Friday, 29 April 2011

Memories of Royal weddings

Thirty years ago I was invited to contribute to a British academic journal. It doesn't sound extraordinary, but at that time I was living in the Soviet Union, and if I hadn't known that I would soon move to Sweden, I would have ignored the invitation and hoped that the postal service censor wouldn't report my inappropriate correspondence. As it was, I decided that a publication in a British journal would be a good start for my new career, so I wrote the piece and asked a foreign journalist I knew to mail it for me. Some weeks later I received a postal note to collect an overseas parcel. Again, in a different situation I would have burned the note, but I went to the post office and had to pay import tax which I am sure exceded by far the value of the parcel, at least in proportion to my salary. There was a short letter from the editor: "I have been told that it would be pointless to send you a fee, so please receive this as a token of appreciation". The parcel was a tin of biscuits with a picture of the Royal couple, HRH Prince Charles and Diana.

My friends were impressed by the tin, but less by the biscuits. I didn't take the tin with me to Sweden, so I guess one of my friends kept it and may have it still. It must be worth a fortune now. 

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

How to be rejected

Yesterday I posted a status update on Facebook sharing the fact that an academic journal had rejected an article that they had asked me to submit. I posted it deliberately for some younger colleagues to note that being senior, established, renowned and so on is not a guarantee that everything you offer will be published, and not even that everything that is commissioned will be published. I got many responses to this post, exactly of the type I had expected, and it feels there is more to be said.

I once gave a paper at a conference where several academic journal editors were fishing for good stuff, and after my session the editor of the most prestigeous journal asked me to expand the paper into a full-scale article. Which I did, because the subject was something I thought important, and the journal prestigeous. I put a lot of work into it, and it went out to readers who very obvioulsy didn't understand what I was doing. They made some, in my eyes, irrelevant comments, enough to get the article rejected, but they didn't seem to have noticed my completely revolutionary approach! I eventually published it elsewhere and got my brilliant new ideas across, but it did hurt.

I am sure that I occasionally do the same when I am asked to read a manuscript for a journal. Fail to see the new revolutionary ideas. Hopefully, the authors publish elsewhere.

I think this is something we need to accept as academics. Sometimes we are lucky, and a good journal or essay collection will take your piece, with small revisions (no articles go to press without revisions). Sometimes, after having been rejected by high-profile journals, you publish in a less esteemed one. I have published in Swedish something that had been rejected in English. And the other way round (in fact, my first real book, Children's Literature Comes of Age, was rejected by a Swedish publisher, so I re-wrote it in English). I also have publications in Croatian and Slovenian that haven't been published anywhere else.

I still have plenty of unpublished stuff in my computer. Every now and then I go through it thinking that I ought to do something about it, such as a short and comprehensive introduction to Bakhtin, or a comparative study of illustrations to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, or my brilliant Francelia Butler memorial lecture on bridges in children's literature (I hope some editors are reading this). But I am doing other stuff now. It's too late.

It hurts a lot when you are rejected, especially when you are convinced that you piece is good. Sometimes you submit something written half-heartedly or marginal to what you are doing or something that will be included in another piece. But when you know it's good, the only way to handle it is try again. Some of the readers' comments may actually be helpful. Even if they have completely misunderstood you, it is worth contemplating why.

And whatever happens, we need to remember that we have chosen to play this game, and every now and then we win.

Monday, 25 April 2011


Easter time is when my identity gets most confused. Russian and Western Easter do not always coincide and can be as far apart as five weeks. We always celebrated Russian Easter in Moscow, even though my family was Lutheran. When I moved to Sweden I of course started celebrating Swedish/Western Easter, but I brought my Russian customs with me. Russian customs include Russian food: the Easter saffron cake, kulich, and Easter spicy cheese, paskha. At the same time, as a child I was supposed to believe in Easter Bunny, in the good German tradition. I had to prepare a plate with some moss or pretty leaves and put it under my bed on Easter eve. In the morning the Bunny would have hidden the plate, and when I found it, it had a little kulich, a pretty egg and perhaps a little toy. No chocolate eggs. Easter was officially forbidden, so there was no commerce around it. Yet you could buy kulich in a bakery, only they called it "Spring cake". People with self respect baked their own. There were no special paints for eggs, we would use onion skins and other natural dyes. We shared family secrets.

We played the egg game at breakfast, knocking egg against egg to break it. But one year when we were visiting some German relatives in Northern Caucasus, they took us to the churchyard to roll eggs on graves, which was utterly perplexing. Many years later, I saw remains of hardboiled eggs in Russian churchyards in Moscow. Visiting graves on Easter Day was not part of my family customs. Later, the authorities in Moscow organised shuttle buses from undeground stations to nearest churchyards on Easter Day, to avoid chaos. Still they didn't admit it was Easter.

In Sweden, when the kids were small - and actually when they were grown-up - we filled cardboard eggs with sweets and hid for them to hunt for. A big cultural clash happened during my first Easter in Sweden, when I had carefully prepared the food, painted eggs, set the table on the eve, and in the morning Staffan started boiling eggs for breakfast. On the other hand, he expected me to make a leg of lamb for Easter dinner, and I thought it was barbarian. Eventually, we reconciled it all, taking the best of everything.

In my youth, we would go to Easter vigil, which was forbidden. To discourage young people from attending Easter services, attractive American films and shows were broadcast on television well beyond the normal broadcast time. Around the few remaining churches in Moscow, police and volunteers from Young Communists made human chains, but were instructed to let the believers in. Which implied old women in headscarves, but if you went past with determined steps they'd let you in. The church was overcrowded (in Russian Orthodox churches there are no pews, you stand), it was unbearably hot from hundreds of candles. Once you've squeezed in, you couldn't get out, and the service went on for hours. Sometimes we stayed outside and watched the priests come out to call: "Christ is risen". I knew very little of the implications, but it was a celebration we shared and valued. The Russian custom was to carry a burning candle all the way home. Luckily, I lived just next to a church, so I managed. Sometimes we would go to a different church, and the game was to bring it home in a taxi (it didn't work). Once I attended a service as a guest of honour, allowed to stand with the choir. I received a blessed egg from the priest. People said that blessed eggs didn't rot, you could save them for years.

In Stockholm I used to go to the Russian church for Easter vigil, even when I didn't otherwise go regularly, and in San Diego I managed to find a tiny Russian church. When the Russian and Western Easter did not coincide, I would celebrate first with the family, at home, and then with Russian friends, in church. I would make Easter food twice. Occasionally I would go to a Swedish Easter service. In Sweden, Good Friday (strange name for a day when God is murdered) is a holiday. In the US and here, in the UK, it isn't. You get out of phase. Add all your Jewish friends and friends of other confessions and atheist friends... Yet much like Christmas, Easter for me is mostly about the family. We could never get the whole family together for Christmas Eve, but they all came for Easter brunch.

This year, Julia made Russian Easter food and invited her little brother. I don't think she realises how happy she made me. Somehow this multicultural, confused tradition is carried on.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

I am not on study leave any more

As the new term starts next week, I suppose my study leave is over. Supervisions, a business lunch and mountains of paperwork today, a meeting tomorrow. Yes, I know it's Easter week. It doesn't count. We are getting three bank holidays on top of each other next week and the week after.

Paradoxically, I have just come into a good writing mood and managed to finish the most challenging piece I have ever written. (Except maybe my very first article - that was tough too). I have a definite feeling that I have wasted my study leave on zillions of small tasks when I should have been writing my Book. That's what I said I would do in my study leave application. Well, I haven't written much on my Book, it's sufficient to look at the dates of the most recent versions of my files. December? So what have I been doing since?

Perhaps it's inevitable, and perhaps my book project has in fact benefitted from a break. I have written several related papers, I have done a lot of reading. I have also done a lot of thinking. The latter is very hard to put into a report.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

My first encounter with trash

Susan's blog post reminded me of a weird experience many years ago. I was a voracious reader and was brought up with high quality literature, and besides there wasn't a lot of what you call "mass-market" literature in my country at that time. Since we were not exposed to it, we didn't really know the difference, and we would read Arthur Hailey alongside John Updike. I read a lot in English, and English paperbacks were hard to get hold of, so you read what was available, what privileged friends brought from abroad, what you could occasionally buy in second-hand book shops. A used paperback cost 4-5 roubles, and my salary was 100. Don't ask me how I managed.

One summer a friend and I went on holiday to Latvia, and although we had brought plenty of books, we ran out of them. We found a second-hand book shop in the capital, and they had a small shelf with English paperbacks. We chose a book each, in the standard way: judging by the cover. I don't remember the title or the author of course, but it was about a family on holiday in the mountains who find a stranger almost frosen to death, and they save him, and the daughter falls in love with him. Half way through the book I started wondering. I expected something to happen. That the stranger turns out ot be a spy, or a former lover tries to claim her back, or something. I was used to books having a plot, a complication, a moral dilemma. But the book just went on with this happy romance. I was puzzled because I had never before met a book that was so profoundly bad. Twilight is a masterpiece in comparison.

Thursday, 14 April 2011


We met for the first time in their tiny bed-and-sitter in a Moscow suburb. Natasha, his wife, was my first husband's former fellow student. I was heavily pregnant, their daughter some months old. Later we would babysit for each other.

Volodya and Natasha were refuseniks, denied permit to emigrate. In such situations, people no longer cared about the authorities. They constantly had foreign journalists in their home. Volodya went on hunger strikes. I helped translate petitions into English.

Then suddenly they were granted exit and the limbo was over. We all helped to pack and clean and throw away. There was a huge farewell party, with mixed feelings of joy and sorrow. At that time, we knew for sure that we would never see each other again. I remember my husband was away at his archaeological excavations, but came to Moscow just in time to say goodbye at the airport. We received bits of information; first they were in Italy, then moved to Sweden, as they had intended.

Seven years later I moved to Sweden and found them in the phone book. Natasha said: “Come over this very moment”. We have been close ever since. We went to Volodya's exhibitions, we saw him change styles. He gave a print to each of my children. He wasn't hugely famous, but many people loved and bought his paintings and watercolours.

Then one day we became professional partners. We did two picturebooks together, and Volodya did the cover for one of my novels. The publishers didn't appreciate his illustrations, saying they were too elegant. Swedish children didn't like beautiful pictures.

We didn't meet often, but we were always glad to see each other. Volodya and I always pretended we had been lovers, which wasn't true, just a game. He played the same game with dozens of other women. He swore marvellously.

Staffan and I repeatedly talked about asking Volodya to paint a portrait of me. Now it is too late.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Final report from Norway

What can I add to my students' witty reports? What did I take with me home? I think this was the first conference ever which I attended exclusively as a shepherd... umh, mentor. I was at a late stage asked to moderate sessions and be on the final panel, but that's not why I was there. I wasn't there to see old friends - although it was really wonderful to catch up with some of them whom I hadn't seen for a long time. It was absolutely wonderful to listen to Svein Nyhus whom I admire so much, and to see a glimpse of a sketch he drew of me four months ago at the PhD defence in Oslo. I don't think he had his old sketchbook with him by accident. But he didn't let me have the sketch.

I was there to support my students, and - let me admit it - show off. I am so endlessly privileged to have them, and it is so gratifying to hear compliments from colleagues, some with a touch of envy. Allow me the pleasure, I think I have deserved it.

The conference was inspiring, but not without glitches. A female participant from an Arab country talked about images of nature in some Arabic picturebooks. We asked what "Arabic" meant, and whether there was such a thing as "Arabic" children's literature. My student from Kuwait said there wasn't. No more than there is a "European" children's literature, which another paper focused on. Then there was a male participant who talked about Islamic children's literature, with many illuminating examples. It was quite frightening and reminded me of the worst Soviet propaganda. The female Muslim speaker protested but was dismissed by the male colleague. We didn't know what to make of it. Later, my student from Kuwait made a brief comment from which it became clear that the male speaker was in actual fact critical of what he was talking about. The audience perceived it as exactly the opposite of what he meant. Cultural clash? Language barrier? Suppose I didn't have a student who could clarify this total misunderstanding?

Thursday, 7 April 2011

More Norwegian memories

I had some other interesting trips to Norway. Once I went to a conference for Nordic association of Slavic studies. I was the only children's literature person there and felt quite out of place professionally, but there were many good friends there, and we had fun.

Yet another time I was invited to a conference wholly dedicated to the brilliant Norwegian children's writer Tormod Haugen. It was a bit intimidating because he was there, sitting in the front row, and there I was, saying a lot of things about his books. He was the sort of writer who says: "I never thought about it, but I guess you are are right".

The craziest visit was when we got a network grant from the Nordic Foundation for Advanced Studies, and one of the conditions was that a member of the steering group should attend a workshop on how to run a network. The workshop was in Oslo, and it would make sense for the Norwegian member to attend it, but it didn't work, so I went instead. We were met in the airport, taken to the conference hotel just by the ski-jumping trampoline, fed morning till night with information on running networks (and very good food) and taken back to the airport. I didn't see much of Oslo that time.

Today we went to Vigeland park, because if there is one place you have time to see in Oslo, that's the place. However, we did all the essential sightseeing while walking from the bus station to our hotel.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Norwegian memories

The first time I was in Norway was for just fifteen minutes. We were visiting some friends on the West coast of Sweden, and Staffan made a point of taking me to see what a national border looked like in the civilised parts of the world. It was a small road, but there was a proper sign: “National border. Import of certain goods prohibited. See brochure”. No border patrol with dogs, no customs (to ask for the brochure), no barbed wire. We stopped at the first village, bought an ice cream and turned.

But the first time I was in Norway for real was rather funny. I went to a conference – surprise! - at Oslo University, called “Dimensions of the Marvellous”. I was doing my PhD on British fantasy and thought it was a conference just for me. At the same time and on the same campus, there was a large international Feminist Book Fair. I was invited by the Fair organisers to give a talk on female fantasy writers. There I was in my dual role: paying huge conference fees and being paid a modest speaker fee at the Fair. Fantasy was the common point. It was high summer, and the Fair people, predominantly women, were wearing all kinds of weird multicoloured clothes. The conference people, mostly male, were strictly academic, tie and suit. When I mentioned at one of the conference coffee breaks that I was doing a talk at the Fair, the reaction was a disappointed: “So you are one of those...”

I never met the Fair people again, and I made very few professional contacts at the conference, except one. Professor Jacques Barchilon, from University of Colorado, happened to be in the session in which I gave my paper. He liked it. He told me that he was starting a journal on fairy tales and asked whether I would contribute to the first issue. I did. The coming issue of the journal, Marvels & Tales, is a tribute to Jacques Barchilon.

Conference eve

I remember my first academic conference. I was a first-year PhD student and was accepted into the International Research Society for Children's Literature on the ground of my publications (which were awful, as I see now, but nevertheless solid academic publications), and the deadline for proposals for the next conference had passed. Fortunately, there was a Swedish Board member at the time, and she encouraged me to send in a late proposal, which I did, and it was accepted. All conferences, even within the same organisation, are different, and that particualr one asked for a full paper in advance. I sent mine (which I stupidly enough hadn't shared with my supervisor), and it was rejected. I went to the conference anyway and to my dismay saw my name on the programme. I hadn't brought my paper, but the organiser had a copy, with a resolute "NO" on the top. I guess someone had cancelled.

I felt very small and lonely at that conference because I didn't know people, and I was one of the youngest, and nobody knew me. I decided then that when I grew up I would always try to encourage first-timers, and so I did. At the IRSCL conference in Stockholm in 1995, that I organised, I shook hands with every participant at the welcome drink reception. My hand hurt afterwards, and I didn't have time for drinks.

My best experience of conferences is taking a group of students to one. At ChLA conferences, they do it all the time: professors bring their students to play with the big elephants. It's much less intimidating when you are part of a group. It is unusual otherwise, but in 1999 I took my students from Finland to the IRSCL conference in Canada, and we did a double session to showcase our project. People still remember that. During the blessed five years when we had loads of money from the Nordic Foundation for Advanced Studies, we not only did our own conferences and workshops, but went to other big conferences and Created a Presence.

Looking at the programme for the conference The Child and and Book where I am going tomorrow, I feel that Cambridge presence is overwhelming. I am proud of it. Our students have presented at our own conference last year, but playing home ground is not quite the same as going away. And I am not even giving a paper myself. Am I perchance a coach?

Monday, 4 April 2011

Me and the Amazon

I've never sailed the Amazon,
I've never reached Brazil;
But the Don and Magdelana,
They can go there when they will!

Yes, weekly from Southampton,
Great steamers, white and gold,
Go rolling down to Rio
(Roll down—roll down to Rio!)
And I'd like to roll to Rio
Some day before I'm old!

I've never seen a Jaguar,
Nor yet an Armadill
O dilloing in his armour,
And I s'pose I never will,

Unless I go to Rio
These wonders to behold—
Roll down—roll down to Rio—
Roll really down to Rio!
Oh, I'd love to roll to Rio
Some day before I'm old!

This is a poem by Rudyard Kipling, following "The beginning of armadillos" in Just So Stories. I loved the book when I was a child, and I loved the poem, not least because it was full of these magic words: Amazon, Brazil, Rio. I wasn't even sure whether there was indeed such a place or whether it was merely a fairy-tale Once Upon a Time. 

There was another children's poem about Brazil, by the great Russian children's poet Samuil Marshak. It was about a letter that follows the addressee all over the world - to show the little reader how post works. One of the countries mentioned was Brazil, and there was a postman called Bazil, and again it could just as well be in another universe. 

Well, I have been to Rio, but I haven't sailed the Amazon, and I hope to do it before I am old. Before I am too old. In about ten weeks.