A Proud and Geeky Uncle

hp1My nieces, the Princess (age 7) and Everready (age 5), have discovered Harry Potter. The Princess, in particular, is devouring the books at an incredible rate.

When I went round to babysit the other week they asked me what the word on my t-shirt meant. After I briefly explained the word ‘geek’, I was delighted to hear them both say that sounded like a good thing to be.

I’m so proud.

Celebratory filler post!

I’d offer apologies for the lack of substance today, but they’d be insincere. My brother and I both have birthdays within days of each other in June, and so I spent the weekend celebrating with him and his family. Laura and I got to spending the evenings with our nieces, the ever-enthusiastic Princess and Ever-ready, and Pete and I spent Saturday playing games while the girls were out. It was pretty awesome.

This morning I had my shoulders pummelled by the physiotherapist, which will be great for my medium term productivity but took out a whole morning and any catching up I would have done.

So, if you want a writing lesson for today it’s this – plan in advance, because life is always catching up with you, in good ways as well as bad.

Normal service will resume tomorrow with much enthusing about Guy Gavriel Kay because I’ve just finished Lord of Emperors and, spoiler alert, IT’S AMAZING!

‘There aren’t any shes’ – reading old books with a new generation

We are quite rightly cautious about how we expose young people to the literature of previous generations. There may be values and ideas in there that are no longer acceptable, like the infamous Tintin in the Congo or Enid Blyton’s golliwogs. But there are different approaches to this, as a four year old recently taught me.

The problem

I love Asterix the Gaul. The illustrations are fabulous, the adventures are exciting, the jokes are perfect for a kid or for an adult who grew up with them. All those silly names and enormous noses. Just brilliant.

But the Asterix books are, at their heart, very problematic. There’s the casual racial stereotypes on which they are built, which never quite reach Tintin in the Congo territory but can come damn close. There’s the fact that women are in short supply and when they do appear usually do so for the sake of comedy. Just occasionally they also get to be upset, rescued or the objects of lust – you can tell which women those are because they’re drawn differently. And underneath all this is an insidious racial and national essentialism – one nation, the Gauls, is made up of good and heroic people; another, the Romans, is made up of villains and incompetents. Looking at the broad strokes, as readers we’re cheering on a morally, physically and intellectually superior master race, who just happen to be largely conquered at the moment. When I put it in those terms I feel kind of creeped out.

So should we stop reading Asterix with children? Surely we don’t want them taking in these values? Lets stick with equally awesome but more enlightened texts shall we?

But then they won’t get Asterix, and that’s kind of sad.

From the mouths of babes

Despite all these qualms, a couple of weeks ago I found myself reading Asterix with my young nieces. Because, as I mentioned, Asterix is awesome, and they love the pictures. As we were reading, the Princess came out with a phrase that made me feel better:

‘There aren’t any shes’.

I was so proud. My niece, who is only five this week, was smart enough to recognise the gender inequality in that story and to want to challenge it.

Because a few stories like this, in isolation, won’t warp children’s views. I grew up reading Asterix and Tintin and I’m about as socially liberal as you can get. As long as the kids read other, more balanced stories, and get to discuss what they mean, then they’ll work this stuff out for themselves.

In fact, being exposed to old-fashioned stories, being given the chance to challenge them, may be an important part of developing those skills. It gives them a chance to work things out for themselves, to challenge the words they are presented with, to become independent thinkers. It also gives us, as adults, a chance to help them express what they’ve noticed and to think about it more deeply, which can only be a good thing.

It’s easy to underestimate the intelligence and agency of children. And it’s a sad thing, because treating them as smart and independent helps them learn to be smart and independent. So next time I’ll get the Asterix out again. And maybe I’ll ask if she thinks that all Spaniards look like the ones in the story. Lets challenge some racial stereotypes too Princess.

Fantasy and history – one thing leads to another

Having written on Friday about fantasy as a place where we learn some history, and about Robin Hood and the spectrum from history into fantasy, I got to see it all connect together over the weekend. Not only did I watch Disney’s Robin Hood (that’s right, the good Robin Hood), but I watched it with children, taking their first steps into understanding history.



I spent Saturday at my brother’s house, helping entertain my nieces, the terribly serious Princess and the unstoppable Ever-ready. The Princess is nearly five years old, Ever-ready two and a half, and thanks to their parents they’ve both acquired a taste for the fantastic.

After a busy day of playing and visiting the library, we settled down together to watch Disney’s Robin Hood, at the request of both girls. No sooner had the music started than they were enthralled, watching Robin and Little John run through the forest, excitedly telling me about the characters – who was good, who was bad, what animals they were and what they were doing.

For the first time all day, Ever-ready sat still.

Bedtime stories too

Bedtime showed the power of fantasy as well. Ever-ready’s choice of stories was The Reluctant Dragon, adapted from the story by Kenneth Grahame. The Princess chose Starcross by Philip Reeve, a space-faring steam fantasy – she has excellent taste. Both stories showed just how powerfully fantasy can capture children’s imaginations.

Watching the wedge

Watching them enjoy these stories, whether on screen or the printed page, I could see the thin end of the wedge of history slipping into their minds. They know what a knight is. They know how Victorian ladies dressed, and that they were expected to behave differently from men. They know about bad Prince John* and King Richard’s absence on crusade. They might also suspect that space is full of Moobs and that outlaws disguised themselves in Lincoln green, but we can correct that later. For now, they’re learning, and part of what they’re learning is a love of the past. Skipton castle is one of their favourite places.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the relationship between fantasy and history isn’t just the former feeding off the latter, it’s fantasy breeding a passion for history. And as a fantasy author and history graduate, I think that’s a great thing.

So how about you – do you have a passion for history, and was it fuelled by fantasy? Or maybe the other way around? I’d love to know.


* Having done my masters dissertation on John, I actually think he has an unfairly bad reputation by comparison with the rest of his family. It’s not that he doesn’t deserve to be viewed badly – he was responsible for several political murders, including that of his nephew – but that the rest of them deserve it too. I mean look at Richard. The guy was in England for five months out of a ten year reign, neglecting the country that funded his middle eastern killing spree – total dick.

Bedtime stories

I wrote recently about audiobooks and how they fit into the tradition of oral storytelling. And as so often happens, I realised after that post that I’d had a narrow viewpoint. As a result, I’d missed one of the places where the oral tradition is most vibrantly and excitingly alive.

I refer of course to bedtime stories.

picture by ChrysArt via Flickr creative commons
picture by ChrysArt via Flickr creative commons

Up the stairs to bed

Bedtime stories are a part of almost every childhood. A parent sat by the side of the bed, reading to their child, discussing what the book’s about. It’s a wonderful bonding experience, a chance for the child to develop a love of books. Maybe they do voices. Maybe the child joins in on the bits they know. It’s great fun.

I had first hand experience of this on Wednesday, when I told bedtime stories to my nieces, Ever-ready and the Princess. We had a picture book about sticking plasters, and a chapter from Philip Reeve‘s Larklight. Like in days of old, we gathered together for the story telling, sharing every spell-binding moment. It made me feel close to my nieces, gave us something to talk about the next morning (oh those villainous moobs!), and was the most fun I had all week.

Grown-ups too

Of course, bedtime stories aren’t only for children. Mrs K and I have, from time to time, read books to each other as we settle down for the night. Whether it’s sharing a particularly good passage from a novel, an interesting snippet from a factual book, or working our way through a story together a chapter at a time, it’s a relaxing way to end the day. I don’t know how many couples do this, but I do know that we’re not the only ones.

From the campfire to the bedroom

So I guess not much has changed. We’ve just moved our story-telling to a more comfortable location, and I’m happy with that.

Do you still enjoy a good bedtime story? What were your favourite bedtime stories as a child? Which ones are you reading with your kids now? Leave a comment below, gather round the digital campfire and share a tale.