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'Dialect and Obsolete Words' from The Oxford Companion to the Brontës
'Towards a Definition of the Literary Fairy Tale' from The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales
Biography of Herman Melville (The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History)
In your opinion, which is the most fascinating entry in your Companion and why?
I’m going to cheat, I think, and answer with a category of entries rather than a single one. I work as a literary translator, which means I have a kind of natural vocational bias towards the kinds of books that open out readers’ horizons – not just books written by people who share my own little language and neighbourhood, but the books that have travelled, that have crossed borders, languages, cultures, books that may have started life on the other side of the world speaking Portuguese or Tamil but which have something to say to readers in the UK, which have travelled far and have amazing stories to tell. So inevitably my Companion to Children’s Literature includes many writers and books rooted in other languages that Anglophone readers can only access through the skill and imagination of brilliant translators (books from Hans Christian Andersen to Astérix, Astrid Lindgren to Daniel Pennac); but I’ve also tried to acknowledge the role of these extraordinary translators as subjects in their own right. Sarah Ardizzone, Anthea Bell and Patricia Crampton are all translators who have helped to shape Anglophone children’s literature by recreating foreign books for us to read, so they get their own entries, and ‘translation’ itself does, too. (Translators are tiresomely persistent proselytisers on behalf of their craft, and I’m no exception to that.)
What do you think is the most commonly held misconception in your subject area?
‘Children’s books are easy to write, ’cos after all they’re only short and use only simple words. Pretty much anyone can do it. I’d quite like to write a kids’ book myself if I had time…’ I hear versions of this constantly. It’s the lazy and rather insulting assumption that underpins all those singers or reality TV celebs suddenly announcing that they have an afternoon free so they’re going to write a children’s book, perhaps at the recommendation of their brand manager. (‘I’ve had to read a lot of these children’s books and they’re quite boring, I think I could do it better.’ – that’s a verbatim quote from Simon Cowell last month. His inspired new opus will be ‘about animals’.) This is not to say that all celebrity books are terrible and pointless, of course; but it takes particular skill to make a children’s book work, and most people haven’t got it.
In one sense, yes, it is of course true – yes, a children’s book is easy to write. So long as you don’t care whether it’s any good. Writing an indiscriminately bad children’s book is easy, sure.
Books for children, whether illustrated or not, from picture books for toddlers to graphic novels for teenagers, baby books to young adult fiction, can operate with a level of sophistication that most people seem not to have noticed. The shortage of serious review coverage certainly doesn’t help to dispel those lazy assumptions, nor I think does the failure of those of us working in this area to articulate loudly and clearly enough just why these books are important and rewarding and complex, why exactly Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are isn’t just a nice story with pretty pictures but one of the 20th century’s great masterpieces. I’ve written lots of books myself, and I’ve never written one for children because they’re too difficult – I wish more people understood this.
I don’t think you’d readily find a TV gardener saying ‘I reckon I could write a symphony if I had time – it’s easy, you just, you know, think of some tune and get all the different instruments to play it.’ Or see a boy band put out a press statement saying they’re going to be designing a cantilever bridge to coincide with the release of their new album. ‘We’ve driven over loads of bridges and most of them are rubbish, so we’re going to do a new one. We’re excited to share our ideas with our fans.’
Is it easy to design a bridge? Sure. But unless you know what you’re doing, they’re liable to fall over.
Which figure in your subject’s history would you most like to invite to a dinner party? What would you ask him/her?
Actually I think it would be someone who’s still alive: the incomparable genius that is Quentin Blake. I don’t know if I’d be able to have a very sensible conversation with him, I rather imagine myself sitting with him in his studio quite unable to formulate all the questions I want to ask about what the world looks like inside his head and instead just smiling idiotically (Its name is Zagazoo! Mr Magnolia has only one boot!), all dewy-eyed, blissed out to be in his company and surrounded by some of the art I love most in the whole world. Who needs to ask questions?
(Oh, who am I kidding – in reality I’d probably ask ‘I don’t suppose I could get a glass of water, could I?’ then when he was off in the kitchen I’d steal things.)
Shakespeare’s clowns and fools [infographic]
September 7th 2016
From the songs they sang to the costumes they wore, discover facts about fools from Shakespeare's plays.
Which literary couple are you and your beau? [quiz]
February 14th 2016
Find out which famous couple from literature you most resemble with our quiz.
Which fairy tale character are you? [quiz]
December 17th 2015
The best fairy tales are populated with memorable characters … which one are you?
This blasted heath – Justin Kurzel’s new Macbeth
November 29th 2015
Dr Erin Sullivan considers the question 'How many children had Lady Macbeth?'
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