Opening Up the Archives

Two weeks ago, on November 23rd, SELCIE hosted our first symposium, Opening Up the Archives. The conference took place in a very festive Teviot Row House at the University of Edinburgh.

The conference venue, and Lyn Stevens opening the day

Our fabulous SELCIE team member and Museum of Childhood curator, Lyn Stevens, opened the day and gave her own talk on the Museum of Childhood archives that SELCIE have been working in for the last few years.

Next up was Conchúr Mag Eacháin, who spoke about the project he is working on at Dublin City University to digitise folktales collected by school children. Some of the stories are in Irish Gaelic and some English. They can be accessed here and stories are Tweeted by Conchúr here: @duchas_ie.

After a quick break, it was time to hear from Lucy Pearson from Newcastle University, and Kristopher McKie and Harjeet Kaur from Seven Stories. They spoke about the curation of their exhibition, Where Your Wings Were, which is based on David Almond’s award-winning book Skellig. The Seven Stories team spoke about how they wanted to include the experience of the north of England in the exhibition and, with the guidance of a group of children, designed an interactive exhibition which ran in June 2018. Keep up with exhibitions and events at Seven Stories here. 

Then it was time to hear from Ian Scott and Anette Hagan, both from the National Library of Scotland. Ian spoke about D.C. Thomson and the Library’s comic collections, discussing how trends and changes in society can be tracked in these interesting items. In her paper, Anette Hagan spoke about some of the oldest publications held at the NLS made for children.

You can also follow all of our Tweets from the day by searching for #OpentheArchives!

After a quick lunch break, we left Teviot and walked over to the Edinburgh University’s Main Library. There we were treated to a wonderful assortment of books from the Centre for Research Collections, which houses the University’s Special Collections. The team there brought out some of their most interesting items related to children’s literature, including a book signed by J.M. Barrie!

Paul Barnaby from the Centre for Research Collections guiding us through some of their children’s literature

After we returned to Teviot, Lucy Gibbon from the Orkney Library and Archive gave her paper. She spoke about the fascinating “Minervian Library”, which was created by children in 1860s Orkney. You can find out more about this amazing collection here.

Next up was Valentina Bold, who spoke about Scottish chapbooks. As discussed preciously on this blog (see the post here), chapbooks were produced cheaply and are very interesting souvenirs of how the working classes of the past consumed literature.

In our last talk of the day, Sìm Innes spoke about how Gaelic has been used in folktales and plays for children. He spoke about the differences between plays from different times and places, including how some display a mix of English and Gaelic.

A Tweet from SELCIE team member Joanna Witkowska, who chaired the panel

After Lyn Stevens did a lovely round-up of the talks and emphasised the importance of collaboration and communication between different institutions and archives, it was time for the wine reception, which was kindly sponsored by Edinburgh University’s Centre for the History of the Book (more information here).

SELCIE team members Elly Grayson and Jane Bonsall enjoying a well-deserved glass of wine!

The team all really enjoyed the day, which brought together those from universities, libraries, museums, and archives in a productive and useful way. We would like to thank everyone that came, and especially all of the speakers!

The team will now be taking a little break from posting on this blog over the holidays, but we will be back towards the end of January! Merry Christmas from all of us at SELCIE!

This post written by Katie Forrester and Danielle Howarth

Introducing …

This week our new team members will introduce themselves! They have written a little bit about why they joined the SELCIE team. 

Jane Bonsall

In her blog post on the 5th of October, titled “Theorising Scottish Children’s and Young Adult Literature,” Fiona McCulloch mentions the academic push-back against the treatment of children’s literature as a ‘serious academic pursuit.’ After all, according to popular opinion, children’s literature is simpler, more concerned with pleasure, and therefore less substantive than other literary forms, and correspondingly considered less worthy of academic focus. In its concern with imagination and magic, children’s literature may be seen as disconnected from reality (rather than merely exploring it from another angle), and in a moment when the perceived value of a program is based on impact, that is a particularly damning indictment.

These are the perspectives that I had internalised throughout my secondary and university education. The literature that I most loved, that brought me the greatest satisfaction and enjoyment, was not a respectable topic for rigorous academic study. I found a few courses in my undergraduate university that included the study of fairy tales, or children’s literature, but I viewed those classes as pleasant diversions from the real study of more ‘serious’ material. This perspective was reinforced by my peers, whose teasing about some of my course choices (though mixed with some envy, perhaps) stung enough to further convince me that children’s literature was just that – literature meant only for children.

It took years, a dose of self-confidence, and a move to a new country before I was fully able to shake that insecurity. In the meantime, I gravitated toward medieval romance which appealed to me in the same ways children’s literature always had, but by virtue of being written in another language and dating back six hundred years, had an aura of seriousness, of respectability, that more contemporary fairytales did not. In medieval studies I found the delight and passion and brilliant, generous peers that I had sought in other English literature programs, and unexpectedly, also a way back to children’s and young adult literature, in the person of Dr. Sarah Dunnigan. I first met Sarah through medieval studies, when taking her class ‘Falling in Love in the Middle Ages,’ but she subsequently introduced me to the ways that the study of children’s literature could be not only joyful, but also rigorous, serious, and with real academic merit. In both formal academic settings – in classes and children’s lit conferences – and informal settings, Sarah demonstrated that engaging with children’s literature was a valuable academic tool, and a way of understanding society and ourselves. Sarah helped me truly appreciate the many ways that texts ranging from Andersen’s tales to Barrie’s plays to contemporary fairytales could be not only enjoyable, but a window on the world, rather than an escape from it.

Joining SELCIE is an opportunity to peek through that window a little more often, to peer into the archives of childhoods past (both my own and of others) and reconnect with the sorts of wonder and joy that such literature has always inspired in me. It is also, at the same time, an opportunity to think critically about the value of the stories we tell to children, and how often that academic world ignores that value.

Elly Grayson

I learned about SELCIE through the inimitable and ever-enthusiastic Sarah Dunnigan. I’ve been so awed by the discoveries of the team so far; for book-lovers, the story behind SELCIE and the Museum’s archives is like a fairy tale all on its own!

Just before I joined the team, I visited SELCIE’s exhibition Growing Up With Books at the Museum of Childhood, and was in my element. Aside from all the childhood favourites I recognised – like Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Barbar at Home by Jean du Bruhnoff – I also got to peek into the lives of the original owners of these books. One of my favourites in the exhibition is a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Legends.[1] Apart from being a beautiful edition with fabulous illustrations by Rex Whistler, the book’s materiality is so tangible. There’s the lovely hand-written inscription from the Auntie of the book’s owner, David, on the event of his 5th birthday; the fragments from newspapers about HCA c.1950; David even pasted in postcards, including of the statue of the Little Mermaid from his visit to Copenhagen!

Hans Anderson Mermaid Postcard

This speaks volumes (pardon the pun) about the richness of the Museum of Childhood’s holdings. It also speaks of the importance of the work the SELCIE team are doing; the wealth of material found in one book alone, never mind the entire store of 11,000+ books, provides seemingly endless research questions within the numerous fields of expertise that the team work in. I’m so excited to be joining such an incredible group of women on such an interesting project, and to be part of this adventure into the archives; follow us ‘down the rabbit-hole’; [2] ‘second to the right and straight on till morning’;[3] here it is, ‘a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea!’[4]

[1] Info taken from SELCIE’s book, Growing Up With Books: A Little History of Children’s Literature as seen through the Collection at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood. ed. Sarah Dunnigan and Danielle Howarth. Edinburgh: SELCIE, 2018.

[2] Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. London: Macmillan & Co., 1895.

[3] J. M. Barrie. Peter Pan, With a Dedicatory Preface: To the Five. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1928.

[4] Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows. London: Methuen and Co., 1908.

Anna McKay

My earliest experiences as a reader were, unfortunately, rather unpleasant. My mother taught me to read before I went to school, yet I’ll never forget the traumatic sense of shame I felt when my primary one teacher told me that I “couldn’t keep up”, and moved me down a reading group. My writing skills were, sadly, even worse; I continually mixed up by b’s and d’s, my 2’s and 5’s. From then on, I consistently rebelled against my mother’s insistence that Friday night was “Reading Night”, a night when we were allowed to stay up late and escape into books. I decided that, because I thought I couldn’t do it, reading was boring. A year later, my mother took me to the opticians, and everything changed. I unfortunately didn’t discover that the major reason behind my confused writing and slow reading was dyspraxia until the final year of my undergraduate degree, but with glasses and the right books, the adventures of the Famous Five and the Chalet School girls, I soon wanted every night to be reading night!

My hatred for reading during that time, however, was never a hatred for storytelling. Despite my rebellion, I still loved to hear stories read aloud, and my mother worked hard to find the loveliest tapes of books like My Naughty Little Sister, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Paddington Bear, and she often read to me and my sisters. I never tired of asking for, and she never tired of reading, “The Lady of Shalott”. Amongst my most precious childhood memories are the evenings when we would sit together leafing through her books of pre-Raphaelite paintings as she read the poem, transporting me to the Island of Shalott, and irately explaining the injustice and insufficiency of Lancelot’s conclusion, “She has a lovely face”. My love for the Arthurian poem continued to influence my reading as I began to select my books more independently. In preparation for our summer holidays when I was eight, my sisters and I were allowed to choose a new holiday book each, and I selected Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. I became so obsessed with all things Arthurian that, at the start of the next school year, I chose to write my personal project on Arthurian legend.

The most significant contribution to my development as a reader, however, were the coloured fairy books of Andrew Lang. One day when I was seven, my mother came home with The Orange Fairy Book. In awe of the book’s beautiful H. J. Ford cover and illustrations, I opened it and was immediately drawn into its world of beautiful, dark, and often frightening adventures. In the coming years, I made it my mission to obsessively collect all of these wonderful books, and mark in them my favourite stories. I re-read these stories time and again, but they never lost their magic. They taught me to think about the complexities of human emotion, of love and hate, jealousy and generosity, power and weakness. They developed the core interpretive skills which I rely upon now as a student of literature, working on my doctoral thesis.

I am thankful for my reading experiences as a child, and eternally grateful for the patience and love with which my mother shared her love of books with her children. The books I read as a child continue to give me joy and pleasure, and are always there with their wisdom and comfort in times of need. For these reasons, it is a privilege and a delight to begin working with SELCIE, and to continue discovering treasures in their archives.

Children Pictured in Children’s Literature

In this blog post, I will explore how many factors – both technological and ideological – have affected changes in the development of the illustration of children’s books. Within contemporary children’s literature criticism, it is argued that ‘children’s books’ can be for readers of any age (Beckett 2008). This age crossover is obvious in the case of popular fiction titles across centuries, such as Robinson Crusoe, which has been adapted to children’s fiction, a pop-up version of which can be seen below. Whereas literature marketed primarily to adults has traditionally been adapted to the child audience, in more recent decades, children’s books have been making their way into the adult market[1] . But, how did a literature for children emerge and how do past messages contained in children’s books inform manifestations of books made specifically for children today?

A pop-up version of Robinson Crusoe on display in the Growing Up With Books exhibition at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood

Through my position as Artist-in-Residence at the children’s literature archive in the Museum of Childhood, I have been lucky enough to be able to explore this question for my personal research. As a starting point for this topic, I examined chapbooks held in the archive at the Museum of Childhood, which has bindings from the seventeenth century. Chapbooks were the first articles of printed literature that were affordable for families in Britain and had influence in their daily lives. The content was varied and covered many subjects and stories including nursery rhymes, morals and fairytales, but also, crude jokes and stories of an adult nature (more information here). These chapbooks were not usually made for a specific age of audience, it was only in novels of the twentieth century that illustration began to be omitted from books for adults (Michals 2014). Therefore, up until fairly recently, illustration was a part of most literary prints for all ages.

Illustration both for chapbooks and bound books had until the early nineteenth century been printed using woodblocks, which, though often skilful, were sometimes crudely printed. In the case of chapbooks, the woodblocks could often be worn and mismatched with colour sometimes painted by hand. Three examples of woodblock-printed chapbooks from the archive are shown below:

Chapbooks on display at the Growing Up with Books exhibition on display at the Museum of Childhood

The presses that were used to print such chapbooks were forms of the Gutenberg press, which uses a flat ‘platen’ and screw mechanism to exert pressure evenly on the paper below. The Gutenberg and similar designs of press that would have printed chapbooks were originally made from wood; later, they were made from cast iron, which made more precise prints. An example of a press used in Edinburgh is the Columbian Press; one of these presses is on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, pictured below:

Colombian Press at the National Museum of Scotland

As printing production technologies advanced, the illustration of children’s books became more detailed and explorative. By the late eighteenth century, illustrators’ drawings could be reproduced in books using the more refined process of metal-plate etching, a method capable of achieving finer detail than the previous woodcut (Whalley & Chester 1988). Etching, or ‘intaglio’[2] printing, could provide a reproduction of a much finer pen and ink drawing made by the illustrator, which would have been transferred to a copper plate by the engraver, and then printed using a ‘mangle’ type press. Colour could also be added using woodblocks to give hue and tone to the intricate linework achieved through the intaglio process (Salisbury & Styles 2012).

The results of these new reproduction processes enabled representations of stories depicted in books to become more exact and specific. Illustrators were able incorporate popular stylistic trends from the fine arts, such as in the art of Victorian illustrator and book designer Laurence Housman, who used of art nouveau in his drawings for Goblin Market (Rossetti 1862) seen below:

Goblin Market (1893)

As the nineteenth century progressed, a process of printing using oil-based ink and water-resist was invented called ‘lithography’. Lithography allowed for both linework and colour to be printed more quickly and efficiently. Printing as an industry boomed with steam-powered presses, and, alongside these technological advances, how society thought of children in the nineteenth century was also rapidly changing.

Generally speaking, before the Enlightenment period, children worked alongside their elders from the age of eight and assumed adult responsibilities and dress (Cunningham 2012). This changed as a consequence of industrialisation and urbanisation; campaigners began to seek to protect children from dirty and dangerous labour. Children began to be thought of as part of nature and, through the process of ‘becoming social’, joined the civilised, adult world (Prout 2005, p. 67). This idea was expounded by Rousseau (1762), who likened childhood to primitivity and argued that children are inherently ‘good’ and adult society corrupted (Whalley & Chester 1988).

An example of the art included in books for children in Children’s Stories from Shakespeare

Interestingly, Chester and Whalley point out that there is a visual change in the depiction of children in literature from the first publications during the nineteenth century:

“In the earliest books, children were shown as young adults … At the beginning of the 19th century they were depicted more as children … by about the 1840s, or even earlier, we sometimes get the feeling that the artist was making a conscious comment on the child: ‘See how quaint – cute – amusing – pretty’ he is saying to us, the onlookers’” (1988, p. 53).

As described by Chester and Whalley, examples shown in the pictures below show how illustration coded attitudes towards childhood by othering the audience they were made for. This change in adults’ view of young people is linked to children’s exclusion from the workplace and, the stress of living in close, dirty cities away from nature, as was described earlier.

Divine and Moral Songs (1830)

Divine and Moral Songs (c.1899)

In the first woodcut image by an unknown wood engraver, the child is dressed similar to the adult and their posture is similar; it shows the child learning from the adult, but does not portray the youth as naive. However, in the latter illustration by Mrs. Arthur Gaskin (c.1899) the children look almost like dolls; their dress is extravagantly floral and their faces are flushed with innocent expressions that looked oddly blank. Though the woodblock engraver was restricted in terms how detail and colour, it is a striking difference from the vision of childhood shown in Gaskin’s illustrations.

The romantic concept of childhood remains evident in the censoring of children’s books today, though there are signs of a changing notions of what childhood is in the twenty-first century. Notably, I Want my Hat Back by Jon Klassen alludes to the insincerity that children are aware of and perform in the same way as adults. This picturebook ends with the audience sharing in a sinister joke that the bear ate the rabbit and is guilty (Klassen 2011).

I Want My Hat Back (2011)

In today’s busy, scheduled lifestyles in modern, urban society, it is interesting that books such as Klassen’s are extremely popular. They appear to acknowledge that children are not faultless and are able to make moral decisions. This attitude to childhood is reflected by sociologist Alan Prout: “… the appeal of the idea of children as active and socially participative can be traced to the obvious advantage that such children would have in the everyday management of household timetables” (Prout 2005, p. 24). Additionally, this book and others by Klassen are bought for adult-reading too:

“The negotiations between what grown-ups and children want, and between what adults are familiar with and children are still apprehending, provide the tension that makes children’s books possible” (Sutton 2012).

These ideas challenge the long-established Rousseauian, Western view of childhood as innocent, as inferior and in need of civilising. The concept of contemporary childhood, then, has a direct effect on the way illustrators construct images for picturebooks.

To summarise, as is evidenced in Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood archives, literature made for children is continuously adapted to new demands and challenges within society. Contemporary books for children, such as Klassen’s, act as sites of tension between preceding generations and the next, exploring new ways of viewing and defining what it means to be a child. A selection of books from the archive are currently on display in the exhibition Growing Up With Books, open until December 9th!

This post was written by SELCIE Artist-in-Residence Katie Forrester

Works Cited

Beckett, Sandra (2008) Crossover Fiction: Global and Historical Perspectives. New York, USA & Oxon, England: Routledge.

Cunningham, H. (2012) The Invention of Childhood. London: Random House.

Maclean, Robert (2012) “Book illustration: engraving and etching.”

Michals, Teresa (2014) Books for Children, Books for Adults: Age and the Novel from Defoe to James. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prout, Alan (2005) The future of childhood: towards the interdisciplinary study of children. London, New York: Routledge.

Salisbury, M. & Styles, M. (2012) Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling. Laurence King Publishing.

Sutton, R. (2012) “Little Tug” and “This Is Not My Hat.” The New York Times. Available at:

Whalley & Chester (1988) A history of children’s book illustration. London: J. Murray with the Victoria & Albert Museum.

For more information on book illustration:

[1] Most notably fantasy fiction authors such as JRR Tolkein, Phillp Pullman and JK Rowling.

[2] ‘Intaglio encompasses a variety of different techniques including engraving, etching, stipple, aquatint and mezzotint. While each of these techniques implies a different method of making impressions in the metal (usually copper) plate, they all share the same basic principle: an image is transferred to paper, under pressure, from the incised ink-bearing grooves of a metal plate’ (MacLean 2012).

“That Disturbing Element”: Angel-Mother As Mermaid in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

In this blogpost, Rosaleen Nolan shines a light into the darker corners of one of the most beloved nurseries in children’s literature…


“Wendy has not yet appeared, but she has been trying to come ever since that loyal nurse cast the humorous shadow of woman upon the scene and made us feel that it might be fun to let in a disturbing element” (Barrie Boy Castaways 84).

Despite a long and diverse career,[i] overwhelmingly the legacy of J.M. Barrie is inextricable from Peter Pan (1904). Primarily renowned for being the ‘troubled’ creator of this whimsical children’s drama, Barrie’s personal relationships even cast a shadow over his work. Yet possibly the only aspect of Peter Pan neglected by academic study is its presentation of ‘reality’. In the spaces of home enclosing this play, I will argue that Barrie exploits a cultural discourse prevalent throughout the long nineteenth-century, which positions the domestic world as an innately feminine space.

This gendered dichotomisation of the public (masculine) and private (feminine) spheres conveniently fits a late-Victorian/early-Edwardian narrative casting Barrie’s female characters as tragic, self-sacrificial heroines. Mrs Darling, Wendy and their daughters are seen to undergo a process of maturation that imposes a limit upon their worlds; their maternal and domestic instincts confine their ageing bodies to the nursery as, by way of contrast, Peter soars back to Neverland year after year. Yet, Roth surmises that; “despite the arguments put forth in almost every critical review and reading of the play . . . Peter Pan, [Barrie’s] most popular play and a hallmark of Edwardian boy-worship, begins and ends as the story of a little girl” (48; 52). Here, I argue that the Darling home is a space which simultaneously enshrines and deconstructs archetypes of femininity. A destabilising sub-narrative is threaded through the stage directions and non-verbal action of Barrie’s 1928 composite play-text; this alternative story offers a new perspective upon the conflicts, dangers and rebellions at work in that most sacred of domestic havens: the children’s nursery.

Flyleaf of *Peter Pan* edition, Museum of Childhood

A mid-c20th personalised copy of Barrie’s *Peter Pan* from the Museum archives

They sat thus night after night recalling that fatal Friday, till every detail of it was stamped on their brains and came through on the other side like the faces on a bad coinage . . . They would sit there in the empty nursery, recalling fondly every smallest detail of that dreadful evening (Barrie Peter and Wendy 15).

Continue reading

Theorising Scottish Children’s and Young Adult Fiction

In this post, Fiona McCulloch argues for the timeliness of critical engagement with children’s and young adult literature  –   and how it can help chart journeys into new ways of thinking…


You’re reading too much into it’… ‘it’s just a children’s story’ … ‘don’t ruin it for me’… These are just some of the defensive attitudes interjected against critically engaging with literature for the young. Undoubtedly children’s books do ignite a nostalgic element not unlike a comfort blanket to buffer us against the world’s storms, and we remember cosying up with a good book as part of our childhood memory. To invade that sacrosanct space, then, becomes a kind of trespass against a shared cultural nostalgia whose gatekeepers baulk at such sheer insolence.

Jacqueline Rose (1984) argues that this defence of children’s literature is intertwined with discourses of childhood innocence perpetuated since Romanticism, where ‘If the child can still be in touch with that purity, then writing for children is the closest that we, as adults, can get to it’ (p.49). But adulthood’s shared wistful memory is as dependent upon narrative retelling, fictionalising and re-framing as any children’s book. Besides trailblazers like Rose and John Stephens, when I embarked upon my PhD, children’s literature as a serious academic pursuit was virtually unheard of except perhaps in the United States or in Education Departments but certainly not in serious English Departments. My peers’ responses ranged from bemusement to condescension, bolstered in their pursuit of altogether more cerebrally and canonically demanding choices deemed much less “feminised”. Continue reading

Dealing with Dragons, or learning to become one?

In today’s blogpost, Michelle Anjirbag shares a personal reflection about childhood ‘reading memories’   –  the particular stories which have had a formative and longlasting influence, shaping who she was then and now….


My PhD might be on Disney and fairy tale adaptations now, but the princess I looked up to when I was younger (and still, now) was never found on the shelves of one of their stores, or in their animated films. I was about seven years old when I found the blue and grey and black hardcover books in my elementary school library: Patricia C. Wrede’s The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Inside their pages I met my earliest role models that didn’t walk out of folklore or history books: Princess Cimorene and King Kazul. Most of all I learned the one set of skills that has remained important throughout my life: how to deal with dragons. But more on that later.

The series is comprised of four books: Dealing with Dragons (1990), Searching for Dragons (1991), Calling on Dragons (1993), and Talking to Dragons (1985). Though it is now the last book in the series, Talking to Dragons was originally written as a standalone, and was followed up by the short story “The Improper Princess” in the Jane Yolen edited Spaceships and Spells collection – which then became the first 27 or so pages of Dealing with Dragons.

Cimorene was a princess who fenced, and who didn’t want to do what princesses were somehow meant to do, like learn the appropriate volume to scream when kidnapped by giants. She ran away to avoid an arranged marriage, sure, but at the same time, she found herself through being practical and useful, and using her mind no matter what people thought she ought to do. But, because I started with what is now thought of as the last book, I met Cimorene as a grown woman first. She was, in Wrede’s own words “strong, smart, self-assured, practical, curious, and willing to take on and solve all sorts of problems” (Wrede, iii).

Something about that resonated with me – it could have been the influence of a solidly New England upbringing where we’re taught to just get on with what’s needed, or a bit of the home my mom built, where pursuit of knowledge and skills were celebrated and there was no breakdown of gendered tasks. Likewise, the idea of a dragon kingdom where “King” was merely a job title and had nothing to do with gender, and where the king was practical and not just aloof and wise, or somehow evil or misunderstood, appealed to me. Either way, as a child with no concept of what a twisted fairy tale was, I really enjoyed the way Wrede played with tropes about princess, dragons, and the rules of fairy tales. It was fun to be able to pick through things and recognize them, especially as I read more vastly and returned to the books at different stages of my life.

Beyond Cimorene, though, I loved Kazul. She was the king; she ruled. She became the king of the dragons not because it was handed to her, but because, despite adverse situations, she proved herself. She was incredibly intelligent, she knew a bit of everything and had a library and treasure room too big to bother cataloguing herself. She recognized the value of others, the potential of someone who didn’t quite fit in. She knew her own mind and wasn’t apologetic about it; in short, she, too, reminded me of the kind of women who were in my life – as older generations of teachers, and community service coordinators, swimming instructors, and Girl Scout troop leaders – and who I could see pieces of my future self in. Women who got on with the business of living and leading and didn’t pay any mind to what they should or shouldn’t be able to do. They were doting grandmothers, stern taskmasters when necessary, and could do everything from bake and garden to manage carpentry and roofing and plumbing issues themselves if needed. They were resilient, they thrived both in the cold grey winters and the baking, basking summers of New England. And yes, in many ways, they dealt with dragons – if they weren’t the dragons themselves. I was lucky to find them both on and outside the pages; these women left their mark on a young girl, and I became stronger for it, and had that strength affirmed in both my internal and external life.

Michelle reading

Michelle as a reader then, with her younger sister Ashley

Michelle Reading Dealing with Dragons

… and now

Looking back on this series now, I’m happy to be able to still enjoy them, if not in the exact same way. Of course, now I know all of the references and all the tropes being played with. I have the knowledge to problematise the ways in which gender dynamics are not completely disrupted across the narrative, but also the knowledge to understand the nuanced space within which this kind of narrative still operates. I know at what point I’d like to see more of the narrative expanded in different ways, or interrogated. I know that we’ve both moved on from and need more of these sorts of stories.

But despite what I know, or think I might know, there still remains the wonder of discovery, the joy of growing up – and continuing to grow up – with books. The covers might have changed, and I might read deeper, but the only thing that has truly changed, is me. But nevertheless, I still see the threads of the woman I hoped I’d one day grow into in these books: self-assured, intelligent, eager to learn, capable, passionate, and fearless, and ready to push back against the wrongs and injustices of the world in a way that is fair and just. And thankfully, I continued to grow up with books – and with people – that never told me that this would be impossible.

Which leads us back to the beginning: learning how to deal with dragons. My positionality in any of the fields that I’ve worked in – be it academia, specialty running, outdoor education, or hyperlocal journalism – means that I hear “no” a lot. I hear “you can’t”, “you’re not supposed to”, and “someone like you shouldn’t” or “someone like you can’t”, or perhaps the most telling: “someone like you should be more careful” about what I think or feel and how and how loudly I say it. I hear about the ceilings I will hit, and how much harder I will have to work – and I see it in the lives and the careers of the women who have gone before me. But importantly, I see women who meet the noes, the cannots, and the nevers, and pressed on. They answer them with “so whats?”, and “I wills”.

Because they do these things – and because writers like Patricia C. Wrede and her generation of female fantasists dared to imagine women who were indomitable, who ruled as kings, who were themselves the wise dragons and witchy women filled with strength and curiosity – I can sit at the University of Cambridge as an ethnic-religious minority woman, eldest child of an immigrant single mother, on the opposite side of the ocean from home. And sitting here, I can not only imagine the ways in which we can be better, but I know I have the will and the strength to be part of the process of getting there.

Patricia C. Wrede, Dealing with Dragons: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles Book One (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 1990).


Michelle Anya Anjirbag is a PhD student at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Having earned her MSc at the University of Edinburgh and her BA at the University of Connecticut, her research interests include adaptations of fairy tales and cross-period approaches to narrative transmission across cultures and societies, and her current research is on depictions of diversity in Disney’s fairy tale adaptations from 1989 through the present.

SELCIE Goes to the Edinburgh International Book Festival!

None of us imagined when we first started unpacking the Museum of Childhood book collection over 2 years ago, that we would subsequently be performing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  But it has happened!

In May 2017 I sent a tentative email to the book festival organisers, explaining that we were planning to create an exhibition of children’s books based on our findings in the archives.  And that with the generous funding of the University of Edinburgh, we would have a publication to go along with the exhibition.

At this stage we hadn’t written the book or finalised our themes for the exhibition, but we knew we had a good idea and that everyone loves children’s books!  Fingers crossed, they would be interested.  In October we finally met with them and described the wonderful collection, the work that SELCIE had been doing to bring the collection out from its crates and into the public domain.

After 4 months waiting, in February this year we heard that SELCIE and the Museum of Childhood would indeed be part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  We were all very excited – and all rather nervous about making sure we had the publication finished in time!  Sarah Dunnigan kept us to task, and the whole SELCIE team contributed to the final product – the Growing Up With Books book.

You can buy the book at the Museum of Childhood shop for a bargain price of £6.00 with the proceeds going to Edinburgh Sick Kids Hospital.  And it will be available at the SELCIE conference on 23 November (more information about that here).

As the big day arrived we gathered at Charlotte Square where we hung out with fellow authors in the Author’s Yurt, and browsed the extensive book shop.

SELCIE hanging in the signing tent while Gordon Brown photo bombs in the background.

On the same day as our event, 15 August, some other celebrities were at the festival, notably the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Brian May from Queen, June Sarpong, Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin.  All quite daunting, but exciting too!  How amazing that SELCIE was part of this international festival.

Sarah and I got microphones attached and were led into our tent ‘theatre’ where our audience were waiting for us to tell them about ‘What children have been reading’.  We had almost a full house, and it certainly felt like we were being led onto a stage, about to perform. Sarah and I had so much we wanted to share with our audience about the Museum collection, so it was hard to condense it into 45 minutes, but we managed not to go over time, which meant the audience had a chance to ask us questions at the end.

I outlined the history of the Museum and the breadth of the book collection, highlighting some star objects and then describing the SELCIE project and five themes of the exhibition and book:

  • Learning to Read – Picture books, ABCs and nursery rhymes
  • Worlds of Knowledge – Early subjects that children studies, Natural History, Religion and Humanities
  • Shaping Identities – Gender specific publications and guides for how boys and girls should behave
  • Worlds of Imagination – The worlds of fairy tales and imaginary worlds
  • The Lives of Books – How people have interacted with books, inscriptions, owners and drawings

Sarah then talked about the theme of lost voices and emotional memory the archive: how it showed the importance of women writers and illustrators in the history of children’s literature across a diversity of genres; and contained imprints and traces of the young readers who once loved these books

We received an enthusiastic response after our talk, with a good selection of questions and conversation afterwards.

It felt like a privilege to be involved in such a prestigious festival, but I also know that the book collection stands on its own merit.  It is of national significance, which is recognised by the Scottish Government, and this is the start of its journey in being known to more people and being a valuable resource for students and the public.  None of the above would have been possible without the SELCIE team volunteering many hours, so I would like to say THANK YOU SELECIE and here’s to many more future projects.

This post written by Lyn Stevens

Summer with SELCIE

The SELCIE team have been busy since the exhibition opened at the start of June 2018. And, though we’ve not been to the archives very often recently, we have been out and about, sharing the findings of SELCIE.

On June 29th, Lyn, Danielle, and Morgan visited Magdalen College, Oxford University, to take part in the Children’s Traces one-day colloquium. The papers explored how children are made visible through the archive; through their diaries, letters, drawings and objects they owned, just like the Growing Up with Books exhibition exemplifies. Here are some photos from the glorious day:

Lyn, Morgan, and Danielle at Magdalen College, Oxford

Though she did not travel quite so far, another member of the SELCIE team, Lois Burke, also recently ventured south to attend the Sixth International Literary Juvenilia Conference at Durham University from the 5th – 8th July 2018. Lois assisted in organising the conference titled: Minority Voices:  Writing by children and adolescents from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, which excitingly saw the launch of the new Journal of Juvenilia Studies.

The photograph below, taken by Lois at the event, shows a facsimile of Charlotte Brontë’s satirical play The Poetaster, in which Brontë appropriates the male literary tradition: “published by no one, possessed by everyone”.

Facsimile from presentation by keynote speaker, Christine Alexander

Back at home in Edinburgh, the Growing Up with Books exhibition continues to be visited by the public and many tourists from all over the world – it is brilliant that these books are able to be enjoyed by so many. Creating an extra buzz in the gallery are workshops in relation to the books on display, held by artists and storytellers. More information on these can be found here:

Artist-in-Residence for SELCIE, Katie Forrester, ran two workshops – one making rubber-stamped books and one making beastie bookmarks! Here are some of the images of the action:

Still to come this summer are interviews of visitors to the exhibition – we hope to capture memories of some of the books on display to create an oral archive. This will form part of the legacy of the collaboration between the Museum of Childhood and SELCIE, for future researchers and children’s literature enthusiasts.

The SELCIE team will also be at the Edinburgh Book Festival; the slot is on the August 15th from 15:45 to 16:45 in Charlotte Square Gardens. For more information, please follow this link:

The SELCIE team hope you are enjoying this gorgeous sunshine and you are having a great summer so far! We hope to see you out and about at the exhibition or the book festival!

This post written by Katie Forrester

A Thinking Space

In this blogpost, Niamh Keenan presents a personal perspective on what the Museum of Childhood exhibition, Growing Up With Books, means  —   and how it can be a space for our personal reflection on the books that made us, and a way of connecting us with others.


Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you should be aware that the SELCIE exhibition had its launch on 31st of May. As one of the team, I was allowed to bring a plus one to the evening and I brought a person who was the one really to introduce me to the world of reading. My choice of guest was my mother. How could I not bring the woman who got rid of the television at home and instead insisted on books, with stories on tape being the order of the day during supper time? Being my parent, she was always going to insist how special the exhibition was but it was apparent to me that she was actually intrigued by the nature of the books on display inside the cabinets and how they had been curated. We had a long discussion about that.

While my mother grew up in 1950s Co. Antrim, and I am an Anglo Irish baby from the 1990s, we shared many books that defined us. One such example is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, found in the Other Worlds case; it is extremely close to both of our hearts and yet we appreciate different facets of it. Her funny bone is tickled with the jokes regarding logic and the mathematics that underpin it and I am brought to laughter by the nonsense verses.

This is what makes SELCIE so powerful, namely that it brings into focus how books create a sense of commonality, despite the threads of difference that, inevitably, run amongst us. At the launch, and now as the exhibition runs, visitors mill around and, rather than contain themselves as individual members of the public, anonymous to each other, men and women, families with young children, older couples, exchange reminisces about how this book meant something significant during his or her formative years or about that that volume is akin to one that provoked a visceral reaction when a child.


The quotation attributed to Edmund Wilson that ‘no two persons ever read the same book’ has a lot of truth to it and yet, in some ways, it is a rather superficial comment. It says nothing about how it is through these points of dissimilarity that texts impart to readers the attribute of common understanding.

There may be truth to the statement that we are more divided than ever and yet there is no need for fear in a world where people are open to literature. Books have the ability to bring people together to discuss differences in a completely non-hostile way, exploring who we are and why we are that way inclined. The SELCIE exhibition itself, just as with the volumes in it, provides a chance to look backwards, take stock and project forwards ideas and opinions. One can come to an understanding of another through his or her reading and interpretation and, from there, have discussions on the bases of the findings. Akin to a university tutorial, where various students express what a particular text means to them, the SELCIE exhibition creates a special space, where each person can explore what the text or the components of a case awaken in him or her.

I speak as someone who is fully aware of her bias when I recommend that you, dear reader of the SELCIE blog, visit our exhibition in the Museum of Childhood. Once there, perceive yourself through the texts and then engage with the inner world of another visitor.

                                                                    This post written by Niamh


For events inspired by the Growing Up With Books exhibition at the Museum of Childhood this summer, please see here for more details! The SELCIE team will also be at the Museum in July and would love to hear your own reflections, reminiscences, and reflections about your childhood reading! More information coming soon!