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A Passage to Treasure Islands

Jim Alison
ScotLit 29, Autumn 2003

‘But there were still some nights when he would gaze out into the etherium and see the wink of Silver’s cyborg eye and hear his hearty laugh. Jim would smile softly at the memory of the old pirate who helped him find treasure — the treasure inside himself.’
Disney’s Treasure Planet, The Junior Novelisation
Adapted by Kiki Thorpe, Designed by Disney’s Global Design Group, Puffin Books, 2003.

Treasure Islands
In May 1999 Elaine Petrie organised for the Annual General Meeting of ASLS a one-day conference at Falkirk College on the general theme of Children’s Literature. This was a challenging new venture for the Association, which had the effect of extending the range of its interests and commitments. ASLS has always taken pride in the breadth of its involvement in literature and language, and its series of Scotnotes and Schools Conferences have been evidence of its support for English teaching. But the Falkirk meeting was the first time that it had looked closely at the issues surrounding writing for much younger readers in Scotland. Some may recall that the day’s programme combined scholarly papers, contributions from writers Julie Bertagna, Theresa Breslin, Mairi Hedderwick and Sheila Douglas; evidence from a children’s publisher; traditional story telling; a statement on policy from Jenny Brown of the Scottish Arts Council and lively parallel workshops for local primary school children. Subsequently in that autumn’s Schools Conference Maureen Farrell followed up with a helpful review of Scottish fiction for early secondary students.

Encouraged by the success of these events, the Association’s Schools/FE committee discussed further possible developments and identified three projects, all of which have subsequently borne fruit. The first of these, a writing competition for 1214 year olds, resulted in cooperation with the Burns Federation in annual awards which have now been presented for the third time. Our second venture, the commissioning of new writing for young readers, produced My Mum’s A Punk edited by Theresa Breslin, James McGonigal and Hamish Whyte. This was published last year by Scottish Children’s Press, along with suggested teaching activities.

Beth Dickson in her editorial in issue 28 of this Newsletter has drawn vigorously on her personal experience to reaffirm the value of imaginative reading for young people living in Scotland today. It was for reasons such as hers that we decided in 1990 to tackle as a third task a practical guide to the resources of Scottish children’s fiction. Our good intention, much debated and modified, has now finally emerged as Treasure Islands. From the first it has been a group undertaking by 9 members of the Committee. At a very early stage we agreed to concentrate on novels, short stories and traditional tales, and to aim at a particular age range. Hence the subtitle, a guide to Scottish fiction for young readers aged 1014. The thinking behind our efforts is summarised in the Introduction to that volume. I want however to say something further about the issues that confronted us as we worked. I have to add that my own impression of our deliberations may not reflect the exact views of everyone involved.

It did not take the committee long to conclude that a large-scale encyclopaedia such as the Oxford or Cambridge works of reference was out of the question. That was beyond our resources and would anyway have been premature since the necessary scholarly research had not, as far as we knew, been undertaken. The more we thought about it, however, the more we became convinced that there was an urgent need for some rudimentary exploration of a potential corpus of writing for young people in Scotland. We recalled Edwin Morgan’s clarion which had served as epigraph to Scottish Literature in the Secondary School, published in 1976 by the Scottish Education Department:

‘There comes a time when out of respect for itself a country must collect its resources and look at its assets and shortcomings with an eye that is both sharp and warm; see what is there, what is not there, what could be there.’ (TLS, 28 July 1972).

After considering several ambitious options we settled more realistically on the idea of a collection of brief reviews of Scottish fiction, drawing on our combined personal experiences as teachers, parents and readers. We had the precedent of Morgan’s own stylish little guide to adult literature, Twentieth Century Scottish Classics (1987). Our efforts at a booklet of this type might prove to be partial in both scope and preferences. Without being arrogant however, we felt that we could at least do some ground clearing for a more authoritative treatment in the future.

Writing also in issue 28 of ScotLit, Professor Ian Duncan from his viewpoint in California recently expressed surprise that it should be necessary to speak up for Scottish literature in contemporary Scottish schools and universities (‘The Study of Scottish Literature’). In a similar vein it is at least worth speculating why children’s literature in Scotland has not merited any evaluation as a distinctive resource. After all, most countries in the English-speaking world have such surveys. Ireland, for example, produces the Big Guide to Irish Children’s Books, (with the blessing of Mary Robinson, then President of the Republic.) The standard Oxford, Cambridge and Rough Guides are of high quality but their coverage of Scottish material is at best sporadic. One wonders why researchers have not investigated this area of cultural studies. Perhaps they have been deterred by assumptions such as the following:

  • children’s fiction is a feeble literary form not worth bothering about;
  • it is too difficult to define the criteria of Scottishness in children’s fiction;
  • it is chauvinist, or in some way politically insensitive, to think of anything as being culturally ‘Scottish’;
  • the texts are mostly out of print and therefore not easily accessible;
  • nothing significant is likely to be to be found.

Early in our discussions we encountered these objections and, directly or implicitly, rejected all of them.

As the compilers began to accumulate first lists of suggested titles, and as duplicates were eliminated, we had to adopt a working definition of our material. It suited us to take a generous view of what was ‘Scottish’ since we did not want fuss about ethnic qualifications. This is the approach advocated in Teaching Scottish Literature (1997) edited by Alan MacGillivray, in which many of us had been involved. We tended to think in terms of texts rather than authors. A Scottish text was simply one that used Scottish content in story, characters or setting or was written by someone who had lived in Scotland. This definition accommodated a rich and diverse mix. To take some borderline examples, we were free to lay claim to novels as varied as The Coral Island, Emma Tupper’s Diary, Great Northern?, Greyfriars Bobby, The Herring Girls and Madame Doubtfire. Would we have been able to annex the recent Disney’s Treasure Planet — a publication fortunately not known to us at the time? This curious, easily readable ‘tie-in’ boasts a Silver with a mechanical arm and a tricky Tinkerbell-ish sprite called Morph. It offers not a single word of credit to Stevenson or Barrie.

It is worth recording that in trawling for titles we greatly appreciated the exploratory work done by Canongate Press in the 1980s when it was publishing its Kelpie children’s classics. That series had not proved viable in the longer run, but fortunately the Floris imprint has recently been reissuing some of its more popular volumes. We were delighted also to have the enterprising list of high quality fiction for less confident readers built up by the Edinburgh imprint Barrington Stoke, about which see Anna Shipman’s article in ScotLit, issue 27. Mary S Moffat’s enthusiastic online bibliography Historical Fiction for Children yielded a valuable personal selection of Scottish texts. When we saw how our personal choices were shaping, it seemed important to give chronological depths via some early writers such as R M Ballantyne and George MacDonald. The list finally closed at a technically convenient total of 160 texts but since then we have kept discovering additional possible authors. At the moment we have some 30 further names worth exploring. Happily moreover good books continue to be published, by both established and new authors. How we follow up the project, in print or online, is still to be decided. One welcome development would be to secure feedback from young readers on what they thought of our recommendations. So far, in the hallowed tradition of dominies, we have simply assumed we know what is best. For that reason we have invited readers of all ages to e-mail their own suggestions on children’s novels to

But what is a children’s novel? This ominous question could well have lured us off into thickets of critical theory about readership. You will recall the Matilda dilemma. In Roald Dahl’s mischievous fable that tiny tot hungrily consumes from her local library a high protein diet of classics such as The Old Man and the Sea, The Sound and the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath, Brighton Rock and Animal Farm. If a children’s novel is simply regarded as any extended fiction which young people choose to read, we might perhaps have found ourselves having to include for the benefit of 14-year-olds Ian Rankin, Alan Warner, Matthew Fitt, Denise Mina, Janice Galloway, or Val McDermid. For sure, there are adventurous youngsters who savour red meat of this kind. While our final selection welcomes Buchan, Broster and Conan Doyle as children’s authors by long adoption, we have preferred on the whole to avoid adult fiction and concentrate on the often grossly underestimated writers who have, in one way or another, signalled that they are writing mainly with young people in mind. Whereas Ballantyne, Henty and Lang addressed their readers frontally, others have operated indirectly through choice of main characters, topics, and language register. Many have spoken through a young narrator. A complication is that in several fine classic texts the identity of the intended audience remains extremely puzzling. As we have suggested in our reviews, The Wind in the Willows and Peter and Wendy are notorious examples of this uncertainty.

In drafting our own text, Treasure Islands, we were strongly tempted to cultivate a cheerful, simple, child-friendly register. We realised however that we would have difficulty in pitching our recommendations effectively across a range of ages and reading levels, and composing anything more than unconvincingly breezy blurbs. We could not afford the glossy production values that such an approach would need. The priority had to be to offer at a modest price succinct guidance to interested adults who could influence the books that young people read.

Our intended market naturally includes teachers but we are also targeting parents, relatives, teachers, students and librarians, with the hope that interested youngsters may additionally come within range. Having had varied involvement in secondary and primary teaching, members of the group endorse the Scottish Executive’s National Guidelines on English Language 514 in identifying Reading for Enjoyment as valuable in its own right. On the other hand we know from experience that the private, personal pleasures of reading can be killed dead by over-zealous instruction. We are aware also that the writers themselves often like classroom contacts, but can be deeply ambivalent about the ways that schools exploit their books as instruments of of the language curriculum. Indeed one of our chosen texts, Alison Prince’s The Sherwood Hero illustrates the predicament of pupils in a Glasgow comprehensive who get caught up with a children’s writer in a well-intentioned fiction project. We have therefore tried to strike a balance: Treasure Islands is designed to be helpful to teachers in training, and to their more experienced colleagues; but at the same time we do not see the volume as primarily a manual for English teaching professionals. Our hope is that it will interest any one who wants to find good books for young people. We have offered guidance on levels of difficulty, age range and interest, but deliberately have made no recommendations about whether titles may be more or less suited to boys or girls (there are 48 women writers and 46 men in our selection).

When we went to press in June 2003, 58 of our 160 titles were unfortunately out of print. Possibly some others have fallen off since then and a few may even have been reissued, such being the chronic condition of children’s publishing. You could argue that there was little point in our reviewing texts which were not going to be readily available to young readers. In this pioneering venture however we felt obliged to establish what could be brought back and kept in print given a little encouragement and rather more financial support. One of our aims has been to help publishers, booksellers and the media to take a greater interest in promoting Scottish texts. It is an irony of the undertaking that although our reviews run to only some 200250 words they are probably the fullest critical attention that many of the chosen texts have ever received.

Agreeing on an apt title for a new book can be a frustrating yet entertaining business. The guide’s provisional name had been a boldly assertive 100 Best Books until we found that our reviews exceeded this total, and that the Booktrust organisation based in London already published an annual survey with the same title. (As it happens, only two of the hundred titles reviewed in its 2002 issue could be considered Scottish even by by our generous definition.) We then played around with the phrase No Bad Books which attracted us by reason of its pun, containing both Scottish understatement and the implication that any text that attracts young readers must have some virtue. In our more pessimistic moments we might even have called our assembled wisdom The Hoose o Haivers, but our friends at Itchy Coo had got there first with their delightful Scots versions of Ovid. In the end however we borrowed Treasure Islands from a long-lost book programme on BBC Radio 4. We liked its iconic associations and saw its potential for a graphic cover.

In embarking on the voyage to Treasure Islands our article of faith was that there did exist out there an appreciable territory of good fiction which could be annexed as distinctively Scottish and was worth colonising for young readers. A substantial claim for Scottish texts in schools had already been staked out in Teaching Scottish Literature (1997):

‘They can give our students unique imaginative insights into episodes and experiences which are part of our country’s distinctive past, and may influence our present and future. They help us to understand what living hereabouts has meant to the folk who have gone before us; they give shape to casts of mind and ways of saying which have haunted Scots over the centuries and which are often with us still. In practical terms some are likely to tap into the domestic and non-standard language that young children bring to school. Many will also draw upon accessible shared experiences of teachers, students and their families or illuminate local events and places. Fascinatingly they link with our music and art, and our political, social and economic history. Overall they can help us gain a sense of our cultural identity in relation to our neighbours and other nations.’

Looking back, we are confident that our volume amply confirms that claim. Within the topic groupings in its admittedly subjective Keywords index there are titles which transmute into fiction aspects of life in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Skye and the Borders; social phenomena such as the treatment of outsiders and the poor; the experiences of girls and women; school life; growing up in Scottish communities; the impact of political strife and wars historic and recent; emigrations and displacement; historical episodes such as the persecution of witches; the Reformation and Jacobitism; fabled monsters and real animals, and many more. In the end however what really counts for readers, old as well as young ,is not so much the facts of the topics themselves as the author’s creative act of fictionalizing them, making them compelling and memorable stories. We believe that the new ASLS guide charts a rich archipelago of memorable Scottish fiction ... even under the name of Junior Novelisations:

‘I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door ...’

 

Copyright © Jim Alison 2003

 

Last updated 23 August 2010.