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This essay examines Siobhan Dowds book Bog Child (2008) which was the Carnegie Prize winner in 2009. We will also examine another Carnegie Prize winner Philip Pullmans Northern Lights (1995). The essay will examine how these books fit into the history and tradition of childrens literature. First, we will address the history of childrens literature, so that we can determine how it has changed since its beginnings.
The importance of childrens literature cannot be denied. It is part of our history addressing educational, cultural, and social aspects of society, alongside personal development. In the mid 15th century, all children were referred to as girls, (Romaine, 1999) and children’s literature was none existent. The earliest known accounts of childrens books were the pocketbooks, of the seventeenth-century known as chapbooks. The pocket books motto was Instruction with Delight’.
These books were aimed specifically at the masses, and peddlers in England would travel the countryside selling them. The middle classes began to buy the pocket books, and between 1500 and 1700, book audiences had significantly increased. The start of recognised children’s literature is considered London in the early 1740s.
The first popular book was published was by John Newbery and called A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744). Newbery continued to publish the pocket books throughout the eighteenth century. According to Matthew Grenby by nature, the books were …’didactic, teaching the alphabet, civic history, and good behaviour,’ (Grenby, 2009, p.40).
Ideas about childhood began to change in the seventeenth century. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) in his book Emile: or – on Education (1762), espoused children would grow up properly if it were not for adult influence. By the 1880s, the birth rate in Britain had fallen, and smaller families became the norm.
This brought about a society having time to spend with their children. However, Humphrey Carpenter postulates there were added factors at work at this time … ‘one suspects too that the late Victorians tended to lavish more attention on their children because of the uncertainty of the adult, public world,’ (Carpenter, 2009, p.69).
For realistic fiction, and Empire building books, parents of the day turned to the books of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), and Kidnapped (1886). Kim Reynolds claims that at this time children’s fiction … ‘was used quite consciously as a form of social control,’ (EA300, DVD1). For the first time, books began to be published that were directed specifically at gender. The ‘golden age’ of children’s literature, which was from the 1860s to the 1920s, witnessed yet more change.
A distancing of didacticism and a concentration of delighting children through literature had begun. Fantasy in stories arrived to the Victorians through the authors: Reverend Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter, and J. M. Barrie, they were followed later by A. A. Milne. By the 1960s, new books were on the horizon. Nicholas Tucker claims these were … ‘in tune with cultural changes […] more concerned with the themes of individual fulfilment,’ (Tucker, 2009, p.154).
Adults are responsible for regulating, protecting, and the shaping of children’s literature. Representation of childhood worldwide varies and are characterised by their complexities and diversities. There is a premise that childhood is different from adulthood, in that children have different capacities and needs, and that to this end, adults have conceptualised children.
Children’s literature focuses on ideology and power relations. Peter Hunt believes all children’s literature should be investigated for its suitability to instruct and delight. He espouses that … ‘ideology, all the attitudes that constitute a culture should be examined in terms of motivation,’ (Hunt, 2009, p.12a).
In this the 21st century, literary critics naturally champion differing views. Jacqueline Rose postulates that children’s literature is a cultural safe house when writing for children. She asserts that it is … ‘committed to taking its readers back to a mythical time when the world was knowable,’ (Rose, 1984, p.9). Kim Reynolds is critical of Rose’s theory. She maintains her own approach to children’s literature, which comes under the classification of transformative energies, is the correct theory … ‘It attempts to map the way […] and contributes to the social and aesthetic transformation of culture,’ (Reynolds, 2009, p.99).
Children’s literature is capable of connecting to romantic perceptions of our childhood. As adults, we become wistful of our past and use books as a means of escapism, returning to a romantic time of freedom and happiness. Judy Blume hypothesises … ‘it is only adults who have forgotten who say […] if only I could be a kid again,’ (West, 1988, pp.11-12).
Both Rose’s and Reynolds theories have viability. Moreover, Reynolds is not entirely at odds with Rose’s theory. Indeed, she agrees with several fundamental points of it. Reynolds also acknowledges the fact that Rose’s article was written a quarter of a century ago. However, what she does fail to do is to recognise that debates have progressed, as have critic’s opinions. Ergo, what was viable in 1984 – is not necessarily viable nowadays.
Comparing the two books Northern Lights and Bog Child, we can witness similarities. Both books can be considered fantasy, with Bog Child considered a time-slip fantasy. At this point, it is worth mentioning what is meant by a bog child. The peat bogs of Ireland help to preserve the skeletal remains of these bodies according to Van Der Sanden … ‘Fen peat, which has a high calcareous content, will preserve skeletons, but bog peat preserves soft tissues much better,’ (Van Der Sanden, 1996, p18).
The grave of Mel the Iron Age bog child who dates from AD 80, is uncovered by Fergus and his uncle while illicitly digging for peat. Her story gradually unravels as she haunts Fergus’s dreams, in this instance, the peat bogs of Northern Ireland metaphorically symbolises Fergus’s time of childhood. The chronotope is linked to the Christian ideology of Paradise. When Fergus hears Mel in his dreams he enters the mythical time of kairos, which does not abide by the ordinary linear time of chronos, (Nikolajeva, 2009).
Both books come under the category of bildungsroman, meaning they show throughout their tale the growth of the protagonists from pre-adolescence to maturity. Moreover, both books take a strong ideological stance, and present children with a mental picture of the protagonist’s world. Indeed, the author John Stephens postulates children need … ‘a system of beliefs by which we make sense of the world,’ (Stephens, 1992, p. 8).
In a bildungsroman novel, we witness a moral education as in Northern Lights. Here, we are shown a progress from childhood innocence to emotional and intellectual maturity. When this happens, we are taken from the world of fantasy, to join the world of realism.
Adults albeit unwittingly often impose their own ideologies onto children. Peter Hunt asserts when talking about children’s literature … ‘the role of adults in reading, and mediating […] has to be examined in terms of motivation […] do these texts really belong to children, or are they simply aimed at them,’ (Hunt, 2009, pp.12-13b). We need to question here what motivates writers of children’s books.
Do authors unintentionally write for themselves using childhood memories or, are they primarily writing for children and for the love of the narrative text, or a combination of both? Hunt asks us to remember that …’texts for children do not portray childhood […] but portray childhood as the writers wished it to be seen for political, sociological or dramatic reasons,’ (Hunt, 2009, p.14c).
We can see evidence of this with the fictional ‘Jordan College’ in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Jordan College is part of an imaginary Oxford College set in an alternative universe, and an embellishment of the real Oxford College. In some respects, it is similar to Exeter College, which is the authors ‘alma mater’.
This is a prime example of an author using his own history and adapting it (albeit as fantasy fiction) to narrative text. Furthermore, we have here an educational link between both of the books. Lyra’s story starts in the college and Fergus is taking his exams with an aim to entering university.
Another example of an author speaking from experience is Siobhan Dowd whose parents are Irish. In her youth, she regularly visited a family cottage in County Waterford, and later a family home in Wicklow Town. Once again, we see part of an authors’ history being used.
Dowd’s book Bog Child is set in Northern Ireland in 1981 when IRA activity was at its peak. This period known as the ‘Troubles’ began in the 1960s. History shows us that at the time of the Troubles children grew up in a world of slogans, ballads, poetry, sermons, and religious proclamations.
In Bog Child, we are witness to imperialism. The Catholics and Protestants are warring as the British Army tries act as peacemakers. An alternate view of the period is that the British can be viewed as Empire building once again.
We can also observe empire in the text of Northern Lights. An example of this is Lyra Belacqua’s behaviour towards the ‘gyptian’s.’ She shows both, derision and a yearning for their lifestyle bordering on colonialism.
The book Northern Lights is set in a historical background. The start of the story quickly changes from our universe into an alternate one. In the alternate universe, Lyra the eleven-year-old female protagonist of Northern Lights grows up quickly as she is surrounded by academia. She tries to find her uncle who in truth is her father.
On her travels, she befriends a talking bear, a boy named Will, and a clan of witches. In Northern Lights, the Magisterium represents the Catholic Church, which has strayed from its roots. The organisation has become dark and malevolent perpetrating abuse, torture, even resorting to murder, which in the name of religion can be equated to Bog Child and to the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The books could be accused of threatening children’s innocence as they are both set in a war environment. In Pullman’s case, he challenges religious ideologies. His Dark Materials are viewed by some as being against Christianity. Indeed, Pullman’s himself admits to not being religious, he claims he is now an atheist … ‘I see no evidence of God anywhere,’ (Wagner, 2010, online).
Moreover, Dowd’s book indirectly questions the ideology of politics and religion: The Catholic Church versus the Christian faith being behind the start on the Troubles. Dowd also shows sensitivity by protecting innocence. Speaking of Fergus’s young siblings his mother states … ‘they’re too young to see Joe in the state he’s in. (Dowd, 2009, p.164a).
Fairy stories have been around since the birth of children’s literature, the first being published in Italy in 1550. Indeed, fairy stories or tales were often found in chapbooks. The tales were often bawdy and were only suitable for sharing amongst adults. It was not until the 1820s that the stories began to be adapted for children. ‘Once upon a time,’ has to be the most recognised phrase in children’s books – even in adults’ books as parody.
Dowd’s Bog Child uses fairytale. Mel speaks to Fergus the boy protagonist in his dreams. We observe in her narrative: ‘One winter day’, which can be likened to the fairytale oral tradition. Even the Northern Lights author Philip Pullman salutes fairytale saying he prefers the omniscient narrator as it is … ‘part of the old fairytale tradition […] the 19th-century novel tradition,’ (Lane, 2004, online).
Since the conception of children’s literature, it has been graded into two categories. There is the ‘prestigious’ book as in Philip Pullmans Northern Lights. In juxtaposition to this, there is the fiction that through the appeal of its story becomes ‘popular’ with children. Popular literature is viewed by the literary elite as being inferior. Pullman describes crossover fiction as … ‘the tricksiness and games-playing of modern and post-modern literary fiction,’ (Pullman, 2002, online).
An example of the popular is J. K Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books, crosses boundaries. These kinds of books have become known as crossover books meaning they appeal to both children and adult alike. With the aid of crossover fiction, children’s literature has come to the fore. This is in part due to the quality of the text, and the reader’s quality in reading them. Crossover fiction provides a sharpening of the senses in the way we read. As we read, we form a duality reading both as an adult and as a child.
That being said some books have problems crossing the gender divide. Alice states … ‘I like some boy’s books, but some girl’s books are a bit girly,’ (EA300, DVD1). We have to speculate here that Alice has read books pertaining to both genders. This is in contrast to the gender books of the past where books where dedicated to a particular gender and children were not encouraged to step out of their reading gender.
Rachel Falconer poses the question … ‘do adults seek comfort and security by cross-reading children’s literature,’ (Falconer, 2009, p.368a). Additionally, Falconer believes that by … ‘engaging with children’s fiction, it presents challenges to an adult’s core sense of identity,’ (Falconer, 2009, p.268b). In turn, this increases their self-awareness, and questions the many established criteria of children’s literature.
Pullman uses intertextuality as a method of engagement to express his artistry. Indeed, through his use of intertextuality His Dark Materials can be seen to have spurious links to Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’ books among many others, and is why Pullman’s books are heralded for his use of intertextuality.
Another example of this is in Northern Lights were a member of the Jordan College faculty asks Lord Asriel … ‘is this, the Barnard-Stokes business’ (Pullman, 2005, p.24). Here, we have a link to our world from Lyra’s world. This is a reference to the ‘Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI)’ and is an approach to quantum mechanics … ‘other similar worlds, which exist in parallel at the same, space, and time,’ (Vaidman, 2002, online).
Fergus the eighteen-year-old male protagonist of Bog Child has as his mentor his Uncle Tally. Fergus falls in love with Cora the archaeologists’ daughter. In Bog Child, we witness a young man of eighteen – a true child of the 21st Century, who is not afraid to be seen out and about, looking after his younger siblings. Moreover, as a contemporary child he is still living at home with his parents.
There is a strong sense of family throughout the book. Fergus and his parents try to shield the younger children from Joe’s imprisonment in Long Kesh. His brother is a member of the Provisional IRA and is on hunger strike in the story. In reality, Bobby Sands led the hunger strike of 1981 and died on the 5th of May that same year.
The hunger strikers were on strike because they have been classified as common criminals rather than political ones. The strikers considered themselves freedom fighters (BBC, 2007). However, there was always a religious undertone to their strike. In Bog Child, there is a strong sense of interdependence between Fergus and his mother especially when discussing Joe’s hunger strike.
Indeed, his mother is determined to get Fergus off too university and away from the Troubles as soon as possible. Both parents rely heavily on Fergus’s level headiness, especially when it came to making a decision about starting to drip-feed Joe against his wishes.
In Bog Child, there is a lack of home security for Fergus and his siblings, which can be equated to Lyra’s lifestyle in Northern Lights. Here, there is the threat of the removal of the daemons belonging to children. Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon has the nickname of Pan and is a personification of her soul, which takes on many animal forms.
Pullman’s trilogy of books is called His Dark Materials, the book Northern Lights being the first of them. There is very little humour in the trilogy, which is unusual in that human beings find humour helps in times of adversity.
In contrast, Dowd’s book uses quite a bit of humour that is directed at family and friends. When Fergus is asked to put L plates on the car by his mother, he complains … ‘But it’s like telling the whole world in big letters, I’M A PROVO, a holder of a provisional licence,’ (Dowd, 2009, p.27). Then, of course, there is humour in the packages that Fergus has been unwillingly smuggling over the border. He suspects they contain Semtex.
When Owain pulls the contents out of the Jiffy bag, they declare … ‘Condoms, […] and the bleeding Pill,’ (Dowd, 2009, p.250). In this episode, Dowd has used the metaphors of Jiffy bag, Condoms, and the Pill. Dowd also uses unfamiliar Irish slang and dialog to great effect through the idioms of the native language as in ‘PROVO,’ (EA300, DVD-ROM).
Imagery plays a large part in both children’s and adult literature. However, we are not talking about the still images that an artist or a photographer produces, with the multitude of meanings that an image can convey. We are talking about narrative imagery, portrayed via text and intertextually.
For example, in Bog Child, there is the imagery of Fergus taking his morning run. He is stopped in his tracks by a noise that at first he does not recognise. It is Owain playing his trombone, and intertextually it brings to mind an image of television footage he had seen of President Kennedy’s funeral, (Dowd, 2009, pp.210-211).
Additionally there is the image of the balaclava wearing IRA Provisional soldiers firing guns into the air over a grave, (Dowd, 2009, p.206). As adults, we can relate to this intertextuality as we have seen the same thing on the television news. Yet, another case of imagery is in Bog Child. Joe’s watch symbolises metaphorically the counting of days regarding his hunger strike.
That in turn, could be linked to intertextuality. Alternatively, the watch could be a metaphor for a life standing still, and Fergus’s life moving forward. The image on the front cover of Bog Child’s book is a boy with hid arms outstretched and symbolises freedom.
The book Northern Lights is full of symbology the most prominent being Lyra’s Alethiometer were pictorial symbols are used to represent words. Then, there is the armored bear, also known as, ‘ice bears.’ Here the bear wears ‘sky-iron,’ which is considered the equivalent of Lyra’s daemon/soul.
Another symbol, for want of a better word, is Pullman’s use of Dust. He uses this scientifically to represent particles that shape and explain the world. Dust has many nuances, for example, in the first book of the Bible … ‘for dust thou art, and unto dust, shalt thou return,’ (Genesis 3:19). However, Pullman uses the metaphor to subvert both the beginning and the end.
For a book to win the esteemed Carnegie Medal, it has to be of outstanding quality. There are many criteria to be met and not all will be applicable to the nominated title. The headings for these criteria are the plot, characterisation, and style. The book Northern Lights won the Carnegie Medal in 1995.
In 2002, the third volume of the trilogy The Amber Spyglass (2000) became the only children’s novel to win the coveted Whitbread Prize. The book Northern Lights has been adapted into film, a video game, audio books, and a stage production of His Dark Materials in 2003.
Bog Child has been published in the following countries, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Holland, and Japan. It was the winner of the following awards in 2009: Carnegie, The Edgar Allen Poe, Sheffield Children’s Book, and the CBI Bisto Book of the year, UKLA Children’s Book, and the US Cooperative Children’s Book Centre.
In addition, the book has been nominated and shortlisted for many other literary awards. Adrian Flynn has adapted the book into a play script, (Flynn, 2009, online). The book Bog Child is very much in its infancy, giving it little chance for as many adaptations as Pullman’s works.
Both books deal with the real world and an imaginary one. They both have young protagonists, with the books being hailed as part of the new golden age of literature. Pullman’s work is viewed as literary and complex. Dowd’s book is hailed as a political, emotional, historical tale, with a plot is full of surprises. It has a strong moral tone, which highlights the impact of political conflict.
In conclusion, Bog Child can be seen to educate readers by its considerate handling of the political situation in Northern Ireland during the time of the Troubles. Dowd handles the portrayal of how the Troubles impeded on the lives of its populace, and how they coped with it by means of fortitude and humour. The themes of the books are truly thought provoking. We witness personal responsibility, family relationships, culture issues and beliefs, and the coming of age.
Dowd’s lucid, intense prose portrays an accurate account of people and culture. She handles with immense sensitivity the account of Fergus’s moral dilemma concerning his brother’s hunger strike. A surprising and heart-warming twist is that of Fergus’s relationship with Owain, in spite of the danger to himself for cohorting with a British soldier. The humorous event of finding out what the Jiffy bag contained brought a welcome relief to a violent adult world in which children become innocent victims.
Pullman sees himself as a champion of his beliefs and challenges authority and orthodoxy. This is seen by some as a backward step, in that Pullman enforces a moralising conformity in his work. However, there is no disputing the brilliance of Pullman’s work. His book Northern Lights transports us with great aplomb to another dimension in time.
His characters are complex yet believable. His sophisticated faultless prose is imaginative and frighteningly realistic. The lack of a family is influential in creating independence in the children. Pullman strengthens traditional gender roles by showing Lyra as smart and independent.
Understanding the history of children’s literature helps us understand the improvements made and the direction in which it is travelling. We have observed how the foundational elements of children literature have hardly changed. We still need a plot, a setting, theme, character, and a point of view.
These elements can broadly be attributed to our way of life. Therefore, if we have a fundamental understanding of life, we can understand all forms of literature. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly hard to distinguish the difference between adulthood and the childhood boundaries of literature.
Be we young or old we use language, have attitudes, desires, even our physical appearance can be the same. Of course, adults have the advantage of life’s experiences to guide them. However, in our technology driven 21st Century children are growing up faster. They understand more and at an earlier age than we did.
The appeal of crossover books is subjective, and an individual decision for adults, as is the current trend of fantasy literature. However, one thing Children’s literature has taught us is things do not stagnate; there will always be something new and more appealing on the horizon.
We cannot discuss children’s literature without referring to critics. Critic’s theories and opinions are essential to show us what could be and how things have changed. In life, we are our own critics, but literature needs varying opinions for us to make judgments. You can choose to agree or disagree with critics, but what we must not lose sight of is the more critics differ in their opinions, the greater care they will take of their own work, leaving readers to reap the benefits of their invaluable efforts.
We were shown at the beginning of this essay how children’s literature chose to instruct and delight. Mercifully, we have discovered that children’s contemporary literature still does instruct and delight. The books we have examined have instructed us in many ways. They have shown us moral fortitude, consideration of others, bravery, companionship, love, loyalty to friends and family, how tradition and history has an impact on us, and the many other things that children’s literature encompasses.
Then there is the delight we encounter at the artistry of an author. They transport us into worlds we never imagined could be possible. They remind us of the romanticism of our youth and delight us with a story well told. These attributes make us envious of their craft. We have seen that children’s literature is thriving, and long may the trend continue. By adulthood, we have learned the true pleasures of reading books. As agents, to our children it becomes incumbent on all of us to ensure we pass on the pleasures of reading a good book.
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