Wednesday, 9 October 2019

'The Explorer' by Katherine Rundell - a review

'The Explorer' by Katherine Rundell is a story about four children who crash into the Amazon 'jungle', survive, meet a lone 'explorer' living in an ancient deserted 'city', leave and very briefly meet up many years later as adults.

It's in some ways a very appealing, tension-filled novel, in which we very soon care about the fate of the children with events seen from the point of view of the older boy, Fred. It seems to have been treated in the children's book world as a 'good book'. Stylistically, there are some intriguing things about the way it's written: odd, quirky dialogue, sudden surprises and shocks, and a particularly odd and intriguing character with the 'explorer'. It's both an adventure and a mystery.

What happens if we chart or map the story using two theories: intertextuality and the notion of the 'colonial gaze'? Intertextuality is not an objective method. You can (perhaps should) use it in order to pursue how it is 'I' react to a story. If I do that, then as I read the book, I found links, memories and reminders of many other texts: 'Swiss Family Robinson', Narnia, Famous Five, 'Lord of the Flies', 'Northern Lights', 'Heart of Darkness' and Genesis - The Garden of Eden story. That is, the motifs, dramatic moments or scenes in the book had echoes (for me) in these other stories. The structure of the story involves the children falling out of the sky, separated from their parents or carers, thrown together, in a 'jungle' - an unknown (to them) place, uninhabited by humans but full of creatures some friendly, some dangerous (to them). One creature is 'attached' to them - a sloth. They meet a strange unknowable man who gives them knowledge but is also judgemental, giving a knowing commentary on them, and the world. We discover that his son died and this changed him. He passes on crucial knowledge which enables them to escape - though this escape is not a banishment. Even so, he urges them to do it. This strange man lives in some sense beyond what is known, though they have reached him through finding a map - also a kind of knowledge. It is possible to see the book as these 'innocent' children finding 'knowledge' which then leads to their exit from a kind of Eden, apparently untouched by humans other than the odd signs from the 'explorer'. He incidentally forbids them to go to his inner sanctum - an instruction they disobey. 

For me, then there are the motifs of the fiction that I mentioned but the overriding myth working in the novel is the Garden of Eden story with its core idea of innocence and knowledge. The motif overall seems to be the 'Robinsonnade' of the enforced departure of the 'western' person/people, the managing or coping with the hostile environment of the 'uninhabited' or nearly uninhabited world and the return from it through the ingenuity of the western protagonist.

If we put the notion of the 'colonial gaze' into the picture, we see that all events in the book are seen in narrative terms through the eyes of Fred, the older boy. Other points of view are revealed to us through dialogue, ie what people say. When we ask the questions of any passage 'who sees', 'who speaks' (ie 'point of view') this shows us who sees what. This is what carries the 'ideology' of the book, the ideas and attitudes of what is sometimes called the 'implied author'. (We don't know if it's the 'author's intention'.) This seeing and saying can be called a 'gaze'. Who does this gaze belong to: white European or post-Columban children and a man. The 'nature' being looked at is uninhabited but invaded by these people and treated as hostile. Clearly, this is not the only gaze available in fiction and I found it strange that it's uninhabited, an echo from the colonial era of treating whole swathes of the earth's surface as 'terra nullius' even though it was in fact inhabited. This territory (in the book) is then occupied, traversed, and treated ultimately as 'belonging' to at the very least the 'explorer' who is trying to keep it secret from the rest of the world but also for him, as if he is the person entitled to guard it, own it even. He has the arcane knowledge needed to tame it and work it to his benefit. 

For me, the book has as its core two guiding myths: the Garden of Eden and the 'colonial gaze' of western entitlement. As an adult reader in 2019, this made me uncomfortable, even as I was 'attracted' to the story and 'cared' about the fates of the children and intrigued by the 'explorer'. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Sensational leak: the Dear Boris letters - in full

Dear Dominic

Slightly snaggy: seems the swines have spotted that you don't have a membo card. I know a guy in Belgravia who's got an engraving biz who could knock you up something dated 1996. Needs must. Eat this note.

Magnus avocado in solipsis


Dear Boris

Your pathetic party is full of snivelling worms. I heard Hammond on the BBC (Marxist-Leninist). He should be sectioned or beheaded. Do it. There's too much dead wood in the ranks. Lop it off. Remember what I said: eat or be eaten.


Dear Dave

Are you in the country or on hols? Was remembering a chat I had with old Boffo who told me that while you were in college you had a tendency to leave a silent sentinel in the bogs for Matron to flush. Was minded it of it this week.

Solo excrementum in perpetua


Dear Boris

David is not doing letters, emails or phone calls at the moment. He's got a frightfully huge autumn coming up doing promos for his autobiog. and is taking a break-ette before the storm. We're all well. Who are you married to now?


Dear Boris

I am aware that you are avoiding engagement with the likes of the Channel 4 News Asian gentleman, you should, nevertheless, point out the advantages of leaving. I, for one, always mention the forthcoming cheapness of footwear.

Damocles Roma ludo

Jacob R-M

Dear Boris

Did you catch me on telly? Hope so. I kept to Dominic's script word for word so I hope you were pleased with it. I'm also doing my best with the face thing: keeping it cheery. Hope you spotted that. I didn't leak the wotsit when I was doing Defence. Really.



Dear Williamson

Don't snivel. I had a fag at Eton whose job was to tie my shoelaces and if I so much as reminded him that I like double-bows, would burst into a stream of apologetic mutterings. Awful creep. Remember, it's strength through joy.

In domine non cluedo


Cher Monsieur Barnier

Je suis dans le merde. Je desire que vous pr├ętendez en public que nous avons beaucoup de plans et discussions. Dans le future il est possible que je aide vous en business (wink wink, as we say en Anglais).

Anglia magna Anglia prima,


Dear Mr Johnson

Thank you for your kind letter. I will decline your offer of some financial advantage in the event of my deceiving the British public that useful discussions are taking place. I wish you and your colleagues a pleasant day in your Parliament.



Dear Boris

I don't want to sound in any way like some kind of superior head girl but from where I'm sitting (watching the tennis, actually), it rather does look as if you've lost your majority. Careless, or what? Whoops.

Best wishes


Dear Theresa

Last time I was ticked off like that was when Matron found me smoking banana skins behind the Music block. I can tell you for nothing that I've brought turbocharged grit and steel to this whole Brexit matter, not your dog's brexit.

In domine dominic


Dear Boris

Stuff the traitor who's buggered off. I warned you before that your shitty party is stuffed full of inferior genetic material. Eva Peron didn't need crap like that.


Monday, 2 September 2019

Reading for Pleasure - 6 free online resources

(This is a re-post so that people can find it easily.)


This is a 'matrix' of questions to help children talk about aspects of a book, a passage, a poem or any text.


This is the Open University's wonderful site to encourage and set up reading for pleasure practices in schools.


This is the National Union of Teachers' excellent booklet on reading for pleasure.


This is my matrix for understanding our thinking processes as we read.


These are my twenty tips to help reading for pleasure in schools. 


This is Ian Eagleton's site where he has 25 really great questions to ask pupils in order to encourage a love of reading - amongst other things on a superb site. 

[apologies these links aren't live; you can of course copy them and paste them into your browser]

Monday, 5 August 2019

What is Children's Literature in 46 questions.

What’s in children’s books? Why? Who are they for? What methods can you use to analyse them? Who decides which ones are good? How have they changed? Where do they sit in UK or US (or any) culture? How are minorities represented? How is class represented?

What is narrative? Is there anything distinctive or peculiar to the narratives of children’s books? Is there a story-grammar? Where do the motifs of children’s books come from? Have they changed? Why? How do children’s books reflect social change?

What if you study children’s response to books? Or how you could engage the children who can read but don’t read? Or how do children read race, identity, culture and ethnicity in books? What happens if you do free browse, choose and silent reading 20 mins a day?

What are the genres of children’s literature? But are there hybrids? How do children read genres? Where do these genres come from? What is the grammar of each genre? Is a writer a psychoanalytic player of types? Does the reader get to play? Or just receive?

Why were children’s books invented? Who invented them? What were their motives? Does this tell us anything about what children’s books are about or for today? How can I widen my knowledge about unusual, challenging, and surprising children’s books?

Where do children’s books sit in the multimedia world? In the
‘inter-mediate’ world? Does it slot in? Challenge? Provide an alternative space? Are its methods the same or different? Have the determiners of taste changed? How? Why? Is taste constructed?

Why is so much children’s literature interested in ‘Nature’, what is ‘natural’, what is innocent, what I’d obedient, what is not-obedient? Who decides the social order on children’s stories and poems? Who or what defies it? Do they get away with it?

What is the role of chaos and disorder in children’s books? As an outlet? Or as a means of social control? Who has control in children’s books? Is this questioned? By whom? Who narrates this? How does the method of narration control the perceptions of the reader?

Is there such a thing as ‘the’ reader? How do we differentiate readers? On what basis? Identity? Class? Gender? Are these categories entities or fluid? How do the books reflect the fixing or unfixing of these categories? Do the books construct the categories?

What is the sound of children’s books? Is it different from the sound of books for adults? Why? Is the child’s ‘ear’ constructed by adult writers? Or is it intrinsically different from the adult ‘ear’? How do we analyse prosody? Across what length of text?

What are different children’s intertextual knowledges like? How goes this affect response? Or is it part of the response? How can we investigate that? If we investigate that, does our method of investigating influence the data?

Three big ideological ‘institutions’ control children’s literature: family, school, publishing. But how? With what effect on eg authors, books, readers, parents, shops, homes? Who has power in this network?

What does it mean to know about a writer’s milieu? Does this condition, shape or determine the output? How? What are the mechanisms of influence acting on a writer’s output? In a contemporary situation is the reader part of that?

What is the role of fear in children’s books? Where does it come from? Who saves the child from fear? Who saves the reader from the fear? What are the mechanisms for this? What is the ideology of this?

If the world is bad, is it the role of children’s books to make it less bad? Why? If it is the role, what are the mechanisms and motifs which construct that role? Do any books escape from that role? How has this role changed?

Society is full of hierarchies, castes, classes along many different lines - do children’s books reflect these? Accept them? Co-construct them? Challenge them? Do some books challenge one hierarchy while reinforcing another?

What does it mean to create a text that subverts at the level of the signifier? Do signs and signifiers determine and construct a child’s world of perception? What hierarchies are there in this ‘world’? Is it possible to resist them?

How do children’s books handle trauma, distress, stress, detachment, loss, breakdown, dissolution? Should they? Or do they become part of the problem by trying to be part of the solution?

What is subversive laughter? What is the ‘carnivalesque’? Do children’s books represent these ideas? Which ones? How? Is the subversiveness contained? Repressed? Or released? Does the ‘economy’ of release’ apply here? What’s the tension though?

Are the motifs in a children’s book the ‘transitional objects’ of the mind? Symbolic toys to hold on to in order to help the child construct a meaningful world? Do these enable the child to detach whilst maintaining security?

What do we learn when we look at children’s books in societies different from our own? What do we learn from looking at children’s books under totalitarian regimes ? How did they try to control children?

What do we learn if we do an archaeology of our own reading history? Who constructed that library, that repertoire of texts in our minds? How? Why? What was the ideology behind that? Where did that come from?

Are children’s books contained within the model of ‘the realisation of the self’? But if the ‘self’ is a consequence of the interactions between people are there books which show the realisation of the group? The collective? If so which group? Why?

Freud posited the process of ‘projection’ by which we put on to others what we feel or fear in ourselves. Is this what writing is? Writers projecting on to characters? How is this refracted by the specifics of an adult writing for children?

Whatever the apparent, explicit or surface ideologies of a text, how do we know if child readers accept or resist or adapt these? If we notice ideology at work does that mean we overlook another ideology in the same text?

Writers for children have often been part of movements, participants in them - religious, political, social etc. How does this show in their work? Was this conscious and deliberate on their part? Or just an absorption of values or motifs?

Society creates marginalised people. How do children’s books represent them? From the perspective of the marginalised? From the POV of a sympathetic outsider? Does the book (or a character) ‘save’ the marginalised? Or are the marginalised their own agents in what happens?

If children are in an in unempowered category of their own and therefore marginalised, does every children’s book empower the child by giving credence and value to the minds, actions and lives of children?

What’s the role of ‘warning’ in children’s books? Warning’s a form of what-if. Is this adults imposing the disasters they can’t solve on to children (who can’t solve them either)? Are children colonised in order that adults can hope that children solve adults’ mess?

Do children’s books resist ‘othering’ or contribute to it? If you are an ‘othered’ person where do you position yourself in relation to a text that is othering you? Is critical literacy a matter of unravelling othering?

If a parent, critic, newspaper article or children’s book editor says, ‘You can’t say that in a children’s book’ - what does that mean? Why not? What does that say about the genre ‘the children’s book’? How is this genre defined? Who defines?

There are many ways to narrate a children’s book eg first person, third person, multiple. Narration can show less or more ‘interiority’, one or more POV. It can be less or more reliable. Is all this ideological in respect of it implying a view of the reader?

Books marked as ‘for children’ and are for, say, under-sevens, are in fact ‘for’ multiple audiences of all ages and various roles within parenting, care and education. So are they children’s books? How is this multiple audience spoken to in these books?

Books for self-supporting readers are frequently about the child’s relationship to carers, parents, teachers even if they ask what would it be like to be free of them. So are these books about adults? Yet written by adults. Yet written for children? Really?

You can only read with what you know. What do children know? What are experiences of life of the child-reader in front of you? What are the experiences of texts of the child reader in front of you? This is what they are reading with.

What is the role of the ambiguous, the indeterminate, the suggested, the inexplicit in children’s books? Does it offer autonomy to the reader’s speculations? Or evade necessary choices? Project loss of nerve at a time of crisis?

Every act of reading involves the reader in an act of making analogies between what's read and something in the reader’s life. Does this help us develop an objectivity towards ourselves?

If you dissect out the motifs and story-grammars of books for adults, how many of these motifs etc are found in (and therefore learned through) children’s books?

Many (most?) children’s books involve resolution or redemption or a ‘return’ to a real or metaphorical ‘home’ or a restitution of the previous disorder or imbalance or crisis. Why? Why can’t the dilemma or crisis just carry on?

How many children’s books are in part self-help parenting manuals? Roald Dahl hoped that ‘Matilda’ would help reform adults - either the adults who read it, or the adults the child reader’s of the book would become.

‘A hand on a table. There is something under the hand.’

These two sentences represent the core method of writing: it ‘reveals’ some facts but ‘conceals’ others. This is in order to encourage us to read more. What are the 1000 methods of Reveal-Conceal?

What is ‘tradition‘ in children’s literature? Whose tradition? How many traditions? Is it the job of children’s literature to find, explore, display many traditions? How can it do this? What are the obstacles to it? Who writes these many traditions? Who reads them?

Free indirect discourse in written texts represents the interiority of characters without saying that it is (ie no tags such as ’she thought’). Does artwork in children’s books often do the same?

We all experience loss, children ‘lose’ the 100% attachment of the mother and other kinds of attachment too. Stories often picture or represent detachment. Do these ‘contain’ the child’s troubled feelings in a ‘safe’ way? Do they begin a conversation about them?

Society brings us together in collective efforts to produce things, but we own these things individually - most noticeably with the profits of production. Do we see this contradiction symbolically in fiction for children? (eg in ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’? )

In ‘The Tinder Box’ we see the symbolic enactment of the destruction of the aristocratic ruling order AND a yearning to be part of it - all in the one story for children. Is this what eg Macherey and Jameson mean by ‘contradiction’ in fiction?

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Review of my book 'The Author' - a study of how and why we write.

"I've never read anybody's Ph.D before but Rosen's is as readable as 'We're Going On A Bear Hunt'.  Alright, chapter 2 setting up the theoretical framework is a bit (stumble, trip) harder going but I gobbled the rest of it up as quick as Goldilocks gobbled up the right sort of porridge.

Written in 1997, Rosen's analysis of his own socio economic background and of its influence on his writing - including in-depth analysis of twelve poems in his book of children's poetry "You Wait Til I'm Older Than You!" (Puffin)  is fascinating. There's also some interesting historical background about children's literature and poetry and plenty of acute insight into inter-class relations (I enjoyed the little paragraph about the tensions between working class artisans and the intellectual middle class, for instance).

Moreover, for writers, this is a book that will make you think more deeply about your own relationship with class and material reality and how it has influenced your decision to be a writer and your writing itself. You also get the very enjoyable poems from 'You Wait Till I'm Older Than You'. Absorbing stuff!"
Justin Coe

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Tragic! But is it tragedy?

At some point in my education (possibly reading John Holloway on tragedy)I learned to view classical tragedy as (crudely) hubris or corruption in the entity of the King/hero causing chaos in the 'polis' - the city, the society or amongst the public.

One of the enjoyments of Shakespeare is listening out for laments and complaints by people (often walk-on good guys) saying how the 'polis' is falling apart - you hear it in e.g. 'King Lear' 'Hamlet'  and 'Macbeth'. The good/natural order is giving way to bad disorder.

It's then curious for me to open a school edition of e.g. 'Macbet'h and see no mention of this. Isn't one of the interesting things about Shakspeare that he took the Graeco-Roman view of 'tragedy' and made it work for a modern audience by putting modern (then) anxieties in?

So, in 'Macbeth' - aside from getting the view of the 'good' monarch (anything about or said by Duncan and Malcolm) we hear about the *effect* of the bad/evil ruler on the rest of society. That's the 'tragedy' not just that the evil ruler killed his mates.

So, one of the great advantages for us watching this sort of thing now is that we can (totally anachronistically) map this 'corruption at the top spreading downwards' on to rulers and societies in the world today.

So tragedy isn't just 'sad stuff that happened'. Tragedy in classical drama is social. It's what affects the whole 'polis' caused by errors/evil/hubris/corruption/pride at the top. The cause of this hubris may be e.g. greed, ambition etc but the effects are everywhere.

'Alas, poor country, 
Almost afraid to know itself!
...sighs and groans and shrieks, that rent the air
Are made, not mark'd
....good men's lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.' 
(from 'Macbeth')

"Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack'd 'twixt son and father...the King falls from bias of nature; ... there's father against child...Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves."
(from 'King Lear')

In 'Romeo and Juliet', the 'hubris' is mapped on to the two families: it's their feud: 
"In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, 
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, 
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean." 

A warning that the whole 'polis' gets drawn into the feud.

All tragedies end with a new order - which, in my subversive way, I always read as future disaster. I start to imagine how the new order could or will go wrong...!