Seeing Myself in Children’s Fiction

My Feelings Exactly

My Feelings Exactly

Growing up in the 60s and early 70s, on a working class estate on the south edge of Edinburgh that was gradually being abandoned, where all the traditional industries that sustained the community had disappeared, it was difficult to see myself in the children’s fiction of the era.

I eventually found Kes but that was way too near the bone by the time I read it. I wanted the lifestyle that was fostered onto the working class by the slew of middle-class fiction out there. Swallows and Amazons, Secret Seven, Secret Garden, all those lovely little comfortable adventures that the middle class could have. The ones where there is slight peril/adventure but everyone is home in time for tea and there would actually be food on the table.

There was nothing representing the crushing poverty, violence and ignorance of my actual daily life, where was the glue-sniffing, where was the stealing to eat, where was the regular after pub hours brawls, the sectarian football murders, where was the wondering if you are going to get new underwear and socks this year, you know, all the fun things in life.

There was none of that, it was never acknowledged by anyone that we lived shit lives and our children and so on would probably continue living those shit lives as there was no way out that we knew of or were ever told about.

This was all exacerbated by an education system that didn’t value us or see any prospect for us either and aimed at getting us through the system with a rigid minimum of qualifications/education, enough to shoot a gun, take a bullet or jockey a till. Teachers at the end of their teaching career and extremely jaded or so bad that the only posts they could get were in sink estate schools were our inspiration.

I was fortunate in that I had my Nan, she encouraged me to read and read widely always saying, ‘No matter what else they take away they can never take that from you.’, unfortunately I never really understood this until I was much older and working with children myself. I also had a wonderful primary teacher, Miss Lawson, who again encouraged my love of reading and writing, letting me have my head and pushing more difficult books on me when I looked comfortable for them.

There were also the wonderful library services in the town, both locally and in the centre. Always helpful and friendly, encouraging and a place to feel safe for a few hours a day.

Even though I had these wonderful champions of reading in my life, by the age of nine I had rejected children’s literature in favour of horror, science fiction and fantasy, they gave me places where I could go to escape the harsh realities of the life around me or revel in the violence of other worlds.

There was no way that using and producing words was seen or encouraged as a way of making a living, or even as a way of expressing thoughts and feelings, never mind developing them as an art form.

Mining, brewing, army, or prison were the best the careers officer could offer (and the first two had been reduced to such a perilous state that they were a non-starter), boy soldier or drug dealer was the traditional route to making a living.

No thoughts of further (never mind higher) education were put forward by school or parents who had accepted their lot in life, unless you were a girl of course and wanted to be a hairdresser or beautician.

Like every other group good representation is desperately needed to encourage people to believe that they have and are of value. Representation of the working class in children’s literature is better now than it has ever been but more still has to be done to get more positive messages out there, and with the massive cuts education has seen over the last decade (and before) this is hard but hopefully not impossible.

I finally feel positive about stating I’m working class and that is where I came from, but it has taken 38 years to get there.

[updated 07/06/2022]


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Vesper Flights

Helen Macdonald. Vintage. (272p) ISBN 9780099575467

Vesper Flights

Vesper Flights

I’ve just returned to work after almost nine months of furlough and decided to use the walk to and from work as an opportunity to listen to audiobooks now that I’m enjoying them.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald was the first of my walking books, and I’ve been saving it to be that as I thought a collection of non-fiction essays would be perfect to start this new routine.

Helen read the audiobook which made these personal essays all the more poignant, as though they were about nature there was an aspect of them which were about her personal life and this thread wove through them all so deeply.

Lots of warmth and humour enveloped me as I found out about different animals, habitats, and parts of Helen’s life.

I especially loved the essay about the swiftlets and the cricket match, the waiting, then the applause. But my favourite essay ended with some cattle stalking though I was entranced through every word.

Will have to search out H is for Hawk on audiobook if it exists.


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Hungry

Grace Dent. HarperCollings. (304p) ISBN 9780008333188

Hungry

Hungry

I was lucky enough to get an advanced reading copy of Hungry from Hachette and was so pleased when it arrived almost the next day.

It was going to be my whole reading for a whole weekend and I was going to savour it to the full, taking bite-sized reads throughout the weekend, but that wasn’t to be as it was so delicious I had to gulp it down in a couple of ravenous sittings.

I will be updating this review when the completed copy comes out as there are several quotes I want to add to the review that made me bark with laughter, especially the one about working class and bohemians in North London.

I’ve always looked forward to Grace’s writings about food (well anything really) as her sense of humour and turn of phrase are so readable, wry, and very perceptive. This book is no different, looking at her and her family’s relationship with food and with each other from her start in metropolitan Carlisle with her normal wit and flowing prose.

The move from Carlisle to London and working in magazines was as hilarious as it was revealing, both of Grace and the industry, how important class, uncles, and other helping hands are to working in media/publishing in London were (and as we all know still are).

Yes it is humorous, yes it takes a fun look at food, but as the book goes on we share her more of her families developing relationships and what goes on with ageing.

The last scene had me in all out tears, this wasn’t really a surprise as they were welling at various points throughout the whole book but that very last scene was a full-on emotional wringer. A really brave book well worth a read.

Out on 29th of September 2020.


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Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Vashti Harrison. Penguin. (96p) ISBN 9780241346846

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Another great addition to the short history type books that are being developed on a lot of different subjects but especially so on women who’ve been hidden from history.

As the name states this book is about black women in history, mainly from the 18th century up until recent times, a little biography about the subject with some great illustrations to accompany them.

The illustrations are really cute but also very strong and seems to capture the individuals personality well.

Like all these snippet-history books Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History is a springboard into learning more and exploring histories that are often hidden or forgotten.


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