Which Moomin Character?

A lot can be said – and has been said – about Tove Jansson’s relationships within the books and cartoon strips, and she does indeed present a child’s Hogarth of a world, where foibles and strengths are all on show, from Sniff’s immaturity to a similar self-centredness in the Muskrat, hiding in his mauvaise foi in a dismissive attitude. And all this in a landscape that (for me when I first read the books in Harlow [as it then was] “New Town”) enticing and alien: mountain streams with crocodiles, and observatories and impromptu woodland dances…  Part of me wondered if this was how Scandinavia really was, and maybe it took reading the Summer Book at Brookes for me to see how clever Jansson was about these ways marrying of reality and fantasy. Part of me wondered if those weird and engaging people were real too, whether I had some part of me in those stories.

Turn but a tweet and start a blog, to paraphrase Francis Thompson.  A discussion today on Twitter prompted me to offer reading about the Fillyjonk as an example of the joy of private, quiet reading.  Why, when discussing reading, did I suggest a Fillyjonk as the person I want to meet in my private reading? I was thinking of Tales from Moominvalley, I suppose, and she was the first person I could think of, a minor character rather than Moomin (see below) or from his immediate friends or family.  Showing off, I suppose, like Sniff…   A Fillyjonk is essentially an anxious person “dutiful to the point of tedium – not a character I immediately  identify with, although I can see what I was getting at, I suppose: a catastophizer who meets with a real disaster.   So who would I like to be?

  • I am too much of a home body to join the Hattifateners – whom I loved because I could draw them.
  • Bingummy and Thob taught me so much about language play – but I was an only child, in effect: that wasn’t the bizarre little twins.
  • The ghost in the Exploits, with a gentle side and a macabre turn of phrase?
  • The Hemulen Aunt? There have been times when, as an Early Years teacher, I have heard her voice come out from my mouth. And Edward the Booble’s grumpy tones. 
  • The Groke? Well, she was my avatar for our Virtual Learning Environment for quite some time. I wonder whether she sloped off when I changed it, leaving a trail of frost across the internet.

This isn’t the quiz that you can do.  I haven’t done it. Really, even when I first read Finn Family Moomintroll (and heard it on Jackanory in the mid-60s), I think I had it worked out, albeit dimly: Moomintroll pining after Snufkin. And so often I could characterise my relationships – certainly the ones that had me roaming morosely around as an undergraduate – as ones in which my inner Moomin longed and longed to be the adventurous and carefree Bohemian. Jansson may not be Maimonides, but the Moomins were a family when I was so perplexed I felt I had none, and “which Moomin character are you?” would have had only one answer.  And there were quite a lot of candidates for Snufkin…

But of course the joy and the cleverness of Jansson’s characters is that you can be more than one. Dutiful to the point of tedium like Mrs Fillyjonk; self-centred Sniff; fussy and obsessive like a Hemulen, full of unrealistic hopes like the little dog who wished he was a wolf  – and now? Well, Maggie is making cakes in the kitchen, and I am in my study pondering my youth.

Statio

The year’s midnight. 

“Always winter and never Christmas.” C S Lewis’ ultimate baddie, the White Witch, keeps Narnia frozen in a time when the natural cycle of death and birth cannot continue. Will Stanton in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising has his midwinter birthday interrupted, threatened, brought into its rightful place by the crises in the book. Kay Harker’s dream (or not-a-dream) sees the Christmas of Merrie England restored when the dark powers of   sorcery threaten to destroy it. I feel I also have to note en passant the most terrifying version of this for me, Michelle Paver’s adult work Dark Matter, where the narrator faces months of night time and solitude – and something far worse out on the Arctic ice. The time in late December is reenacted in these stories as a time of crisis, and the subtext seems to me to be a worry that as the days darken, the sun will not return, no hope for love “At the next world, that is, at the next spring.” A fear that This is It.

As Catherine Butler in Four British Fantasists suggests of the interplay between magic and humanity in Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence

The Light is opposed in turn by the Dark, and most of the activity of the other mythical and historical figures involved in the sequence is related in some way or another to their struggle. Given Cooper’s insistence (as in the description of Herne) on the wildness of some of these figures, this moral alignment of their magical power might be problematic.

Problematic indeed. The complexity of this vision is one of the things that Masefield is beginning to explore, and that Lewis more or less avoids, but which Cooper meets head-on in The Dark is Rising – and in more meditative and lyrical form in a poem she first published in 1974.

The publication of Susan Cooper and Carson Ellis’ The Shortest Day , which re-presents Cooper’s 1970s contribution to a larger work, has prompted renewed interest (it never really goes away) in the interplay between UK fantasy writers and the folklore they draw on. There are some lovely reviews already out (e.g. Kirkus, Brainpickings (who [of course] beat me to the Dillard reference, although that doesn’t often stop me) praising the text and artwork, and this is not a review but some thoughts at a tangent. Again, I am not alone in this tack: Calmgrove’s Christmas Delights (which already sounds like a box of candied fruits) has a wonderful post exploring a selection of writers from Nesbit to Masefield, and then Lewis, and so to Cooper herself. By celebrating Solstice (check out Solstice here)  she sets up not a Pagan in the sense of antiChristian but an unChristian, a preChristian festivity, gloriously underlined by the images Ellis gives us, as wanderers move through a land that they increasingly mark as their own.

Through all the frosty ages you can hear them

Echoing behind us – Listen!!

All the long echoes sing the same delight,

This shortest day…

In Ellis’s paintings we see the “precarious business” as the palaeoanthropologist Chris Stringer puts it, of early humanity’s existence in our inhospitable winter, and we see our efforts – the our, I think, underwires the charm and power of this book – at keeping the dangers and demons at bay across the centuries.  It is a similar nostalgia (thank you again, Chris Lovegrove, for this insight into Masefield ) to the gathering of the ancestral (ghostly) Oldknows in Tolly’s first Christmas in Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe, that we celebrated on our visit. All those long echoes in the stones of Hemingford Grey.

It sends me back to Ronald Hutton and his Stations of the Sun. In the opening chapters he carefully dissects Christmas customs with judiciously chosen details (I was intrigued by the mummers who menaced people having been “drinking, playing at cards and fiddling all day in disguised habits”) and drops in details that have resonances elsewhere, such as the apotropaic torch rituals in the Staffordshire moorlands town of Stanton.  It has to be remembered that Hutton, although with strong ties to various aspects of Paganism, is suitably cautious in his methodology:  Hutton looks at the Roman feasts of midwinter, Saturnalia and Kalendae, and then states

The new Christian feast of the Nativity extinguished or absorbed both of them, and a string of other holy days sprang up in its wake…

before going on to explain the rise of the Twelve days and the Epiphany/Theophany in the Western and Eastern Churches.

In most of northern and central Europe, where the cold and darkness were much greater…it would have run into local patterns of pre-Christian seasonal celebrations….

But Hutton warns us that

Literary sources do not tell us anything conclusive about the midwinter festival practices of the ancient British Isles…

He find the early English sources more enlightening than many others, and his trail leads him to the conflation (as he suggests) of a Modranicht, or Mother Night, a middum wintra, with the Nativity. The festivities may predate Christian Christmas or draw on earlier practices*… And then he turns his gaze on Yule (jol, jul, juul), the jolly time of Norse festivities.

Stations of the Sun is not a pagan handbook but a scholarly exploration, suggesting that seasonal rituals were fluid, open to change, to diminishing and reinterpretation. It is right, therefore, that in his conclusion some 400 pages and a ring-round year of celebrations later he writes:

It is one of the arguments of this book that the rhythms of the British year are timeless and impose certain perpetual patterns upon calendar customs: a yearning for light, greenery and warmth and joy in midwinter, a propensity to celebrate the spring with symbols of rebirth…

[However] What is also plain is that the last couple of centuries, in this as in every other aspect of British life, have produced a completely unprecedented amount of change… No amount of nostalgia or anxiety for a rapidly diminishing or deteriorating natural environment can alter the essential irrelevance which it now possesses for the daily lives and seasonal habits of most of the British; however, this very fact may cause it to play an ever greater part in religious symbolism.

And not only there, I think.  Children’s literature – the work written “for children” and the work written meditating on childhood – seems to me often drawn to these natural cycles, and most of all to the changes of dark and light, for which the stores of story and ritual and symbol stand ready for writers and artists to draw on. I do wonder about the place of folklore and a kind of vision of archaic beliefs in the writings of fantasy – and marvel at the power of this time of year to bring out our need to explore these themes…

IMG_7731

*

Oh, I see you haven’t spelled Station right – and what is that about anyway?

I have, and this is my final point. To return to another of Hutton’s delightful side-comments, he suggests that Yule is connected not only to the world “jolly”  but perhaps to the word we know as wheel;  I can’t help thinking of the Sun Cross, the sign of the Old Ones in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and the ‘ring with the longways cross” the Oak Lady wears in The Box of Delights, but the symbol of the sun as wheeling around might suggest that while we think of Solstice as when the sun stands still, another version might be that it is that tipping point before a wheel starts to turn again. Nature holds its breath, much as St Bernard suggests we all do when the Angel presents Mary with her choice at the Annunciation (Nota Bene: this impassioned, dramatic passage from Bernard is set in Roman Rite breviaries as the non-scriptural reading for 20th December).  The holding of our breath: can we get out of this darkest time? The site Spirituality and Practice has a brief extract on Statio as the sacred pause.  The moment, maybe, before the liturgy starts, where everyone is standing ready, not awkwardly waiting but attentive. Birdwatching for the moment of grace. This is not to say that the Solstice is now simply that for Christian practice or post-Christian jollity – but that the winter Solstice in particular invites us to pause, to listen as the new world turns and does it all again.

 

*Bede is his source here. Hutton is, in case you are wondering, suitably cautious when we get to Easter and its original. 

 

PS:  The photo, by the way, is not an Old Way or my own Old Road outside my front door, but unexpected snow before Christmas a few years ago, taken on the feast of St Lucy, the old “Shortest Day” that John Donne celebrates (and I cited at the start of this post) and the birthday (not the feast) of Bl Lucy of Narnia. Well, sort of.

 

 

 

Geology and the Solar System

I use the Grandparental Reflections pages for occasional observations about my grandchildren. Maybe they are “incidents” rather than “ reflections;” Sleeping in the Bin and other such incidents are often funny and illustrate (a bit) the quirkinesses of children’s language. What follows is a reflection that came out of playing with my 6yo granddaughter, but is more a reflection than those short transcripts.  There isn’t a whole load of geology in here, or indeed the solar system – but they are part of the starting point.

6yo, staying with us, built a spaceship out of a box, wrote and drew all sorts of aliens on it, then in due course went to bed. The next morning, she and I went for walk though the local scrubby woods and out onto a disused car park. She was in her spaceship. We collected stones from the gravel, noted the Alien Squirrel, the Alien Magpies, &c., &c, then came back to my house.  What happened then was interesting, in that, with no prompting, 6yo asked for pens and paper “to make a book,” which turned out to be a catalogue of the stones and where we had found them: Hot Venus stones; Cold JupiterE9A68576-5A5E-42A6-AD82-BE280C2CBA9A stones; Cold Venus stones. She worked through all the ones we had collected, and, with the help of a “map” of the solar system, saw were we had been. She also checked them against pictures of rocks (see the photo), although not always with a great deal of success. All in all, the project took maybe 30 mins in the evening and 90 mins the next day. We had fun.

It reminded me very strongly of the kind of work I was lucky to do with children not so much younger when I worked in nursery, in the dear days when children could stay until they were five: enough time, and space and adult interest to follow a project through for a number of sessions, with purposeful writing and reading, and bags of talk from both adult and child, and curiosity and mathematical language and perseverance at a self-chosen task.

I’m not going to be so crass as to ask that every child gets these opportunities in school, because I know schools do provide children with all sorts of ways to learn and to practise what they have learned (although If I Ruled The World I would bring back 5yo into a nursery environment). But I was struck by how easily we (me included) look to Learning Goals rather than what makes for effective learning, in other words what we want rather than how children learn.  I remember when the first Foundation Stage curriculum guidance came out we had something of a battle to move it away from simple goals to paths towards those goals. It is heartening that some years later the current EYFS (para 1.9 in the Statutory Framework) suggests that effective learning can be thought of like this:

Playing and Exploring
Active Learning
Creating and Thinking Critically.

I don’t like the phrase Active Learning, but at least it can stand for the complex mix (muddle????) of hands-on activities, persistence, learning from mistakes… but do note that “Shhhh and listen” is not part of it, any more than it was in 2002 when REPEY stated that

every effective form of pedagogy must be instructive in some way

but that

learning is an interactive event, where the child actively constructs his/her own understandings within a social and physical environment.

Wouldn’t it be good to hear more EY practitioners – and I’d include KS1 teachers – using this language? What might a parent-teacher meeting be like if, in the kind of meeting that might happen, say, in the spring of Y1, a teacher reported primarily on how Child A or Child X approached their learning? If, in other words, we looked at how children learn with a greater seriousness, and if the formative experiences of early Primary School were described to parents and carers not by what the children have (and then by implication have not) achieved but by what has excited their learning?  Would this allow us to look again at discovery as being more than “look at what I want you to see,” as a teacher suggested to me recently?

This comes back to the heart of the current debates about the models of childhood we use, and the difficult questions they bring to the surface. Should adults so set up Early Childhood education as to prepare children for the responsibilities of later study, or work?  Is relationship simply a tool to make instruction easier? A red herring when our true role is instruction to make children able to overcome barriers of social exclusion? Or are children going to be allowed to rule in some innocent-but-not-innocent kingdom where their wills are supreme? How might adults boundary their time, their energy?  What is the role of parent well-being in the healthy family? Do children have to be the key agents of their learning, their behaviour, their relationships?

The title of this blog post was deliberately misleading: my granddaughter did not intend to learn about rock formation or the planets any more than I intended to teach her. What we intended was some nice time together, a rare occasion for just the two of us in a home environment, and specifically in outdoor and indoor play.

What come from it for me is reflection on the nature of the adult-child relationship, and not just at home, but in the educational processes outside the home too.  What is the child in the family? What is the child in the family in the school community?  We are at the heart of the argument Ruth Swailes and others have tried to engage Channel 4 in this week about a programme they plan to air tomorrow. In her blog, Ruth argues (and I agree with her) that co-regulation is the effective way for children to learn how to make appropriate responses – but the reason a programme about training your child using dog-training techniques is even considered is that questions such as the above are not seriously open to scrutiny.  There is still room for discussion in lots of these areas – but TV sensationalism will not help us.

I know that with the ways we are swinging and falling and dividing among ourselves there is little or no energy for this debate right now – but when might we get the time?  Because the dog clickers are ready, and TV companies want the viewers, and will court all sorts of insanities to get them: the discussions will not wait.

 

Emmett and Caleb and

The book Emmett and Caleb is a simple story about two friends, an exploration of friendship DE186CC4-0C87-4FD2-B161-7040A806FA69not unlike DuBuc’s Up the Mountain. Hottois and Renon give us a bear and a deer who live next door to each other, and we follow them through a year and through the ups and downs of their friendship. They live in a world where a deer can check the internet in bed, and where a bear can roast chestnuts.

Ian Eagleton has already laid bare much of the complexity around this relationship in his revealing interview with the author, which is linked here. Karen Hottois says so much in her responses I couldn’t better it. There is lots more, both in the book and the interview  – nature, landscape, the seasons, freedom: I’ve tagged this post “spirituality” precisely because of this richness and the interior life of the characters it reveals.

Sarah Ardizonne the translator has deliberately chosen to use the word “love” where the French original uses “aimer, ” as an indicator of the relationship between the two characters, and Karen Hottois is clear about her intention when she talks with Ian:

To me, Emmett and Caleb are friends but I did indeed deliberately write in such a way that they might be something else. First of all because I think that the contours of a relationship aren’t always clear-cut and because I wanted my readers (children and parents alike) to be able to interpret it as they want. Nothing gives me more pleasure than when I’m told that same-sex parents enjoy the book and can identify with it.

Let’s unpick that paragraph a moment. Hottois isn’t sidestepping the question about the relationship between the two animals at all; rather she is meeting a very big question about friendship head-on.  What language do we use for a strong male-male relationship?

To start with I want to return to this blog post from a while back. I based it on the illuminating messages of Dennis Tirsch, which I expanded to say that

The sacred is not defined by how it might be attained but by how it is  boundaried by reverence.

And this caution, this reverence, is what gives me great joy when reading Emmett and  Caleb – as much as when a friend calls me to meet.  It is there too in the physicality of relationships: hugs, the touch of a hand, whatever; and in the ways these physical expressions of friendship are like and unlike the ones that are part and parcel of being a dad, or even part and parcel of more involved romantic and intimate relationships. Except I’m not sure I like intimacy as a euphemism: Emmett and Caleb do not have a sexual relationship that we can see, but their relationship is certainly intimate. In a certain sense  whether their relationship is sexual doesn’t matter in the story: real intimacy is what is at the heart of the book.

Now, this sounds like a cop-out. “They don’t need to be gay like that, just really good friends” sounds like something from my parents, and that’s not what I think at all.  I do think that Love is a powerful word, and maybe it is scarily powerful for many men, but physical expressions of intimacy are not impossible. I take joy when I meet a friend in the Weston Cafe for coffee; likewise I have friends I can cry with, share poems with; friends I have taken a cup of tea in bed; friends I can dance with, borrow clothes off; friends I kiss when I haven’t got a cold; friends I have lent my dressing gown to (and readers of Emmett and Caleb will understand the references). With some friends I share really difficult stuff about my emotions, or about the pains of growing old, or the schlep of parenthood.  The Venn diagrams for all these would look like a kaleidoscope, and changes in culture change the patterns we discern, but it isn’t easy, because the word Love is not always accessible to men.

Sometimes that feels unfair: love is such a complex and involving thing, but it should be possible for men to use the term.  It’s there, but not nameable. It “dares not speak its name” because its meaning is so often seen as not complex, a simple dart of Cupid.  I cannot deny the two characters in this book that feeling, of course: books are interpretation places and anyone who comes to a book can approach it and savour it as they wish.   I can also see the tender and committed affection between bear and deer  at various points when they are tearful, or sharing the winter cold, or whatever – but it is as complicated for Emmett and Caleb as it is for us. I called this post Emmet and Caleb and because whatever the interpretation of their relationship, it stands for so many others.  They stand for me and my friends. When the deer and the bear struggle to express their feelings and they tussle about poems and messages, I am fully in agreement with Karen Hottois when she says that

the contours of a relationship aren’t always clear-cut.

This emerged last year in the context of professional use of the word Love, too, which I discussed and is increasingly present in children’s literature. In Keith Negley’s Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too) , which I have mentioned before, and which comes up in the work on masculinities and fatherhood Mat and to some extent I have been exploring, seriously characteristic, even caricature male figures – superheroes, wrestlers – are shown to have a similar relationship to their emotions. I am glad they are vulnerable – very glad this vulnerability is on show in a book for children.  Mat calls it an “optimistic and liberating story of starting down the road to a sense of emotional freedom for the modern man and father.“ Emmett and Caleb, too, live in a world where they enjoy the change of seasons, a last dance at the end of a party, thinking about each other’s birthdays… They do not live in a bloke culture where everything is painfully clear cut. And I am glad they don’t – and again, glad that this relationship is open to interpretation, to discussion, to ambiguity. My world is like that, too.

To concentrate on who Emmett and Caleb might be “in real life” or what that real life might consist of is to miss something important: the role of closeness in male friendship, a sustaining, honest closeness.

Emmett brought Caleb his dressing gown. They stayed there, keeping each other warm.

Together, like that, they could last the whole winter.

Yes, we read this and really believe they could.

 

Never Neat

I had a conversation the other day with one of the leaders, to my mind, of Early Years philosophy and practice, a man who describes himself as “Theorist by instinct, Pracademic by experience,” Jan Dubiel. We were thinking about how the transition into training, writing, Higher Education, &c., from Early Years is tricky because our first instinct is to think first of the wellbeing of the children in our care.  This isn’t really a high-minded and self-sacrifical statement, just that the practice of day-long working with young children is so all-engossing, it is hard to look up and see the other things looming.

I was talking to him while I was down at the allotment in the sunshine – that is, I was at my allotment in the sunshine; I don’t know where he was, but we were talking on the ‘phone, and when we had finished I watered, and netted, watered some more and picked courgettes, and I thought and thought about the lack of neatness of the professional world of what he calls the “pracademic.”   I think we crave neatness, sometimes, and whether we achieve it or not, it says something to many of us about how much we can control our thoughts, or professional lives. Maybe the single-minded, plan-ahead hunter caught the gazelle aeons ago and it stuck. I don’t know: if so, I expect my ancestors were scavengers…

But this neatness has down sides. It suggests, for example, that orthodoxy is linear, or internally consistent and somehow wins because of this. This in turn might suggest that the monolith of an educational theory or practice is valid because it is massy and impassive; those who oppose it are dashed against the rock of its certainty. I am very wary of it: life is too complicated, families are too messy; what general theory might suggest does not mean that it can be reduced to “all children must,” still less “unless you do this as a teacher, the children will fail.”

Life is not neat. If I were to extend the idea from this previous blog post I might suggest that the lived experience of the professional educator is a task not unlike the complex task of literary criticism: we might, as Margaret Meek says,

…take the simplicity of the words for granted…but each double-page spread with its three words of text is full of possibilities.

How Texts Teach what Readers Learn, p12

I worked this morning with marvellous people from Home Start, a charity working with “families who are having difficulties managing parenting for a variety of different reasons:” we read Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park, and (thanks to the complexity of the book, I rather think) they got my point at once.  These are people – often volunteers – who understand that all children are not the same; all families are complex, full, like a picture book, of possibilities beyond the simple statement, half-quotes from past lives, chances missed or taken.  The task of working with children and families requires a skill beyond the monolith, or beyond the first glance. This allows practitioners and practice-focused academics and trainers an interesting leeway: we are not joining a church, but enhancing the lives of children and families. Disagreement in one thing (or even a raft of things) does not make heretics, but can make thoughtful practitioners.

I did say “can…”

 

 

The Great Events?

55BCE, 597CE, 793CE, 1066CE, 1282CE, 1534CE, 1588CE, 1649CE, 1707CE, 1714CE, 1922CE…  pick your date for an event or series of events that define England, or Britain. There are others, and the ones I have chosen may say more about my poor historical knowledge or prejudice than anything. There are also occurrences which pass without comment at the time or which we cannot date certainly because no record exists: when really does Britain cease to be Roman? Or when did the last wolf die? Why does one date matter? Will the referendum on 23rd June 2016 be eclipsed by a final unequivocal date or will that be the one history picks as the The Date We Left Europe? The Date Things Changed?

We cannot dictate, and maybe can’t predict with certainty. Perhaps something else will intervene to take precedence – the failure of electricity, a catastrophic event such as the melting of the polar ice? What does strike me is that this simplistic history suggests that one date was important, and that the messiness before or after are somehow lesser occurrences that don’t matter. And that the massive changes were not contested, opposed, or that those who did contest were ridiculed, sacked, sidelined, imprisoned, killed. I feel as if I signed the Terms and Conditions for C21st without reading them, and I think of Tom Holland’s brilliant book on the Millennium, where in effect Western Europe did try and sign particular Ts&Cs only to find a new millennium just as complex and hard. A single date just doesn’t work. 1066 is one date: do we (and I need to exclude historians here, of course) consider the harrying of the North?

The counsellors in the decades/centuries of Christian consolidation; subjugated  Saxons after the death of Harold in 1066; recusant Catholics – all these people would attest that these great events are never simple. These “events that shaped Britain” were the cause of pain and unquiet: families divided, economic disturbance… and we are seeing the same in our time, in ways I never thought to see, never wanted to see. “Project Fear,” in which the UK suffers terrible upheaval, may not come to pass, or it may – but this evening I am wondering quite what will come. I suspect it’s going to be big, and an unpleasant change. I am gloomy, and predict a rowing back from liberties won, well-being improved. I feel the sharp tug of solastalgia.

Why is this part of this blog? Over the next few days I will have the pleasure of being outside with learners of various kinds. Some theory, lots of practice: a challenge for me, but a very welcome one. I will be making a plea – directly and indirectly – for the pleasure of being outside to be seen as a driver of a life well lived. Ecological wrongdoing in the Anthropocene will impact on people’s wellbeing; economic changes, greed and “austerity” planning may mean that parks and woodland will change. But I hope that people – maybe the young people I meet or the families they will work with – will still see the energy of plants and bugs and the movement of clouds and look for joy and delight and maybe transcendence.

Because all these things are transient, this Jeremiad included. And I think that with the little time I have, I want to help people find joy in the small things, and see our interconnectedness with bigger ones:

I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.

Yes, Mary Oliver does it again, this time in her poem Rice.

What Not to Read

Kieran Egan in his book Teaching as Storytelling suggests that topics should be chosen according to a model that starts from Identifying Importance (he is using The Vikings as an example), and asks

  • What is most important about the topic?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

He is asking the teacher to question how does the topic impinge on the child learner as “they begin to understand that the conflicts they see in their families and neighbourhoods and schools, and the conflicts they feel within themselves, are analogous to those that have shaped history,” and how “that values of tolerance, self-restraint and so on are essential for all of us to practice as prerequisites to civilized life.”  Although Egan does take this a lot further (of course), there’s more than a bit of “if I were you I wouldn’t start from here” in this approach to the Vikings – but if we think about this in terms of choices of books to buy for/share with children, it makes an interesting set of questions:

  • What is most important about the themes in this book?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

What books might I put in a pile that if I wouldn’t ban them I would sigh and think “Do I have to?” I wonder if this set of questions makes me think beyond my usual repertoire, so to test it I reach behind me (with a brief look at the lovely sunset 998976B0-CB3F-4424-BD5A-EE770D074DBBand a quick compulsive posting of the evening skyline) to find a book. The first to hand is the battered (and ergo much loved) family copy of the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Since I won’t be exploring this Potter in my Reading Spree talk on Saturday, it will do very well.  It is not my favourite Beatrix Potter but maybe that’s to the good as well.  Let me use these three questions on it, and see what emerges.

What is most important about the themes in this book?

Beatrix Potter’s iconoclastic red squirrel uses riddles to annoy the owl Old Brown when Nutkin should be polite. The tensions are around respect and the consequences of crossing boundaries of politeness. It seems to me that what is most important is rule breaking; tasks are not completed, authority is insulted, danger is courted.

Why should it matter to children?

Naughtiness and rebellion against authority are important themes in the literature of childhood. The Dionysian child brings Carnival and chaos to the adult world: in the Topsy-Turvy of Lewis Carroll, the child Alice is wondering but quite prosaic in the face of the Wonderland Carnival of the Hatter and the shower of cards that tries to overpower her; George brings chaos and murder by poison to his nasty, controlling Granny with his marvellous medicine. Squirrel Nutkin is a jester D4B73E98-8D7D-4D5E-A143-A529F50EDE2F.jpeg with “no nice manners” who takes his jesting too far.  These characters and situations matter to children as they explore the “what ifs” of denying respect, especially in a literary landscape where being good is rewarded.   With Squirrel Nutkin (and many of Beatrix Potter’s male anti-heroes) we are looking into the same, magically enticing world (although in reverse) as the unfortunate Bertha in Saki’s The Storyteller in that what matters is what happens on the disputed land between riot and being “horribly good.”

What is affectively engaging about it?

The uncertain territory allows for an ambiguous outcome, and thus a real sympathy emerges not for the much-put-upon Old Brown, but for his relentless tormentor. The storytellers who go down this path look for affective engagement with chaos and anti-heroes. No wonder the children in Saki are entranced; no wonder the reader delights in collapse of school authority in Matilda or the downfall of George’s grandma, or the disruptions in lives when the wind blew umbrellas inside out and whirled the postman’s letters up… In Beatrix Potter Carnival delights, but the trespassing Benjamin Bunny and the stoner Flopsy Bunnies learn their lesson. What seems to me to be engaging is the piling of misdemeanour on misdemeanour. How naughty can this get before order, tedious and safe, is restored? How naughty can I be before I get into trouble and the “mastering pressure of wearisome necessary things” (Saki again) returns?

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So this use of Egan is part of my method for my talk at the Reading Spree. How do we look at books when we are educators?  What use is this book that I want to dismiss as anodyne, or creakily outdated? I want to explore ways we can look at children’s literature that allow a sideways glance – and particularly at stories and genres we may not like. This is not to say that any and every book is worth wasting precious story time in a pressured school day, but may be something of a recantation of my views on Blyton or Dahl or Walliams or Rowling, on the Rainbow Fairies and the Mister Men.

Or it may not. I have already Tweeted Joyce Grenfell’s devastating critique of the fake and formulaic Writer of Children’s Books who clearly has never been to Make-Believe Land, and I may have to rant. There is already a section marked NSFW.