Experiments in Rereading, a talk by Alison Waller

You are invited to a Reading, Writing and Memory Research Group seminar

Wednesday 13th January

1-2pm, Fincham 001 

‘Experiments in Rereading: childist criticism and the bibliomemoir’

Alison Waller, NCRCL 

When Hugh Crago mused in an article in Signal in 1979 ‘whether it could be useful if I, and some others, were to set down what we do recall about our reading habits in childhood’ he was a relatively lone voice representing an interest in autobibliography in the field of children’s literature. In the years following, autobibliography – or bibliomemoir – has become an increasingly visible and valid methodology for exploring questions about childhood reading, with critics and popular writers examining their own youthful reading histories from a variety of perspectives and for multiple purposes. In this paper, I focus particularly on the practice of rereading in autobibliographical criticism and in the boom of contemporary bibliomemoirs, exploring what adult voices can tell us about early reading experiences by reflecting on childhood books they have returned to later in life. This alternative ‘childist criticism’ raises new issues and reflects a range of assumptions about children and their personal reading, and in this paper I will set out some of the patterns of ‘compliance’ and ‘resistance’ that can be observed in accounts of rereading such as Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built (2002), Rick Gekoski’s Outside of a Dog (2009), and Patricia Meyer Spacks’ On Rereading (2011).

ALL WELCOME

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Roehampton Readers: The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean

Review: The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean (2013)

By Alison Waller

Comity Pinny lives in the middle of nowhere – at a tiny telegraph post in the Australian outback with her recently widowed father, to be precise. At first glance, Kinkindele Repeater Station does not seem to be the most exciting setting for a Geraldine McCaughrean’s latest fictional offering, but as ever, the author manages to conjure up a world teeming with life and energy, even in the most remote of places. Trees, snakes, camels, and horses emerge as vibrant figures in this landscape, while the Station itself is the hub of various social interactions and inevitable tensions between the employees of the British Australian Telegraph Company, the local people who live on the land, and Afghan traders who bring supplies and news. For young Comity, it is the home where her mother used to tell her stories and play the piano, and where her only friend is the Aborigine boy Fred with whom she shares a rich imaginative life. When a new telegraph assistant called arrives, their peaceful existence is destroyed. Quartz Hogg is exciting, but obnoxious and predatory, disrupting Herbert Pinny’s professional operation of the telegraph wire and relentlessly persecuting Fred for daring to befriend a white girl. When Hogg starts drinking, a whole series of events are set in motion that threaten the integrity of the Telegraph Company and the fragile peace of the whole area…and Comity emerges as the remarkable heroine who must save the day.

The telegraph running across this vast nation is a brilliant metaphor for a story that deals in connections, miscommunications, and the relationships between communities as well as between mankind and the environment. The novel also really thrives on the strength of McCaughrean’s heroine, who is vulnerable and sometimes afraid but also clever and brave, often without knowing it. The author has stated before that most of her central characters ‘lack confidence but overcome their timidity or low self-esteem to win through in the end,’ and by the end of The Middle of Nowhere, Comity has certainly been on this journey. She is supported throughout by a cast of comic characters – Quartz Hogg and the Pinny’s awful relatives, ‘the obnoxious Blighs’ are effective as grotesque caricatures – and there is also a sympathetic attempt to show how individuals might negotiate difference, particularly as Comity comes to question things she has been told about the exotic Afghan people. For me, McCaughrean’s only faltering note comes with her portrayal of Fred, whose mixed Aborigine-British dialect is initially difficult to digest and whose role in the story loses momentum towards the thrilling climax. Other than this slight quibble, I enjoyed the novel immensely: it is a worthy addition to McCaughrean’s impressive catalogue of novels for young readers.

Carnegie Greenway MedalsThe Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove. 

Travels in Children’s Literature

We asked two of the current students of the MA in Children’s Literature, Judith Digby and Katharina Schaefers, to write about their experiences from the Travels in Children’s Literature module taught by Dr Alison Waller in Spring 2015.

As part of the MA in Children’s Literature, the Travel in Children’s Literature module aims to ‘examine the importance of travel and journeys in classic and contemporary children’s literature. Through texts such as the seminal Gulliver’s Travels and more recent books such as The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean, students will explore the role of literary children as explorers and adventurers, but also as refugees, migrants, tourists, and students of the world. From accounts of personal odysseys to stories of historical or fantastic voyages, the texts studied will raise questions about how children can move through geographical and imaginative space, as well as issues of nation, race and culture.’

To find out more about Travels in Children’s Literature or the MA/PGDip programme, read Judith and Katharina’s reviews below and consider attending the NCRCL Open Day or Virtual Open Day 2015.

Continue reading

Boys and Girls, Then and Now

Boys and Girls, Then and Now:

Remembering Childhood Books / Some Perspectives on Childhood Reading

BAOn 8 October, Dr Alison Waller hosted an evening on childhood reading with Professor Peter Hunt and Dr Jane McVeigh at the University of Roehampton. It began with an exclusive tour of the Richmal Crompton Collection in the library, which includes not only a wide collection of Crompton’s published work and numerous drafts, notes and letters, but also her writing desk, as well as memorabilia such as a Just William boardgame.  

The Richmal Crompton Collection

The Richmal Crompton Collection

Dr Alison Waller

Dr Alison Waller

 

Dr Waller reported on her recent research project ‘Men Remember The Secret Garden,’ in which she interviewed male readers about their memories of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic and their impressions after re-reading the book. She explained how an important image such as the hidden door into the garden can be merged with real autobiographical memories (of a door in a wall on a childhood walk in Yorkshire, for example, or an encounter with a mysterious ruin in a jungle). She also argued that gendered readings might affect what and who is remembered over time, noting that Colin’s sickness and recovery play a particularly key role in male recollections. The project is part of a larger study on ‘Rereading Childhood Books’ which sees personal memories of reading childhood books as a valuable resource for academics.

 

Two of Dr Waller’s interviewees discussing the project with research student Sarah Pyke.

Two of Dr Waller’s interviewees discussing the project with research student Sarah Pyke.

Professor Peter Hunt

Professor Peter Hunt

 

Professor Peter Hunt provided a fascinating insight into his research for editing the centenary edition of The Secret Garden for Oxford University Press. To demonstrate that the way the reader encounters a book influences their reading, Professor Hunt mentioned various editions and paratexts of The Secret Garden, including picturebooks, films, and even a novel about making a film adaptation of The Secret Garden (Noel Streatfeild’s 1949 The Painted Garden). The Secret Garden has become “common property”, as Professor Hunt put it. [Secret Garden image] According to him, reasons for its lasting popularity may be the fact that it has been a crossover book from the beginning and that the author masterfully combined cultural references. She was, he said, “a magpie” who borrowed names, contemporary ideas of health, vitality and Christianity, as well as the garden metaphor for her own creative work. Although she was only one of many authors writing about gardens at the time, her story survived. Her work has become culturally embedded to the extent that, as Professor Hunt said, “even if we haven’t read it, we feel like we have.”

 

Before re-reading it as an adult, Professor Peter Hunt remembered The Secret Garden as a story of spooky rooms much like Jane Eyre and Heidi.

Before re-reading it as an adult, Professor Peter Hunt remembered The Secret Garden as a story of spooky rooms much like Jane Eyre and Heidi.

 

Richmal Crompton

Richmal Crompton

 

Finally, Dr Jane McVeigh who works on Richmal Crompton’s adult fiction, offered another perspective on childhood reading by sharing extracts from letters between Crompton and a young admirer of her work (to protect his identity, Dr McVeigh called him David). Upon Richmal Crompton’s reply to his first letter, David wrote that he now was “the happiest fellow alive”. From then on, the boy and his beloved author exchanged affectionate letters discussing not only the Just William books (and David’s kinship with the protagonist) but also their personal lives. Their friendship through correspondence lasted from 1953 until Richmal Crompton died in 1969; thirteen of these letters are held in the Richmal Crompton Collection.

Archives at the Richmal Crompton Collection

Archives at the Richmal Crompton Collection

6. Alison, Kate, Jane

Co-President of the Just William Society and Crompton’s great-niece Kate Massey (centre)

Dr McVeigh claims that the letters “are very much a story in their own right,” showing a special relationship between a child and his childhood reading but also hinting at the caring and loyal nature of the author. Her account was complemented by short talk by the Co-President of the Just William Society and Crompton’s great-niece Kate Massey, who, with plenty of humour, shared memories of her “Auntie”.

Lively discussions were also had by the attentive audience who lingered to share recommendations and reminisce about their childhood reading.

Lively discussions were also had by the attentive audience who lingered to share recommendations and reminisce about their childhood reading.

 

Prior to the event, participants had been asked to name a significant book they remembered reading in their childhood. A selection of those books was then presented on a book table.

Prior to the event, participants had been asked to name a significant book they remembered reading in their childhood. A selection of those books was then presented on a book table.

9. Kornelia

Kornelia Cepok

The event – and the ‘Men Remember The Secret Garden project – was funded by a British Academy and Leverhulme Small Grant. If you are interested in finding out more about ‘Rereading Childhood Books’ you can email Alison Waller at a.waller@roehampton.ac.uk.

If you would like to view the Richmal Crompton Collection or other parts of the children’s literature collection at Roehampton, please contact Kornelia Cepok at k.cepok@roehampton.ac.uk

Photographs by Anne Malewski

Remembering Childhood – David Almond and Nadia Budde

Bath Kids Literature FestivalHalf a Creature from the SeaOur childhood provides us with memories which influence our imagination throughout our lives.

At the Bath Children’s Literature Festival on Saturday 4th October Alison Waller talks to Skellig author David Almond about Half A Creature From the Sea, inspired by his childhood in the north-east of England. They are joined by award-winning German author Nadia Budde, who vividly recalls growing up in the GDR in her illustrated children’s book.

The event will take place at The Guildhall Hall, High Street, Bath, at 8pm and tickets are still available through the festival website.