Early reading experiences of white working class trainee teachers


Image: Children’s Literacy Foundation

My article outlining research with primary PGCE trainee teachers is in the latest edition of Research in Initial Teacher Education https://www.uel.ac.uk/schools/cass/research/research-in-teacher-education/volume-7-no-1-may-2017. Please let me know what you think.


Othering in C S Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy

Warning: spoilers for a 53 year old children’s book. Deal with it!

I encountered Judith Tarr’s A Wind in Cairo via her column for Tor on  C. S. Lewis’  The Horse and his Boy. 

horse and his boy 001 (4)

Tashbaan, Calormen’s capital city

The Horse and his Boy was published in 1954, and was set during the Narnian reign of the Pevensie children. Set in Calormen, the orientalist country to the south of Narnia, it is the story of Shasta, a poor boy who lives with a Calormene fisherman that he learns is not his father. Shasta is not happy where he lives, so when a Calormene nobleman comes to Shasta and Arsheesh’s house for shelter in a storm and offers to buy Shasta, he is initially quite excited by the prospect of advancement and adventure. However, he discovers that the nobleman’s horse has been kidnapped as a foal from Narnia, where animals can talk, and taken to Calormen. Bree, the horse, warns Shasta that the life of a slave in the nobleman’s palace will be terrible. So within the first few pages we know that Calormen is a cruel, class-ridden country where kidnapping, slavery (and possibly sexual abuse of blonde children) is normal. Later, when Shasta teams up with Aravis, the daughter of a Calormene nobleman and her talking mare, Hwin, we also discover that forced marriage of daughters to older men in exchange for the advancement of the family is common practice.

As Katherine Langrish  has pointed out, Lewis could have chosen to include fantastical elements from Arabic folklore, but there are no djinn, or magic flying carpets, or the Old Man of the Sea. Calormen is in fact portrayed as anti-magic, but superstitious: they believe the tombs outside Tashbaan are haunted by ghouls, and that Aslan is a demon. So why did I love this book so much as a child? Well, two things: Bree, the talking stallion, and Aravis, the aristocratic Calormene girl. She is proud, bossy and initially unquestioning about her privilege in society. But, she is also willing to learn from experience and admit when she’s wrong. She is brave, resourceful and a great horsewoman.

Al-Azhar park mediaeval cairo

Mediaeval Cairo from Al-Azhar park

In the Tor column linked above, Judith Tarr states that she was inspired to write A Wind In Cairo by the The Horse and his Boy, to portray the human-horse relationship more realistically. As well as having degrees in English and Classics and PhD in Mediaeval Studies, Tarr breeds Lipizzan horses (dancing horses) on her ranch in ArizonA. Now, I don’t know much about horses or Mediaeval Egyptian history, so I am willing to believe in Tarr’s portrayal of both. Hasan, the ne’er-do-well son of a Cairo nobleman, is beaten after a night drinking with his friends before being sent to the Bedouin to mend his ways. He is taken in by a Hajji, a wise man, who heals him. Hasan, however, rapes the wise man’s daughter, and to punish him the Hajji turns him into a stallion, and he is told that once he learns to submit to a woman willingly, he can become human again. Eventually Hasan is taken to the house of Hasan’s father’s greatest enemy, and is trained and ridden by Zamaniyah, his daughter, who has been brought up as a boy. This is an echo of the fate of Rabasash the Tisroc’s son in The Horse and his Boy.

I found Zamaniyah a wonderful character. The girl who becomes an honorary boy is of course a familiar trope in fantasy literature, and I have never read a book that questions it before. Zamaniyah belongs nowhere. She doesn’t fit in with the harem, so she has no female friends. At the same time, Cairo male society knows that she is not a man. So she is a lonely character, both privileged and marginalised. She makes friends with her father’s Frankish concubine, Wiborada, was also a female warrior, and the trope of the white woman and the Sheikh is also overturned in the book. Wiborada most definitely does not fall in love with Al-Zaman, and the innate nobility of the white, blonde haired characters is also overturned; when Wiborada deserts the Egyptian army to return to the Franks she is beaten and raped by the Frankish army, despite her claims for sanctuary and telling them who she is. Shasta, on the other hand, is immediately recognised as the Pauper twin, for a short time swaps places with the Prince twin, and of course turns out to be the son of the King of Archenland.

It was very interesting re-reading The Horse and His Boy, no longer my favourite Narnian novel. I now prefer Prince Caspian. But it did enrich my reading of A Wind in Cairo. For that, I’m grateful.

Recent reading: James Clammer and Louise O’ Neill

Recently I read two fantastic books that I can’t stop thinking about, for different reasons. You may like them too!

My PhD is in White working class children in children’s fantasy fiction. These days, with the increased marketisation of publishing for children, there are fewer and fewer fantasy books featuring white working class children. Realist/ mimetic fiction does feature working class children, but they are often struggling through problems, not having adventures. So when my husband told me that his university friend James Clammer  had written a novel for young people, I had to read it.

why i went back

Image: jamesclammer.com

Aidan is a postman’s son whose mother is an in-patient in a psychiatric ward. His dad has stopped going to work, and Aidan is struggling at school. When he wakes up one morning to see his bike being stolen, that he relies on to deliver the post that his dad isn’t dealing with, he chases after the thieves. What, and who, he finds in the abandoned factory changes everything.

It is a truism that in order to write a children’s fantasy or adventure story, the author has to get rid of the parents, and Clammer does this by creating a completely realistic scenario involving the mental health of Aidan’s parents. His taking responsibility for his father and his complete awareness of what could happen to him if his dad doesn’t get back to work is very believable. The fantasy elements intruding in Aidan’s world are both funny and touching.

Only Ever Yours

Image: The Guardian

I’ve been meaning to read Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill for ages, but a couple of events pushed it up my TBR pile: the attacks on women’s reproductive rights in the US, the pro-choice campaign in Ireland and catching up with this archive programme from Radio 4. Like Why I Went Back, Only Ever Yours is written in the first person. It is the story of freda (all women characters’ names are written in lower case in the novel), an eve, a genetically modified girl, created to be either a companion (wife), concubine (sexual slave, without the agency of a prostitute) or a chastity (teacher and guardian to new eves).

Another truism: dystopias are always about the world they are written in. The Hunger Games was written while the US was at war and reality TV was a new medium in the days before Netflix. Only Ever Yours was written in a world of curated content, both self curated (Instagram selfies) and curated for the individual by corporations (Netflix, Amazon suggestions and social media timelines with promoted content), and the #weneeddiversebooks campaign. Diversity is dealt with brilliantly. As freda’s days at school are ended and her future will be decided by boys to whom she will be a concubine or companion, or, if entirely rejected by the boys, a chastity, she learns what her protected environment has stopped her from knowing. The ending of this book is stunning, and not at all what I was expecting from a young adult novel.

Please let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read them.

Eastercon 2017- come and say hi!

I’ll be on panels at Eastercon: https://sites.grenadine.co/sites/eastercon2017/en/innominate/participants/18/Ms+Ali+Baker

Please come and say hi if you’re there! I’ll be on registration on Friday, and otherwise chasing after a tiny Worst Witch, Iron Man or Ghostbuster. Or in the bar.

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


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?