Children's books have spawned an excess of silliness in the media lately. First of all there was Ruth Graham's article on Slate, which told its readers, in no uncertain terms that:
"Adults should be ashamed of reading literature written for children".
Oh dear. That's me with my knuckles rapped, then.
The same day, the perennially anti-escapism Richard Dawkins weighed in with his opinions on fantasy and fairytales, saying
"I think it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism".
Now I took issue with Professor Dawkins (aka 'The Frog') on this very subject back in 2008, with a piece called 'Long Live the Fairytale', and I still stand by the words I wrote.
To be honest, I'm just a bit fed up with having to get up and shout against this sort of thing, so I'm not going to go into a long and involved rant here. Luckily for me, there are many other people who can do that far better and more articulately - Non Pratt (on reading YA)
last week, and Philip Pullman (on Fairytales)
back in 2011 - to name just two.
From a personal point of view, I am what might be called an omnivorous reader. Last week it was Jennifer Worth's accounts of midwifery in 1950's London, before that Jung Chang's fascinating biography of the Dowager Empress Cixi, as well as some excellent UKYA by Tanya Landman and Claire McFall - one a historical novel about the American Civil War and the other an almost literally heart-stopping thriller. I read letters, I read diaries (because I'm damned nosy). I read literary novels, I read crap detective stories. I read erotica and travel, politics, the classics and deep, dusty tomes on mythology, ancient religions and shamanism, picture books, chapter books and middle-grade fiction. Even the backs of cereal packets if I'm really desperate (I recommend Rude Health ones).
I write all sorts of different stuff too - from very young picture books about grubby pirates and tree-snipping bears through retellings of old myth and folklore to novels about fairy folk, dragons and ancient queens.
The point I'm trying to make here is that I'm not ashamed of any of it. Not the reading, not the writing - and why the hell would anyone think they have the right to tell me I should be? I LIKE reading YA. It gives me a different sort of reading pleasure to, say, Austen or Tolstoy or Zadie Smith or Donna Tartt or Malcolm Gladwell - but I happen to think that's ok.
Same goes for the writing. I LIKE making weird and fantastical stories up for kids of all ages (including ones about fairies and gods). From the fan-mail I get, and the interactions I have with kids in the schools I visit, I think my readers appreciate it too. In my opinion, fairytales and fantasy feed the mind, they don't corrupt it, and I still don't think Mr Dawkins gives children enough credit for intelligence. What I said back in 2008 is as relevant to me today as it was then, so I'll leave you with this thought:
"A child’s mind is absolutely capable of containing many ‘once upon a times’ and evidential scientific formulae all at the same time—and what’s more, distinguishing entirely successfully between the two without any harmful effects whatsoever."
Stick that where the sun don't shine, Professor. Thanks all the same, but I'd rather listen to Einstein.
"A rollicking story and a quite gloriously disgusting book that children (especially boys) will adore!" Parents In Touch magazine
"A splendidly riotous romp…Miss the Captain’s party at your peril." Jill Bennett
"An early candidate for piratey book of the year!" ReadItDaddy blog
"A star of a book." Child-Led Chaos blog
"A splendid reminder of the wonder of the oldest of stories…should be in every home and classroom" The Bookseller
Lucy's brand-new and sparkly Website
Today National Non-Fiction Day is being celebrated across the UK, highlighting all that is brilliant about non fiction and showing that it’s not just fiction that can be read and enjoyed for pleasure.
My small contribution is a review of a family science book, The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins.
In this ambitious book, richly and imaginatively illustrated throughout by Dave McKean, Dawkins sets himself the task of answering some of the really big question of life, exactly the sort of questions you hear from the mouths of children including “Are we alone?” and “Why do bad things happen?”
Over the course of 12 chapters Dawkins tackles these questions head on, also exploring key aspects of space, time and evolution along the way. He begins almost every chapter with examples of myths (from all over the world, from all different sorts of traditions) about the topic in question before moving on to explore the scientific explanation for the phenomenon under discussion.
This video gives a great summary of the book from Dawkins himself:
The Magic of Reality is no dry academic tract. Rather Dawkins takes on the role (almost) of intimate storyteller. He adopts an informal, colloquial manner focusing throughout the book on showing us what he calls the “poetic magic” of science, that which is “deeply moving, exhilarating: something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more alive.”
Dawkins’ friendly tone and his inclusion of stories about rainbows, earthquakes and the seasons make The Magic of Reality an eminently readable book, especially for readers with no or little background knowledge. There’s a lot of the pace, suspense and beauty you might associate with a great novel in Dawkins’ book. Indeed, Dawkins really seems to me to be trying to tell a story (albeit a true one) rather than simply sharing and contextualising a lot of scientific facts.
Perhaps a conscious decision to make the book read like a story is behind the decision not to include any footnotes, suggested further reading or bibliography. This I found frustrating; Dawkins’ succeeded in getting me curious, getting me asking questions about the issues he discusses, and although I would have liked to know more, he doesn’t provide any suggestion for where to go next. That said, the lack of references does help the book flow and feel quite unlike a hard hitting science book (though that is exactly what it is).
As a result of reading The Magic of Reality I got out our prisms and made rainbows with M and J - for them it really was magic to see the colours appear "from nowhere"
Dawkins’ storytelling approach also means that The Magic
SLJ represent! Though I could not attend this year’s KidLitCon (the annual conference of children’s and YA bloggers) many others did and they have all posted links to their recaps of the event here. So while I could not be present, fellow SLJ blogger Liz Burns of Tea Cozy showed up and has a fabulous encapsulation of that which went on. Lest you label me a lazy lou, I did at least participate in a presentation on apps. Yes, doing my best Max Headroom imitation (ask you parents, kids) I joined Mary Ann Scheuer and pink haired Paula Wiley. It went, oddly enough, off without a hitch. Attendees may have noticed my gigantic floating head (we Skyped) would occasionally dip down so that I seemed to be doing my best Kilroy imitation. This was because the talk happened during my lunch and I wanted to nosh on some surreptitious grapes as it occurred. You may read Mary Ann’s recap here and Paula’s here, lest you fail to believe a single word I say.
- Speaking of Penderwicks, the discussions fly fast and fierce over at Heavy Medal. To my infinite delight, both Jonathan AND Nina are Penderwick fans. Wow! For the record, I agree with their thoughts on Amelia Lost as well. That book has a better chance at something Newberyish than any other nonfiction this year. This could well be The Year of Amelias (Jenni Holm has an Amelia book of her own, after all).
- Heads up, America! According to an article in The Guardian, “The debt-laden businesses behind some of the biggest names in childrens’ TV and books are selling off some of the nation’s best-loved characters.” Personally, I figure the Brits can keep their Peppa Pig. It’s Bagpuss I want. Or The Clangers. I grew up watching Pinwheel on Nickelodeon so I’ve an affection for these. Any word on the current state of King Rollo?
- Aw yeah. Authors talking smack about authors. Granted it’s living authors talking about dead authors (dead authors talking about living authors is a different ballgame entirely) but it’ll stand. Two dude who write for kids break down J.M. Barrie, The Yearling, etc. and then end with unanimous praise for what I may consider the world’s most perfect children’s book. Go check ‘em out.