When Signal ceases publication this summer with its hundredth issue – a bumper year’s worth of essays in a single book-length volume – it will instantly become an indispensable archive for everyone in future who wishes to understand the extraordinary changes that have overtaken children’s literature since its launch in 1970. Peter Hollindale pays tribute to its unique contribution.
1970 was a good year for children’s books. As well as the launch of Signal it saw the start of Children’s Literature in Education, which thankfully is still flourishing. Between them they marked a newly confident liveliness and seriousness in adult professional concern for children’s reading.
Although their territories have naturally overlapped, they are distinctive voices. CLE sticks firmly to the terms of its title: it is strictly a critical and educational journal, and does its job admirably. But Signal has always trawled more widely in the seas of writing for children, and what we shall lose and deeply miss after this summer is its unpredictable, generous, inclusive, endlessly surprising spirit of enquiry into current thought and scholarship on children’s reading. Look at a single issue of Signal, and its content will seem stimulating but maybe random and eccentric. Look at a year’s issues, and you find a cohesive set of regular interests. Look at the whole archive, and you find the communal intelligence of children’s literature specialists faithfully recorded throughout a turbulent and explosive generation.
Signal has many voices. Not for nothing is it subtitled in the plural, Approaches to Children’s Books. But its composite voice is that of its editor, Nancy Chambers. She and her husband Aidan have created and sustained it double-handed over many years, and it is Nancy’s irrepressible adventurousness, the sheer breadth of her interests and sympathies, her own professionalism and her respect for the multiple professionalism that keeps children’s books alive, her sensitive antennae for what still matters from the past and is going to matter in the future, that make Signal such a matchless register of its long and crucial moment in the history of books for children.
Raising the Issues
In 1995 Nancy published a truculent, shrewd, uncompromising lecture by Michael Rosen called ‘Raising the Issues’ – one of numerous significant ephemera that she has spotted over the years and recognized as too important for oblivion. Rosen’s diatribe is packed with timely thought, but two snatches of it could serve as retrospective mission statements for Signal as a whole. ‘Where are we as a community of writers, editors, readers, publishers, teachers and children? What are the problems? What are we getting right? What are we getting wrong?’ And he tries, he says, ‘to view children’s literature from different angles and in doing so see ways in which it is caught up in prevailing conditions and ways in which we can intervene to keep it an alive, hopeful, nonconforming, questioning place to work.’
Signal has done just that three times a year for over thirty years. Here are just a few of its more notable achievements.
It has celebrated, commemorated and partly kept alive the lost art of children’s publishing in these days of publishing conglomerates, hype, brief shelf-life and dead backlists, giving voice and status to such quietly essential people as Grace Hogarth, Margaret Clark, Judy Taylor, Ethel Heins of The Horn Book, and Patrick Hardy of Kestrel, the annual memorial lectures in whose honour it has regularly printed. (Issue 100 gives them a rousing send-off with a Rosen-like fusillade from the outgoing Children’s Laureate, Anne Fine.)
Signal (like Aidan Chambers in his own parallel domain) has constantly promoted children’s literature in translation, so long a Cinderella. It has recovered lost voices from the past in models of concise scholarship. Conversely, it has pushed theory forward in major essays by Margaret Mackey, Lissa Paul and others; I would especially pick out David Lewis’s seminal essays on the history and theory of picture books. It has invited authors and critics to write personally about the origins of their craft in private lives, with unforgettable short autobiographies from Margaret Mahy, Jane Gardam, Lance Salway and others. Above all, through the Signal Poetry Award, it has single-handedly enhanced the status of poetry for children.
And then there are the offshoots – the short, user-friendly bookguides and studies from Thimble Press that include some miniature classics – Margaret Meek’s How Texts Teach What Readers Learn, Margery Fisher’s Classics for Children and Young People, Jane Doonan’s Looking at Pictures in Picture Books. What shall we do without them? Thankfully we don’t have to. Signal may have come to its finale, but Thimble Press has not, so the booklets will still be there, and others may yet join them. As for Signal itself, it is not just about children’s literature, but has become a part of it.
Thimble Press, Lockwood, Station Road, Woodchester, Stroud, Glos. GL5 5EQ, tel: 01453 75 5566.
Peter Hollindale, formerly at the University of York, is now a freelance writer and teacher. He has been a frequent contributor over the years to Signal.