ben waters

Lana Crowe:

It was a bright cold day in November, and the clocks were striking 'Jacqueline Wilson'. Having scampered across college into the literary realms of Corpus Christi's Pelican Poets and Writers, the arrival of the quietly-spoken, unintimidating and affable writer was simultaneously very fitting and utterly bizarre. I mentally recalled the Nick Sharratt image of the white-haired woman with all the rings… it’s definitely her. I felt as if I knew her a little already, through all of our mutual friends: Tracy Beaker, Lottie, Em, The Suitcase Kid, to name but a few. When empathising with her characters as a child, never did it strike me that they weren’t real, let alone that someone created them and that I would one day be mingling with her in some sort of Agatha-Christie-meets-Dead-Poets-Society style soirée.

In the Master’s Lodge, I felt like a toy in the most elaborate doll’s house I had ever seen: sitting under the magnificent chandelier, drinking raspberry tea and contemplating Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It was as if I had stepped into the imaginary world of children’s literature that we were about to discuss. And I had: the vividly multi-coloured fantasy of Cambridge that pulled me through my greyscale East London education was finally realised. For my peers, the thought of a Cambridge University poetry society would be as extraordinary and fantastical as Narnia – or, perhaps, as repellent as an Orwellian dystopia.

Dame Jacqueline Wilson is a powerhouse in children’s literature, with a career spanning more than 40 years. The former British Children’s Laureate is known for exploring gritty issues: she carefully introduces children to the harsh realities of life with sensitivity and a friend-like familiarity. Her books have also been successfully adapted for both stage and screen, from the BAFTA nominated TV series The Story of Tracy Beaker to this year’s stage adaptation of Hetty Feather. Last month, she celebrated the release of her 100th book, Opal Plumstead: set in 1914, it examines alienation and change by drawing on both the First World War and Suffragette movement. This coincided with Wilson’s appointment as the new Chancellor of Roehampton University in London, where she has been a Professorial Fellow since 2008.

Discussing children’s literature may seem simpler, more innocent, more buoyant, than the usual scope of a Pelican Poets evening – in the first session of term, we journeyed through everything from Ovid and Dante to Angela Carter and Florence + the Machine. But Jacqueline Wilson is not an author who shies away from sensitive subjects: her body of work addresses themes such as adoption, social care, divorce and loss. Just as her books synthesise entertainment with serious social education, the evening’s discussion was complex, political and insightful.

The first extract she read, from her novel Midnight, explored the difficulties of adolescence through the love-hate sibling relationship of the protagonist Violet. Once the hurdle of discussing Wilson’s writing in front of her was overcome – her first appeal for “any comments?” yielded nothing but an awkward laugh – a variety of reflections concerning family, privacy and even gender roles were unearthed. She also read an extract from Hetty Feather, which she wrote in cohesion with the Foundling Museum in London. The fact that a commercially successful children’s book can be centred on 19th century poverty, and successfully introduce children to the complexities of identity is a credit to both Wilson’s writing and her ambition.

The discussion moved on to other children’s texts: a wide range from Susan Coolidge’s 1872 novel What Katy Did to Karen McCombie’s Ally’s World Series. It sparked a plethora of responses – commentary and fond memory. The portrayal of disability in children’s literature was considered, for example, why literature plays an important role in showing children the differences and, most importantly, the similarities between those with and without impairment. The necessity for children’s writing – including Wilson’s own – to develop in accordance with a contemporary audience was a key issue raised. Wilson admitted that it was sometimes easier to write about children in the past than in the present, as a true reflection of today would involve far more Facebook and Twitter than makes for an interesting story. The representation of ethnic minorities in kids’ books was identified as a key way to move forward, with the current inequality described as purporting a skewed view of self and society that childhood should be free from.

The evening brought together students present and past, freshers and fellows, readers and writers, through revisiting the moments of childhood wonder that stories provided. By discussing literature about childhood as well as books personally associated with our own childhoods, I began to recognise a sense of childhood’s context-transcending magic. Literature is a way of reconnecting with memories, and it’s for this reason that writers like Jacqueline Wilson earn such special distinction.


Frances Myatt

Do you remember that age, far back in the mists of time, when you used to be able to read for fun? When going to the library was accompanied by a feeling of excitement and discovery, rather than a sense of mounting panic, because your essay is due tomorrow and you haven’t opened a single book yet?

If you do not look back on those heady days with wistful nostalgia, I am afraid you and I will have to part company for the rest of this article. For the rest of us though, only one question remains – how to recapture our lost childhood in the face of encroaching age? The answer is, “elementary, my dear Watson.”

There are few pleasures greater in life than snuggling up with your favourite children’s book on a chilly winter’s evening. The Paddington Bear books, with their gorgeous illustrations by Peggy Fortnum, are a personal favourite of mine, so imagine my delight when I heard that a new Paddington book is being published in November.

This volume of letters from Paddington to his Aunt Lucy should definitely be on any cultured person’s Christmas list, as should the Rupert Bear annuals, with their charmingly old fashioned drawings. Last year was the first that I didn't receive a Rupert Bear annual for Christmas. The level of my disappointment was beyond belief. To fill this Rupert-shaped Christmas void, I had to cheer myself up by reading some other childhood favourites, namely Katie Morag by Mairi Hedderwick and Aileen Paterson’s Maisie books.

Both books are beautifully illustrated. You may have noticed by now, I really like good artwork, and it makes me very sad that grown-up books don’t have pictures in them.

Even my beloved Harry Potter books have an acute lack of pictures, which is a shame, because they are otherwise perfect in every way.

However, I must admit that I haven’t actually read the Harry Potter books since they first came out – because who would read them when you can listen to Stephen Fry do it for you?

There is always an excuse for reading children’s books. I study Classics, and my ‘work’ during the summer pretty much consisted of reading Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter and Paddington Bear in Latin.

Similarly, MML students can read kids' books in a foreign language, English students can analyse their sentence structure, Education students can study the cultural impact of Harry Potter (which is genuinely a module at Durham), and theologians can critique Lewis Carroll’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For Archaeology students, you can even get The Tale of Peter Rabbit in hieroglyphics, which might be the most wonderful thing I have ever seen.

But who really needs an excuse to read children’s books? If anyone looks askance at you when you’re re-reading The Worst Witch for the eighteenth time, lift your chin and simply ignore them. I have no doubt that Paddington would say it is your solemn duty to give them a very hard stare.