Childness; or Why I Read Children’s Books

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I was fascinated to read the report in the Guardian on the research project conducted by Jo Bowers and Dr Susan Davis into the benefits of children’s literature. Focused on their primary PGCE cohort at Cardiff Metropolitan University, they found that reading children’s books helped their trainees in and out of the classroom. There is some great supplementary research cited in the article, including the NUT’s excellent Reading for Pleasure and the National Literacy Trust’s Reading for Pleasure research overview. They also cite the UKLA’s Teachers as Readers article which begins: “For primary teachers, knowledge of children’s literature…is essential in order to support the development of younger readers”.

The UKLA research emphasises the importance of reading children’s literature as professional development; the National Literacy Trust and the NUT the importance for well-being. Bowers and Davis found both benefits in their PGCE study. I found myself nodding along as my attitude to children’s books combines both of these. As a secondary English teacher, I feel it is my professional duty to read the latest books aimed at the age group I teach – the Carnegie list, the Guardian prize winners, and more locally the Centurion Award shortlist. I think it helps make me a better English teacher to be able to recommend books to the students I teach. I also love it when – as Jo Facer has described – they recommend them to me! (As an aside, you must read Jo’s excellent blog – she is Reading All the Books).

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Secondly, I really enjoy a good children’s book. I love them like I love teaching. Back when Harry Potter books were being published, I pre-ordered and waited up for the postman to deliver my Amazon packages on release day. I was in the beta for Pottermore and got sorted into Slytherin. I was so taken with His Dark Materials that I went straight back to Northern Lights as soon as I’d finished The Amber Spyglass. I read the Chaos Walking trilogy back to back. I loved Lauren Laverne’s rock’n’roll magic realism in Candypop. I did an MA in Children’s Literature. 

My love of children’s books and my love of teaching are, of course, inextricably intertwined. I spend my working life in the company of teenagers, and I find them a real pleasure to be around. It’s little wonder, then, that I also enjoy the world of teenage (or “young adult”) literature.

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It’s more than that, however. It’s also about the concept of “childness” outlined by Peter Hollindale. Childness encompasses the characteristics attributed to childhood and children by the society and culture of the time. Hollindale says “childness is a changing, culturally determined concept, not a static one, and this is very important to our understanding of its influence. The childness prevalent in our age will permeate the images of it which we transmit to our children, in children’s literature and in other ways” (Hollindale, 1997: 48).

The concept of childness explains why we have a mid-twentieth century age of innocence where writers like Arthur Ransome, Enid Blyton, and CS Lewis showed plucky young children getting on perfectly well without adults, solving problems and behaving honourably without the awkward intervention of hormones (except for Susan Pevensie, denied entry into Aslan’s Kingdom in The Last Battle because she is “no longer a friend of Narnia…she’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up”). It also explains how this conception of childness seems somehow inadequate nowadays. We don’t see children in the same way any more.

So how do we conceive childness today? Are our children capable of horrendous crimes as in Ann Cassidy’s Looking for JJ or Anne Fine’s The Tulip Touch? Are they sexually voracious as in Melvin Burgess’ Doing It or Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush? Are they possessed of the inviolable moral compass of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books? Of course, there are as many different answers as there are children’s books, or teachers, or Daily Mail columnists firing up another “youth of today” opinion piece, or indeed children.

One of the constant joys of teaching in 11-18 schools is helping young people navigate the minefield of their teenage years. They arrive as children; they leave as adults. Literature can help them vicariously try on different ways of being a teenager for size.  It helps me to empathise and explore different perceptions and conceptions of the fluid, shifting sands of the teenage experience through the filter (usually) of an adult author. Because this is what my job is about – trying to understand, empathise and sympathise with the experience of growing up from the position of having already done it. Reading the books helps me to see it better.

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For anyone that is interested, I explored the notion of childness and the treatment of sexuality in children’s literature for my MA dissertation. You can read it here. I’d also love to hear recommendations of your favourite children’s literature, either current or from your youth – leave me a comment or tweet me recommendations @chrishildrew. Thank you!

The book that made me – Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems

When I read about Waterstones’ The Book That Made Me there was really only one choice: Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath, edited with an Introduction by Ted Hughes.

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My copy of the Collected Poems

I can remember my first encounter with a Plath poem with microscopic clarity. Upstairs in a sixth form classroom, summer 1992. Mr Rattue was nearing the end of our term-long journey through English Literature from Chaucer to the present day when we were presented with “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”. Reading those poems was like an electric shock. I had never read anything like them before. The fury and fire in those lines blazed off the page and scorched themselves into my mind. I was dazzled by a poet who was an absolute mistress of her craft, channelling her personal trauma with almost clinical precision without sacrificing one iota of the emotional content. At an all-boys school, this fiery-haired, powerful and terrifying female voice mesmerised and enchanted me. After the lesson, I remember asking for more, and Mr Rattue lending me a copy of Ariel from the English office. I was hooked.

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My copy of The Bell Jar

I read more and more Plath, seizing on The Bell Jar next. I was bewitched by the imagery, the detachment of the narrator, the autobiography of it. I held on to Ariel, reading and re-reading the collection. I typed out “The Moon and the Yew Tree” on my Nan’s typewriter and kept in my wallet for years afterwards. I remember reading its steady, dead rhythms to calm myself before my university interviews.

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Inside my copy of the Collected Poems

The Collected Poems came later, in a week of milestones. After many great productions, I was awarded the Service to Drama prize for my work on lighting the school plays. This was the first time the prize had gone to a backstage performer rather than an actor that anyone could remember; I was incredibly proud to win it then, and it remains one of my proudest achievements. All school prizes were given as book tokens; we had to buy one to be awarded at the ceremony. There was no question what I would choose. I remember the frustration of waiting the week from handing the book in to school, to being awarded it on Tuesday 15th December 1992. Wednesday to Saturday I was behind the lighting desk for Twelfth Night, our school play that year and the last one I was involved with. And on the Saturday afternoon I got my acceptance letter from Oxford.

I took the Collected Poems with me, writing about Plath’s poetry in my first year for Craig Raine and receiving the best comment I have ever had about any of my work. I returned to Plath for my finals, working with Tim Kendall towards my extended essay where I drew comparisons with Emily Dickinson. I taught The Bell Jar on my PGCE and again in my NQT year, and came back to it and Ariel again as Head of English. I used a quotation from “Nick and the Candlestick” as the title of my first blog. Whenever I return to it, even to write this post, the experience is as gripping, chilling and breathtaking as it was in 1992.

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My annotations on “Ariel” in the Collected Poems

The Collected Poems is the book that made me because it is tied up so tightly with landmark experiences of my young adult life. The voice of the poems speaks so clearly, so personally, with such craft and skill, such poignancy and power, that I measure everything else I read against it – but nothing comes close.