Author Archives: Debbie Pullinger

“As scary as it needs to be”

The Tenth Anniversary Lecture
Frances Hardinge: Peopling the Dark

Image: Stephen Bond

“Is your book too scary?”

The only time she’s been asked this by a child, says Frances, was in an email from an eleven-year-old. Having been warned off one of her novels by a well-meaning relative, the young correspondent had decided to appeal to the author for adjudication. Adults, on the other hand, frequently express concern.

To those concerned adults, what Frances would like to say is, “it is as scary as it needs to be.”

A click and a flick through the blurbs on Frances’ website will leave readers in no doubt about what they’re in for. “Faith’s father has been found dead under mysterious circumstances” … “ New openings appear in the shadows, a black carriage rumbles through the streets” … “Twelve-year-old Makepeace has learned to defend herself from the ghosts” … You get the gist.

Bright and funny, the behatted figure at the lectern seems an unlikely conscript for the dark side. Yet stories from the shadows have always struck a deep chord with this children’s author. She describes vividly her childhood interest in terrifying tales, even as they “scared the stuffing out of me”. (An early work by the six-year-old Frances included an attempted poisoning, a faked death and a villain being thrown off a cliff.) And it becomes clear that over the years she’s built a voluminous inner library that has enriched her own writing – and this most compelling lecture.

Reflecting on the darkness found in various works of children’s literature, she observed that the menace often comes through suggestion and allusion. It may be half-heard, like the whistles in Philippa Pearce’s own short story, The Shadow Cage; or half-seen, like the stone watchers in Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams (Frances’ own childhood favourite); or shrouded in tricksy language, like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

Why is it, Frances wondered, that grimness and monstrosity are delivered to children through glimpse and glance? Certainly, it allows these things to slither under the radar of adult gatekeepers. (Though, ironically, their shadowiness may render them even more worrisome.) But more to the point, she went on to argue, shadow is in their very nature.

“As adults,” she said, “we forget what the darkness once was to us. We forget what the child knows: that light is only a respite, and the return of the dark brings the return of the monster.”

As adults we tend to reach for the switch and bathe everything in the cold, hard light of rationality. And yet, asked Frances, why should the faculty of the imagination be any less enlightening? Carroll’s Humpty offers a rational interpretation of “Jabberwocky” – and we know he is wrong. “He is right about individual words but he is wrong about the poem; Alice is closer to capturing its essence.”

Another dreaming child, Marianne understands that the dreamworld and the ordinary world are both real. “An adult reading Marianne Dreams might understand the menacing stones  as a facet of a child’s illness, a metaphor for a mundane threat. But this does not help the child.”

Children’s authors are, of course, adults, but they are, Frances believes, adults who remember and acknowledge the darkness that besets the minds of children, and who try to tell them that somebody understands. Sometimes, she says, we can just reach for the light switch –  “Look! No monster under the bed.” But sometimes children need to be told, “You are not silly or weak, you are not alone in the darkness with the shadows – I can see them too.” Philippa Pearce herself understood this well, as Frances pointed out. In The Shadow Cage, the child is rescued at the last by an adult who is able to step outside of the adult mindset, and to hear and recognise the reality of the menace.

But most importantly, said Frances, children need to learn that “to fight the shadow, you need the right sort of light.” And so, she took us all with her into the shadows, shining her own brand of light into the dark.

The 2018 lecture with Frances Hardinge

We are excited to announce the title of Frances Hardinge’s forthcoming lecture:

Peopling the Dark

Frances’ highly acclaimed children’s novels include Fly By Night, Twilight Robbery, the Carnegie-shortlisted Cuckoo Song and Costa Book of the Year winner, The Lie Tree. For her Philippa Pearce lecture, she will explore unseen and half-seen figures of menace and malice in Philippa Pearce’s The Shadow Cage, and other children’s literature.

photo © David Levenson

This lecture sees the Philippa Pearce Lecture celebrating its tenth anniversary. It takes place on Thursday, 19 April at 5.00 pm, in the Mary Allen Building, Homerton College, Cambridge. A wine reception follows. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance. Sign up to our mailing list to secure your place in the queue!

A Beautiful Conversation

There was mounting anticipation as the queue moved through the foyer of the auditorium. We had come to hear one of our most celebrated illustrators and a recent children’s laureate, Chris Riddell – and the wait was very nearly over.

Oh, hang on. It was over. Even as we scrabbled for seats in the packed auditorium, the big screen at the front was filling with images. Political cartoons, book characters … an image of the speaker himself, then captioned, “I have a strange feeling of being watched.”

And so it continued for over an hour, as drawing after drawing flowed effortlessly from a soft pencil or stick of charcoal, giving substance to the stories. It was mesmeric. Like seeing live thinking on the page. Even in the Q&A, Chris thought through his fingers, his words glossing each emerging image. Perhaps this is what prompted one question about whether children should be taught this language of drawing, just as they are taught the language of writing. Chris’s wry reply: an ironic speculation about what would happen if drawing were subjected to the same methods of teaching and assessment as are now employed for conventional literacy.

Expounding his theme, “The age of the beautiful book”, Chris talked of the wonders of modern book production and of his negotiations with “The Department for Making Books Beautiful” (aka the production department). Matt coating, spot varnishing, foil embossing, sprayed edges and other technological tricks of the trade open up mouth-watering possibilities for an artefact that engages and delights all the senses. For reading, for children and adults alike, is so much more than making sense of the words and images on the page.

Books may be beautiful, but that doesn’t mean they have to be handled with kid gloves,­ at least as far as Chris is concerned. For him, a book is part of an ongoing conversation, and any space on the page an obvious invitation to get your pencil out. To the slight discomfort of those of us reprimanded for crayoning in books as children, he proceeded to draw all over a centre spread in a copy of Paul Stewart’s Returner’s Wealth – and then flipped over its pages to reveal his “illustrative annotations” proliferating through every chapter. But for Chris, this is just a natural response. “I’m drawing in books because I want to celebrate the book. Why would you not want to have a conversation with it?” he asks. And so word and image become part of a rich, intertextual dialogue. Chris’s own fiction, too, is part of that ongoing conversation, bringing in authors of his own childhood and earlier reading, including C S Lewis and Herman Melville.

As the conversation in the room unfolded, we were reminded of the sensory, visceral qualities of book-making – a process of creating where things have particularity and personality. It was truly a celebration of the delights of material book and the very primal activity of drawing with the hand. Surely one in the eye for all that digital nonsense!

Except, these drawings are constantly shared on social media. Sketches, drawings of odd quotations and the illustrative marginalia have, Chris has found, brought him closer to readers, allowed him to share enthusiasms, and even opened up opportunities for new projects. A recent convert (via an unfortunate incident involving a pair of jeans, his mobile phone and a washing machine) he quickly came to appreciate the power of the image on social media – as well as “the warm fuzzy glow produced by multiplying blue thumbs”. It seems like a marriage of some kind. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

 New media inevitably cast old media in a new light. Certain aspects are thrown into relief. Benefits newly appreciated. So it would seem that if we are, as Chris believes “in the age of the beautiful book”, then technology has ushered it in – in all sorts of ways. And, as Chris demonstrated, there are so many possibilities for conversation between the old and the new, between the digital and the analogue.

But for all the exciting possibilities of machine and screen, paper and graphite always offer more. As Chris observed, if you watch people in a public space – one poring over a phone and one writing or drawing in a little notebook – you instinctively feel that there’s something much more interesting going on in the book.

After the talk, another queue: a line of hopefuls at the book-signing table. It was slow moving, but no one seemed to mind. Wine and conversation flowed all around, and one by one, happy readers left the table, each clutching their own beautiful book complete with its own personalised drawing.

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A magical, mischievous tour

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It is hard to think of any other living author whose work has made such a contribution to the cultural life of young children. He is the one who finds the stories behind the nursery rhymes and puts the rhymes into fairy stories. The cataloger of babyhood and the bard of the classroom, Allan Ahlberg has been a gentle presence in young lives for over five decades.

But as the mind behind Burglar Bill, Allan is also the master of mischief. And so his Pearce lecture proved him to be. He had clearly signalled his intentions through an uncoventional title, but still, somehow, we were taken by surprise by this extraordinary tour of the Ahlberg imagination. By turns, funny, poignant and thought-provoking, Allan never let the audience settle into simply being lectured. From his seat by the sunflowers, he led us through a series of vignettes, snapshots, meditations.

He read letters from children – “Dear Mr Ahlberg, My favourite author is Dick King Smith …” He played us snatches of music – Sibelius, “Some Enchanted Evening”. He let us observe his delight in wandering serendipitously around a page of the Oxford English Dictionary. He read to us from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. He marvelled at why there is something, and not nothing. He sang to us. He had brought his beloved bear.

Here, then, the familiar themes and elements of an Ahlberg work were arrayed in all their extraordinary variety: a sense of audience (with an accompanying sense of humility), an ear for harmony and the aural qualities of literature; a fascination with words and meanings; a feeling for style and propriety; a sense of wonder; an affinity with the objects of childhood; love.

As the old maxim goes, he showed, but didn’t tell. Like his books, this was a talk that allowed its audience their part, to complete the story. All all worked together like a multimodal text that is more than the sum of its parts. And all was held together by a gracious presence, as summed up by a teacher in the audience:

“I looked around the hall at one point and saw lots of faces I knew: teachers and lecturers and parents of children I had taught. There was such respect, admiration and love in the room. We were in the presence of someone who had given us so much.”

Debbie Pullinger

Do not be afraid to be afraid

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On a warm September afternoon, under blue Cambridge skies, Meg Rosoff took to the podium in front of an expectant audience gathered from across the country for the 8th Annual Pearce Lecture.

“We knew when we invited you that you wouldn’t shy away from the difficult questions.” As Louise Joy went on to affirm in her concluding remarks, Meg Rosoff did indeed delight her audience with a lecture displaying a “combination of courage and lyricism”.

In a talk that ranged effortlessly from Goldilocks and the Tooth Fairy to Harry Potter and Albert Einstein, Meg left us in awe – but also inspired and empowered. Starting from her own particular connection with Philippa Pearce, she described how, having first met the octogenarian author as a “fawning middle-aged fan”, she went on to champion Pearce’s The Little Gentleman as a member of the Guardian Children’s Book Prize panel. Since the rest of the panel were not convinced that death was a suitable subject for children’s literature, it did not win. But there in the lecture, Meg felt, justice was done. And so, with humour and humility she examined the vital role of fantasy, fairytale and fear – and their attendant risks – in the lives of children.

Taking her title from a line in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg used her powers of storytelling, and drew on research, literature and personal experience, to demonstrate that fear itself is not the problem. And that, paradoxically, if we shy away from it, we will find ourselves in the grip of another fear – that of failure. Indeed, she observed, some commentators warn that we now have a society raising a compliant generation so fearful of failure they are unable to take risks, to be intellectually curious.

Conversely, as Meg argued, children all need to experience risk, to have the freedom to explore the “What ifs …” Which is precisely what stories of all kinds, from fairytales to young adult novels afford. Richard Dawkins may prescribe “fostering scepticism instead of filling their heads with fantasy”, but imagination – the quality that sets the human species apart – is needed for science as much as for storytelling. As Meg pointed out, for some of the most fantastic stories ever invented, you only have to turn to the spinning tales of multiverses and black holes.

But the message was not only for children and their parents, or for would-be scientists. Talking candidly of the very real challenges in being a writer, and of that “awkward period between novels when the existence of the next book is not a foregone conclusion”, Meg deftly turned her attention to the risk-taking required of the children’s or YA author, who “gives young people the power to shape their own stories”. Again, fiction and fantasy hold the key, and for her it is Dr Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat (“reads like a postmodern anarchist’s handbook”) which supplies the essential image. “I have become my hero; I am the 58-year-old that sneaks into the house and causes havoc,” she revealed. Thus, she ended by issuing her provocation, not to her audience, or to child readers, but to herself: “think big thoughts, and do not be afraid to be afraid”.