Banal, Brutal and Bad: Stories of snobbery and children’s literature

There’s been a one-two punch in the news this week against children’s books. First, The Guardian posted an article from an author who thought children’s books were ’embarrassing’ until she tried to write one. She discussed how she’d banned her students from writing children’s fiction in order to give them ‘fresh and complex experiences’, which apparently you can’t get from writing or studying kidlit. The author did have a slight change of heart; she admitted that ‘Writing children’s fiction has made me understand how it can be worthy of study’, but still insisted that ‘good children’s fiction often does bad things’ – bad things that the super-serious field of adult literature, apparently, does not.

Then the second punch landed, this time from The Times, which featured a headteacher who had removed certain books – including the Alex Rider and Percy Jackson series – from his school’s reading list for being ‘simplistic, brutal [and] banal’. (Funnily enough, the simplicity of some of the replacement books, like the Just William series, wasn’t mentioned). He made a strange and baffling argument that reading “bad books” leads a person to develop less empathy than those who read “good books”, and claimed that he had chosen his replacements because they were ‘not just plot, plot, plot, but a slow opening-up of characters and their relationships, their arguments and how they resolve them. All the things that happen in real life, as opposed to decapitating zombies or staking vampires: those things do not happen’.

Well, no shit. But as anyone who’s read even a little bit of fantasy, sci-fi, or children’s literature knows, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The best made-up worlds have believable and relatable characters; a racing plot can push the protagonist to their limit and expose everything about their psyche; and zombies and vampires are a cultural barometer measuring the fears and concerns of whatever era spawned them.

I hate snobbery about children’s literature, to the point where I take it altogether too personally. I once left a conversation at a party without another word after the man I was speaking to told me that my PhD in kidlit was “literally a Noddy degree”. I write, read, study and teach children’s stories; they’ve become the way I process and interpret the world, and I can tell you for sure that while they certainly can be brutal, and sometimes simplistic, they’re anything but banal.

The children’s book I’m currently writing, Sigyn, has taken me three years to get right. In writing it, I’ve had to get my head around not only Norse myth and Viking history, but complex interpersonal relationships – there’s a toxic family situation, and a sister-sister bond that’s built on equal parts love and jealousy. I’ve read and listened to genderfluid people’s experiences, and attempted to learn how to (and how not to) represent trans people in fiction (something I am certain I will make mistakes on, and will always need to learn more about). I’ve considered and built up years of backstory and context for the fantasy world I’ve created. And I’ve also put in fart jokes, fighting, and a giant werewolf attacking a castle.

When I started writing Sigyn, I was also working on my PhD in children’s literature. I analysed representations (stereotypical and counter-stereotypical) of Native American characters in young adult fantasy. This led me to look at the Gothic, queer theory, postcolonialism, Native American literary criticism, feminist theory, and at various social and political movements. The books I was looking at? Teen romances featuring vampires and werewolves (and yes, that included Twilight).

Books contain worlds, and children’s books are no exception. A book may contain shorter words or less convoluted plots (and I say may, because there are many incredibly complex children’s books, and many incredibly simply-written adult ones). It may be about wizards or monsters instead of realistic people doing realistic things (but then again, realism is just as strong in kidlit as fantasy). It can still explore humanity, morality, politics, art, psychology and truth and freedom and justice and any number of Big Important Concepts. It can also just be a fun, entertaining read. It can even – brace yourselves for this, naysayers – be both.

The popular children’s books being targeted in these two stories aren’t “simplistic” or “banal”; they don’t do “bad things”, and they certainly don’t hamper a child reader’s ability to develop empathy. They’re loved, and it’s easy to see why. Firstly, they’re exciting; ‘plot, plot, plot’, when it’s done well, grips the reader and pulls them into a story that can become desperately important to them. And why is that a good thing? Oh, so many reasons. Look at the outpourings of fanfiction and fanart by young readers. Popular books spark so much creativity – and trust me when I tell you that a child who gets creative about someone else’s stories is almost certainly going to start scribbling their own.

By the age of eleven, most people have figured out that vampires and zombies don’t exist – at least, not literally. But there are other kinds of threats out there. The Spectre of Seriousness is a constant, looming presence when it comes to children’s books, sucking joy instead of blood, devouring curiosity in lieu of brains, and if we want to keep children reading, writing, creating and enjoying, we need to stake that monster good and hard.

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Colin Dexter

Yesterday, the author Colin Dexter, creator of the Morse series (and hundreds of thousands of crossword clues) died aged 86.

Hearing about his death hit me harder than I would have expected. I’m currently in the middle of a binge-rewatch of the TV series, so Colin Dexter’s work is at the forefront of my mind, but this isn’t the only reason.

As well as being a fantastic writer and responsible for some of my favourite books and TV, Colin Dexter was someone I saw now and then around Oxford, the city where I was born and where I’ve lived for seven years. You’d occasionally spot him from the bus, or around and about on the street. He would turn up at the Oxford Literary Festival and at concerts – on my eighteenth birthday, he was watching the same performance as me and my family, and had a bit of my birthday cake.

I was lucky enough to see two different talks by Colin Dexter – one on the filming of the Morse series, one on crime fiction in general. (That second talk got me reading Agatha Christie, which in turn has made me want to write detective stories – so, either yay or boo for Colin Dexter, depending on how good they turn out to be). Both times, he was engaging, interesting, and incredibly funny. He told brilliant anecdotes, including one from the days before Google about a woman who had written to him to ask him to settle an argument between her and her husband; she thought he was still alive, her husband was convinced that he was dead. Sadly, she didn’t include her return address, so the husband probably won that argument.

The thing I will remember best about Colin Dexter is how he treated people like me, who loved his books and were a little overwhelmed and scared of being gushy or embarrassing. Whenever you met him, he reacted as if you were the person in the world he was most looking forward to seeing. He was always kind, always interested, always ready to talk. And he wrote a damn good detective story.

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Giving Up: Part One

(Content note: Discussion of weight loss, dieting and calorie-counting)

The decision that prompted this post wasn’t actually meant to be seasonal, because, for some reason, Pancake Day and Lent always creep up on me. But, I thought today would be a fitting day to talk about something I’m giving up – not just for Lent, but for good.

Lots of people use Lent to make healthy choices, and my decision is no different, although on the surface, it might seem a little contradictory. Two days ago, I decided that I needed to give up trying to lose weight.

Like many people, I’ve been trying to lose weight for nearly all of my life. It’s been a long and ultimately thankless struggle (thanks to PCOS, my body hangs on to every last calorie like a dragon guarding its hoard). I’ve dieted, and taken those diets to unhealthy extremes at times; I’ve exercised; I’ve tracked calories and food and movement so thoroughly that historians of the future could reconstruct my daily life with unerring accuracy. Despite all this, I’ve rarely lost any weight at all.

A few days ago, I saw this image and read the accompanying tweet:

I can’t begin to overstate the impact that this awesome woman’s pictures and decision had on me. I had been feeling like a failure for failing to lose weight, when weight should never have been the goal in the first place. The time I’d spent on tracking calories and portions could have been spent writing, or reading, or talking to friends. The emotional energy I’d spent on feeling down about numbers on a scale and lumps and bumps on my body could have gone towards something positive, something that would have made me happy.

So, I’m giving up. I’m giving up the app I use to track everything I eat; I’m giving up the tape measure and the scales. I’m giving up treating myself like a bag of flour and using my weight to determine my worth.

I can already hear the concern trolls and body-shamers revving up, so, first of all, go and have a long hard look in the mirror, and second of all, realise that this is a positive decision, not a negative one. I’m giving up treating myself badly and focusing my health, happiness and self-image around a set of numbers.

In giving this up, I’m actually prioritising my health – both mental and physical. As the fantastic Melissa McEwan of Shakesville said, no-one is motivated to take care of a body they hate – so I’m giving myself the space and freedom to learn to love my body. I’m still going to exercise, but I’ve shifted my goals; I’m no longer going to the gym in order to drop a few pounds, but to learn how to do press-ups and get to the point where I can run a 5K, two things I’ve wanted to be able to do for a while now. I’m reframing my perception of my body to focus on what it can do for me, not what I need to do to make it an appropriate ornament. I’m still going to eat my fruits and veggies, because I like them and I enjoy the healthy feeling I get from a balanced diet – I’m just not going to beat myself up if I also fancy a croissant.

I do want to stress that I’m not saying that this new way I’m trying is the right way for everyone. We all need to work out our own requirements for healthiness (again, mental and physical) and happiness. These just happen to be mine.

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EEP 2020


The latest book sent to me by The Phoenix Presents is the second installment in one of my favourite franchises, Evil Emperor Penguin. I reviewed the first edition of EEP a while back, when the world was a very different place. Now, of course, things have changed, and it seems that we’re living in the age of the Penguin. A ridiculous, over-the-top, caricaturish, hair-trigger villain fond of expensive and impractical evil schemes, even Donald Trump would admit that EEP would make a serious political rival.

In fact, this latest collection of EEP’s adventures suggests that this black-and-white bird would make a far better leader of the free world than certain orange clowns. Based on the evidence found in what I shall henceforth (or maybe just this once) refer to as The Rainbow Dossier, I shall put forward my argument as to why Evil Emperor Penguin should be the world’s Villain-in-Chief.


EEP surrounds himself with compassionate and competent advisers

EEP’s staff includes Mister 8, a hyperintelligent octopus, and Eugene, a tiny yeti with a heart of gold. Together, they keep the lair running efficiently despite EEP’s outbursts, and mitigate the fallout of any evil plans. No alternative facts or links with racist groups can be found in EEP’s cabinet – instead, his administration is far more concerned with spaghetti hoops and making the perfect cup of tea.


EEP’s plans are more fiscally and morally responsible

While he’s never considered building an incredibly expensive invisible wall, EEP is no stranger to a supervillainous scheme. In The Rainbow Dossier, we see evidence of plots to trap all of the world’s leaders inside paintings, candles that give off ‘essence of evil’, and plans for a Yugenator – I’m sorry, a Hugenator designed to blow a person (or penguin) up to giant proportions. (Let’s keep quiet about that last one).

These devices may seem unlikely, but EEP proves time and again that he has the resources and yetipower to deliver on his promises. What’s more, these particular evil schemes always have a (to be fair, unexpected) positive impact on the world, and they never target vulnerable and marginalised groups in a way highly reminiscent of genocidal dictators. Score two for EEP!


EEP is, when he’s forced to be, a pretty good boss

One of the major story arcs in EEP Volume 2 involves Eugene going missing. It takes quite a while for EEP to care, and he’s grumpy throughout the search – but he carries out said search personally, and doesn’t stop until he finds his favourite henchman. EEP shows a hands-on approach and a personal level of interest in the wellbeing of his staff that you don’t see in many real-world villains.



I think the evidence is clear – Evil Emperor Penguin may be an angry, ridiculous incompetent, but he’s the kind of angry ridiculous incompetent that the world actually needs. If he ever decides to gain power through (slightly) more traditional means, he’ll get my vote.

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Sticking Plasters

Beating – or at least, learning to manage – depression and anxiety is a long-haul thing. There are many good treatments, like medication or therapy, but because mental illness is different for everyone who experiences it, finding the right combination and levels can be difficult – and even then, these treatments can take a long time to work, and their effects aren’t always consistent.

Sometimes the long-term, permanent measures aren’t going to help in a given situation, and you need short-term measures instead. It’s easy to reach for short-term measures that, in the long run, aren’t helpful at all – drinking when you’re anxious, for example. I’m trying to put together some short-term measures for dealing with depression and anxiety that aren’t harmful – things that can act like sticking plasters over the scratches and grazes of bad mental health, that will protect you until you get to a point where you can treat them properly. Here are some of mine:


Rescue Music

I have a few songs that are my go-tos when my mood starts to dip. For depression, it’s Mr Blue Sky by ELO, because it’s one of the happiest damn things I’ve ever heard. For anxiety, it’s Uptown Funk, because that’s like an injection of 100%-proof confidence straight into your veins – you literally cannot feel shy or inadequate when that’s booming through your head.


Soothing Smells

It’s a pretty obvious remedy, but sometimes the old ones are the best. I always have a scented candle on the go (lavender, vanilla, and Christmas spice are amazingly calming), and I’ve also got some face washes that not only smell wonderful, but make my skin feel awesome too. Nice smells won’t fix a problem, but they’re incredibly comforting.


Cute Animals

Looking at pictures of tiny babby animals may not cure depression, but it can be a distraction, and bring up some positive feelings where you thought none would ever be again (just like a nice smell, or a soft blanket). Here are two of my favourite places to go – Hourly Kitten and We Rate Dogs.


Good Entertainment

And on the subject of distraction – never underestimate the power of a good TV or book binge. When my depression was really severe, I used to mainline comedy shows, because they gave me something to focus on outside the flat heaviness in my brain – and because even a half-hearted laugh felt like a step in the right direction. Sometimes you just aren’t up to doing anything besides sitting, and being alone at home with a box set or every single Harry Potter book isn’t going to damage your health in the long term.


All of these sound trite, but like I said, they’re not supposed to be cures – just little things that lift the gloom or the pressure slightly, because sometimes that slightly is enough. If any of you have sticking plasters of your own that you’d like to share, the comments are open.

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This blog may be short, and not particularly coherent, because, like many people, I’m feeling overwhelmed at the endless, endless, endless shit we’re seeing every day. (Oh hey, here’s something else I saw literally two minutes after I posted this blog!) But that’s kind of the point. The blows keep coming, and if we keep reeling at them, we stay on the back foot instead of blocking and striking back.

I can’t believe how quickly it’s happened, but, the way things look at the moment, we’ve hurtled past proto-fascism and are heading towards the Maggot Moon with no chance of slowing down – unless the people who’ve been acting keep acting, and the people who haven’t join them in any way we can.

For those of us with multiple privileges who know that we won’t be quite so badly hurt by all this, at least not at first, it’s tempting to step back, close our eyes, get on with life almost as we know it and pretend that it’ll be all right in the end. But we can’t. We need to resist, support the people who are already in the firing lines, otherwise that end will come a lot quicker than we think.

Here are a couple of things I’ve found recently that are helping me work out how to begin to play my part – to plant my feet and get my stance right, to extend a metaphor. The first is actionnow, an invaluable mailing list that gives daily advice on ways to resist, big and small. Run by @mikkipedia, it gave me one piece of advice in particular that I’ll be sticking to, which is, find three things to do: one you can lead on, one you can follow on, and one you can make a habit of. For the first, I’m writing; for the second, I’m volunteering; and for the third, I’m donating and signal-boosting whenever I can.

The second is this article, which brilliantly outlines ways to resist without burning out (and we really need to not burn out, because this fight isn’t a skirmish, it’s going to be a long struggle).

The world at the moment is terrifying, and the idea of challenging it seems even more so – but we have to, because no-one else will. For all the treating-life-like-stories I do on this blog, I know, with sadness in my heart, that no hero is coming to save us – we have to save ourselves. Blackamazon (who you should all be following, by the way) put it best.

Stay strong, everyone, and have each others’ backs. We can do this.

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The Granny Weatherwax Award for Awesomely Written Women #1

While 2016 was a great year for me on a personal level, it’s been a horrible year world- and society-wide. When times have been bad, frightening, or all-out facepalm-inducing, I’ve found myself turning even more frequently to good stories about fighting baddies and resisting evil. Now it’s 2017, and we’re in a period of history where we need those good stories, and good representation of marginalised characters in stories, more than ever. Stories have immense power, and good representation in fiction can go a very long way to combating lazy stereotyping in the tabloids and demonisation in political rhetoric (and vice versa).

I’ve spent a lot of the Christmas period thinking about these good characters, good stories and good reps, and this led me to make up a silly-fun-but-also-pretty-serious award, which I’m calling the Granny Weatherwax Award for Awesomely Written Women (or GWAAWW for short. And yes, that is pronounced like an angry dinosaur charging). The criteria for this award are as follows:

  1. The woman can be a strong female character – as in strongly-written, strongly-characterised, with a strong and memorable impact on the reader. She must, however, not be a Strong Female Character.
  2. She can be good, or right, or kind, or a combination of all three – but she must not be “nice”. (For a bit of background on Granny Weatherwax and “niceness”, read The Sea and Little Fishes)
  3. She can be a character you might like if you hung around with her, but she should not be “likeable“. Instead, she should be interesting, compelling, and engaging.
  4. She can be from any example of fiction – novels, comics, TV, film, podcasts, anything.

The winner of this inaugural GWAAWW is probably very predictable if you know what I’ve been binge-watching lately, and I am proud to announce that the award goes to (insert drumroll here):


Carol from the TV version of The Walking Dead.

(spoilers below, for anyone who started watching this show even later than I did)

Carol starts out as a frightened, abused woman who is barely visible in her terrible husband’s shadow, but she has the greatest development of any character in the show, becoming one of the most competent, decisive, and downright badass figures in TWD’s dystopian world. She’s a woman who can fight, at one point single-handedly rescuing the group from a townful of cannibals, but she defies the Strong Female Character stereotype in so many ways – by carrying on caring, by using her femininity as a weapon, and even by choosing not to fight. Carol also defies “niceness” and “likeability” – she suffers fools not at all, and greets any threat to her group with steel, both metaphorically and literally. (And I would still happily hang out with her, talk tactics and eat cookies). It’s also wonderful to have a story where a grey-haired, middle-aged woman has such a significant role, and is treated with such respect by the people around her – shamefully, this isn’t something that happens often.

Carol was one of the factors that made me carry on watching The Walking Dead, which, let’s admit it, started out with some truly dreadful representations of women (it’s got a lot better, both with Carol’s development and the arrival of characters such as Sasha, Tara and Michonne). She shows that women can be spiky, angry, deadpan, can make the tough decisions and occasionally the wrong decisions, and don’t have to be soft, sweet and nice to deserve attention and respect. Most importantly, she shows that women aren’t there to complement the men around them, but are significant in their own right. I can’t wait to see how her current storyline develops – and if the world goes to hell in 2017, the first thing I’m going to ask myself is ‘What Would Carol Do?’

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