Monday, 30 December 2013

Childhood reading, part 4: Information books


Read the previous posts, 1   2    3

My student Zahra who is writing her PhD on children's nonfiction will be happy to hear that I read tons of information books when I was a child. I don't remember ever making a difference.

For instance, I loved a book called True and untrue stories from the forest which, just as the title promises, mixed sentient animals and straightforward nature stories with human protagonists. I liked the former best: the young curious bluetit, the brave little mouse. They were not anthropomorphised apart from having thoughts and perceptions. I remember my mother thought I was too old for the book, but I persisted in re-reading it again and again. Another favourite was Wild Animals I Have Known, by the Canadian Ernst Thompson Seton, over which I cried many desperate nights. They are all about animals hunted down by humans, and it was the first book from which I learned about suffering. I still think it is one of the most piercing books in the world. Today's ecocritics should have it as their bible.

I also loved an obscure book called The Chinese Secret. I don't remember the author, and google only returns business sites from China. I didn't own the book, but my best friend had it, and we read it together at her summer house. Then I borrowed it from her several times to re-read it. Why was it so fascinating? It was a very matter-of-fact story about the Europeans trying to learn the craft of Chinese porcelain.

Another unlikely book I read many times was Fabre's Life of Insects. Who needs adventure and crime when you have the dramas of wasps and ants! Although I also loved another Russian popular science book with a narrative. There is a scientist who invents a liquid that can shrink animals and people. Two children drink the liquid by mistake and are carried away by a dragonfly so the professor has to shrink himself too, to search for them. High-pace adventure, miniature perspective again, and tons of valuable knowledge. All I know about biology is from this book and from Fabre. A bit outdated perhaps, but more than I remember from school.

I also liked books in which children travelled to lands of numbers or musical instruments – Russian equivalents of The Phantom Tollbooth. I loved fiction stories set in Ancient Egypt, written for children by the most eminent Russian egyptologist. I loved her books so much that I wrote her a letter, and she replied! I loved a fictionalised biography of Cervantes. Why would a Russian writer write a biography of Cervantes for children? I knew it was a biography of a real person, but it was just like any adventure story. I am not sure how much of it was true. Of all world's authors of all times, I know most about Cervantes.

But there was one science book that always occupied the central place in my heart, Camille Flammarion's Popular astronomy from 1880. I was passionate about astronomy (still am) and read everything I could get hold of. Of course there were more recent and accurate books, but I didn't care. I didn't know it was an old book. I did notice that Pluto was missing and that Jupiter only had four moons, but it did not bother me. Everything I ever needed to know about astronomy but was too afraid to ask was in Flammarion. I wonder at what point in my repeated upheavals the book got lost. I would have kept for sentimental reasons.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Childhood reading, part 3: Folktales

For previous posts, see 1 and 2

I was known to family, friends and classmates as Masha the storyteller. I wrote my first piece of fiction, a drama, when I was five, in my sketchbook, with red pencil. I wrote all kinds of stories, and I was also appreciated as an oral storyteller because I had zillions of stories on my head, those I had read and those I had invented myself. I could go on for hours.

I read lots of folktales. I had a volume of Russian folktales from Afanasiev's famous collection, apparently retold for children. Folktales all over the world are the same, but in every culture they have a special flavour. Some of the Russian folktales are still my favourites today. For instance, there are no dragons in Russian folktales, but worms. The Firebird. Finist the Falcon. The giant Lullaby Cat. Go there, don't know where, bring that, don't know what.

In my childhood, the pedagogical ban on fairy tales from the '30s was over, and there were collections of folktales, richly illustrated, from all over the world. I read them over and over again. I remember three favourites. Italian folktales. “Three Oranges” (I wasn't familiar with Gozzi or Prokofiev at the time). And one tale that for some reason has stuck: about the youngest princess who disguises herself as a general to leads her father's army, and she meets the young neighbour king. It is a universal motif, but there were lovely details in the tale, and I remember it word by word. I don't associate it with any voice other than my own.

The second was Korean folktales. One is well-known: about a rich and a poor brother. I impressed my hosts when I was in Korea by referring to this tale. But another one that I remembered they didn't recognise. It wasn't strictly speaking a folktale, but a local legend about a clever old man who managed to save his town from Japanese invaders. It's weird how your childhood reading can affect your loyalties: I cannot help being on the Korean side. Sorry, Japanese friends.

The third were folktales from Burma, and they were really exotic, both in plots and in details. One was about two brothers whose great-great-great-grandmother gives them a mortar and pestle just before she dies. The older brother throws away the mortar, but the younger keeps the pestle which appears to have such a strong smell of spices that it can bring the dead back to life, and the man himself never gets older. The Moon becomes envious and sends three animals to get the secret... and so on. And that's how moon eclipses started.

Of course I also read Grimm's tales, but they could never compete with my favourites. I didn't like the gory details that were carefully preserved in Russian editions. I read Andersen's tales, all of them, and was terrified of the Shadow and wept over the daisy and the fir-tree. I still feel this strange love/hate toward Andersen because of course I grew up with them and read them scores of times, but they always made me sad and uncomfortable. With my scholarly self, I know why. It was illuminating to translate a biography of Andersen and see where those weird stories came from.

For some reason I did not read Arabian Nights until I was a grown-up.

I never stopped reading folktales, and I collected them, in academic and children's editions, while I was still in Russia. When I moved to Sweden I could only take a small number of books with me, and I gave my whole collection, about two hundred volumes, to a colleague. Then I started my collection all over again, and by the time we moved to the UK, I had another two hundred volumes which I also left behind.

The most important stories I know by heart. 




Saturday, 28 December 2013

Childhood reading, part 2: Stories of long ago

For the previous post click here.

One of the most important books in my early childhood was transgenerational: our parents grew up with it and passed it on to us, for who knows what reasons, because it was profoundly obsolete by the time I read it. It was origibally published in 1939. But I think we all loved it despite and not because. It was called What I Saw and was a fictionalised, narrativised encyclopedia for a young Soviet citizen. The storyline was a young boy who travels with his mother from a little provincial town to Moscow to see the marvels of the new Communist state. It is told in first-person, naïve voice, with fully developed defamiliarisation, presenting the world a new and exciting. As I see now, it was a remarkably upper-class story given its propagandist agenda: first-class railway sleeper, luxury hotel and other details which, with the knowledge of poverty and terror of the times when it was written feels disgustingly hypocritical. But of course I didn't reflect on these things when I was a child. All the information the book offered, all the horisons it opened, and the lovable character! The only thing that disturbed me was the character's name, Alyosha. Since the cover clearly stated that the author's name was Boris I could not get around the fact that he called himself Alyosha. It sounded unnatural and false. There is research on young children's problems with deixis, and I am a good example. I hated books told in first person in which the author pretended to be someone else. Since What I Saw had an ambivalent fictional status it contributed to my confusion.

I generally had issues with names because although some books I liked had protagonists named Masha, I was uncomfortable about the ownership of my name. It is a very common name, and there were several namesakes among my friends and classmates, but I always felt that a fictional character had appropriated my name and somehow exposed me to the world, in a false identity. One of the favourite books was called About the girl Masha, the dog Cockerel and the cat Thread (it doesn't sound half as awkward in Russian), written by one of the major poets of the Russian avant-guard, Alexander Vvedensky. I didn't know it then of course, and I learned it by mere chance, because sources interested in the avant-guard don't take children's books into account. And it wasn't an avant-guard book, but a very artless, warm story about this five-year-old girl, Masha, and her father the pilot, her mother the painter, her brother and her pets. The main conflict of the story is that the mother gets ill and must change climate for the winter so Masha travels to the Black Sea and makes some new friends. Again, for a book published in 1937 it is rather idyllic.

I have done what we ask our students to do. I have re-read the book. (It is available online). Of course, I cried floods. It all came back to me, the words, the mental images, the sounds, the taste of milk and the smell of the summer meadow. I can see why this book is still in print. I wish I had read it to my children. It is a kind book, unpretentious, simple – in the best sense of the word. It has humour, and it does not talk down to the reader. And something I had forgotten: Masha is a poet. I was a poet too when I was five. I could connect to it. I could also connect to Masha being teased with a rhyme: “Masha – kasha” (porridge). I now remember that I envied Masha because she had a dog and a cat.



Friday, 27 December 2013

Childhood reading

Once again our masters students have submitted their first written assignment: a critical reading autobiography. When I first came to Cambridge and saw this assignment on the syllabus, I said to myself: Oh dear, what is it, kindergarten? Then I started to supervise the essay and later grade it, and I had to admit I was profoundly wrong. It is an immensely challenging assignment if you do it properly (and if you don't, why bother?). If you manage to balance between the autheniticity of your childhood experience (and we know that memory is totally unreliable) and you critical self at the moment of writing.

There are many childhood reading memoirs, and I am the wrong person to write one since it is not my genre, but perhaps some short reflection in a blog post format, inspired by the pile of papers I am grading, can be a challenge. This will not be a marathon, because I cannot at the moment commit myself to a post every day.

I don't remember the triumphant moment when the black curlicues on a page started to make sense, and my memory of the first book I read on my own does not concur with my mother's account. We both remembered that I was four. I think it was Dunno and his friends, a Russian miniature-people story that stayed a steady favourite for years to come. When I wrote about it in From Mythic to Linear, I realised that it was a hilarious social satire, and I still wonder whether my parents and other adults saw it but pretended they didn't. A great example of how a harmless kiddy book can be subversive.  

Neznaika is a naughty boy throughout the story, and he is also illiterate and ignorant, but by the end of the book he learns to read and write. How very original! 




Dunno was quite an advanced book for a four-year-old, a full-length book with a complicated plot and sophisticated vocabulary of which I am sure I didn't understand all. There were some books in my childhood that I would today call picturebooks: very simple stories with a picture on every page and short, usually rhyming text. Most of them were concertina board books, A4 size. One that I remember well was about a teddy-bear who misbehaves and is duly punished. I ignored the punishment and enjoyed the warmth of the girl's relationship with the teddy and their simple joys of their meals and walks. Another was about a dog who runs away, only to find everybody else busy with something important. This one wasn't in rhyme, but it was a very short, repetitive story that I knew by heart. Maybe this how reading started: I looked at the words that I knew by heart, and suddenly it connected. It was a lovely story; my father wrote a musical piece to it, of the Peter and the Wolf kind.

So surely, there were picturebooks, and there were verses, but there was no transition from picturebooks to “real” books, and there were no easy readers.

By the time I started school, at seven, I could read fluently, and “learning to read” in the classroom, which then and there involved sounding syllable by syllable, was painful. While my classmates struggled with the primer I was already reading Gulliver's Travels. I never understood how it was possible not to be able to read.

To be continued.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Annual report 2013


Looking back at the past year and especially comparing it with some previous years, I find it rather uneventful. The highlight was Staffan's seventieth birthday and the wonderful surprise party when twelve out of twenty of the immediate family arrived just in time for lunch, without Staffan having the slighest idea. I enjoyed it. He had to admit that he did too.

Two children turned forty this year. It's weird. No new grandchildren. Errrm... actually, a new bonus grandchild. Red-haired too. And Kory has moved to Sweden and is repeating my struggle for acceptance. She has just been offered a good job.

I spent a good part of the year working hard, first finishing a book, then revising another book (and now revising the first book). I also wrote a number of articles and chapters that I had promised to write long before, hoping that something would come in between (but it never does). Several articles and chapters have been published – see full info on my academia page.

I have been good and said no to many things. Sadly, I even had to cancel a few things, including a trip to Canada with all expenses paid. But I attended a conference in Stockholm and a symposium in Chichester; Morag read my paper at a conference in Venice, and I did two virtual lectures. I have guest edited a special issue of a journal on Tove Jansson. I have hosted two symposia. I examined two PhD theses, one in Norway and one in Exeter. I have written gazillions of recommendation letters and promotion reviews. All colleagues I reviewed got their promotions.

I have been elected Fellow of the English Association. I can put FEA on my business card. 

Some doctoral students have successfully completed their theses, and all of them have got excellent jobs. I have four new PhD students this year, and it seems that at least four are coming next year. We are growing. We are gaining reputation.

I didn't travel much this year, which was a clever decision. I was in Stockholm twice, and obviously I had to go to Norway and Exeter for examination and to Chichester to give a paper, but apart from that, I only went to Norfolk twice, both time for pure recreation. I should do more of that.

Apart from the family invasion in August, we didn't have many visitors this year. A grandchild stayed a few days because her parents allowed her to go to London for a concert on condition that she would stay with Granny. My faithful childhood friend came for a week – that's when we went to Norfolk. And a very good old friend and colleague from Stockholm came for a few days, deciding on the spot. I said, casually: “When are you coming to visit me?”, and ten minutes later she got back with the flight number. This is why I like my friends. We also had a visit from Sweden's most eminent UFO-logist, and I wish I had recorded our conversations that night.

I have read some good books, but I have already done a separate post on them. I have only seen one play, and it was hilarious. I have seen several good movies. Amour made the strongest impression.

We haven't done any house improvements, but I have worked a lot in the garden, clearing our little ditch that I call a brook. I have planted one new rose and made a new flower border. The strawberries were all eaten by deer, but we had two magnificent harvests of raspberries.

I haven't bought any new clothes or shoes this year.

I have made some fantastic dollhouses and room boxes.Visit my dollhouse blog.

I have started exercising again, and my coach makes me work hard. I haven't been very good recently with my power walks, but I have a goal and must reach it because I am training for a purpose. But it is too early to talk about it.

This is the first time in thirty-two years of our marriage that we'll have a child-free Christmas. 




Sunday, 22 December 2013

Books of 2013


Going through my Shelfari statistics, I discovered that I had read very few books this year. Less than half of my usual number. I cannot explain it. I do not feel that I have been reading less. I read in bed every night. Have I read less every night? Have I read longer and slower books this year? Have I re-read more books this year? I have been writing a lot this year, which involves re-reading that I do not register on Shelfari. But this should not reflect on my bed-time reading. And I cannot say that I watched more movies this year, or did something else that replaced reading. Maybe I have just stopped reading as much as I did before, end of story.

Anyway, here are highlights from my 2013 reading.

Best novel:
Wolf Hall (and Bring up the bodies), by Hilary Mantel

Next best novel: Blindness, by Jose Saramago

Best classic:
Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte

Best re-read: Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov

Best humour:
Sleuth on skates, by Clémentine Beauvais

Best young adult novel:
She is not invisible, by Marcus Sedgwick

Best children's book:
A boy and a bear in a boat, by Dave Shelton

Best nonfiction:
Gossip from the forest, by Sara Maitland

Best unexpected:
The diamond age, by Neal Stephenson (thanks to Pontus)

Worst book in any category: Ender's game, by Orson Scott Card

ABC blog: Final reflections

For the whole series, click on the letter
Previous entries, A  B  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X Y Z  Å  Ä  Ö 


A marathon is a marathon, and it has its advantages and disadvantages. Running like this through forty plus years of my academic career, covering my main areas of interest, noting my achievements and failures, has been gratifying. The format of a blog post is a bit like an encyclopedic entry where you are given two hundred words to cover a subject on which you'd prefer to write a book, or in fact have written a book. But it makes you think carefully. The day-by-day rule implies that I didn't have time to consider my entries. Looking back, I probably would have chosen a different word. But it is the way it is now. I am not going to cheat and edit. And yet, the selection of words really reflects what I am doing or have done, and it was particularly interesting to consider some areas where I haven't done anything for a long time. Shall I revisit Jung or is he completely outdated? Shall I try to resuscitate kenotype or is there no need for this term? Will I ever use syllepsis again?

Of course it is also clear from the entries that certain topics are pervasive: narrative and time and Bakhtin. While five years ago I would not even consider empathy.

I have had some very good responses to this series, so obviously it hasn't just been useful for myself. Thank you for your support, y'all. Several people have suggested that I should publish it as a book, so if there are some publishers out there, I think it is a brilliant idea. With illustrations by Clémentine Beauvais.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

ABC blog: bonus post Ö

Previous entries, A  B  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X Y Z  Å  Ä

Ö is for översättning, which means translation and which I have totally missed in my T post. But I was a translator before I became a children's literature scholar, and it was translation that brought me to children's literature. I started translating short texts for children from Swedish, and interestingly enough, children's radio wanted fairy tales, while a children's magazine I translated for wanted anything but fairy tales (one of those weird pedagogical twists). And large children's publishers didn't want anything from a beginning translator. I always wanted to translate Astrid Lindgren, but there was already a big fight over her when I joined the club. So my only published book-length translations were not children's literature. And yet my translation practice proved helpful when I did translation studies, because if you don't know how translators work you may sometimes pose very stupid questions about why translators make seemingly inexplicable changes, and why two translations of the same work look so different, and why a poor translation is always longer than the original. By the way, there is no such thing as ”untranslatable”. There are just lazy or less talented translators. Try to translate my ABC blog into your language or a language you know and see what you might need to change. Warning: don't trust Google.

Friday, 20 December 2013

ABC blog: bonus post Ä

Previous entries, A  B  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X Y Z  Å

 Ä is for äldre which means ”older”, and it is used in Swedish in the phrase äldre barnlitteratur, older children's literature. But what is older? Older than what? I must admit that it took me a long time to get interested in older children's literature, and I still tend to be more involved with ”new” or ”contemporary” which doesn't make much sense either because my contemporary begins in the 1970s and '80s which for most of my students is ancient. I believe that for many children's litrature colleagues older means 17th and 18th century, but I don't know much about it, and it's too late for me to start learning more. The subject here in Cambridge that fascinates me is Medieval and Modern Languages, which, from a children's literature perspective is unfathomable. Which just shows how complex such simple labels as “old” and “new” can be.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

ABC blog, bonus post: Å

For previous entries, click A  B  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X Y Z

Although I promised that the Z post would be the last, I cannot refrain from bonus posts based on the final letters of the Swedish alphabet. I promise solemnly that I won't continue with Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew or Futhark, although it is tempting.


Å is for ångest, which in Swedish means ”anxiety” or ”anguish” and is sometimes referred to with its German equivalent ”Angst”. For some reason, English-speaking people, who are generally hostile toward all things alien, love German philosophical terms such as Angst or Dasein. I think it is just translators being lazy.

Anxiety is omnipresent in young adult literature because being an adolescent is one huge uncertainty. Too late to go back to childhood, but not quite adult yet. Although apparently there is a new kind of literature now, NewAdult (NA) literature which, as far as I can see, is devoid of anxiety. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

ABC blog: Z

To see previous entries, click A  B  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y


Z is for zero focalisation. You didn't believe I would find a topic beginning with Z, did you? But I have written a lot on narrative perspective, and zero focalisation is one of the most common narrative devices in children's literature. It is not quite the same as omniscient narration, because focalisation is about seeing rather than speaking. Zero focalisation is a view from nowhere, a vantage point taken by an anonymous agency, and you almost feel guilty spying on somebody's life. Zero focalisation is not a tremendously exiting device because how can you engage with characters if you never share their point of view? It's like watching fish in a fish tank. In practice, it is most often shifting multiple focalisation, when the point of view moves from character to character, sometimes going inside their minds, sometime staying outside.

Z is also for zigzag temporality, when the narrative moves back and forth between two or more moments in story time.

Z is also for zoomorphism, which is a common device in children's literature when humans appear in animal disguise. It is the opposite of anthropomorphism, in which animals are endowed with human traits. You may think it is the same, but it isn't. However, we have now come to the end of the alphabet, and you may need a break.


Tuesday, 17 December 2013

ABC blog: Y

To see previous entries, click A  B  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X

Y is for young adult. I didn't know much about it before I moved to Sweden because I was mostly interested in fantasy, and at that time fantasy tended to be for younger children. During my first year in Sweden I took a course in young adult fiction. The instructor, who later became my supervisor, had an interesting approach to teaching. She didn't give us required reading for every session, but a list from which we were supposed to read as much as possible. Being an obedient student, I read everything. It was mostly Swedish YA because it was a huge, internationally acknowledged genre, candid and engaging, with explicit sex, violence, drugs, teenage parenthood and everything that children's literature critics today think is new and daring. It wasn't all good literature, and very few books are still in print or even mentioned in textbooks, but it was a large area of study in Sweden in the early 1980s.

After that first course I went on to my thesis on fantasy, but as soon as I started teaching myself, YA became one of my subjects because it was a mandatory course for all secondary teacher trainees. It still had a strong focus on Swedish literature, but you cannot really talk YA without first looking at Huckleberry Finn and Little Women, and of course The Catcher in the Rye is central and has always been one of my favourite books. And then there was Aidan Chambers whose novels my students loved, and when he was in Sweden, which he often was then, I would invite him to give a talk.

In my book From mythic to linear, YA is defined by linearity, when the cyclical time, kairos, opens up, and there is no way back. The age of the protagonist or the reader has nothing to do with it. But, tied to linearity, YA brings in all the questions that a child was spared or pretended not to notice: growing up, sexuality, selfhood, parental revolt, risk taking.

YA today is more interesting and challenging than thirty years ago: not in themes, but in expressive means. It has also abandoned the constraints of everyday realism and branched into many different genres. A wide field for experimental writing, just as risky as adolescence itself.


Monday, 16 December 2013

ABC blog: X

To see previous entries, click A  B  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W


X is for xenotopia. Never heard of it? I was going to say, of course not, because I have just made it up, but I googled it to make sure, and it does exist. Although not quite in the sense I have made it up. Xenotopia means Strangeworldiness, so all fiction that utilises Other worlds, Alternative worlds, parallel world, magical worlds, fantastic worlds, alien worlds – all such books are xenotopian. They can be utopian or dystopian or heterotopian or whatever. Of course, all fictional worlds are strange, but let's agree that xenotopia is only about worlds that are really strange, ones that you can never reach, not even through time travel.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

ABC blog: W

To see previous entries, click A  B  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V

W is for work. Not work as opposed to text in reader-oriented semiotics, but work as labour. I was once asked to contribute to a special issue of a journal on work in children's literature, and the main argument of my contribution was that very few children's literature children know what work is. When the issue appeared it was briefly reviewed online, and somebody who had only read the review emailed me in rage, enumerating all the examples of work... that I examined in my article. They didn't, however, mention the very best: Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence, where Mark Twain explains the difference between work and play better than anyone.

Work is not an exciting action in a story because is it monotonous and repetitive, and unless the text really needs to emphasise how monotonous, repetitive and exhausting it is, it may just mention that it took thirty years to build a city or three hours to hem a dress, but it won't describe every brick and every stitch, because it is boring. Most classical children's literature children are privileged middle class children and don't have to work. Even when they are poor they still have servants to do menial work. Today's children's literature children don't have to work because they go to school. There are many exceptions which I pointed out in my article that my opponent criticised without having read it.

W is also for witches and wizards, abundant in the kind of literature I have written extensively about, and mind, they had been around long before Hogwarts was invented.


Saturday, 14 December 2013

ABC blog: V

To see previous entries, click A  B  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U

V is for ventriloquism. I am amazed at myself that I have never used the concept in my studies! It should be the most fundamental notion in children's literature research: adult author pretending that somebody else is speaking. That we hear an authentic voice – another V – of a child.

The way I have put it sounds horrible, an unpardonable exercise of power, and, sadly, this is often the case. However, if we look at it positively, a children's author can give a voice to someone who is otherwise silenced, as children frequently are: seen, but not heard. A first-person child narrator is not always the best solution: the child may not have the vocabulary and the cognitive capacity to account for their experience. Ventriloquism may then work to express the child experience through the prism of an adult. Hard, next to impossible, but this is what the best children's writers do.

Friday, 13 December 2013

ABC blog: U

To see previous entries, click A  B  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T


U is for underdog. Why do we always align with the weak, the oppressed, the underprivileged, the unjustly treated? Actually, we don't, but the texts make us to. It would be much easier to bet on the strong, rich and beautiful, but where would the story go from there? Only downhill, and we don't want that. Or if we do, we are aware that we are reading or watching a tragedy. Children's literature is seldom, if ever, a tragedy, even if it is dark and full of sorrow, because the child can recuperate by virtue of being a child. There may be setbacks, there may be hardships and suffering, but there will always be a promise.

A child is an underdog by definition, like the younger brother or sister in a folktale. The hero must start at a low point to climb. And while we always know that they will make it, the question is how, and will they have to sacrifice something, and will they keep their integrity, and will we still like them when they get there.

U is also for utopia, but I have already discussed it in other entries.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

ABC blog: T

To see previous entries, click A  B  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S

T is for time. You know, “parsley, sage, rosemary and time”. A time to be born and a time to die. The time garden. A wrinkle in time. A stitch in time. Time cat. A traveller in time. The tale of time city. Bedtime for Frances. Time to get out of the bath, Shirley. I have written about them all. And some more that do not have the word “time” in the title.

I had a chapter on time displacement in my thesis, but I don't think I did anything revolutionary, just categorised time-related fantasemes. 

I wrote a book the initial title of which was “Time and archaic thought in children's literature”, but the marketing people said it wouldn't sell so it was changed to From mythic to linear: Time in children's literature. It is my favourite book, and I am a bit upset that it hasn't been noticed more because I am doing something that hasn't been done elsewhere. I look at the way time is presented in children's books, old and new, realistic and fantastic. I look at two kinds of time: chronos, the measurable time, and kairos, the mythical, sacred time, and how children's literature systematically utilises the latter to portray the condition of childhood. The idea of kairos and chronos comes from the myth and religion scholar Mircea Eliade, and it complements in a fascinating way Bakhtin's carnival, since the suspended carnivalesque time is of course kairos, but you cannot stay there forever. 

 

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

ABC blog: S

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S is for syllepsis. It is one of many terms that I had to invent when we wrote How Picturebooks Work. Every time we encountered something we needed a name for I would invent it, much to my co-author's irritation because she thought we had too many fancy words in our book already. But structuralists love labels, and we needed a label to put on side narratives in picturebooks, not mentioned by words, which either are completely independent of the main narrative or reflects it in some way. Jane Doonan calls them running stories, but I felt it was a bit awkward as a term. Genette uses syllepsis for an independent narrative, although of course he had never seen a picturebook. (Just imagine how much more interesting his study of paratexts might have been!) One of the great masters of syllepsis is the Swedish picturebook maker Sven Nordqvist, the author of Pettson and Findus (aka Festus and Mercury, for an inexplicable reason). He always has some weird creatures in the foreground that live a life of their own, oblivious of the main characters and their doings. But if you don't pay attention to the sylleptic narrative you miss half the fun. Or, in some picturebooks, almost all the fun.

S is also for sequel. I have considerable issues with the terms sequel and series which many colleagues and students use interchangeably. While I see no point in having two different terms for the same thing, I feel it imperative to have two separate terms for two distinct phenomena. A sequel is a narrative that continues from where the previous narrative stopped. There may be as many sequels as you like, but as long as they have some kind of temporal sequence and progression that's what they are. Serial fiction, or series, indicates a set of books without temporal relationship. The characters never grow up, and all their adventures cannot possibly be squeezed into their summer holidays without poetic licence. You can read series in any order, but you need to read sequels in a particular order, although it doesn't have to be chronological within the story (the author may have a reason to include a flashback). Now, I know everybody will still call Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series, but I have made myself clear on the matter. 


Ill. Sven Nordqvist

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

ABC blog: R

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R is for reader. For someone working with literature I have been remarkably indifferent toward readers until recently. For a structuralist, as I believed I was, readers are of no interest. Also, because children's literature research is obsessed with readers, I very deliberately avoided them. Until I discovered that readers can be implied which immediately made them more tolerable.

An implied reader is a set of qualifications that a text presupposes. It means that the text requires certain knowledge, experience, competence, context and other qualities that make it accessible. Implied readers have also been called inscribed readers, model readers, ideal readers, hypothetical readers and virtual readers. There may be some subtle difference between these terms, but I haven't discovered them yet or found the distinction necessary. Very few real readers, if any, coincide with the implied reader, but this agency is helpful to consider what the text asks real readers to do and what it believes real readers are or should be capable of doing.

I got seriously interested in readers when I moved to Education and decided that, while I am here, I can just as well learn something about readers. Not real readers – still cannot endure them – but just as I had previously studied the (implied) author/narrator side of the communication chain within the text, I now moved to the other pole. And it turned out quite interesting as well, especially after I discovered cognitive criticism that explores what texts afford in terms of reader engagement. Maybe one day I will feel grown-up enough to venture out among real readers and do some experimental work, but on the other hand, that's what you have research assistants for. 

Ill. Eva Billow
 


Monday, 9 December 2013

ABC blog: Q

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Q is for queer. It has been a fashionable word for a while. Some of my students had been using it extensively before I decided to find out what it meant. You know, one day everything is liminal, next day everything is queer, and you have no time to catch up. I have repeatedly stated that for me a theory that is only valid for a limited range of texts is of less interest. If queer theory was only applicable to discuss gender identity I would probably not have delved any deeper into it. Some rigid versions of feminist theory try to replace one dominance by another. Queer theory is inclusive: plurality rather than positive discrimination. A children's book cannot replace adult hegemony by a child one; yet it is possible to address childhood and adulthood as equally valuable. At least in theory.

I published my first article on the subject, titled “Pippi, queer and carnival”, in 2003 in a non-children's literature journal. I then tested it in several talks, including my Grimm Award acceptance speech in 2005. It was finally developed into a book, Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young People, where aetonormativity was launched.

Q is also for quest, a popular, not to say omnipresent motif in children's literature. 

Ill. Ingrid Vang Nyman
 

Sunday, 8 December 2013

ABC blog: P

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P is for post-. As in postmodern, which is the most abused word in literary criticism. When my students use it, I ask them whether they mean complex and interesting, and if yes, just say so. There are some distinct features of postmodernism which I have explored, and it can be a good practical tool, but if it includes almost anything, there is no point. Postcolonial, posthuman and other posts must also be defined before you can make them useful.

P is also for pre-, as in prelapsarian.

P is for pro-, as in prolepsis.

P is for para-, as in paratext.

P is for proto-, as in proto-children's literature, which is what children read before there was any children's literature.

P is also for pastoral, which is one of the most common topoi of conventional children's literature.

P is for Peter Pan complex, the reluctance to grow up, which is one of children's literature's foremost paradoxes: adult writers want the child to stay young forever, but know it's impossible. Thus, the impossibility of children's literature, as Jacqueline Rose would have it. Fortunately, children's writers don't read Rose so, like the bumblebee, they don't know it's impossible. Yet the posthuman Peter Pan in his prelapsarian pastoral is for many the epitome of children's literature. 

P is also for my favourite children's book. 


 


Saturday, 7 December 2013

ABC blog: O

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O is for orphan, the central character of children's literature. Like almost everything in children’s literature, orphans can be traced back to myths and folktales, in which the symbolic removal of parental figures is the foremost requirement for a successful rite of passage. A children's literature child is an orphan by definition, whether actual or symbolic. As long as the child is under parental protection, nothing interesting can happen. So the first duty of a children's literature parent is to be absent, preferably dead, but temporary absent will do. Even just emotionally absent will do.

If you browse mentally through children's books you know, all characters are orphaned in some way or other. A socio-historical scholar would say that the abundance of orphans in early children's literature reflected mortality rates in society, and I would ask: so why are there still so many orphans in children's books today, disproportionally many? Because, says my non-mimetic critical self, literature is not a direct reflection of reality, but a distorting mirror.

O is also for omission, which is one of the most fascinating narrative devices. Omission of parents must have a very good reason. Did the little prince ever have a mum and a dad?


Friday, 6 December 2013

ABC blog: N

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N is for narrative. No way I can omit it. I did not discover narrative theory until I had finished my doctorate. When I tried to use Propp's sequence of functions in my thesis I had to ditch a whole chapter because it didn't really lead to anything beyond stating that fairy-tale character functions were also present in fantasy. So I used a different branch of structuralism. Some time after I was finished I became a co-founder of the Swedish Semiotic Society (which, as far as I know, has died a quiet death), and some of the members were more interested in narratology than in pure semiotics, and this is how I stumbled upon Genette and other narratology prophets. When I look at my guest lectures, conference papers and publications from the 1990s most of them were on narrative theory. What I got most fascinated by was how many narrative devices acquired a different form and different significance in children's literature as opposed to the mainstream, all because of the discrepancy between the adult author, adult voice, child point of view, implied child reader – we all know that now, but it wasn't universally known when I started. In fact, there were just a handful of children's literature scholars at the time who were interested in narratology.

I wrote a textbook on narrative theory and children's literature, Barnbokens byggklossar (“The bulding blocks of children's literature”) in 1998, revised in 2004 and never out of print. It is used in all courses in children's literature in Sweden and Denmark, and, I am pleased to know, in many courses in comparative literature because there isn't anything quite like it. It's high time to revise it again, but I have enough to keep me busy.

So N is for narration and narrators: omniscient narrators, objective narrators, introspective narrators, retrospective narrators, intrusive narrators, unreliable narrators, witness narrators, metanarrators and hyponarrators, and I have written on them all, but there are still many narrators to explore, because there is no limit to authors' inventiveness.

N is also for narratee, the receiver of the narrator's discourse within the story. Not to be confused with the implied reader (anyway, not the way I interpret it). At one of the first meetings of the Swedish Semiotic Society we discussed what the Swedish would be for narratee and agreed there and then on the term which has been used ever since.