TreasuryIslands is taking a break. We’ll be back with posts about Judy Blume, immigration in picture books, talking to children about poo and much more in the winter.
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Yesterday I got my annual Radio Times. It’s a tradition, not just for me, but for many people in the UK. We carefully peruse the Christmas television listings, marking what we’d like to watch and what we’d like to record. Some people, I hear, even use a traffic light system to mark the priority viewing. Others use different coloured pens to mark the choices of different members of the household.
Not me though. I don’t share. My Christmas Radio Times is mine. It is selfish and it is irrational and it is entirely counter to the spirit of Christmas, but tough. If you go anywhere near my Radio Times with a pen or pencil, I will be forced to seriously reconsider my friendship with you. If you put an answer in the prize crossword at the back I will marry you just so I can expensively divorce you.
The magazine itself is always of interest to children’s literature fans, and this year is no different. The cover (see above) is designed by the inimitable Judith Kerr, sill going strong at 91 years old (she’s interviewed on page 61). Page 63 carries and interview with Michael Morpurgo, and David Walliams and Harry Hill, both stars of kidlit adaptations this year, talk about their writerly inspirations on page 59. Judi Dench, starring alongside Dustin Hoffman (Dustin Hoffman!) in a Roald Dahl adaptation is interviewed on page 20.
This year, the Daily Mirror reported that 63% of Christmas TV will be repeated from a previous year. They are up in arms as only the British press can be: demanding the BBC spends less money, then complaining when they do.
As well as a boatload of old and new movies* repeats are the backbone of Christmas televisual entertainment. Year on year we want to see Del Boy fall through the bar. We want to see The Vicar of Dibley force one more sprout into her and we want to watch Morcambe and Wise doing what ever it is they do that makes us laugh so much even though we’ve seen it a million times before.
Some repeats are annual traditions, and others are fast becoming so. Raymond Brigg’s heartbreaking 1978 picture book The Snowman was adapted to the small screen in 1982 and has been shown annually since then (this year it’s on Channel 4, 23 Dec). Its sequel, The Snowman and the Snowdog which first aired in 2013 will be repeated on Christmas eve.
Julian Donaldson and Alex Scheffler’s The Gruffalo, first shown in 2009, and The Gruffalo’s Child, from 2011, air on 23rd and 24rd respectively. The latest Donaldson/Scheffler contribution to the BBC’s animated stable Room on the Broom, will air on Boxing day.
Repeats are a part of Christmas. But new televisiual delights await us too. Following the success the BBC had in adapting David Walliams Gangsta Granny (repeated this year on 22 Dec at the ungodly hour of 07.45) this year they’re giving us The Boy in the Dress. Adapted for the screen by relative unknowns Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley, Walliams debut novel airs Boxing Day. Here’s the trailer:
The BBC is also bringing us an adaptation of Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm series (Christmas eve, 8.30 pm BBC1), starring Harry HIll and featuring David Williams, Miranda Richardson, Charlie Higson and Ben Miller, among others.
But the thing I’m looking forward to most is a new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot, written by Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer and starring Dame Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman. Esio Trot is probably my favourite Dahl tale (no one tell The Vicar of Nibbleswicke). It’s a love story wherein the lovers are not nubile attractive 21 year olds, but white haired seniors. It’s just right for this time of year.
Michael Morpurgo’s contribution to our festive entertainments is twofold this year. On Christmas eve, BBC1, On Angels Wings, an animated version of the nativity story, written by Morpurgo and narrated by Michael Gambon. Says Morpurgo in the Radio Times,
I wanted to believe this story, to make it believable. […] Tell it again, your way, I thought. I had done this often enough with stories of old. I could do it again, even with this iconic story so full of religious and universal significance.
Yes, the shepherds would have to leave, I thought, but if they did the would leave someone behind to look after the sheep. The youngest of them, the shepherd boy. So he is left there on his own with the sheep while the others go off to Bethlehem!
On Angel Wings promises to be a version of the Christmas story that even a Godless heathen like me can enjoy.
Finally, War Horse at the Proms, which took place at the Royal Opera House in August, will be shown on BBC on Boxing Day. It’s a programme inspired by the National Theatre’s production of War Horse, with an original score supplemented by music from Ravel, Holst, Elgar and others. Perfect for curling up in front of with a mince pie and a small dry sherry.
*Films for kidlit enthusiasts are too numerous to mention; maninly in the form of big screen adaptations of books. Finding Neverland, The Secret Garden, 101 Dalmations, Snow White and the Huntsman, Shrek (and sequels), Fantastic Mr. Fox, Mary Poppins and The Grinch are all showing over the festive period, along with literally hundreds of others.
A version of this post was ready to go two weeks ago, when it would’ve been much more useful than it is now, but WordPress is a cruel mistress and it ate my draft before I could hit ‘publish’. No amount of cursing and fist shaking could get it back. This is a condensed version of that post. I hope it is still helpful.
Around this time of year, four- and five-year-olds across the country and across the globe are getting ready to enter Reception class for the first time. Some will have had Early Years education in a formal setting such as a nursery, and perhaps find the transition to ‘big school’ easier because of it, but many will not. It can be a daunting time for parents and children alike.
Books, as ever, can help ease the transition process by addressing fears and giving children an opportunity to ask questions, demistifying what the first stages of formal education are about and maybe even making the prospect of school an exciting, rather than a terrifying one.
The books I’ve chosen here each approach the subject in different ways, allowing parents and carers to tailor their approach to the specific needs of their own little student.
Starting School, Janet and Allan Ahlberg
It is widely agreed upon that, in the field of kidlit, the Ahlberg’s can do no wrong. Working together and individually, they have produced eighty-something works for young readers ranging from poetry (such as Heard it in the Playground) to post-modern picture books (like Peepo! and Goldilocks, storybooks (such as Burglar Bill and the Happy Families series) for emerging readers and novels (such as Woof!) middle grade lone readers.
Starting School (1988) has few of the metafictive elements that the Ahlberg’s are famous for in their books. It’s a linear narrative presented in a traditional fashion and it helps little ones imagine what their own first days in school will be like.
The book provides an overview of a typical week in a British primary school. The children hang their coats on pegs, have a PE class in the hall, eat lunch and play with the class pet. There’s a reading corner, a dressing up box, a carpet for storytime. It’s by no means exciting, but it’s not meant to be. It’s built to reassure children about what will lie ahead of them. Janet Ahlberg’s calming illustrations fill the page and offer plenty of action to supplement the text. There are children joining in and children holding back. There are accidents, messes made and a teacher who sometimes gets a little bit cross.
The classroom in Starting School could be any classroom in the UK; this is how it demystifies the first few weeks in compulsory education. But there is a secondary asset in the book: the size and shape of the text and the construction of the page also echoes the style of Oxford Reading Tree and similar reaching schemes which children will encounter at the beginning of their academic career, perhaps providing a level of comfort when learing to read begins.
Disney’s newest feature, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role, is Maleficent. It’s unlikely this has escaped your attention. The internet has been abuzz with news of the project since before production began, with early photographs of Jolie on set released to the Daily Mail in June 2012 fueling the fire. The character has captured our imaginations. Maleficent t-shirts, posters and Barbie-esque dolls, an addictive app: the Disney Marketing Machine is at peak output, with merchandise not just on shops but out in the wild too. People are buying Maleficent plush toys (though I can’t think of a character less suited to such a medium), jewellery and nail polish. MAC has a Maleficent make up collection (and did I mention it was my birthday soon?). She’s everywhere. And we’re lapping it up.
Sleeping beauty has a 400 year plus history. It feels like Maleficent has always been a part of that. In fact, she’s less than 60 years old.
The oldest known variant* of the Sleeping Beauty story is ‘Sole, Luna, e Talia’ (Sun, Moon and Talia). Written by Giambattista Basile in 1634, it tells the tale of Talia, a baby princess prophesied by astrologers to be grievously imperilled by a splinter of flax at some point in her life. Though her step-mother does plan to cook and eat her, which is
probably worse, there is no wicked woman to endanger the princess.
The beginnings of Maleficent as a character can be found in ‘La Belle au bois dormant’ (from Perreault’s 1697 collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé). Here a nameless wicked fairy godmother curses the young princess to prick her finger on a spindle and in Grimm’s ‘Little Briar Rose’ (from Kinder- und Hausmärchen ) it is the same. Grimm’s version of the tale is much gentler than Perrault and Basile’s efforts, ending with the kiss that awakes the princess from her sleep and cutting out the rape, childbirth, ogres and cannibalism. Read the rest of this entry
Published in 1967 when its author was just 17 years old, The Outsiders tells the story of 14-year-old greaser Ponyboy as he navigates the class conflicts that arise from being orphaned and disenfranchised in post-war America. The book was adapted for the big screen in 1983 and as a stage play in 2006. SE Hinton wrote the novel to address the lack of novels that she wanted to read:
One of my reasons for writing it was that I wanted something realistic to be written about teenagers. At that time realistic teenage fiction didn’t exist. If you didn’t want to read Mary Jane Goes to The Prom and you were through with horse books, there was nothing to read. I just wanted to write something that dealt with what I saw kids really doing.
Kimberly Reynolds, author of Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction, notes that until the nineteenth century, ‘fiction had identified the liminal space occupied by teenagers as belonging to girls and women’ (p. 74). In these books – think Little Women and What Katy Did – female characters in their teen years do not graduate directly into the adult world of work and/or matrimony but are allowed the opportunity to exist in a space in between adulthood and youth, learning and growing and being prepared to take on adult roles*. The post-war period saw the concept of the teenager entered the cultural consciousness. During this period YA as a genre rose to prominence and lent authenticity to adolescent experience in the face of a conservative ruling-class ideology.
SE Hinton’s four novels, The Outsiders (1967); This Is Now, That Was Then (1971), Rumble Fish (1974) and Tex (1979), and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) among others, form part of this generic shift. These books, which recognise the volitily of teen-hood for boys, foreground the adolescent crisis of identity by offering romantically isolated protagonists navigating social and political power dynamics, usually from position of alienation and oppression. These entwicklungs- and bildungsroman are probably best exemplified by JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951).
Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders is a first person, highly subjective narrative delivered by its protagonist. The prose is unpolished and occasionally immature, lending authenticity to the more unbelievable or at least extremely convenient elements of the plot, the dei ex machinis that might otherwise engender a tired eye roll instead fly by almost unnoticed and without the least blip in the readers suspension of disbelief.
I broke a rule to review this book. In fact, I broke a couple. I don’t generally review books I can only access as a .pdf, because it’s no good for my eyes, and I don’t generally review books that don’t have an establised publisher behind them. Call it snobbery if you wish, but I like that someone else has filtered out the chaff and left me with the tasty literary wheat to get my chops around. There’s another reason, too, that I shy away from self-pub, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
But then I went and judged a book by it’s cover. The Fox and It reminded me so much of the easy readers of the late seventies and eighties, all stark lines and bright oranges, that I was curious too look inside.
The Fox and It tells a simple story, in verse, of a young fox pup whose inquisitive ways lead to him getting a jar stuck on his head. He’s rescued by passers-by and learns a lesson about doing as he’s told. The message of the narrative is part environmental, part warning to ignore parental advice at your peril.
As I said, there’s a reason why I don’t like to review books that aren’t publisher backed, and it’s evident in Lei’s verse: self-published works are rarely tightly enough edited.
Lei’s narrative is ideal for very young children; in a Real Life Bookshop it would be a board book aimed at kids of 18 to 36 months, a book to be read aloud to a toddler. Books to be read aloud must scan. Syllable counts and stresses must be uniform. One should not have to force a rhyme to work. This is where The Fox and It lets itself down; the rhythm is not a smooth one, the grammar is occasionally poor.
But! See how gosh-darn cute that little fox is! Lei’s illustrations are simple, colourful and gently humourous. Animals are rendered on the page better than humans, but this lends credence to the world the foxes inhabit and subtly underlines the implicit message that this world is not ours to do as we wish with.
The Fox and It is a sweet story for very young children. It’s available from the authors website.