- Tanja Nathanael
Quarantine Comfort Reads
Without a doubt, today’s uncertain climate leaves many reaching for some kind of comfort amidst the crisis of the pandemic. The company of a good book—whether a nostalgic return to one’s childhood favorite or a book newly discovered—certainly provides such a comfort. As the editors of this blog, Olivia and I invite you to join us, along with the members of the ChLA international committee, in exploring the following list. In it you will find recommended “comfort reads” from international scholars and authors of children’s literature. We hope you will make some exciting new discoveries and become reacquainted with some old friends. We encourage you to make suggestions of your own in the comments field below, as well as share this post on social media. What are you reading during quarantine? What are your favorite go-to “comfort reads”?
We wish to extend very warm appreciation to all who participated below!
Hating Alison Ashley by Robin Klein
I’m an expat Aussie who was due to visit my home city of Melbourne for the first time in nearly 3 years in May, 2020. Obviously, that trip couldn’t happen. A combination of enforced distance from home and a need for comfort led me back to a favourite Australian book of my youth: Robin Klein’s Hating Alison Ashley (1984). Klein is beloved in Australia, and is known for her feisty heroines. Erica (no relation) is a girl with ambitions that stretch beyond her working-class home, school, and suburb. Confident that she is both superior to everyone around her and destined for greatness, Erica’s self-image is challenged by the arrival of Alison Ashley, who has much greater social, economic, and cultural capital. The story shows these two girls navigating friendship and ambition, reaching its heights at a talent show put on at a school camp.
Klein’s feel and affection for multiple Australian voices and experiences radiates through this book. My joy at revisiting it was aided by doing so via an audiobook (freely available through my local library) so not only was I transported to a snapshot of my childhood in 1980s Australia, but was treated to an Australian accent performing the story for me—these converged into a sense of great comfort, and confidence that like Klein’s Erica, we will find our way through the current challenges. It may not be easy, and we might have to re-examine what we thought we knew about ourselves, but it will be worth it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Erica Hateley worked for many years in teacher education and children’s literature studies in Australia, the United States, and Norway. She is currently working for the NHS as a health research librarian in Liverpool, UK.
Palimpsest: Documents From a Korean Adoption by Lisa Wool-rim Sjöblom
Palimpsest: Documents From a Korean Adoption is a graphic memoir by a Korean adoptee named Lisa Wool-rim Sjöblom who was adopted by a Swedish family when she was two years old. In this graphic memoir she explodes the myth of adoption being the “happily ever after” narrative that we tend to see in children’s literature. Sjöblom exposes the reach of corruption within the transnational adoption industrial complex by laying bare the lies and fabrications that lead to children being made available for adoption and how these lies make birth searching exponentially more difficult. She uses every opportunity, every image, every word to challenge dominant, “happy” narratives of adoption, including criticizing children’s books as “insufferable” for the ways in which they misrepresent adoption narratives. Originally published in Sweden in 2016, Palimpsest was translated into English in 2019.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sarah Park Dahlen is an associate professor in the Master of Library and Information Science Program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. She is a longtime ChLA member and co-editor of Research on Diversity in Youth Literature.
The Infinite by Patience Agbabi & The Cure for a Crime by Roopa Farooki
During quarantine, I have been trying to support Black British and British Asian writers whose school visit and lectures have mostly disappeared and whose books have received less publicity due to the pandemic. The books currently on my reading list are the poet Patience Agbabi's first novel for children, The Infinite, about a neurodivergent Black British girl who leaps through time, and NHS doctor Roopa Farooki's middle grade medical mystery, The Cure for a Crime. I am also looking forward to Patrice Lawrence's new YA novel, Eight Pieces of Silva (available August 6th), and historical nonfiction from Catherine Johnson (Nanny, Queen of Freedom) and Benjamin Zephaniah (Windrush Child).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Karen Sands-O’Connor is a British Academy Global Professor of Children's Literature specializing in the history of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic children's literature and publishing. She was previously a Leverhulme Visiting Professor (2015-2016) at Newcastle, and worked with Seven Stories Centre for Children's Books as well as the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals on issues of diversity and inclusion in children's literature.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
For me, reading during quarantine is all about comfort. As there are so many things that are beyond our control in these strange times, returning to an old favourite made me feel safe which is why I would recommend 'I Capture the Castle' by Dodie Smith. It's a charming coming-of-age novel set in a crumbling castle in England. When I couldn't be out seeing friends, there was something soothing about revisiting familiar characters I read and loved as a child and Cassandra Morton, the novel's narrator, felt like an old pal. Cassandra manages to see the world through rose-tinted lenses despite living in poverty with her mean father and it's hard not to get swept away in the romanticism of her journal. This book was exactly what I needed in quarantine - a chance to slip on a pair of rose-tinted glasses and escape the real world for a bit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Swapna Haddow is the award-winning children’s author of the Dave Pigeon books. She loves writing about boisterous animals and madcap adventures and is working with Faber & Faber, Macmillan, Oxford University Press and Scholastic to bring stories to young readers around the world.
Wilderness Wars by Barbara Henderson
Some of us, contemplating effects of the lockdown on the biosphere, may have entertained a wild idea that with the pandemic the planet has slammed on the brakes of the human enterprise. If you’re one of those people, British author Barbara Henderson’s Wilderness Wars (2018) is a book for you. The premise is this: what if “Nature” could actually fight back? What if the weather, the microbes, and all nonhuman creatures could somehow work in concert to human expansionism—say, an attempt to build a luxury resort on an uninhabited island? Henderson’s novel makes you think. Perhaps the nonhuman environment has already been fighting this survival war, only we haven’t been paying attention. Certainly, the novel shows that people act differently when they acknowledge that “Nature” has agency—something we have been denying it in our anthropocentric arrogance. Reading Wilderness Wars gives you another angle on natural phenomena such as Covid-19.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marek Oziewicz studies the transformative
power of literature for the young reader. He is Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Minnesota and holds the Sidney and Marguerite Henry Chair in Children’s and Young Adult Literature.
Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales by Najla Jraissaty Khoury
The book I am recommending is called Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales by Najla Jraissaty Khoury and translated from the Arabic by Inea Bushnaq. This collection of folktales come from all around Lebanon. The author gathered them while performing in a theatrical troop that traveled remote locations, and Palestinian refugee camps. The troop would perform stories based on the tales she gathered. They have the charm of any good body of folktales and novelty of being less well known. Representation is another factor that recommends this book; there are not many that can boast of Lebanese and Palestinian tales. Most such collections are now sadly out of print.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sonia Sulaiman is an artist and writer currently working on two books featuring Palestinian folktales, disability, and diaspora poetry for which she is a recipient of an Ontario Arts Council Recommender Grant for Writers. In her spare time, Sonia volunteers as a submissions editor for Hugo Award winning Uncanny Magazine.
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
The story unfolds when Jay, the main character, receives news of his cousin’s death in the Philippines due to drugs. After the Filipino 2016 election, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, the new president, declared war on drug addicts and dealers afflicting the spectrum of political, economic, and social life. Thousands of Filipinos died in Duterte’s crusade to eliminate such a menace and left many to question his strategy, which resulted in police brutality and a demand for justice for the poor and defenseless. Amidst the backdrop of a contemporary Filipino culture laced with traditions, the book chronicles Jay’s travel from Michigan to Manila, and then to his ancestral home in the Bicol region. In his quest to find out what really happened to his cousin, Jay also deals with his guilt and grief. At the end, Jay’s journey of seeking the truth about his cousin leads to finding the truth between father and son, the bond of kinship among families, and the importance of discovering oneself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Danilo M. Baylen is an education faculty at a state university in Georgia, USA. He studies visual representations especially in Filipino children’s books.
Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
I’d highly recommend Son of a Trickster, the first book in a series by Indigenous (Haisla/Heiltsuk) author Eden Robinson. The series focuses on Jared, a teen from Kitimat, British Columbia, who discovers that his father is the trickster Wee’git. Robinson describes this specific trickster in the Haisla worldview as “a transforming raven...[we] tell our children Wee’git stories to teach them about protocol” (Warren, CBC Interview April 3 2017). Jared’s rocky relationship with his supernatural dad leads into an ecological story that values the sentience of animals, who, like us, are facing extinction. There are strong supporting characters, including Sarah, a nonbinary witch, as well as Jared’s fiercely protective mother. The novel manages to be an action-packed adventure story, while also exploring the effects of inter-generational trauma, and its magic centres Indigenous women. Jared is a lovable anti-hero, and you can watch him in the TV series under development with CBC.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jes Battis (he/they) teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Regina. Jes is the author of the Occult Special Investigator series and the Parallel Parks series, both with Ace/Penguin.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salmon Rushdie
I would recommend Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which Rushdie wrote for his son. It's a beautifully crafted novel about the power of storytelling and is rich with fantasy, symbolism and humor. The book's young hero, Haroun, is the son of the famous storyteller, Rashid Khalipha, who can leave his audience spellbound when he starts narrating stories. One day, however, Rashid's luck runs out: his wife leaves him for a neighbor and he loses his gift. Haroun must travel to the dark land of Chup (meaning “silence” in Hindi) with his fantastical companions and confront the villain, Khattam-Shud (which means “totally finished” in Hindi). The novel is very clever, inventive and funny; its word play, subversive tone and irrepressible energy will captivate children and adults alike.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anuja Madan is Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Kansas State University, where she teaches courses in Postcolonial literature, young adult literature, and comics.
The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine
Anne Fine’s The Tulip Touch is a dark children’s book, loosely based on the murder of two-year old James Bulger. That might not sound like a comforting read, but it has been my favourite book since I was the same age as Bulger’s murderers. Natalie lives in a grand old English hotel and befriends the dangerous, bossy, unloved Tulip, who lives on the rundown nearby farm and loves to create games. But Tulip’s games get riskier and Natalie has to make a choice to save herself. As a child, I knew the book had a strange power; it was only as a teenager that I interviewed Fine for a project and discovered the connection to Bulger. It’s the sort of book I endlessly buy for friends, declaring its poetic merit. I reread it whenever I feel sad – there I am again, with Natalie and Tulip on the lawns of the hotel.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gabriel Duckels is a Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Cambridge. He is researching the changing representation of HIV/AIDS in youth literature.
That Scatterbrain Booky by Bernice Thurman Hunter
As I spend an inordinate amount of time looking out of my window at the park across the street and thinking about how this quarantine Summer is changing the lives of the children in my neighbourhood, I am revisiting a favourite from my own childhood. I was recently approached (in a socially distant manner, of course) by a young friend who was craving “more real” books than the fantasy that she had been reading. Now, like a Cornelia Funke character I’m quite fond of, I am “always on the dragon’s side, by the way.” But I understood what she meant, and without a beat, recommended Bernice Thurman Hunter’s That Scatterbrain Booky (1981), a book that my eight-year-old self nearly knew by heart. Upon hunting it out on my bookshelf, its cover immediately recalled to me the intense elation I felt at the sight of the semi-annual Scholastic Canada book fair table in the drafty hall of my elementary school. A swarm of overheated kids clamouring to get their mittens off and grab at the neatly stacked piles of softcover wares seems like a past life in these times. But it was my favourite day of the school year.
That Scatterbrain Booky is the first of a trilogy about Booky’s family life in the east end of Toronto during the Great Depression. Booky faces the trials of childhood in poverty: hiding from eviction, worrying that her mother’s pregnancy will mean one more mouth to feed, eating sugar sandwiches when the cupboard is almost bare, and hoping her father will find work and that the domestic fighting (and occasional violence) will end. While depicting serious issues in a challenging environment, Thurman Hunter also has a knack for portraying the unexpected joys of childhood. The sensory details of Booky’s happy moments are a balm to a world in upheaval. Delight in the smell of new foolscap at school on which to write her stories, the satisfying greasy feel of roasted nuts from her Aunt Susan’s shop, the feel of her grandfather’s greatcoat on a frigid Toronto night, the weighty roundness of a hoped-for Christmas orange, and the sensation of her first “Talkie” (starring Deanna Durbin) give colour and light to a dim landscape. It’s the uncanny ability of Thurman Hunter’s child protagonist to notice—more than adults may realize—the trials of her world and yet engage in joyful play regardless of deprivation that offers hope. And that hope is a reminder that small joys, new (perhaps quiet) experiences, and physical comfort can and should be savoured even when the world is upside down. While Booky is perhaps closer to Jo March than Anne Shirley, this is not a genteel shabbiness. It is definitely not a rags-to-riches story. Instead, Booky offers a determined realism that feels both tangible and relieving in its moments of joy and imagination. Perhaps that is what my young friend meant when she wanted books that are “more real.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Heather Cyr is a faculty member in the English Department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s English Department in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada where she teaches composition, Children’s Lit and YA Lit. She completed her PhD at Queen’s University in 2017 with a dissertation on real world landscapes in children’s fantasies. She has published on Rick Riordan and presented conference papers on spaces and places from museums to gardens. She is currently working on a critical edition of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden with Dr. Shelley King.
Swami and Friends by R.K. Narayan
I would recommend reading Swami and Friends (1935) by R.K. Narayan during quarantine. It is a good fit for children ranging from 8 to 12 years of age. It revolves around a ten-year-old boy, Swaminathan, his four dearest friends with unmatched personalities, and his arch enemy. Swami embraces his friends accepting their sundry attributes and repents for his meanness towards his enemy. The book celebrates and embraces differences. Set during the British rule in the fictional town of Malgudi, Narayan’s microcosm for India in its rich diversity, it captures an idyllic childhood world of innocence, curiosity, misadventure, rivalry, and patriotic zeal. Swaminathan is easily relatable in his resemblance to children of his age in any part of the world, who hates mindless schoolwork, restricted playtime, and adult interferences. He loves his country and participates in anti-British activities in his own small ways that problematize his life. This book offers both culture-specific and universal understanding about being a child in very troubled times when individual rights and aspirations are denied, and innocence, love, and resilience offer respite from social inequality and marginalization of people.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sreerupa Sengupta, originally from Kolkata, India, is an Assistant Professor of English at University of Central Missouri. Her specializations include contemporary British and global Anglophone literature and 20th Century South Asian women’s fiction and film.