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Be Careful What You Wish For! Magic Words from the 2019 Philippa Pearce Lecture

It was the kind of bright, spring afternoon when anything seems possible, as excited children’s-literature enthusiasts filled the Homerton auditorium. Those lucky enough to attend the twelfth annual Philippa Pearce Lecture were treated to an engaging and illuminating talk by former Children’s Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson, entitled “Be Careful What You Wish For!”. Like her award-winning books, Jaqueline’s words were sharply perceptive, sweetly endearing and indicative of a writer who has not lost her ability to see the world through a child’s eyes.

She began by recalling an author’s conference she’d attended very early in her career. Slightly nervous and not knowing anyone else, she was grateful to be befriended at lunch by a woman who mentioned, in a very modest way, that she’d written “a book about a garden”. Only afterwards did Jacqueline realise that her new acquaintance was none other than Philippa Pearce. She was bowled over by the warmth, humility and genuine interest this celebrated author had shown to “a young beginner”.

Jacqueline went on to reflect on some of her own childhood reading experiences. She recalled staying with her grandparents and finding nothing to read except an old Maria Edgeworth book which included The Purple Jar. In this short story, Rosamond’s desire to own one of the enchanting purple vessels she sees in a chemist’s shop leads her mother to teach her a rather painful lesson about making prudent choices. Jacqueline explained that, whilst she didn’t mind “traditional ‘be careful what you wish for’ tales as such”, she has always “hated this lofty adult viewpoint in which adults always know best.” For her, writing for children is driven by the desire to capture a child’s point of view: their worries, woes and wishes

Jacqueline then considered various literary attempts to capture that world in general and the wished-for in particular. These included E Nesbit’s The Five Children and It – the inspiration for her own, updated version, The Four Children and It. Eventually she lighted on Philippa Pearce’s A Dog So Small as a shining example of a ‘Be Careful What You Wish For!’ narrative. This story of a boy who wishes for, imagines and ultimately receives a dog of his own artfully compels readers to consider “the joys—and the dangers—of living totally in the imagination” without ever becoming patronising or dismissive of the intense emotions children feel and the lessons they learn. (Lessons that many adults are still learning, whether or not they choose to admit it.) Philippa Pearce, Jacqueline suggested, was as wise as the granny in the book who says, “People get their heart’s desire, and then they must learn how to live with it”.

Wishing has evidently been a powerful force in Jacqueline’s own life. She told us how, as a little girl daydreaming about her heart’s desire of being a writer, she imagined not only writing – but also giving talks to packed auditoriums

Sitting at the head of an excited queue and signing books must be a very regular feature of this successful writer’s life. This evening’s queue was almost certainly unusual, being an exclusively adult one. But clutching well-loved favourites as well as shiny new purchases from the Heffers bookstall, and enthusiastically discussing favourite characters and scenes, this line of eager fans was perhaps not so very different.

“The worlds of my imagination and my reality have sort of interlocked together, and I think that’s the happiest part” says Jacqueline. ‘Jacky’ is one little girl who got what she wished for, and everyone who attended the Philippa Pearce lecture, as well as countless children and adults across the world, remain incredibly thankful for that.

Lilly Posnett ( MPhil Student, Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature, University of Cambridge)


Booking is now open for the 2019 Philippa Pearce Lecture

Booking is now open for the 2019 lecture, to be given by Jacqueline Wilson and entitled, Be Careful What You Wish For!

The lecture will take place at 5.00pm on the 11th of April in the Mary Allan Building, Homerton College, Cambridge, CB2 8PH. After the lecture there will be a short wine reception. 

Both lecture and reception are free.

To book your ticket, please use the form on the booking page of the lecture website.

“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!

Video of Chris Riddell’s 2017 lecture is live

Happy New Year!

The video for Chris Riddell’s 2017 lecture is now live at our website. If you missed this excellent lecture then do visit the site and listen to it (and it is very much worth watching too, as it was certainly the most visually entertaining lecture that we have ever hosted).

There was no video made for Allan Ahlberg’s 2016 lecture, but this is a reminder that there is a particularly interesting PDF version of Allan’s lecture available to download at the website. It’s a facsimile of his notes complete with hand written annotations and images of many of the documents and object that Allan used to illuminate the talk.

Finally, a reminder about the date of this year’s lecture. From now onwards, the lecture will be held earlier, in the Spring of each year. The 2018 lecture will be given by Francis Hardinge and will take place on Thursday the 19th of April in the Mary Allan Building, Homerton College, Cambridge.

Allan Ahlberg: 2016 Lecture Notes

We are very pleased to be able to present a set of notes for Allan Ahlberg’s 2016 lecture.

This document reproduces Allan’s manuscript in full, along with notes and annotations. It also includes images of many of the books, cuttings and other ephemera that were used to illuminate his talk. No video or audio recording was made of the 2016 lecture, so it is wonderful to have this record available.

The link below will open the PDF in your browser, and it can be downloaded for printing and viewing offline. The document is A3 in size, but can of course be reduced to fit on A4. Please not that the layout has been designed so that each A3 page will tile across two A4 sheets comfortably.

Allan_Ahlberg_2016_PP_Lecture

Booking is now open for the 2017 Philippa Pearce Lecture!

CHRIS RIDDELL: THE AGE OF THE BEAUTIFUL BOOK


The lecture will take place at 5.00pm on Friday 8th of September in the Mary Allan Building, Homerton College, Cambridge. As always, after the lecture there will be a short wine reception. 

Both lecture and reception are free.

To book your ticket please use the form on the booking page of the lecture website.

The Philippa Pearce Lecture is hosted and funded by Homerton College. The lecture is free, but running costs are supported by donations. If you would like to make a donation, you can do this at the lecture website: www.pearcelecture.com

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

Chris Riddell to give the 2017 Philippa Pearce Lecture

As we look forward to Allan Ahlberg’s talk tomorrow, we are pleased to announce that the 2017 lecture will be given by Chris Riddell. Twice winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal and current UK Children’s Laureate, Chris really needs no introduction, and we are enormously excited that he will be able to give next year’s lecture. The lecture will take place on Friday September 8th 2017 at 5pm.

(PS: for those of you reading this post on Wednesday the 31st, there are just a few seats currently available for tomorrow’s lecture. You can book at www.pearcelecture.com)

Tom’s Midnight Garden – A Graphic Novel Adaption

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It is a nice coincidence that the day of this year’s Philippa Pearce Lecture is also the publication date of a new version of Philippa’s classic, Tom’s Midnight Garden. Adapted and illustrated by Edith, an acclaimed French graphic novel creator, the book is a full-colour retelling of the story in dialogue and pictures. Copies will be on sale after the lecture at the Heffer’s bookstall that operates during the wine reception. Selected titles from both Allan and Philippa will also be available.