Review: Immi, by Karin Littlewood

A heartwarming story in a great frozen land…

Yes, I know, that was possibly the corniest sentence I’ve ever written. Still, that is exactly what Karin Littlewood’s delicate little picturebook Immi does to the reader.

Immi is a charmingly old-fashioned story about a young Eskimo girl whose white world is gradually lit up by tiny wooden objects she finds in the water that flows under the ice. But where do they come from? And how can Immi thank their unknown sender? The final twist is just as lovely, simple, and idealistically atemporal as the rest.

Littlewood’s subtle play on colours demonstrates the versatile character of watercolour, from frosty glazes of white and ice blue to the soft, sunny glow of the mysterious objects Immi receives. The traditional, clear line drawing style is perfectly adapted to this story which seems to reject, almost resolutely, the noise and speed of the modern world.

This is truly where the genius of Immi resides: in creating a world where everything is slow, quiet, subdued; where people are linked not artificially and ecstatically, and eager to reveal everything about themselves to each other, but where the mystery of human relationships is celebrated and the slowness, uncertainty of their development is what makes them so precious. The ‘gifts’ Immi exchanges with her friend on the other side of the world are patiently carved tributes to the value of their relationship.

This is also a book about nature, but not of the traditional kind. Nature is neither a caring nor a threatening force – it is there, it is changeable, and it constructs and constrains the human. Water in particular, in all its variety, rules the story. Water brings the gifts, water builds Immi’s frozen world, and water, of course, is the very matter of the illustrations – from its solid reds to its evasive, diluted whites.

Immi is a refreshingly quiet tale, almost Japanese in its contemplative and simple aesthetic. An ode to silence, patience and trust, it offers a welcome contrast to the flashy, energetic style of most modern picturebooks.

by Clementine

Reality check: the Oslo massacre and the Hunger Games

A friend and fellow PhD student is currently reading the Hunger Games trilogy, and she’s reading it compulsively, as required by the book itself.

When we first heard about the terrible Oslo massacre of July 22nd, she sent me the following email:

it is watching things like this on the news that make me never want to think about how i ‘enjoyed’ the hunger games!

It is a controversial thing to say, but I was immediately struck by how true it sounded. I hadn’t even thought of making such an association, but now that she’d made it, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Of course there is absolutely no direct link between the Hunger Games and the shooting perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik. But watching the news and listening to the horrifying testimonies of the teenagers and young adults present on Utoya island during the seemingly neverending shooting, I cannot help but think, just like my friend did – This is what a cold, organised, mass killing of a country’s young people really looks like, and really feels like.

This is the kind of circumstances when you realise that the enjoyment of fiction can powerfully anaesthetise us to the real equivalent of what it portrays. The Hunger Games plays on both modern and ancient fears to force us to watch a horrible, but oh-so-compulsively-watchable, theatre of child and adolescent sacrifice. It is an artificial construction, of course – no less than a chimera to be enjoyed and feared at the same time. The teenagers in the Hunger Games are unnaturally equipped to deal with thoughts of death. They face it, they give it, they fight against it. Our fear and delight in reading about their endeavour is safely enclosed within the dystopian universe of the books.

And as a friend pointed out recently during a conversation, the hype surrounding the upcoming Hunger Games film is giving rise to a strangely morbid display of young actors and actresses whose roles are just numbers, on the model of ‘Laura Smith, n.3 – runs into trouble at the Cornucopia’. Understand: this pouty Californian blonde dies within the first ten minutes of the movie. But look at her! It’s her first big Hollywood part! She doesn’t die, of course – only her character, so that’s ok.

And suddenly we are interrupted in our desensitised reading of adolescent death by the occurrence of the unimaginable: scores of real, tangible, material adolescent deaths. Deaths that will entirely rewrite the history of the country, that will forever prevent hundreds of friends and relatives from living a normal life.

Of course there is nothing wrong with reading the Hunger Games. Of course we need catharsis, and we need fiction to meddle with our vision of reality and deal with its excesses. And of course the Hunger Games does not defend murder – it denounces it.

But when faced with such a brutal reality check, I am uncomfortable and uncertain. I will draw no conclusions other than ‘This is what the mass killing of a country’s young people really looks like.’

by Clementine – first posted on the Cambridge Children’s Literature Students’ Blog

Review: ‘Fintan Fedora the World’s Worst Explorer’, by Clive Goddard

Bedbound for a significant portion of the week, I wanted something light to take my mind off things, so I escaped to the jungle with Fintan Fedora the World’s Worst Explorer.  We follow the inept fourteen-year-old Fintan and Gribley, his put-upon butler, as the former decides to go on a quest for the possibly mythical chocoplum in the deepest darkest jungles of Brazil. On his way he manages to pick up a trail of would-be kidnappers eager for a ransom, in addition to a few supposed business rivals…

The blurb promised me a ‘stupidly funny escapade’ and in this it does not fail to deliver, as the humour is almost all derived from the protagonist’s stupidity. Although some jokes miss the mark – and Fintan’s clumsiness does become rather overstated by the seventeenth accident he causes – the book did elicit a few chuckles as I made my way through several boxes of Lemsip. Like Billionaire Boy (David Walliams), much of the plot and many of the jokes in Fintan Fedora the World’s Worst Explorer are very Dahl-esque, revelling in the grotesque and absurd. The obstacles generated by Fintan’s clumsiness provide many of the laughs, such as the image of furious piranha-nibbled Gonzalez with his false ginger beard.

Perfectly paced, the plot is tight and fast moving, never allowing the reader to be bored or a moment’s reflection. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, particularly as there was a nice mix of the predictable and the unanticipated, in humour as well as elements of the plot. I did wish, however, that at least Gribley had noticed their pursuers earlier, as the belated arrival of the moment of discovery stretched the plausibility of the plot somewhat. I could believe that oblivious Fintan would overlook the unlikely yet repeated appearances of the same man with varying colours of false beards in the middle of Brazil, but not the intelligent Gribley who turns out to speak fluent Spanish and have incredible foresight.

For a children’s book lover this romp through the Brazilian jungle was exactly what was promised on the cover and the perfect distraction to summer flu – especially as it doesn’t quite turn out the way you’d expect…

By Lauren

Ideology in children’s books

‘What? Ideology? But children’s books aren’t ideological – that would be propaganda, it would be sacrilegious, it would be brainwashing!’

Literary criticism has shown us in the past century that no text can ever be devoid of ideological content, that is to say of a system of values, beliefs, fears, worldviews, which are closely linked to certain conceptions of power and order. Ideology is embedded in language.

And children’s literature is no exception to the rule.

Children’s books are made of words, and they are created in specific historical, political, social and cultural contexts. When David McKee writes Tusk Tusk, a political fable on racial war, he is talking from the viewpoint of a second-half-of-the-twentieth-century-man with the heritage of post-war pacifism and awareness of racial conflicts. It would make no sense to Enid Blyton. It would make no sense to White American supremacists.

Actively ideological children’s literature

Tusk Tusk is actively ideological – that is to say, it is actively denouncing the issues of racism and violence. Other books that try to promote certain behaviours, values or beliefs are, for instance, Babette Cole’s picturebook Princess Smartypants – an anti-fairytale which attacks the ideal of marriage for girls – Anthony Browne’s Zoo – which begs the reader to consider the condition of animals imprisoned for our entertainment – or Armin Greder’s The Island – which denounces the situation of immigrants.

These children’s books, of a very high quality, exist partly for the purpose of instructing readers – not only children! – about the realities of our world, and, sometimes, about how to change them. They are political, because their very existence threatens the existing distribution of power by showing that it is flawed and unfair.

Passively ideological children’s literature

But don’t huff and puff if you’re against giving children ideological children’s literature. Because then you might as well take away all their books.

The most dangerous ideological content in children’s literature is the hidden one – the assumptions about the world that author, illustrator and/or publisher make when they release one book, and that the child reader is led to accept as fact.

Feminists have long denounced children’s books that represent doleful, obliging mothers, not because they are actively promoting male domination, but because they are normalising male domination. And that’s a much more insidious issue to get rid of. Because it’s inscribed, unquestioningly, everywhere the child looks to.

Passively ideological children’s literature represents 90% of all children’s literature (don’t quote me on this, it’s a rough estimate). And most often its ideology is conservative. Because conservative ideology, logically, tends to preserve itself. Passively ideological children’s books will normalise values and beliefs that have made their existence possible.

Next time you open a children’s book, ask yourself what worldviews, what conceptions of power, what ideals of education it conceals. It is not obvious – because the creators of the books themselves are unaware of it, and because it’s likely that they think more or less like you. But it is there. It cannot not be there.

And if you really can’t notice these assumptions, it means you’re so bathed in them that you take them for fact. It’s in your bones, in your brains, in your identity.

It’s ok, don’t freak out. We’re all like that.

by Clementine

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Episode Two: ‘Quality and Trash’

In this episode we discuss the controversial labels of ‘trash’ and ‘quality’…

Click HERE to download the episode (28 minutes), or why not find us on iTunes and subscribe?

In this episode you will hear us discuss…

  • The point of view of a teacher on how to deal with any children’s literature in a utilitarian way.
  • The idea that ‘trashy’ and ‘quality’ children’s books actually support each other.
  • The possibility for children to be ‘independent’ readers of fiction, and to form their own judgement about literature.
  • The gender aspect of literary taste – what if the word ‘trash’ had been invented to label all things feminine?
  • The formulaic and the unexpected in children’s literature.
  • A dietetic approach to the consumption of literature. 

Lauren then treats us to a review of the beautiful middle grade novel Mimi, by John Newman.

Please leave us your comments, positive or negative constructive, and feel free to send us your questions – here, by email at, or on Twitter @kidyounotpod! What, you don’t like any of these options? How about adding us to your circles on Google+?

We hope you enjoy today’s episode. See you soon for a very special new one…

Why All The Education?

An interesting thing about children’s books – when compared to adults’ books – is the strange preoccupation people seem to have with the notion that children’s books should be educational. A child should learn from reading a particular book; it must enhance their reading skill, widen their vocabulary or teach them a moral lesson – enjoyment is not enough. At the Children’s Book Circle talk referred to in episode two of Kid You Not librarians and teachers talked of the responsibility that authors and publishers have. The implicit meaning was that this responsibility is of an educational and moral nature.

So, what I want to know is, why is it not ok for something to just be a good story? Even incredibly controversial books by authors like Melvin Burgess are almost overpoweringly didactic. No one finishes Junk and thinks ‘you know what, drugs might be ok’. This trend for ‘challenging but moral’ seems to be on the rise – a twenty-first century version of the repentant schoolgirls in the religious tracts that were the first examples of books for children. Maybe children’s literature never advanced from its beginnings as an educational tool in the first place – but then the anarchic books of the 1960s and 70s would contradict this. Texts such as the Beano and authors like Roald Dahl revelled in rebellion and the snubbing of authority, and can hardly be said to be useful for the moral education of a child – however brilliant they are.  Scholar Dennis Butts observed this trend, and put forward the theory that a sense of moral responsibility in children’s literature has followed a pendulum pattern, swinging from wildly didactic in the first place, mellowing to the authority despising texts of the mid-twentieth century, and now moving back into a more veiled didacticism.

Clearly, even in Roald Dahl’s texts the bad get their comeuppance and the good prosper – but authority can be defeated as George’s Marvellous Medicine shows. Compare this to current books as diverse as Horrid Henry and Doing It. Whilst both may revel in youthful mischief (of varying kinds), adult sensibilities permeate the entire experience and conquer the narrative. The fun is not allowed to overpower the moral prerogative.

It is clear that books help shape a child’s life – indeed Francis Spufford was built by his. But so do a lot of things: television, parents, friends … I am not suggesting that children’s literature should be bereft of moral substance or educational worth, that it has no role at all in educating its readers. Just questioning why every book has to be concerned with this responsibility – could its responsibility not be to merely entertain? Does a challenging book have to come complete with the safety net of a strict moral code?

For I believe that this attitude  forgets that, like adults, children read for different reasons. And sometimes they just want a good time.

By Lauren

Mickey Mouse subject? Why study children’s literature

This could be the subject of a whole book, but I’ll spare you the conceptual and definitional jargon. Here are five concise reasons why studying children’s literature is important, fascinating, and challenging.

A children’s book is an adult’s book

Adults write, select, publish, sell and buy children’s books. And they do so wanting them to benefit children – to entertain them, to teach them, to bring them up – to bring them up to become just like them, or perhaps a little different. In other words, children’s books are chock-full of adult desires and needs and fears – and by expressing them towards their children, they are expressing them towards themselves and their own society and culture. Studying children’s literature unpacks these desires and needs and fears.

Paraliterature: a parallel world we must explore

Children’s books belong to a non-canonical form of literature which literary snobs and the academic intelligentsia tend to neglect: paraliterature. Formed of an eclectic hodgepodge of genres and mediums – from detective stories to science fiction and comics – paraliterature is often thought to be formulaic, simple and commercial. But it is in the highly popular discourse of paraliterature that timely concerns about the world are crystallised and transformed to narrative. In its success we read the success of some ideas and the decline of others. Paraliterature is the barometre of human ideas in the world.

Children’s literature is actually good

Too many people don’t know that children’s books are good. They see the simplicity and the cuteness of a few remembered titles. Studying children’s literature helps raise the profile of children’s books – of the immensely diverse, extraordinarily complex world of children’s books. All of them. The challenging, the funny, the controversial, the edgy, the poetic, the outrageous, the revolutionary, the cosy, the erudite, the sad, the contemplative. Children’s literature critics explore and categorise this vibrant planet.

Children’s literature is an experimental platform

Many writers and illustrators, not least of which Philip Pullman, have established the need to write for children – the reason why they do so. And this reason has nothing to do with not being able to write for adults, or wanting an easy ride into publication. Children’s literature provides a platform for experimenting with form and content – for tackling themes from new and daring angles. The power of allegory, the infinite possibilities of text-and-image relationships, the ability to catch the imaginations of thousands of future citizens: here are the real reasons for the need to write for children.

Children’s literature fashions the future

Children’s literature, like all cultural productions for children, is a parallel educational universe in which we can see glimpses of the future. It constructs and impacts children’s developments, senses of identity, and visions of the world. It creates ambitions and aspirations, models taste and values. It is the only potentially world-changing form of literature. Studying children’s literature means studying both our heritage and our legacies.

by Clementine

Review: ‘Billionaire Boy’, by David Walliams

David Walliams’s latest children’s novel is an easy-going, fun book, clearly geared to appeal to boys (and we do need boys’ books), and even more clearly designed by its publisher (Harper Collins) to fill the un-fillable gap left by Roald Dahl’s death. Being un-fillable, this gap is left unfilled, but it was a worthy attempt.

Billionaire Boy tells the story of Joe Spud, 12-year-old son of a self-made-multibillionaire who would have wowed Lord Sugar with his clever invention of a half-moist, half-dry loo paper roll. Little Joe has everything he wants, except for one thing: a friend.

Walliams’s stroke of genius is to get rid of all sense of measure in the description of this nouveau riche family – the more outrageous, the better, and after just a few pages we find ourselves very willing to suspend disbelief when Joe is given a cheque for two million pounds for his birthday, or is seen driving a Formula One car especially designed to accomodate his overweight figure.

The storyline is an overly predictable fable which can be summed up in one yawn: money doesn’t make you happy and you shouldn’t buy your way into friendship. But it doesn’t matter too much that the whole plot is telegraphed from the first few pages. With Walliams, it’s form, not content, that’s appealing – and counterbalancing the shallowness of the ‘message’ is an often hilarious treatment of Joe’s misfortunes.

Billionaire Boy does have some extremely funny moments. I found myself failing (because I was laughing so much) to read out loud to my boyfriend the timetable of the posh private school that Joe attends – here’s a taster:


Ancient Greek; Croquet; Pheasant Shooting; Being beastly to servants class; Mandolin level 3; History of Tweed; Nose in the air hour; Learning to step over the homeless person as you leave the opera; Finding your way out of a Maze.

Sometimes, though, Walliams’s humour – perhaps because of his background as a comedian – is completely incomprehensible to children, playing on cultural or social references that young teens can’t know. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen too often and doesn’t hinder the reading, but I’m always wary of books that speak to the adult above the child’s head.

Tony Ross’s illustrations are of course excellent, and the Ross/Walliams duo immediately calls to mind Blake/Dahl books, as I mentioned earlier. But Billionaire Boy, whatever Julia Eccleshare might say on the back cover, is too well-behaved and lacks the linguistic playfulness to be truly described as being ‘in the best spirit of Dahl’. Not that it matters at all – I wouldn’t even mention it if it wasn’t written all over the book and inside it that it was the publisher’s intention to present Walliams as Dahl’s heir.

One fascinating thing about Billionaire Boy is the OCD emphasis on food, especially comfort food. Food rules Walliams’s world, arranging weddings, reconciling friends, and creating social bonds. The importance of food in children’s books has been explored thoroughly by children’s literature critics, and we find in Walliams’s novel a perfect example of a bulimic approach to chocolate and candy as the satisfaction of immediate, primitive desires in children – an easy and potent way to entrance the child reader by appealing to one of the most pressing cravings in a child’s life.

The outrageous display of money in the novel plays on the same instinctive craving in children. Children are the economically deprived class – however rich their parents are, they have no access to the bank accounts and have to rely on their parents for all spendings. Billionaire Boy effectively gets rid of this tough law of childhood to present a kid who can have as much money as he wants, to do whatever he wants with it. Once again, this is the ultimate dream for a child reader, and the attraction of the novel depends heavily on it.

The editorial work on the book is generally very good, with a nice play on fonts and layouts. However, the novel is stangely riddled with tiny editorial mistakes, especially regarding punctuation.

To sum up, this is a charmingly silly novel which will please young teenagers to no end, and will definitely make adults laugh. Like the chocolate bars that abound in the novel, it is a sweet, indulgent, predictable novel, which does exactly what it says on the cover.

Harry Potter and the So-Called End

The most significant Harry-Potter-premiere-related tweet of the week was no doubt Barry Cunningham’s (@barrychicken) heart-wrenching (for the Pottermaniacal amongst us) remembrance of things past:

Off to last Harry Potter premiere tomorrow with son Alfie, aren’t we lucky! Seems like only yesterday when I read first MS – life changing!

Barry Cunningham was an editor at Bloomsbury when Christopher Little, JK Rowling’s agent, sent him the first manuscript of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. According to the legend (and I have a second-hand account that it is true), Barry gave his daughter the manuscript and she loved it. The first Harry Potter book came out, so to speak, confidentially, until word of mouth made the series what they are now: the biggest international publishing phenomenon in human history.

Tonight the premiere of the seventh – sorry, the eighth – Harry Potter film will herald, according to some, the ‘end of Harry Potter‘. Tearful fans on the radio and on TV are bemoaning the ‘twilight of their childhood’. For those, like me, who quite literally grew up with Harry Potter from 1997 to 2007, this last film is the apocalypse. The last sigh of our adolescence! The dying words of a voice that brought us up! The epitaph of the first quarter of our lives!

Or not. The wonderful Harry Potter book series, as I see it, deserve to be critically set apart from their on-screen derivative.

Children’s literature critic Jack Zipes is a fierce detractor of the Harry Potter series, seeing them as supporting cultural homogeneisation and conservative values worldwide, and turning their readers into willing squaddies of the capitalist system. Where Zipes is wrong, according to me, is that he asserts that the Harry Potter books were marketed and designed to this specific end – real-life evidence contradicts him by showing that its success was, to start with, entirely reader-led and a big surprise to the publishing industry. But Zipes’s critique of the phenomenon, although it doesn’t apply to the books, works well to describe the Harry Potter film franchise.

Action-driven and Hollywoodised, the Harry Potter films and their countless derived products are a flashy, entertaining, unambiguous interpretation of the books. They flourished at a time when the power of the child and teenage customer was becoming, more than ever, a mouth-watering reality for advertising companies. Regardless of what one thinks of these films – I do think they are sometimes good, imaginative and funny – it is vital to consider them as an entirely separate phenomenon to the books: a product of the 2000’s, a displacement of the Harry Potter stories into the visual world of their time.

But they are in no way final.

In 2076 we will be flocking to cinemas (if they still exist) to watch the new filmic interpretation of the Harry Potter books. The director, productors and actors are yet to be born. They will not have grown up with the books. They will consider them as ‘classics’, not as a craze to be exploited before it expires. They will bring their fresh outlook to it. They will use new technologies to say new things.

In 3020, a new team will take over for a third version of Harry Potter.

And in 3100.

The books live on: there is one version and one only, it is JK Rowling’s; it is Barry Cunningham’s. The films are just one interpretation of these books. They are marked by their time, responding to the needs of their decade. The eighth installment of the Warner Brothers’s Harry Potter does not signal the end of anything else than itself.

If no one said that Orson Welles’s version of Jane Eyre was the end of Jane Eyre, then the Warner Bros’s version of Harry Potter is certainly not the end of Harry Potter.

by Clementine