Roehampton Readers: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

By Kay Waddilove

Salt to the Sea is a historical YA novel set in the closing months of World War II. As with her debut Between Shades of Gray (2011), previously shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, Ruta Sepetys weaves a fictional narrative around an actual, but little-known historical event. In the final months of the Nazi regime a multitude of refugees, both civilians and soldiers, fled from the advancing Soviet army to the Baltic Sea ports in the hope of boarding a ship to safety, and escaping the chaos of war-torn Europe. Several German ships were conscripted for this evacuation, dubbed Operation Hannibal, including the Wilhelm Gustloff, a large cruise liner designed for around 1400 passengers. Approximately ten and a half thousand refugees were loaded onto this ship, which, on 30 January 1945, was hit by Russian torpedoes. It sank in less than one hour, in a snowstorm, and approximately 9000 people died, over half of them children.

As Sepetys informs the reader in her postscript, this sinking was “the deadliest disaster in maritime history”, with a death toll exceeding those of the Titanic and Lusitania combined, yet it is a tragedy that is virtually unknown outside Germany. As a writer committed to shining an ideological light onto such “hidden chapters of history” through “the child and young adult narrative” (Between Shades of Gray did this for the plight of Lithuanian deportees to Siberian labour camps), Sepetys explores the event from the different perspectives of a group of young protagonists. The refugees came from Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the author builds her story around four contrasted fictional characters: Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a Polish teenager; Florian, a Prussian art preservationist; and Alfred, a punctilious Nazi soldier. They all have a secret; carrying their guilt, their fate, their shame, or their fear – or perhaps all four – as psychological burdens which they describe as “hunters” in the opening chapters.

Cover via Penguin


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Kay Waddilove: Motherhood in 1950s Populist Children’s Literature

You are warmly invited to

‘Housewife or Citizen? Constructing Motherhood in Populist Children’s Literature of the 1950s’
Kay Waddilove, NCRCL PhD Candidate, Roehampton University


1957 cover of John Bull magazine. Image via Gillian Thomas.

The talk examines the construction of motherhood in stories by four popular children’s writers in the context of post-war citizenship. Giving central importance to the family was seen by government as a crucial part of national reconciliation after the Second World War, and a new concept of wives and mothers as citizens was to emerge. The traditional female role became a lynchpin of consensus, and the consequent gendered notions of citizenship for women conflated their performance of the maternal biological and nurturing role with their proficiency as housewives. This talk will situate representations of mothers by popular authors such as Noel Streatfeild and Enid Blyton within such discursive constructions of maternity during the 1950s.

Wednesday 7th December
1-2 pm
Fincham 001, Roehampton University


Roehampton Readers: Carnegie Reading Group Begins Its Third Year!

From Dr Lisa Sainsbury: For the last two years we have run a very successful Carnegie Reading Group for NCRCL MA and PhD students, past and present. We hope to organise this again this year and would like to invite PhD, Masters and undergraduate students working within NCRCL (and any other NCRCL interested parties) to participate.

The idea is to widen our awareness of the latest high quality books published for children and young people (that have been judged ‘outstanding’ by the Carnegie/Greenaway shortlist selectors) and to enjoy reading and discussing these texts.  Members of past groups ‘adopted’ one title of their choice from the shortlists, and have published fascinating reviews on the NCRCL blog, and on the Carnegie website, as well as engaging in most rewarding and enjoyable discussions.

Have a look at the Carnegie website for details of the longlist. The final shortlist will appear this evening 15th March, 7.30pm.

And check the shadowing part of the site to find our group – we are the Roehampton Readers (not Roehampton Library).

If you are interested in taking part, please contact Kay Waddilove ( who will be facilitating the group, and she will contact you with more information. The group usually operates as a twilight session; please let Kay know which evenings you could be available.

You can also check out notices and reviews from the past Roehampton Readers Carnegie group on the blog over the past two years. We hope to see you there this year for tea, biscuits and discussion!

Roehampton Readers: The Promise by Laura Carlin

Review: The Promise by Laura Carlin

By Kay Waddilove

Laura Carlin is an award-winning artist who has illustrated many children’s books, including The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. The Promise was selected by The New York Times as the best illustrated title of 2014, and came 19th (out of 51) in a list of ‘Best 2014 Women-Illustrated Picture Books’ – a somewhat dubious selection, which does not (surprise, surprise) appear to have been matched by a ‘Best Men-Illustrated’ prize … However, given the word limits imposed by the NCRCL blog reviews, I intend to refrain – with some difficulty – from engaging in the murky and well-worn debate around gender-restricted prize lists. Although I would be fascinated to know how the outstandingly successful Janet Ahlberg, Ruth Brown, Lauren Child, Shirley Hughes, Jill Murphy, Helen Oxenbury, Beatrix Potter – a random selection of names culled from a quick scan of my kidslit shelf – might have viewed such phenomena. Not to mention visiting Kate Greenaway’s grave (located in Hampstead Cemetery if anyone is interested) to check for signs of spinning. Certainly Carlin herself should be immune to any implication that the abilities of high-achieving women are somehow unusual; the ‘dog on its hind legs, walking well’ phenomenon. In addition to her successful illustration career, Laura is a noted ceramicist who has won the V&A award and been honourably mentioned in the Bologna Ragazzi Award, as well as being voted an ‘ADC Young Gun’ – one of the 50 most influential international creatives under 30 years of age. She also currently works with Quentin Blake in an advisory role for the development of the House of Illustration, which will be mounting an exhibition of her work between October 2015 and January 2016.

The Promise is a fantasy story of discovery with an environmental, political and philosophical theme. In a mean and ugly city, a young thief lives by stealing, but when she tries to snatch an old woman’s bag, she is forced to promise something in return – to “plant them all”. Discovering that the bag is full of acorns, the girl begins to understand the meaning of her promise; in starting to plant them, she embarks on a journey that changes her own life and that of others. Nicola Davies, author of the text, has written a number of previous titles that, like this one, are informed by the belief that a relationship with nature is essential to every human being, and that there is currently an urgent need to renew that relationship. The narrative was inspired by Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees (1953), and the stories complement each other, both highlighting the transformative power of trees, although The Promise is set in an urban rather than a rural landscape. The vision evoked by word and picture captures the young girl’s journey from a grim urban reality to the beauty and vitality of a changed world, in which people and nature live in harmony in the city. Interviewed on the Carnegie website, Laura Carlin describes The Promise as “a book about hope”.

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Roehampton Readers

Roehampton Readers – the NCRCL Carnegie Reading Group

By Kay Waddilove, PhD Student with NCRCL and Organiser of the Roehampton Readers

For the second year running we have held a very successful Carnegie Reading Group, open to any member of the NCRCL community. MA and PhD students past and present, as well as NCRCL staff, have met in the LRC at weekly twilight sessions from April to June, and enjoyed in-depth discussion of the two shortlists, while remote access to the discussions has been available via Skype and Twitter.

Carnegie Greenway MedalsThe Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals are the UK’s oldest and most prestigious children’s book awards. Initiated in 1936, and often described by authors and illustrators as ‘the one they want to win’, they are the gold standard in children’s literature. The Carnegie Medal is awarded for an outstanding book for children and young people, while the Kate Greenaway Medal is for an exceptional book in terms of illustration.

Schools and public library reading groups started to ‘shadow’ the awards in the early 1990s as a way of encouraging children to discover the best modern writing for young people, and our adoption of this opportunity seems entirely appropriate for a department dedicated to high-quality research in the field of children’s literature. Not only can we widen our awareness of the latest high quality books published (titles already judged ‘outstanding’ by the Carnegie/Greenaway shortlist selectors), but it has also been hugely enjoyable reading and discussing these texts with like-minded (but very differently-opinionated!) peers. And while not having to write an essay is definitely a bonus, the group have produced some fascinating and authoritative reviews which will be appearing on the NCRCL blog over the summer. We hope you will enjoy reading these. Have a look at the Carnegie website for details of the shortlists – and this year’s winners!

Check the shadowing part of the site to find our group – we are the Roehampton Readers:

And now read the books – they’re worth it!!

For a reminder of the Roehampton Readers review series from 2014, see the Roehampton Reader archive on this blog. 

Report: NCRCL PhD Day 2015

By Kay Waddilove, PhD student


PhD Day 2015 delegates listens to the speakers in Session 1: Anne Malewski and Kay Waddilove.

A fascinating and eclectic set of papers, along with some innovatory events, combined to make the 2015 NCRCL PhD day an exceptionally interesting and enjoyable occasion. In Session 1 Anne Malewski offered a detailed deconstruction of the Shane Meadows’ film This is England (including a perceptive observation on the likeness between Margaret Thatcher and the puppet of Roland Rat), which led to vigorous debate and intense questioning from the audience. Kay Waddilove’s discussion of the 1950’s career novel phenomenon linked this short-lived but highly successful genre to the socio-economic changes of the post-war decade, particularly with regard to women’s lives, and postulated that such populist literature could carry important ideological messages.

Sinead Moriarty speaks about Robert Scott, J.M. Barrie, and Antarctic adventure narratives.

Nick Campbell presents on his research into Neo-Romaticism and the ‘archeological imagination’.

Session 2 dealt with landscape matters: Sinead Moriarty used compelling images to discuss the dialogue between children’s literature and heroic-era stories, analysing the impact of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan on Robert Scott’s Terra Nova narrative, and establishing persuasive links between the Antarctic and Neverland. Nick Campbell spoke of William Mayne’s subtle use of language and his ‘archeological imagination’, using a range of paintings and illustrations to demonstrate his thesis on the representation of Neo-Romanticism in prose as well as in the more acknowledged visual medium.

Sarah Pyke speaking about her research with the Memories of Fiction project on LGBTQ adults reading practices.

Sarah Pyke reports on her research into LGBTQ adults’ reading practices, a project that is a part of Memories of Fiction: An Oral History of Readers’ Life Stories.

After a delicious (and ecologically sound) lunch at The Hive, we returned to another pair of papers in Session 3. Sarah Pyke outlined the progress of her empirical research pilot with LGBTQ adults recalling their childhood reading, illustrated by original quotes. She went on to discuss different types of reading and how reader-response theory can address the effects of the childhood reading choices of LGBTQ adults. Erica Gillingham focused on Romance studies and discussed how lesbian YA novels combine aspects of popular romance, lesbian romance, and YA conventions, proposing an original analytic model of seven narrative elements for the genre, from the introduction of the heroine to the all-important first kiss to the resolution.

The fourth session concluded the day with talks from two fortunate beings who have recently completed their PhDs. Simon Machin outlined useful practical tips for revising and submitting the final thesis, while Judy Bainbridge (Dr Bainbridge!) reflected on the final stages between submission and viva.

Altogether a memorable day, and many thanks are due to all involved. The day was enhanced by the Exhibition and the fascinating poster displays compiled by delegates. These featured several ‘bookshelves’ – ecological titles by Peter Dickinson, archival copies of Puffin Post from the 1970s, first-edition career novels of the 1950s, lesbian YA romances, as well as a Memory Wall bookshelf created by attendees, and a post-it display on being-an-adult v being-a-child. The crowning event, however, was undoubtedly the Bake-Off, featuring a splendid array of home-made goodies, all linked to children’s literature, contributed by the delegates. Thanks are due to Alison Waller who bravely agreed to judge the winner, and (channeling Mary Berry to perfection), nobly tasted every contribution – and still so slim! Offering the opportunity for speakers to be videoed added a useful learning dimension for the presenters, and for this, and the other innovations, and not least their excellent advance organization of the day, huge thanks are due to Sinead and Anne. Thanks also to the contributors for providing thought-provoking papers which illuminated the variety of research projects being undertaken in the NCRCL. And finally, a nod to the outstanding and committed staff of NCRCL who force – ooops, I mean encourage – their research students to participate in such invaluable events – sine quibus non!!

Photos by Anne Malewski.

Everybody Welcome – Panel with Mary Hoffman, Ros Asquith and Sarah Garland

The 21st annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 8 November 2014 at the University of Roehampton. This year’s theme was ‘Belonging is… an exploration of the right to be included and the barriers that must be overcome’. This week on the NCRCL blog, alumni and current NCRCL students will be reporting on various aspects of the conference, including the speakers, panelists and parallel sessions.


Everybody Welcome – Panel with Mary Hoffman, Ros Asquith & Sarah Garland

By Kay Waddilove

In the penultimate event of the conference, this panel of notable children’s author-illustrators discussed the creation and production process for their work with chair Carol Thompson, author and illustrator for Child’s Play.

Mary Hoffman, writer of historical fantasy novels as well as picture books, has collaborated with illustrator Ros Asquith on the Great Big Book series. Their Great Big Book of Families was originally planned as a book on fostering and adoption, but emerged, they explained, as a wide-ranging look at all sorts of families, much enlivened by Asquith’s amusing illustrations. The success of this title has spawned a series; it was followed by the equally successful Great Big Book of Feelings and the Great Big Green Book is soon to be published.

Afternoon Panel Mary Hoffman Ros Asquith Sarah Garland

Books by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith, Sarah Garland

The incomparable Sarah Garland (awarded the 2014 IBBY Honour List for Illustration earlier in the day) talked about her book Azzi in Between, which was inspired by her meeting a refugee family (two parents and a child) on a visit to a charity shop in New Zealand. Her musings on where the family had come from, why they were there, and what might happen to the child, led her to enquire at a local library (top marks there, Sarah!) for a book that could help the child understand her situation. The librarian could not recommend a suitable title, so Garland decided to write a book for that child. Her discussions with refugee families and in a local school – which educated 250 refugee children, mostly from Burma – were reinforced by in-depth background research, and culminated in Azzi in Between, a fascinating, and very readable picture book, which balances the, sometimes terrible, reality of life for refugee families with accessibility for the young reader. The book depicts the lives of a family of middle-eastern refugees – Garland confessed she found Burmese children difficult to draw! Mary’s The Colour of Home, beautifully illustrated by Karin Littlewood, which tells the story of a young Somalian refugee to the United States, was also meticulously researched and is similarly accessible to the young reader.

Garland went on to discuss the journey to publication of Billy and Belle, which depicts a black father and a white mother. Having survived early objections to the endpapers from her publisher’s publicity department – because they showed the two parents in bed together – the book became extremely successful. And Garland recounted with joy being accosted by a stranger in the street thanking her – as a black father – for writing the book.

IBBY UK Sarah Garland

Sarah Garland (right) with Pam Dix, IBBY UK Chair

Hoffman and Asquith reinforced the value of reader response in discussion of their Welcome to the Family, which explores the many different ways for children to become part of families. Both talked to children in complex families; Hoffman described meeting one where the children had three sets of parents, including the sperm donor father (BioDad), while another contained different race children who were nevertheless biological sisters. Despite negative responses from American evangelical groups, the book has been very popular with child readers, whether in ‘complex’ families or not.

All three panellists were full of appreciation for their diverse-aware publisher, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, Garland pointing out that it is “so wonderful” to have a publisher who understands your work. And working as a team with the editor and designer was cited as a key aspect of the successful outcome of the writing/illustrating journey. Asquith also paid tribute the Letterbox Library, for their excellent work in distributing books that tell stories of diverse lives.

Overall, a fascinating discussion from three major exponents of the successful representation of diversity in children’s picture books – a most relevant exploration of the conference theme – ‘the right to be included and the barriers that must be overcome’.


ncrcllogoKay Waddilove is a PhD student at the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature, based at Roehampton University. She is currently researching the representations of motherhood in children’s books of the 1950s.

Photos provided by Fen Coles, co-director of Letterbox Library. Letterbox Library has been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award 2015 by IBBY UK for their work as a specialist children’s bookseller celebrating equality and diversity.