Class, race, gender and World Book Day 

Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of World Book Day. In England we have seen independent reading and class story time increasingly put under pressure by the top-down demands of curriculum and results, and the joy of early discovery of stories threatened by the inappropriately early introduction of formal reading instruction. Children and families are finding their family time put under pressure by homework, where there is inconsistent evidence of impact, which limits time for conversation and reading. So a day dedicated to promoting joy of stories, however they are accessed, is to be applauded and supported. The #worldbookday hashtag on Twitter is delightfully full of photos from events and with photos of children dressed up.

There is no doubt that dressing up is difficult for a lot of reasons. Firstly, financial: it is not easy for parents on limited incomes to whip up a Gruffalo at short notice. Nor for time-poor parents, especially when children regularly forget to give parents letters, or lose them. Secondly, not all children like dressing up. Shy children and those who find change in routine difficult could particularly suffer. Schools could-and should- choose a range of activities to promote World Book Day. I used to do activities such as making a hat for a book character, or designing a new book cover, or a treasure hunt with clues related to a class book.

However, every year I get very annoyed about three issues.

  1. Comic books are books. Children and young people have been reading comics for nearly 100 years. Dennis the Menace appeared in the Beano in 1951. Batman was in Detective comic from 1939. Wonder Woman has been a feminist icon since 1941. Reading comics is real reading. 
  2. Children’s TV characters are in comics, annuals and story books. We all know how few popular children’s books feature characters of colour. If you object to Sofia the First, Doc McStuffin, Rastamouse or the Go Jetters as a World Book Day costumes, you are denying the opportunity for children of colour to dress up as their favourite characters that look like them.
  3. Thirdly, generic character costumes can be bought very cheaply from Primark and Tesco- and probably more places, but those are the ones I know about. Dressing up costumes are regularly passed from child to child. Children wear character onesies. Busy parents who may feel that they are asked to send kids in pyjamas/ red clothes/ in jeans/ wearing a hat/ with cakes every other week may be able to shove a child into a dressing up costume without too many arguments at 8.30am.

By objecting to comic book or film costumes, schools and commenters are not forcing lazy mothers to do better, nor are they making children better readers. They are instead taking away the opportunity for children to share their favourite stories, and get a £1 book token. Those not allowed to wear Batman or Minions onesies may just not come to school.

The Historical Fiction Research Network Conference,Greenwich

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Photo: Greenwich, National Maritime Museum

On Friday and Saturday, 24th and 25th February, I was at the conference of the Historical Fictions Research Network in Greenwich, at the National Maritime Museum. It was a fantastic conference, with papers from academics from Poland, the US, Australia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Zimbabwe, and from a variety of disciplines: architecture, history, anthropology, film and TV, Classics and art history as well as literature. Most excitingly, there was a presentation from the Inshore Squadron of the Battle of Trafalgar, and I was very sorry to miss the keynote, from food historian Michael Twitty.

I chaired my first academic panel, Super Women in Historical Fiction. Three great papers: Bronwen Edwards from Leicester University on the sexual transactions between women SOE operatives and German officers in  WW2 historical fictions, Laura Bunt Macrury from Bournemouth University on 19th Century Peruvian women in literature and archives, and Akira Suwa from Cardiff university on queer desire in Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger. The discussion and questions after each panel I attended was enthusiastic, and the interdisciplinary nature of the conference lead to an incredible richness. I fully intend to submit an extract to next year’s conference, and I recommend attending!

 

 

Ways to resist

The Guilty Feminist podcastwe-all-can-do-it

Yesterday an anti-feminist, and- LGBTQ, racist and anti-human rghts presidential teams was sworn in. Personally I fear worse from Vice President Mike Pence than I do from President Trump, as I don’t believe for a minute that the latter will do much actual governing, in the same way that he doesn’t do much actual running of his brand label. Today, people of all genders marched in protest. I could not be there at the march in London- it would have been no place to take a child with disabilities- but I intend this year to make sure that I actively oppose the right wing, anti woman, anti PoC, anti disabilities and anti human rights rhetoric from both sides of the Atlantic, and both sides of the Channel for that matter. Here is one way I intend to do this.

  1. Continue to financially support inclusive feminist media. This includes The F Word and https://bitchmedia.org/, and The Guilty Feminist podcast. None of these are perfect by any means; Bitch Media has been going longer and has more financial backing from independent donors rather than corporate sponsorship, but I feel that without support they will not develop further.
  2. Continue to watch film and TV with diverse casts and preferably with multiple complex women characters. A current favourite is Sense8 where characters are not punished for being PoC, queer and having sex. I will not watch any more TV or films without inclusive casts. In particular, I will not be watching crap like Passengers.
  3. I will support initiatives like Phone Credit for RefugeesRISE Autism Sussex and Albion in the Community. I wish I could do more active support, but I can’t. Instead I shall write, give money and signal boost where I can. I wish these charities and organisations didn’t have to exist, but in the dreadful climate of financial cuts, if they did not exist who would be there for vulnerable people?

Pop culture podcasts

I live in Brighton and my journey to work in East London takes 2 hours each way, so I need a lot of distraction. Podcasts and downloads are my distraction of choice, along with reading and writing. Here are some of my favourites. They tend to be feminist, anti-racist and trans/ non-binary inclusive, because that’s how I roll. You can get them all through iTunes, and no doubt through other audio-media services.

Bitch Media Popaganda To my astonishment, I had never heard of Bitch until this year. A feminist response to pop culture since 1996, Bitch is a non-profit, independent magazine. The podcasts are excellent, and the magazine is well worth supporting.

SRSLY is New Statesman’s pop culture podcast. Caroline and Anna talk about all things pop- music, film, TV and books, with enthusiasm and criticality, in short (30 minute) podcasts; great for a brisk walk or run, although I need to stop and note down what they’re discussing often!

Galactic Suburbia Alex, Alisa and Tansy are three Australian women; readers, writers and publishers of SFF. Galactic Suburbia is an award-winning fan podcast; at it’s best it’s like hanging out with some great friends enthusing about their favourite films, TV shows and books.

Verity! A Doctor Who podcast One of my favourites. Six witty women, all Who fans, talk about Doctor Who TV shows, books, media and creators from a feminist perspective. They have strong opinions, often disagree, and I often laugh aloud when listening.

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I met Liz from Verity! at Fantasycon 2015. She is second from the left; I’m second from the right.

Witch, Please: Two Canadian academics discuss Harry Potter. The podcast is funny, warm but critical of the world of Harry Potter and JK Rowling. It has made me think more deeply about some aspects of Harry Potter, and I often disagree with Marcelle and Hannah; they get the social class aspects of British society wrong, for example.

Buffering the Vampire Slayer Singer Jenny Owens Young and her wife, LGBTQ activist Kristin Russo, watch and discuss an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer every podcast, and Jenny records a song summarising each episode. It’s fannish, and their #TeamCordelia stance is fun.

The Boy who Hasn’t Lived Non-binary CJ, brought up in a religious household in the Caribbean, was not allowed to read Harry Potter due to witchcraft being contrary to their family’s view Christianity. Their friend Arlie is a huge Harry Potter fan. Listen along as CJ reads the books for the first time and Arlie for the who knows how many-th time?

Finally, I have just been introduced to Mostly Lit, a London-based podcast on Black pop-culture, which I look forward to exploring further in 2017.

Happy listening in the New Year, and please do let me know of any more pop culture podcasts that you enjoy! Contact me either at @alisonbaker01 or through the comments box below.

 

You love Roald Dahl: Now Read This!

On Friday I was lucky enough to go to the very beautiful city of Cardiff to run two workshops at the Fantastic Mr Fiction conference at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Thank you very much all who attended, and for the enthusiasm you demonstrated. It made the very long journey home to the South coast worth it! Please see the list below that both the morning and afternoon sessions came up with. If you feel that anything is missing, please add in the comments section.

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Funny books list from Alison Baker’s workshop at the Fantastic Mr Fiction conference, 4/11/16

Poetry

  • The Spot on my Bum- Gez Walsh
  • Old Possom’s Book of Practical Cats- TS Eliot
  • Michael Rosen
  • Brian Patten
  • Please Mrs Butler/ Heard it In the Playground- Allan Ahlberg
  • Centrally Heated Knickers- Michael Rosen
  • Spike Milligan
  • https://wordstroll.wordpress.com-Elli Woollard

Information texts/ non fiction

  • Horrible Histories- Terry Deary
  • Murderous Maths- Kjartan Poskitt
  • Doctor Dog- Babette Cole
  • Mummy Laid an Egg- Babette Cole
  • Guinness Book of World Records
  • The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff- Andy Seed (and sequels)

Picture books

  • Room on the Broom/ The Smartest Giant in Town- Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  • The Dinosaur that Pooped a Planet/ The Dinosaur that Pooped Christmas- Dougie Poynter and Tom Pinchon
  • Burglar Bill- Janet and Allan Ahlberg
  • Aliens love Underpants– Claire Freedman and Ben Cort
  • Want My Hat Back- Jon Klassen
  • When Chico Went Fishing- Robin Tzannes
  • Oi Frog/ Oi Dog- Kes Gray and Jim Field
  • Two Frogs- Chris Wormell
  • Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pigs- Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury
  • Beware of Boys- Tony Blundell
  • The Cat in the Hat- Dr Seuss
  • The Time it Took Tom- Nick Sharratt
  • Traction Man- Mini Grey
  • Mr Wolf’s Pancakes- Jan Fearnley
  • Eloise at the Plaza/ Eloise at Christmas- Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight
  • Sir Charlie Stinky Socks- Kristina Stephenson
  • Where the Wild Things Are- Maurice Sendak
  • Not Now Bernard- David Mckee
  • I’m Coming to Get You- Tony Ross
  • It’s A Book- Lane Smith
  • The Book with No Pictures- B. J. Novak
  • I need a Wee/ Dwi ddim eisiau pi-pi- Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet
  • Who’s in the Shed?- Brenda Parkes and Ester Kosepuu
  • The Giant of Jum- Elli Woollard and Benji Davies

Early Chapter Books (KS1-Y3)

  • The Grunts- Philip Ardagh
  • Claude- Alex T Smith
  • George’s Marvellous Medicine- Roald Dahl
  • Utterly Me, Clarice Bean- Lauren Child
  • Betsy Bigalow- Malorie Blackman
  • Dixie O’Day and the Great Diamond Robbery- Shirley Hughes and Clara Vuilliamy
  • Ginger Ninja and others- Shoo Rayner
  • Astrosaurs- Steve Cole
  • Flat Stanley- Jeff Brown
  • Dennis the Menace- Steven Butler
  • Clementine- Sarah Pennypacker
  • Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf- Catherine Storey
  • Horrid Henry- Francesca Simon
  • Agatha Parrot- Kjartan Poskitt
  • My Mum’s going to Explode- Jeremy Strong
  • Sophie- Dick King-Smith
  • You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum- Andy Stanton
  • Moone Boy- Chris O’Dowd
  • Cakes in Space- Philip Reeves & Sarah McIntyre
  • Ottoline – Chris Riddell
  • Julius the Zebra- Gary Northfield
  • Captain Underpants- Dav Pilkey
  • The Legend of Spud Murphy- Eoin Colfer
  • The Diary of a Killer Cat- Anne Fine

Junior Chapter Books (Y4-Y7/8)

  • The Boy in the Dress/ Mr Stink- David Walliams
  • Rent a Bridesmaid- Jacqueline Wilson
  • Mallory Towers series- Enid Blyton
  • Millions/ Framed- Frank Cottrell Boyce
  • Early Harry Potter series- J. K. Rowling
  • Darcy Burdock- Laura Dockrill
  • Johnny Books/ Diggers/ Truckers/ The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents- Terry Pratchett
  • Prankenstein- Andy Seed
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events- Lemony Snicket
  • Casson family series- Hilary McKay
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid- Jeff Kinney
  • Tom Gates- Liz Pichon
  • Bartimaeus trilogy- Jonathan Stroud
  • The Misadventures of Tallulah Casey series- Louise Rennison (Y6 and above)
  • Dork Diaries series- Rachel Renee Russell
  • Ruby Redfort series- Lauren Child
  • Madame Pamplemousse series- Rupert Kingfisher

A quick word of advice- check these books out yourself before introducing them to your class. Read the first 100 words to check that they’re appropriate. Check out the authors in your local library!

 

Puritan horror: The Witch (2015)

In 1630s New England, a fervent Puritan family leaves a colony for a life as farmers. With the crops dying, further disaster hits the family when the baby, Samuel disappears when in the care of the oldest daughter, Thomasin. In the grief and fears of starvation that the family face, they turn on Thomasin, but are the family under a curse from outside, or is there another danger within?

I am a fan of horror, and this is exactly the kind of horror I love. It is supernatural, and while there is one moment of visceral horror that I found very hard to watch, this story is also horrifying in that I was never in any doubt that the dangers that this family face are also from the environment; the cold, the failing crops, the fears of starvation, the loneliness of their situation: with the older two children (Thomasin and her brother Caleb) growing up, what will they do? How will they find spouses, or a life outside the family? 

Thomasin’s maturation into young womanhood is demonstrated as dangerous and troubling to the family; the camera follows Caleb’s eyes as he looks at the open neckline of her nightdress, and the scene of horror features a naked woman smearing herself in blood, which relates to sexual maturity and menstruation.

While the mother, Katherine, turns on Thomasin in her grief at the loss of her child, it is the father, William, whose moral weakness perpetuates the horror of the attacks on the family, flipping recent horror trends of inadequate and damaging mothers in films such as The Badadook and The Others. He allows Thomasin to take the blame for the loss of a silver cup, and encourages Caleb to lie for him. 

The film is stark, frightening but very beautiful. The palette of black, white, grey and beige makes the splashes of red both dangerous and seductive. It has really provoked me to think about parenthood and sexuality in films, and the character that ultimately survives in the film is the one who traditionally would not survive alone. Highly recommended. 

Harry Potter and the Inevitable Entropy of Middle Age


I finished reading The Cursed Child a couple of weeks ago. It’s a curious text. I couldn’t help thinking “who is this for?”, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I would characterise the overall mood as one of regret. The first scene opens in the same place that Deathly Hallows finishes, on Platform 9 3/4 of Kings Cross station. Harry and Ginny are waving their older children off on the train to Hogwarts. Their second son, Albus, expresses concern about which house he will be sorted into. Inevitably he is sorted into Slytherin, where he makes friends with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius. As the boys grow up, Albus and Harry’s relationship becomes strained, and we see that Harry still has a hot temper and a tendency to say the wrong thing when angry. As a result the audience/ readers get the opportunity to be in Harry’s place as a middle aged man, exploring different scenarios had things gone differently in the Tri-Wizard Tournament.

Secondly, the parent-child relationship is explored from the perspective of a middle aged father. This is an odd viewpoint for a text that centres around a character from a series of books (and films) aimed at, roughly, 8-13 year old readers. While the books are narrated by a third person, they are, as Hannah and Marcelle from Witch Please podcast point out, told through Harry’s perspective. The narrator is not neutral. While The Cursed Child Albus is a key focal point character, he doesn’t share star billing with his father.

Finally, this text is a play-script, not the novelisation of a play. It is from a story idea by J. K. Rowling, but the playwrights are Jack Thorne and John Tiffany. And I feel that this is the most curious thing of all. 

So who is this text, a regretful look back by a middle aged father on decisions he made in his adolescence, for? Well, the fans. So it’s the dramatisation of a story for 30-somethings who were children when they first encountered Harry. And that in itself is curious.