy to share their enthusiasm and love for culture open-heartedly; a lot of the joy I used to get from music festivals before the physical challenges of camping and the lack of ability to get away when it became overwhelming stopped making it fun I now get from cons. Anyway, here is a summary of the two cons.

I participated in both cons as well as attending them, talking about Harry Potter at both. At Nine Worlds I talked about education at Hogwarts, in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books and in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy; wonderful Meg MacDonald captured it in a Storify . You can access the paper here. At Worldcon I was on the academic track, delivering a paper about punk, protest and the Borribles:


I was also on a panel about pre-Potter wizarding schools. The idea of it was great, but unfortunately it lacked something in the execution. 5 people is too many for a panel, and it was hard for the moderator to keep all the panelists to the brief; also- panelists really shouldn’t swear in a panel related to children’s fiction… but anyway, here is a list of my favourite pre-Potter wizarding schools.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin (1968). Ged, the son of a village smith, has natural talent as a wizard, and is sent to a wizarding school where he meets a a friend and an enemy. However, his arrogance and impatience puts himself and his community in danger, and Ged must battle his dark side as well as the evil he summons.

The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy (1974). Mildred Hubble, the hapless, clumsy student witch at Miss Cackle’s Academy, was a favourite of mine as a child. The series of books is set at a boarding school for witches, where Mildred has a loyal friend (Maud Spellbody), a sharp-featured, blonde-haired rival from a prominent magical family (Ethel Hallow) who is accidentally turned into a pig, and a tall, forbidding teacher dressed in black (Miss Hardbroom). Coincidences with another famous magical school are purely coincidental, I’m sure.

Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones (1982). At Larwood House, a boarding school for witch-orphans in a world where witchcraft is outlawed, Mr Crossley is marking homework. Out of one of the books falls a note: SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH. This book features Chrestomanci, the Government official responsible for the regulation of magic across a series of parallel worlds similar to ours, but can be read as a stand alone- though since Diana Wynne Jones was such an amazing fantasy writer, why deny yourself the pleasure of all the books?

Finally, a series of boarding school stories that is not magical, but has so many parallels with Hogwarts that I wonder whether J K Rowling read them as a child.

The Marlows series by Antonia Forest, which starts with Autumn Term (1948) The Marlows are a large family of 8 children: Giles, Karen, Rowan, Peter, Ann, Ginty, and the twins, Nicola and Laurence, known as Laurie. In the third novel, the family inherits a rambling  farmhouse after their cousin is killed in a plane crash. Despite the children’s father being a naval captain, and the oldest son Giles also being in the navy, the family is often short of money.

The first book features the school train from London to Kingscote, where the girls go to boarding school. Like the Harry Potter series, the universe of the books is expanded outside the school stories, with some wonderful adventure stories; my favourite is Peter’s Room, where the younger Marlows and their friend Patrick spend their Christmas holidays involved in a role-playing game based on the Brontes. Forest also wrote two historical novels about Nicholas Marlow, an Elizabethan ancestor of the family; the Marlow’s brother in law’s research into Nicholas is detailed in Cricket Term.

Very sadly the books are now out of print, although they have periodically been reprinted by Girls Gone By publishers.