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?

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.



Protocols for the education of young witches and wizards: Education in three children’s series of fantasy novels

This is the notes of a paper I gave at CRSF last year and Nine Worlds this year. The link below is the PowerPoint presentation.

Protocols for the education of young wizards and 1

This paper discusses approaches to pedagogy outlined in three series of books for children and young adults. By the end of the presentation, I hope to have outlined what the education systems in these novels says about the culture and society presented in these books. The books are: JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy and Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series.


First, a brief summary of constructivist pedagogy. Piaget was the preeminent scholar of constructivism- children go through stages of learning and construct their meaning from interaction with the environment. Social constructivism- children learn best and construct meaning through interaction with the environment alongside a more experienced learner or teacher.

Social learning theory/ Social cognition theory

Humans are self-organising, self-regulating and self- reflecting, and learning should be social, modelled by an adult to develop these innate qualities.

The pedagogy of Hogwarts

Behaviourism (Skinner) is the basis of many rewards-based behaviour management systems. Whyte and Lauriston (1980) argued that students intrinsically motivated (i.e. good behaviour is its own reward) tend to be more academically successful- for example, Hermione; Lavender Brown in Divination; Neville Longbottom in Herbology.

Remus Lupin

Rebus asks questions. He wants to assess prior knowledge but also to allow student voice (Bruner). He encourages oral rehearsal before practice. He uses praise to engage and encourage. He models what he expects from the students (Bandura). Practical activity with real life application, supported by teacher (Vygotsky). Assessment at the end of the lesson and feedback. Unfortunately, despite Lupin’s success as a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, anti-werewolf feeling leads to him leaving Hogwarts.

Bartimaeus trilogy

Young magicians are chosen by more experienced magicians at a young age, and are supposed to be taught and inducted into the magician life. Magicians control society in this alternate version of our world; they are government, judicial system and policing. Nathanial has tutors, and has very little interaction with his master (Arthur Underwood), who is supposed to induct him into the wizard world.

Arthur has no idea about Nathanial’s abilities; he constantly underestimates him, provides no challenge and never assesses him. He makes little attempt to get to know Nathanial and doesn’t have a holistic attitude to teaching the whole child. As a result, Nathanial becomes bored and overreaches himself.


On the Discworld, wizards attend Unseen University where they squabble about arcane theory and academic preference, wear silly outfits and are involved with outmoded pageantry.

Witches, on the other hand, are fully involved with the community, although their status does set them apart a little. Witches are spotted by Miss Tick the Witch finder, who then arranges for the witch to become an apprentice to an older, more experienced witch. Tiffany adopts, then adapts, the practice of her mentors, eventually taking her own apprentice; Geoffrey. This education is fully grounded in a social constructivist model and has a sound moral basis- “witches speak for those who cannot speak for themselves”.

What does this tell us about the fictional worlds?

Hogwarts separates young Muggles (non wizards) from wizards, and then sorts them again into houses at the age of 11, labelling them as brave, hard working, intelligent or cunning. The “us versus them”, competitive atmosphere that this creates at Hogwarts from Harry’s first day at Hogwarts ultimately leads to the rise of the Death Eaters, the repressive Ministry of Magic under Rufus Scrimgeour and Dolores Umbridge.

In the Bartimaeus trilogy, the early separation of magicians and commoners, as well as a very jingoistic education system (seen in the second in the trilogy, The Golem’s Eye) creates resentment and ultimately revolution in the commoners and fear and suspicion in the magicians.

Pratchett tells us that “witches do the work that is in front of them”. Their education is community based, practical and ethically based. Tiffany is educated morally, spiritually and practically; by the final book she recognises the changes in Discworld with the coming of the railways.


Despite both Hermione and Tiffany’s enjoyment of reading and love of learning being shown as positives that save them in dangerous situations, all the series view education as an economic function, training young wizards and witches to fulfil their working roles in society. Through this, Rowling, Stroud and Pratchett comment on, critique and satirise contemporary society.

My stepson’s Doctor Who story.

I just found this story in the notes on my phone. I wrote it down as he told it, playing with my action figures. He’s autistic and awesome, and loves Doctor Who. 

The TARDIS crashed down on a strange planet. Martha said: “Is everyone alright?”
Madame Vastra said: “I’ve only got a little bit of blood on my bum.” Everyone went out of the TARDIS. Some baddie robots came and the Doctor and Martha had to fight them. A baddie robot fell down. A little robot said “You killed my father! You’re going down, cowboy!” They ran to the TARDIS. The Doctor said “Oh there you are! I miss you so much.”