Monday, 23 September 2013

‘It was all very exciting. Even the policeman wept with joy.’

In respectful memory of the magnificent Margaret Mahy 1936-2011

By Prue Goodwin

I have a whole collection of books – picturebooks, novels, poetry and short stories - that have literacy (both reading and writing) as pivotal elements of their plots. I read extracts from them to illustrate my lectures on literacy learning. For example, when talking about writing I read the first few pages of Love that dog by Sharon Creech; Ink-Slinger, an anthology compiled by Morag Styles and Helen Cook, provides a wealth of poetry; and Frindle, by Andrew Clements, is perfect for discussing vocabulary. But there is one book that goes with me to every presentation I give, no matter what the focus of my talk. Its title? The Great Piratical Rumbustification and The Librarian and the Robbers by Margaret Mahy. In addition to these stories both being hilarious, the illustrations are by the king of illustrators, Sir Quentin Blake.
My favourite story for sharing with colleagues is The Librarian and the Robbers. The story tells of the experiences of a local librarian, Miss Selena Laburnum, and especially of the gradual development of her relationship with a band of wicked robbers. Following her kidnap, Miss Laburnum finds herself nursing the robbers through the ‘raging measles’. Only access to the library can ensure their recovery. While the Dictionary of Efficient and Efficacious Home Nursing enables Serena to tend to the poorly thieves’ medical needs, she soothes their fevered brows reading children’s books aloud to them.  Later in the tale, the eventual transformation of ‘almost illiterate’ robbers into avid readers leads to the council opening a children’s library.
Never in all their lives had those robbers been read to. In spite of the fever induced by raging measles they listened intently and asked for more.
‘Tell us more about that B’rer Rabbit!’ was the fretful cry of the infectious villains. ‘Read to us about Alice in Wonderland.’
What makes this book so invaluable?
Well, to start with, it celebrates the power of listening to good books being read aloud. According to Mahy, listening to literature is not only ‘efficient and efficacious’ enough to help cure measles but it also gives listeners of any age a hunger for more books; in particular, for more stories. Following the measles episode, the tale continues with the robber chief bursting into the library (whilst being pursued by a policeman) in order to obtain more books for his gang. Miss Laburnum ‘hides’ the Robber Chief (whose surname is Loveday) on shelf beside authors with surnames beginning with ‘L’ (‘Alphabetical order is a habit with librarians.’).
‘Miss Laburnum,’ said the policeman, ‘I have just had occasion to pursue a notable Robber Chief into your library. I can see him there in the bookshelves among the L’s. May I take him out please?’
‘Certainly!’ said Miss Laburnum pleasantly. ‘Do you have your library membership card?’
Everything about this short story relates to books, reading and libraries from her kidnap at the beginning of the book through to the delightful conclusion involving her burgeoning relationship with the Robber Chief; (‘Oh, Miss Laburnum, will you marry me?’). It is beautifully written, witty and engaging from beginning to end. It also contains one of my all-time favourite quotes: As a result of an earthquake, Selena is trapped beneath a bookshelf and its contents of ancient books. ‘Pulverised by literature,’ thought Miss Laburnum. ‘The ideal way for a librarian to die.’

The magnificent Margaret Mahy presents reading as an exciting undertaking.  In short, her version of literacy is an irresistible invitation to take part in a range of unexpected and slightly anarchic adventures – reading to robbers, dancing with pirates, playing with poetry and generally subverting the frequently stuffy worlds of adulthood and education. Whilst her stories confirm that reading can provide future security and happiness, she also convinces us that books, libraries and being a reader are all packed with the thrill of revolution. If you aspire to a life full of unexpected exploits and all things delightful, become a reader! Treasure awaits us all on the shelves of the library.

Monday, 16 September 2013

IRSCL 2013 – Take Two


In her welcome note to delegates Lies Wesseling, conference convenor, draws the attention to the main focus of the event: ‘children’s literature within the dynamic ‘ecology’ of its adjacent media’ and states that its aim is to ‘illuminate not only the form and content of the artefacts under study, but also the behaviours of their producers and consumers, roles that are being radically redefined’.
And indeed, many studies referred to Jenkins’ seminal concept of a participatory culture, where producers’ and consumers’ roles are increasingly blurred and where the production and consumption of literature in its many forms influence each other. However, it was interesting to see in the debates that there is an increasing awareness of producers and consumers being lured and at the same time dominated by the affordances of the new media. Many delegates described how we at times lose sight of a main concern, which ‘isn’t what the media are doing to our children but rather what our children are doing with the media’ (Jenkins).
That is why many stimulating analyses of children’s book apps or e-books highlighted a contradiction: the majority of such digital forms of storytelling lags behind the experience a young reader might have when reading  a ‘traditional’ (picture)book, as was proven convincingly by Kristin Ørjasæter in the case of the Norwegian Stian Hole’s Gramann picturebook trilogy. Ørjasæter reported the fascinating story how the author/graphic designer/illustrator Hole actually gave up on the project of remediating his own picturebook series into apps, because he realized that these limit rather than enhance his reader’s understanding of his stories. Ørjasæter demonstrated how technology, as it is largely used to date, often pre-determines where the reader might ‘venture’. The conference underlined many “wreaders’” calls for apps of the 3.0 generation, which avoid exactly that and open up the reading experience by  creating reading paths  based on the concept of the semantic web. The semantic web here understood as providing ‘a more productive and intuitive user experience’. In close connection with such pleas were the concerns expressed by delegates that much of what children nowadays access as ‘new digital forms of storytelling’ are commercially produced and marketed outputs of globalized mass-media corporations that offer bland  and uniform rather than stimulating and individualised reading experiences.
Regarding trends in the field of children’s literature within ‘the dynamic ‘ecology’ of its adjacent media’, the conference offered more questions than answers. In my view it could only draw attention to the next big task of children’s literature research, which is to investigate how we tell stories and make meaning in the 21st century and which effect this has on the readers and producers of these stories. It was interesting to see that research today has not yet developed a terminology that captures what we can observe happening in cyberspace. To me this emphasizes that research is at a crossroads. Annette Wannamaker’s paper on born digital narratives (something more inventive and progressive than fan fiction) was a perfect example of cutting edge research that investigates e-literature for children created with multi-media platforms. Her presentation of the inanimate alice project as one of the few genuinely born digital participatory narratives for children was a plea for careful critical attention to such new forms. Wannamaker’s study pointed out the current paradigm shift that is leaving a number of scholars and educators behind due to the fact that such texts ‘little resemble the texts we are used to studying  – they are experimental, avant-garde, creative, postmodern […] works’.
This suggests that we have to look beyond the affordances of fast-changing media and search for common threads, recurring themes, and returning patterns but also develop an understanding of radical forms of expression in what constitutes the stories of our time, told with the media of our time. A large part of this new task of research is awareness-raising – also for the power of adaptation. As Jean Webb confirms, the focus on (emergent) literacies and the close links between children’s literature research, cultural and media studies as well as education has to be strengthened in order to stay in tune with what is happening with the objects of their research.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

IRSCL 2013 – Take One

 by Jean Webb

The 21st International Research Society for Children's Literature Conference, 'Children's Literature and Media Cultures' 2013 was very efficiently convened and hosted by the Faculty of Arts and Social Science, Maastricht University, Maastricht. Having attended most of the IRSCL conferences over the past twenty years I cannot recall one which was so heavily influenced by literacy and educational approaches. Perhaps this was because the subject of media lent itself to discussion of the contemporary place of the book, approaches towards reading and the impact of media in relation to literacy. Although a most enjoyable experience from the perspective of a literary scholar in the field, one would have hoped for more literary discussion in the keynote lectures. Nonetheless it was interesting to learn about what is currently available in terms of electronic texts for children. I was hoping that there would be some breakthrough in terms of the materials available which in some way really did use the technology to open up exciting and stimulating ways of reading. Julia Eccleshare has rightly commented upon the lack of imagination applied to date by those who are producing electronic texts when asked to give her informed opinion at various venues. The 'cutting and pasting' of picture books into electronic format does little more than give some support to reading processes, but then the reader is principally made to work at the pace of the format. So there was some critique at IRSCL of the productions to date.
What was lacking in the 'literacy' keynote talks was the critical awareness of the implications of culture, power and control, which was surprising. Perhaps they felt that IRSCL was not the platform for such discussion. It did arise in some of the sessions, for instance those papers given by Branwen Bingle and Sandra Williams, both of whom are teacher educators. It led me to thinking that perhaps there are currently two camps in teacher education: those who perhaps comply with National Curricula and government dictats, or maybe are too immersed in the immediate practicalities of literacy and those who look beyond such barriers and rail against such and call out for a critical thinking educational approach. The conference did highlight the space between the two. The experience confirmed the political awareness of IRSCL colleagues which was displayed in exemplary manner in Prof Kerry Mallan's keynote which interrogated the political and moral power of young adult literature and which is also reflected in her latest publication Secrets, Lies and Children’s Fiction. Her argument was that 'children's literature along with other forms of children's media employs disinformation (or lies, gossip, and other harmful stories) as a narrative strategy to draw readers into the moral or ethical dimension of this practice of telling lies.' Kerry's keynote discussed the current state of civil observation, i.e. that western culture has 'Big Brother' looking over every shoulder. A salutary warning of which I hope and trust colleagues in teacher education are fully aware.