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


Deepening critical reading with undergraduate students

At the UK Literacy Association international conference in Glasgow at the beginning of the month, I attended a presentation by Dr Naomi Boakye of the University of Pretoria, where she described her approach to developing academic literacy with English as a second language learners in the sociology department, which I fully intend to develop. She uses an approach that I recognise from my primary teaching days: Literature Circles roles.

I have been thinking about a piece of feedback received from my mid-module evaluations: “Alison talks too much”, which, while my initial response was “I’m a lecturer! It’s my job to talk!” made me consider to what extent I am really meeting my students’ needs. By presenting them with information in lectures and then just expecting them to discuss it, am I disempowering my students, particularly those who need longer to digest information? In addition, my frustration at those who don’t do the reading may not be helping them. Perhaps I need to make it clear to them why I have selected the weekly reading, how to read it critically and what I mean by discussing it.

So, I have adapted literature circle cards. I am going to put my students in randomly assigned groups of 5 for seminars (I have 40 students on my module next academic year) and each group will be given the role cards. They will be assigned a role for the following week’s discussion, and the roles will circulate each week. I am hoping that the need for the role cards will lessen as reading critically becomes internalised. I am seeking ethical approval for a small piece of qualitative research with my students to find out their experience of critical reading and whether or not this approach has helped them, and I will report back.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Literature circle role cards

Young Adult literature is not destroying civilisation, part umpteen.


Image: Wikipedia. I read this at 13, and yet I became a literate adult.

On Friday, education consultant and former English teacher Joe Nutt published this week’s excoriation of YA, of course illustrated by a photo of the film of Twilight because of course everything popular with teen girls is bound to be dangerous rubbish. To be fair to Nutt, he didn’t explicitly mention Twilight, but he did use language such as ‘petty anxieties and celebrity confessions’that suggested that it is fiction marketed to young women that he was particularly concerned about. And unfortunately some valid concerns, such as his points about non-fiction for young adults, has been lost.

Like Nutt, I have been a teacher for over 20 years, but in my case I was teaching mostly 7-11 year olds. For the past 8 years I have been teaching adults. And in my experience, nothing puts reluctant readers off more than being told that the reading that they enjoy is not valid reading. Many of my teacher training students became teachers later in life precisely because they were made to feel stupid or unliterary as children. Indeed, when I researched early attitudes to reading with some of my students who self-identify as white working class, I discovered that most said that their dads didn’t read, until I asked further questions. My students did not see what their dads read (newspapers, manuals, information texts) as valid, or what I was asking about.

However, in this hand-wringing about YA literature, we need to remember the following:

  1. YA is not a genre of its own. It is a classification of books, like children’s fiction, to help readers find books in a library or book shop. Within that classification there is SF, fantasy, crime fiction, romance, action/adventure, horror, historical and what might be termed ‘literary fiction’. It is true that they are often plot-driven narratives dealing with dilemmas or big ideas, but many readers, myself included, prefer this in a novel.
  2. Much of what is now considered classic fiction is also YA. Jane EyreGreat Expectations and Sense and Sensibility are all novels about young people faced with dilemmas and moral choices and growing as a result of their decisions. Even Doctor Thorne by the son Nutt’s recommendation, Fanny Trollope (scroll forward to 2 hours 18 mins) concerns both forbidden romance, scandal and social commentary. Indeed, a modern classic, one of my favourites from my teenage years, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, is YA, but is not marketed as such.
  3. Most people do not just read one thing. Adults don’t, so why do we assume that young adults do? Ask a secondary school librarian and I am sure that they will tell you that one day young people are reading Charlie Higson’s zombie novels and  the next they are reading The Brothers Karamazov. Or in my case as a 13 year old, Jilly Cooper romance novels one day and Madame Bovary the next, because I thought it might be like Jane Eyre.

So perhaps instead of pearl clutching about what we think YA is like, we should go to the library, ask librarians for recommendations and start from a position of knowledge about the varied and amazing world of YA. And if some of it is about vampires and Trans teens, what the hell is wrong with that?


I’ve been published!

Just a very quick post. I’ve been published in the latest edition of UEL‘s Research in Teacher Education. This is a follow up to research I carried out a couple of years ago on a project carried out with my Primary with English group, creating the virtual London Picture Books collection. The article which I wrote from that research was published in a special edition of Write4Children on inclusion.

Seasons greetings and a happy New Year.