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.

 

Underland and Overstory

He still binges on old-school reading. At night he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter. Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks…There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it.

Richard Powers, The Overstory, Neelay Mehta

I read.  I read fast, slow, recite, note, on line, in paper books, out loud, in silence.  I’m not unusual in this, even in the binge-reading of some of the books that have come my way recently.  I do find it tiring, sometimes, even, oddly unnerving to see a TBR (To Be Read) pile mounting – but still compulsive. Like Patricia in The Overstory:

Then the reading, her nightly thousand-mile walk to the gulf. When her eyes won’t stay open any longer, she finishes with verse…

The walk for me includes all those classics unread, new books set to educate and delight, those well-loved books from the past that I have loved long since and lost awhile; re-reading is about depth but is also about limit and comfort, too (I finish with M R James more often: verse just makes me want to write)… The urge to read is maybe one reason why I go back to well-loved favourites ( for example, I have just got my third copy of C S Lewis’ That Hideous Strength*), even when tired at the end of a day.

Just sometimes, however, a pile of books present themselves that are of such quality that any sense of “one sodding thing after another” (to reuse the judgement on history from one of Alan Bennett’s  History Boys) is completely lost. As the title of this post suggests, they are Rob Macfarlane’s magisterial Underland and Richard Powers’ The Overstory.  In this case it’s two books: not really a pile.

“Reading,” Margaret Meek suggests, “demands explanations beyond the information given about the surface features of language, important as that undoubtedly is.”  It is with this in mind that I reached nearly half-way through Overstory and found this line, the culmination (or at least first-act closer) of the story of a botanist who discovers that forests are themselves ecological systems with their own means of communication:

There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.

The echoes with Underland and the wonderfully named Merlin Sheldrake do not need repeating. Woodlands are not there to be judged as needing tidying.   – except that the human users want things a certain way. On the way I often run, for example, there is a young dead badger: already a bit bloated, with flies on its fur and the sweet smell starting. Do I look at it as part of a massive pattern, a fractal maybe, which at my level is discernible as flies and fungus and young trees and older ones, soil that was the badger’s life – or do I impose my need, even the drive of my spirituality (misplaced, I think) to show it respect?  In reading Underland and then The Overstory, I know how illiterate I am, like Powers’ prisoner, here:

If he could read, if he could translate…If he were only a slightly different creature, then he might learn all about how the sun shone and the rain fell and which way the wind blew against this trunk for how hard and long. He might decode the vast projects that the soil organised, the murderous freezes, the suffering and the struggle, shortfalls and surpluses, the attacks repelled, the years of luxury, the storms outlived, the sum of all the threats and chances that came from every direction in every season this tree has ever lived.

Leave the badger by the path in the wood, move it, bury it?  Clear it up, and the pattern shifts: do we intrude by trying to make sense or enter the dance? Write about the history of Warneford Meadow in an effort to explain these scrubby trees to one side in what is grandly called a wildlife corridor? Look (as Paul Kingsnorth does in his essay on Burnham Beeches in Arboreal) at the networks of mycelial threads even here?  Maybe seeing it is our part in the pattern?  I confess that, in reading these books, I have been feeling elated and dismayed, disepmowered and propelled to try and and understand. And if we don’t try, then, bleakly as one character finds 

All that’s left to sell up here is nostalgia.

All we have left is commodification, where even story is no longer an invitation to greater understanding but simply the cheap tricks of landscape depiction, a collection of backdrops and no more.

Arboreal, Common Ground, Underland, The Overstory and so much magnificent writing all stand as a challenge.

Turn but a stone and start a wing

or miss the many-splendoured thing?

IMG_0245

 

_____________

*As a diversion: To me Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is a book at once of its time and horrifyingly prescient in its vision of popularist seizing of media and power that is accompanied by radical and appalling dehumanisation. I admire some bits (the almost-not-there Institute Director who roams the corridors: every academic has known him), I love others (the discussion between Merlin and the C20th academic who has to bring him up to date), and have to say I wince at others – not least the final paragraphs). Of its time is a periphrasis or maybe euphemism for the fact that it is all terribly clubbable, Oxbridgy stuff with a deep theology of sexism thrown in…  So why the re-read?

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.

Importance and Binary Opposites

The presentation on What Children Shouldn’t Read for the Reading Spree didn’t go too badly, and reflecting on what did (and didn’t) get heard has been interesting. A few messages went astray both from me and from other presenters, although the “reviews” to listen to are, of course, the people who were actually there, and caught nuances more than the powerpoint slides Twitterers want to argue with. Responses on social media have been thoughtful (and certainly less spittle-flecked) than they were following the first one, at least.  However, reading them does bring me back to Kieran Egan, whose Teaching as Storytelling was a key element of my 20 or so minute ramble. He asks

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

and then  follows this with the challenge to find binary opposites/pairs:

  • What powerful binary opposites best catch the importance of the topic?

Big questions when we look at storytelling and curriculum.   I suggest that they are different for teachers than they are for children. In What Not to Read I suggested we might ask “How do we look at books when we are educators?” and the same is true of how we look at the whole phenomenon of the outdoor curriculum and outdoor storytelling in particular – and in many ways, looking at curriculum is closer than using Egan’s probing questions as being essentially about storytelling.

There are tensions, binaries around ecocriticism and curriculum. Am I storytelling outdoors as a part of the Green Agenda?  How do I deal with a tension around book sharing and how we might orally present traditional tales – there are, for example, practical issues around books and outdoors (as we discovered in a session last year when it poured with rain)?  Teachers’ binaries will be concerned with these curricular issues; children-as-audience will be concerned with, as Egan puts it “the human adventure that began in magic and myth…” and they might be concerned with good and evil, danger and escape (Roald Dahl’s Goldilocks is a wonderful skewing of these concerns with his “delinquent little tot” and her fate at the hands of Baby Bear) or with destruction and redemption (I think at once of a beautiful and politically charged book I have discussed before: Michael Foreman’s A Child’s Garden).

So many binaries to disentangle, when the challenge from Egan is to find the  “binary opposites” that “best catch the importance of the topic” (my emphasis).   This is no small task when selecting books or stories for an outdoor audience; a huge task for teacher or school when considering why they might want to do storytelling and the practical considerations that arise from this plan. Why do we teach how we do?  What prevents us from running on the free rein of professional expertise and creativity?

*

To end with an esprit d’escalier thought about presentations and co-presenters at the Reading Spree, I will take a wide-angle lens view, and ask another of Egan’s questions:

  • What content most dramatically embodies the primary opposites?

This Saturday it was for me testimony from Simon from Whitby – of children in his school who had never been to the beach – and Nicki – a librarian on a TA’s salary, buying library stock from her own pocket.

I went the next day (Sunday) to a panel discussion hosted by members of the Blackfriars congregation about the impacts of poverty and austerity on the educational experiences of children in Oxford. The feelings of the three speakers (and including my Maggie), all in various roles in education, around the squeezed budgets of public services suggests to me the final and most obvious binary: funding and austerity. Life chances are enhanced by things like decent libraries and book provision (and excellent library provision and staffing such as evidenced here) in towns and schools: refusing to answer calls for better staffing and book stock is an ideological choice, to cut public funding and cut taxation.

Cut after cut and cut as politicians tear one another apart and us along with them. There’s a binary for starters.

 

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?

***

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.

Family

This is me:Me, study, Christmas

 

and my brother. 3378BABA-5EAA-47A0-939F-9BA534BA2A83

 

He is quite a bit older than me, and is, in fact, my older half-brother. This is the story:

Our mum has a baby, my brother Glenn, but her husband Jack is killed at sea in WWII. Eventually (in the 50s) she marries my dad, another sailor, Ray, and I come along. A series of miscarriages and my brother being abroad mean I am, more or less, an only child at this time.  Mum dies the year I go to University and my brother and I lose touch. We are eventually brought back together some ten years ago. I am, physically at least, quite like Glenn – to be honest, a shorter and -erm – less athletic version of my brother (and of his son, my half-nephew, Ben).

(I also have another half-brother and half-sister, Mark and Hannah, who are the children of my dad’s second marriage, to Val. Hannah is only about six months older than my oldest child, Joe, but for this post I want to mention Glenn and me).

Glenn is a fool and I am not. That is to say, his role in his local Morris side is that of a fool and I am in no way nimble enough to be a Morris Man. We share common interests in folklore, although mine tend to be bookish and his practical. We are both gardeners. We both have beards and white hair. I had quite a bit of contact with Glenn as I was growing up: I loved it when he came home, loved going on his motorbike from Blandford to Badbury Rings, loved going to visit him and his family – loved his garden, and walking on the wide beaches of the North East coast. In some ways he gave me experiences of outdoors, folklore and family that stay with me. Habitus. We aren’t twins separated at birth – but I am astonished by how strong I now perceive his influence on me to be. Was it really his dancing that led me to Wild Spaces, Wild Magic? How does his social circle of beardy beer drinkers influence my choice of appearance and choice of beverage? Was it our mum’s deep admiration of him that convinced me that here (in some respects) was what growing up was about? How, in the twenty or so years we didn’t meet, did those choices Glenn had made tell me about being who I am?

I am (as I have been before) reflecting on “history’s curved shell,” as R S Thomas says in his poem Eheu Fugaces, on how pasts come together in the present, on these strands of influence, and the more I think, the more I find the Nature/Nurture argument often too simplistic. There are physical differences as well as emotional ones, beliefs and life decisions we have made that are different, life circumstances (his losing his dad so young, for example) that are just not replicated…  Where do our choices come from, and how are they determined by people we meet, or see, or imagine? How do we look back at attitudes and choices?

*

To change tack: lots of things conspire to get me thinking about my family at the moment, but (for the purposes of this blog), I want to think about the struggle for identity so vividly described in Anthea Simmons’ Lightning Mary, a fictionalised account of the early life of Mary Anning.  In it, Mary is trying, with a “head full of pain and sorrow and anger” to establish what it means to be a scientist, coming from a poor background with numerous hardships; how does she identify as a woman without being seen as a potential wife and mother?

“Did I ask to be a woman? I did not… I hate babies and husbands and men and being poor and the sickness and the toil and the injustice. What have we done? Why are we to be punished so?”

Into Mary’s mouth are put the cries of impatience of generations.  Her mother responds,

“Whoever told you that life was fair, Mary? Not I. It is what it is.”

The injustices and hardships are depicted brilliantly in the book: her clashes with the landed gentry and “proper” scientists, her sustaining but troubled friendship with the precious young Henry de la Beche…  Mary becomes a real heroine, although as Simmons acknowledges in her afterword, her story is “profoundly sad,” and the novel ends, rightly, on a down-beat.

My brother’s and my story is not (so far!!!) sad, and neither of us, I think, is a frustrated genius, “born to blush unseen” but we (all) tread the difficult line between self-identity, the urge to be Henry de la Beche’s “friend and scientist” and Anning’s mother’s line that “life is what it is.” But our similarities and differences do highlight the ambiguities and tensions of upbringing and choice, of lack of freedom in various generations, of societal expectations. For us it is just ordinary life, in so many ways, but for Anning it was painful and frustrating.

“There were days, dark days, when I felt as if I had lined up for a race and then been told to take two steps back because I was poor, and then two steps back because Father had been a Dissenter, and then ten steps back because I was not a man…”

Anning in the novel is prickly and wilful, but also determined, resourceful – and ultimately doomed (the passive voce is important, I think) to be by-passed by the scientific revolutionaries with whom she deals. The book is a rallying- cry for young woman thinking about science as a career. It is also a plea for educators to remember how complex the stepping stones of privilege and the nets of disadvantage can be.

 

 

 

Understanding

Does an author (and I will use the term to mean authors and illustrators and author-illustrators; see below) always write with the intention of perfect clarity?

No.

Next question.

I’m thinking of a number of authors of books  children read whose writing has caused me to stop and puzzle. Lots of authors do it, and part of my problem with the Goodreads/Amazon way of presenting books (“What did you use the product for?”) is that too often this leads to a “Didn’t like it? Next!” reaction, the kind of literary equivalent of the whistle stop tour; this approach can (I’m not saying it must) mean we read to write the review and move on, just as we visit this palace to take that picture. “Rushing past… No more time to stay and dream…” as Dowland has it (look, for example, at this version from Les Canards Chantants) .  We actually need time to stay and dream, and puzzling over a book’s ambiguity provides some of that.

Let me very briefly take a few examples: Le Petit Prince; The Rabbit and the Shadow; My Brother’s Book.  I could go on, of course, but these are especially ambiguous in lots of ways. I may be displaying my ignorance here, and to others the answers may be very obvious indeed but

  • Is the little Prince in the novella a hallucination?
  • In The Rabbit and the Shadow,  how many characters have an independent existence? Are they all in a child’s play? Is the soldier, because of their humanity, the one playing?
  • When Guy dives into the maw of the bear in My Brother’s Book, is he already dead?

Notice I haven’t asked these first of all in terms of the author’s intention. I think it’s a different thing to ask “Who does Saint-Exupéry want us to think of when we see the little Prince?” “Does Mélanie Rutten intend us to see this as in some way a “real” adventure, or is it all in the child’s mind?” “Sendak plays with Jack and Guy in other work, and with the notion of death in Outside Over There. Is the Bear the same as the goblins?” These are not so different from exam questions that could be

  • Explore the role of the angelic in Le Petit Prince and Mary Poppins
  • In what ways might the Stag-Rabbit relationship in The Rabbit and the Shadow be a parent-child model and what does this tell us about contemporary models of family?
  • Discuss (with reference to both texts), how death is represented symbolically in the Winters Tale and My Brother’s Book (NB: use of the online game in Winterson’s The Gap in Time will gain extra credit).

None of these nine are, at heart, bad questions, and maybe my query could simply come down to something like “Is it always an author’s task to clarify – or might their work also challenge us to think more , to do some digging?”  We expect it, of course, in some authors (it is central to the work in the Wild Spaces Wild Magic project) and for example in Garner’s “adult” texts, Boneland and Thursbitch (parallels between these two and Le Petit Prince, The Rabbit and the Shadow and in particular My Brother’s Book have not escaped me). We expect it, too, in the Brontës, Sterne, Heaney (hence the digging)… we expect, maybe work for these connections, keen eyes peeled for antecedents, symbols. It seems to me the author makes a choice to be ambiguous: think about the mystery and half-told stories in Jane Eyre until the blunt (and beautifully timed) “Reader, I married him.”  Does a “children’s author” make the same choices?

I don’t think all do – but I do think they can do. I look at Mat’s exposition (again the digging metaphor) of Town is By the Sea or his discussion of the book with the artist here on his blog, and see that there is a real chance for children and adults to think critically and deeply about the books they read.   I also don’t think this always needs to mean that we can work through a line-by-line exegesis or pinpoint exactly where an illustrator is standing when they sketch, but that thinking deeply might mean living with and savouring rather than codifying and commenting on the subtleties of a text or picture. Barring the odd editorial mistake, we must trust the author to have intended a lack of clarity, an image half explained (Simon and the giraffe in Hilary McKay’s The Skylark’s War springs to mind), because life is not neat, every dilemma does not resolve like a Restoration Comedy – and as Saint-Exupéry (half) explains

On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur