Featured

Fascination with Frankenstein

A recent piece in the New York Times caused a flurry on Twitter because it included the sentence ‘With Jules Verne and the publisher Hugo Gernsback, he invented the genre of science fiction’. The ‘he’ in question was H.G. Wells and the piece was a review of a new biography The Young H.G. Wells. Changing the World by Claire Tomalin. The words appear to come from the pen of the reviewer Charles Johnson rather than from Claire Tomalin. Indeed, it would be surprising if she wrote this as she is also the author of a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley who, as academic Mame-Fatou Niang pointed out (in a post which quickly received more than 14.3k likes and 4k plus retweets), was the author of what is considered by many today to be the first science fiction novel Frankenstein. She commented: ‘This article continues the long tradition of erasing her’. 

While Mary Shelley may have been forgotten in some quarters, her creation Frankenstein certainly has not been, inspiring literature, film and popular culture, with a peak in 2018 around the time of the bicentenary of the novel’s first publication. The character of Mary herself has appeared in books for children and adults and in film – Mary Shelley(2017, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour) and on TV – an episode of Doctor Who (The Haunting of Villa Diodati) features an encounter that the Doctor has with Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Dr Polidori and Claire Clairmont in the place where the challenge by Byron to write a ghost story came about.

My own fascination with Frankenstein began with watching black and white movies on TV when I was a teenager. [Weird fact – actor Boris Karloff who played the creature in the 1931 film directed by James Whale was born in a flat above a fish and chip shop close to where I live now!] I remember buying a battered paperback copy of the book in the Book and Record Exchange in Hull and can still clearly picture the cover – an illustration of the monster’s square head with bolts sticking out of his neck as he appears in the films and a price sticker of 5p. I was also intrigued by Victor Erice’s 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive which opens with children gathering for a village community screening of the 1931 film and includes a scene that echoes one from the earlier film. 

During my librarianship training in the 1970s I wrote an essay on Mary Shelley as part of a course on the development of popular readership and it was then that I became aware of the idea that Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel when I read Brian W. Aldiss’s 1973 history of science fiction Billion Year Spree (an updated edition Trillion Year Spree was published in 1986) in which the first chapter is entitled ‘On the Origin of Species: Mary Shelley’. Aldiss says: ‘The last word on Frankenstein will never be said. It contains too many seemingly conflicting elements for that.’

The novel and the ideas within in it certainly live on. Earlier this year I compiled an annotated list of books for children and young people relating to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein which can be found here: 

Mary Shelley’s own life and her story of Frankenstein continue to inspire writers and I’ve described a number of those written for children and young adults in the booklist mentioned above. However, more keep appearing, offering interesting new angles. In Catherine Bruton’s Following Frankenstein the narrator is Maggie Walton, daughter of Captain Robert Walton whose letters to his sister begin and end Mary Shelley’s novel and who, in this new book, is obsessed with seeking out Frankenstein’s creature who was last seen ‘borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance’. In Walton’s quest he is accompanied by Maggie who stows away aboard the ship Moby Dick (there are many intertextual links with other literature in addition to the central ones with Frankenstein) and it leads to a journey which enables exploration of issues relating to parental abandonment and the consequences of perceived ‘otherness’ in the context of a gripping tale.

Another new manifestation is Frankenstiltskin in the Fairy Tales Gone Bad series by Joseph Coelho and Freya Hartas which is a magical mixture of humour and the macabre with a strong central female character. It follows the pattern of the Rumpelstiltskin story and features vegan taxidermist Bryony in the role of the girl who has to complete three tasks and then guess the name of the demanding ‘creature’ who has aided her by bringing dead creatures to life. 

Other new versions include what seems an unlikely addition to a Baby’s Classics board book series by A. H. Hill and Greg Paprocki. Also the number of graphic novel versions has swelled recently and I’m looking forward to checking out at least some of the following: Mary Shelley, Monster Hunter by Adam Glass, Frankenstein (Manga Classics) by M. Chandler and Linus Liu, Disney Frankenstein, Starring Donald Duck by Bruno Enna and The Modern Frankenstein by Paul Cornell & Emma Vieceli, all published during the last couple of years. Looks like a long overdue visit to Forbidden Planet or Gosh! Comics might be on the cards!

So does the ‘long tradition of erasing’ Mary Shelley continue? Her most famous book is deeply embedded in popular culture and there is certainly interest in her life too although this is entangled with the lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley and also Byron both of whose work is probably still more widely studied academically than hers. The fact that it was so easy for a reviewer to state that a later male writer ‘invented science fiction’ suggests that recognition for her work rather than for her romantic relationships is still not as deep or widespread as it should be. 

Currently reading:

Making the Monster. The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup

The Stubborn Light of Things. A Nature Diary by Melissa Harrison

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

Travel Books for Children

While writing an article about Robert Leeson (just published in IBBYLink https://www.ibby.org.uk/ibbylink/ ) I was prompted to look more closely at the oeuvre of another left wing author – Geoffrey Trease  – and was interested to discover that he wrote some of the books in the Young Traveller series that were published from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s. Trease’s titles were The Young Traveller in India and Pakistan (1949), The Young Traveller in England and Wales (1953) and The Young Traveller in Greece (1955). Intrigued by this, I looked more closely into this series, wondering about their contents and whether other writers of children’s fiction had also written for this series. The only name I recognised was that of Ann Thwaite who wrote The Young Traveller in Japan (1958) and for whom it was her first published children’s book. 

This has set me on the road to exploring travel writing for children in general and considering how it relates to travel publishing for adults.

It’s notable that the Young Traveller series was written by a range of authors rather than by one individual as it seems more likely that those writers will have personal knowledge of those countries, or at least have spent time researching information about somewhere they are genuinely interested in. Travel books are very much reflective of the time in history in which they are written as well as the political perspective of their authors. This was brought home to me when reading The Travel Writing Tribe. Journeys in Search of a Genre by Tim Hannigan (2021) which doesn’t touch on travel writing for children at all. In fact, it made me think about what travel writing for children actually is and who writes travel books for children and for adults. Hannigan writes about travel writers of the past such as Wilfred Thesiger and Patrick Leigh Fermor and interviews many currently writing, most of whom he acknowledges are white men. However, this is slowly shifting, with more women and people of colour writing about their journeys which, in part at least, frequently explore their own cultural heritage. An interesting example, not mentioned in Hannigan’s book, is Johny Pitts’ Afropean: Notes from Black Europe (2019) a winner of the Jhalak Prize and the Bread and Roses Award. 

In The Young Traveller in India and Pakistan two English children travel to India and Pakistan with their father who has been contracted to make a documentary film for children about these countries. In the wake of partition, international understanding is the aim. In an Author’s note Trease comments ‘no book about India or Pakistan can be quite up to date. Things change too fast for authors and printers to keep up with them. Anyone, after reading this story, will understand why.’

The father of Robert and Carol – Mr Woodstock – is of the opinion that partition should not have taken place. Trease introduces a range of characters with a variety of opinions and of different religions and the children are not talked down to. It’s understood that they are open to ideas and opinions. On much of the journey they are accompanied by an old army friend of Mr Woodstock from the Punjab referred to in the text by the nickname Ginger Whiskers (although his full name is Sheikh Surajjudin Bahadur, V.C., O.B.I.) and the children are instructed to call him sahib. He is the main source of information for the children and their father. His parting remark is: ‘Only one thing we ask you to do: make the young people of other countries more interested in us, more anxious to learn. There are books, there can be more films in days to come… If they wish to know more nothing can stop them. Just persuade them to open the door which stands between us, that is all we ask you to do.’ This is in response to Woodstock’s anxiety that he cannot put everything into his film. 

In The Young Traveller in Japan (1958) Ann Thwaite, who spent some time living in this country, also prefaces her story by commenting: ‘Readers may notice that I have said very little specifically about the political situation in Japan. This is because it is too fluid and too complicated, and political comment and prediction seem beyond the scope of this book. I hope, however, that the books will hope to make sense of any news items about Japan that may appear from time to time in the English newspapers.’ Readers get a contemporary picture of daily life and customs as seen through the eyes of an English family living in Japan for a year as the father is lecturing at the university in Yokohama. Not all the titles in this series are so nuanced, however. For example, in The Young Traveller in Australia (1948) by Kathleen Monypenny, the children learn lots about flora and fauna but nothing about the Aboriginal people who inhabit the land.

An earlier series was The Twins, all written and illustrated by Lucy Fitch Perkins, beginning with The Dutch Twins which appeared in the USA in 1911. Each of these books contains stories in a particular cultural and geographical setting with a pair of twins – a boy and a girl – as the focal characters. Some appear to be timeless, although doubtless life will have changed considerably in most places since these were written. Some are very much set in the historical period in which they were written, for example in The French Twins (1939) and The Belgian Twins (1940) the effects of World War 2 are omnipresent. UK editions have the same Introduction by Rhoda Power, broadcaster and author of fiction and history books for children, of which some of the latter were co-written with her (perhaps better known) sister Eileen. She praises the series as a godsend for those looking for suitable presents for children as she believes they cover the bases for adults who have different ideas about what such books should encompass as well as appealing to many children’s tastes. A more in depth examination of these ideas related to this series and other such series of the past (I’ve also come across ‘Little People Everywhere’, 14 books which were published between 1909 and 1916) than I’m able to do here could be interesting. 

In Matters of Fact. Aspects of non-fiction for children (1972), Margery Fisher questioned what ‘these story/fact hybrids’ are for – ‘Is their first objective to give a geography lesson’ – ‘Or are these fictional tours designed to fire a child with a desire to see the world for himself and to understand people of races other than his own?’ She also says that ‘travelogues for children must be very personal and vital to earn a place on a child’s list of favourites’. This last comment made me think about the fact that travel books for children are rarely written in the same way as for adults and question what the difference is between a travel book, a guide book for travellers and a geography information book. The first is usually a much more personal, first person account. The last often a book produced for the education market – often a series written by one person who has researched the country but may not have been there. We’ve thankfully moved on from the appalling ‘Let’s Visit’ series published as recently as the 1980s. Beverley Naidoo highlighted the racism in Let’s Visit South Africa (1967) which ‘told readers that ‘The Kung Bushmen have a tiny brain. Their language sounds more like the chatter of baboons than the talk of men’ and ‘Apartheid is a fascinating experiment.’ ‘  https://beverleynaidoo.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/IBBYconf2014-keynote.pdf  And I can remember that in Let’s Visit Iraq, the Kurds were described as ‘wild men’ who lived in the mountains in the north of the country! However, one thing that series did do, however badly, was publish volumes on many individual countries. This is rare nowadays. Series will usually only include a limited range of individual countries and many areas of the world will only be covered by a region or whole continent in one book. The choice of countries is evidently dictated by what publishers believe will sell and this is generally related to the school curriculum.

What can be considered as a travel book for children can vary enormously as a glance at these various lists reveal: 

https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2021/feb/07/10-childrens-books-take-kids-on-a-journey-travel-escape

https://travelmamas.com/best-travel-books-for-children/

https://www.cntraveler.com/galleries/2014-07-21/the-best-travel-books-for-kids

A recent glance at the shelves in the geography section of the children’s department of a large bookshop revealed few books about individual countries apart from reprints of M. Sasek’s ‘This is’ books first published in the 1950s and many of the remaining books were large format volumes comprising double page spreads about different cities around the world. The trend towards highly visual non-fiction books has led to travel books for children being thin on accompanying text and perhaps the way children find out about countries and cultures around the world has shifted to other media. There is clearly an appetite for travel books of various kinds for adults and many TV documentaries where (usually) men from Michael Palin to Michael Portillo explore the world. Did the documentary about India and Pakistan researched by Mr Woodstock in Geoffrey Trease’s book have a real life equivalent and are there such films and programmes for children today?

I think it’s likely this is a topic I’ll be returning to as I explore further current travel literature for children and adults and continue to delve into its past.

Currently reading:

Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

Beyond the Fragments. Feminism & the Making of Socialism by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright

Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths by Maisie Chan

Who’s in a name?

I recently saw a reference to Joseph Lancaster and remembered that there used to be a Southwark primary school named after him. I realised that I did not know who he was although I was aware that the school no longer exists as, in an amalgamation with Geoffrey Chaucer secondary school, it was subsumed into what is now Globe Academy.

So, who was Joseph Lancaster and what was his local connection? He was born in Southwark in 1778. In 1801 he founded an elementary school for the poor. As it was free to attend he found it difficult to pay teachers and used a monitorial system where older children, trained by a teacher, taught younger ones. There doesn’t appear to be a full biography but the British Schools Museum has this interesting information about him and his beliefs https://britishschoolsmuseum.org.uk/discover/joseph-lancaster/. He was clearly responsible for many children receiving an education who would not otherwise have done so.

Joseph Lancaster was not the only Southwark primary school named after a significant local individual where this recognition has been lost due to educational and political changes. There used to be an Eveline Lowe Primary School near the Old Kent Road. It’s now the Phoenix School, an appropriate name in one respect as it was ‘fresh-started’ in 2012, but also sad as few Southwark schools have been named after women. When it still had its previous name, I once asked a teacher there if he knew who Eveline Lowe was and he had no idea. At that time neither did I and, upon investigation, she turned out to be someone who deserves to be better known. Eveline Lowe was the first woman chair of London County Council 1939-1940. She was born in Rotherhithe, trained and worked as a teacher in Cambridge, moving back to Southwark when her husband joined the Bermondsey medical practice run by Alfred Salter. Along with Ada and Alfred Salter she founded the Bermondsey branch of the Independent Labour Party and represented Bermondsey West on the LCC and chaired the council’s education committee 1934-37. Alfred Salter is remembered in the name of a school founded in Rotherhithe in 1995. It’s clear from the school’s website https://www.alfredsalter.com/339/latest-blogs/post/152/alfred-salters-birthday that pupils are made aware of who he and his wife Ada were. There is public recognition of their achievements, including the riverside statues of them and their daughter (and their cat!), the Ada Salter Garden that graces Southwark Park, Graham Taylor’s biography Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism and a play by Lynn Morris Red Flag Over Bermondsey

There are several Southwark primary schools named after people, with writers especially to the fore: Robert Browning, Oliver Goldsmith, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, John Donne, John Keats. Robert Browning was born in Camberwell in 1812. The school named after him first opened as King and Queen Street School in Walworth in 1883, before changing its name in 1933. Art critic and philosopher John Ruskin lived at 163 Denmark Hill, Camberwell, for a large portion of his life in the mid nineteenth century. Charles Dickens’ connections with Southwark are too many to expand on here but one is that he took lodgings in Lant Street, the location until recently (and still close by) of the primary school named after him, while his father was in Marshalsea Prison. While John Donne was born in London and Oliver Goldsmith lived his later life there, I haven’t yet found that either of them had any specific connection to anywhere in what is now the borough of Southwark or more particularly to Peckham where there are schools named after them. The same does not apply to John Keats who is commemorated in the name of a new school opened in Rotherhithe in 2018. Keats was a medical student at Guy’s Hospital where there is a statue of him.

Staying with science, Michael Faraday Primary School, which underwent an award-winning redesign and rebuild in 2010, is named for the pioneering scientist who was largely self-educated and was born in nearby Newington Butts in 1791. 

There are two schools named after women. Charlotte Sharman was born in Southwark in 1832 and ran orphanages for girls, one of which was in West Square where the school is located. Judith Kerr, much loved author and illustrator of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the Mog stories and the trilogy that began with When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, based on her own experiences as a World War 2 refugee from Germany, was the patron of the bilingual school named after her in Herne Hill that opened in 2013. Judith lived in Barnes but the naming of the school is clearly connected to her bilingualism rather than her having a local connection.

It seems that it’s mainly primary schools that get named after individuals although in my memory there were secondary schools in Southwark named after Geoffrey Chaucer, William Penn and Scott Lidgett which have closed or were reinvented under new names.

I’ve found it fascinating finding out about this aspect of the history of Southwark’s education and I plan to dig deeper.

Currently reading:

Square Haunting. Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

The Chequer-Board by Sybil Marshall

Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Musical Truth. A Musical History of Modern Black Britain in 28 Songs by Jeffrey Boakye

Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland by Lisa Schneidau

Jacqueline Woodson – why are her books not available to children in the UK?

Last year I wrote a blogpost for the IBBY UK website https://www.ibby.org.uk/jacqueline-woodson/ expressing astonishment that children’s books by African American author Jacqueline Woodson are not published in the UK. She had just won the Hans Christian Andersen Author Medal and had previously received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award – the two most prestigious international awards for children’s literature. I was especially concerned that a UK edition of her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming had been cancelled and, having looked into this again, according to the Waterstones website, it has been ‘abandoned’. The publisher’s own website still states a publication date of April 2020 – a year ago.

I recently dug out an article I wrote many years ago for the Booktrust website (I’ve worked out that I must have written it some time between 2004 and 2008) entitled ‘Reading Our World: Multicultural books’, in which I said the following:

‘in this modern business world, children’s books go out of print very quickly if they don’t immediately establish a market. It takes time for teachers and parents to get to know about a book. What is new to teachers is often last year’s news for publishers, with the current strong emphasis on promoting the frontlist to the detriment of some very strong backlists. This applies to most titles, but it often seems to me, as a librarian recommending books to and compiling booklists for teachers and parents, that books by black and ethnic minority authors seem to go out of print disproportionately quickly. 

This was brought home to me last year by the following example. (I won’t mention the name of the publisher as I don’t want to single them out for criticism. This is a problem shared by all the large corporate publishers.) A book by an African American author was admired by some of the advisory teachers I work with and they wanted to buy several copies to include in a project. We also wanted to add it to the updated edition of our published CLPE Core Booklist. The book had been available in its UK edition for less than a year. When I placed an order, I was astonished to discover that this book was already out of print, having had nowhere near sufficient opportunity to become known among potential readers. I contacted the publisher to express my dismay. They were apologetic but said that the book had not sold well enough.

Although I did not say this at the time – the author I was referring to was Jacqueline Woodson and the book was her verse novel Locomotion. I remain completely mystified as to why her children’s and YA books are not published in the UK as I’m certain that Brown Girl Dreaming in particular would find an audience with adults as well as children. 

Message in a plastic bottle

Concern about the environment and climate change has resulted in a burgeoning of children’s books relating to these. Are they all worth the paper they’re printed on? Many focus on individual responsibility and what can be done at a local level – clean up the beach; reduce, reuse, recycle etc but don’t necessarily tackle the wider political issues. There are some great picture books about how getting rid of plastic in the oceans and on the seashore demonstrate that everyone can play a part in protecting sea and shore and the wildlife that inhabits them. These include Clean Up! by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola and Fiona Lumbers’ Clem and Crab which put across the message ‘Lots of small actions added together can make a big difference.’ 

When Greta Thunberg says ‘No-one is too small to make a difference’ she’s talking about protest and ‘speaking truth to power’ not just about the differences that we can make in our lifestyles, important though these conscious actions are. Unless there is political change on a global scale, the small local actions won’t be enough to save the planet. Understanding who and what are causing climate change is vital. At what point do we make children aware of this in the literature created for their consumption? For children in many parts of the world – for example, where there there has been frequent severe flooding or forest fires, they will already be aware in their own lives. 

There are some recent books that raise awareness and take that further step of encouraging activism, for example Naomi Klein’s How to Change Everything. The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other in which she says: ‘kids are often taught about environmentalism not in terms of how whole industries and economic systems cause climate change but in terms of things individuals can do, such as recycling and riding a bike instead of driving a car. These actions are important, and we all need to do our part. But unless they are combined with bigger changes, they won’t really rock business’s boat – and therefore they won’t make a significant impact on climate change.’

It’s necessary to make children and young people feel empowered by gaining understanding and the wide-ranging subject of the environment in children’s literature is something I’m sure I’ll be returning to in future blogposts.

Currently reading:

The Gifts of Reading inspired by Robert Macfarlane, curated by Jennie Orchard

We Played with Fire by Catherine Barter

Step Sister by Jennifer Donnelly

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Antonia Lloyd-Jones

First post

Welcome to my blog in which I’ll mainly be exploring my slan(n)t on aspects of children’s books, making links between them and other things that interest me including history, politics, cultural diversity, the environment, film, feminism. I may go off at a tan(n)gent about other things too!

After around 40 years working as a librarian with children and their teachers and carers, most of that time at Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, I’m about to retire but the world of children’s books is an eternally fascinating one. There are many themes I’m looking forward to exploring so expect future blogs to be on topics such as: 

  • Books about the environment for children and activism
  • Feminist fairy tales
  • Chinese characters in current children’s fiction
  • The representation of Arabs in children’s literature (my MA dissertation subject 15 years ago in which there have been developments)
  • The women’s suffrage movement 

You can follow me on Twitter @annlazim

In one of life’s serendipitous moments, as I finished writing the above, the doorbell rang and outside was a package with a selection of pre-publication proofs from Macmillan Children’s Books, including some that look like they will relate to some of the topics I’ve mentioned. One of them was Hilary McKay’s The Swallows’ Flight, accompanied by a letter from the author which begins with a quote from Emily Dickinson ‘Hope is a thing with feathers’ which is a good reminder to me to say that it was another of her poems ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ that inspired the name for my blog. I like the fact that ‘telling it slant’ could have a variety of interpretations. Thanks to my son, Haroun, for the suggestion of incorporating my name into the title!

Currently reading:

Red Stars by Davide Morosinotto, translated from Italian by Denise Muir

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Sisterhood and After by Margaretta Jolly

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew

At the top of the waiting to be read pile:

When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (graphic novel)