Tag Archives: Children’s Fiction

What-the-Dickens by Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is probably best known for his Wizard of Oz spin off, which despite its flair, owes some of its fame to the cult status of The Wizard of Oz and the runaway success of the musical version of the book, Wicked. However, in his modern fairytale What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy, Maguire shows that he has the ability to craft his own fantasy world securely within the familiar confines of our own.

Ten year old Dinah waits with her big brother, little sister and adult cousin for her parents who have left the house during a deadly storm to find insulin. Their neighbours homes have been evacuated, but the family’s strong religious conviction has made them attempt to weather it out. With little food and no power, their older cousin Gabe tells a story to pass the time.

The story, he says, is a true one which happened to him during his child hood, and explains how What-the-Dickens, an orphaned skibbereen, or tooth fairy to you and me, comes to find his place in life, facing deadly challenges and making friends along the way.

Even as an adult I found the story charming and funny. If I was still teaching, I would include it in a scheme of work for 11-13 year olds. It’s an excellent starting point for exploring fairytales and mythology, as the modern setting takes us away from the traditional men-in-tights-and-women-in-need-of-a-bloody-good-haircut scenarios children expect from a fairytale. It’s also a lovely little tale about culture, identity and self belief.

If you have a small person between the ages of 9 and… well I refuse to stick an upper age limit on it, then you should get this book for them. Read it yourself first though!

Chinese New Year: Top Five Fictional Rabbits

In honour of the Chinese year, the year of the rabbit, my list of my favourite rabbits in fiction are as follows:

1.       Velveteen Rabbit The Velveteen Rabbit Margery Williams

2.       Br’er Rabbit from The Uncle Remus Stories Joel Chandler Harris

3. Peter Rabbit The Tales of Beatrix Potter

4.       Hazel and co. of Watership Down Richard Adams

5.       The White Rabbit Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll

Special mention to Rabbit of Winnie The Pooh fame.

Lettice Reading

To me, rabbits have always had a certain pluck and are far from the insipid little beasties they always seem to be portrayed as. That might just be as a result of my pet rabbits having bullied me through the years, but I’ve chosen my rabbits to reflect this, with the White Rabbit thrown in for a bit of variety.

I will never forget hearing the story of The Velveteen Rabbit when I was about four years old and how sad that made me. If you haven’t read it yet, then you really, really must. If you’re in the mood to weep over rabbits (well, you never know) one that has the potential to get me going is a poem by Roger McGough Rabbit in a Mixer Survives based on the true story of a little rabbit who fell into a cement mixer.

My Two Pennies Worth

Doubtless anyone who reads the news will have heard about the recent outcry about the censorship of racist language in the latest version of Huckleberry Finn from New South books, in which the n- word has been replaced with “slave” and “injun” with a more standardised spelling, which they doubtless feel will be less shocking to parents on the boards of schools which they feel shy away from studying the text because of the racist language.

My two pennies worth? Aside from the fact that it is a satirical novel which criticises slavery (a pretty decent reason in itself not to censor) what is this sanitized version of history teaching children? I’m sure there are things in the past we would all like to airbrush away, unpleasant things we would like to sweep under the carpet, but I don’t think an oppressive period in history should be one of them.

When I was teaching I taught Of Mice and Men to my GCSE groups, and rather than shying away from the racism, sexism and prejudice against disability that are used in class, we tackled it head on. For example, which vocabulary did the students feel was appropriate to use? Why did they think that the author had used it? This gave rise to meaningful discussions which lead to the student deciding that Steinbeck’s portrayal of Crooks did not make him a racist, but reflected the attitudes towards black people in the era the novel was written. We discussed the Jim Crow laws. The students learned about the Ku Klux clan. We listened to Billie Holliday singing Strange Fruit and the students learned more about the historical period than they otherwise would have by avoiding the use of the n word.

I think it is more useful to teach young people and readers in general to open their minds to what they are reading and allow them to feel comfortable in challenging the attitudes and values presented in the text.

Feasting on Roald Dahl

I’ve been having a bit of a Roald Dahl thing today. I’m tutoring a little girl to help her improve her literacy, and I thought that a great text to base the reading and writing activities around so that there would be an obvious theme for her while she practises writing for different purposes and gets to practise her reading would be George’s Marvellous Medicine.

There was always something which appealed to me about Roald Dahl’s description of George adding the various ingredients to the magic mixture which always appealed to me. Maybe it was partly George’s silly puns (Canary Seed – that ought to make the old bird sing) or the gloopy, glossy textures of paints, shampoos and ointments but I’ve always loved the great appeal to the senses in Dahl’s description, even though the stories are otherwise basic. I think that’s where their brilliance lies.

The lists of food Mr Fox stole from the mean farmers always made my stomach growl, never mind the descriptions of goodies in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. So I decided that I would bake a cake in tribute to Dahl’s food. A Bruce Bogtrotter vs Trunchbull masterpiece I am going to make a massive chocolate cake.