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The School by the River by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The School by the River by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I reread The School by The River for a lecture I attended online this week, one concerned with the role of memory and how the act of reading is in itself situated across our lives. What does it mean to remember a book that you read as a child? What does it mean to reread it now? Fascinating stuff and one that drove me to the work of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, an author whom I have read for a long time, and to The School By The River. Interestingly enough, the last time I read this book was for an essay for the speaker of this week’s lecture, and I didn’t realise the connection until I sat down to listen.

I remember the first time I found The School By The River. I was a member of a fan journal at the time, and I remember receiving the little order supplement with the journal as it came through the post. A bright colour too, I think, perhaps blue or red. I went through a flurry of ordering ‘additional’ titles by EBD at that time, though it rapidly wore off. I couldn’t keep up with the amount of reprints and fill-ins that were published, and so I think I maybe bought this, Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer and Visitors for the Chalet School around the same sort of time and that was about it. Collecting was a long term project, and I was in it for the duration. Besides, my pocket money didn’t stretch to it.

The School By The River was a good book to pick. It was lost for many years, the circumstances of a small initial print run plus air-raid damage to the printers during WW2, and it’s a standalone. Brent-Dyer was terribly fond of series (even though she approached issues like consistency and detail with an airy – and rather delightful – irreverence) and her standalone titles are, for me, not the best of her work. They sort of act as a sampler to the others – this is what you’ll get, and it’s quite likely I’ll recycle the names as well and half the plots elsewhere.

Some of The School By The River does suffer from such a tendency towards being already seen elsewhere, but then Brent-Dyer throws in a revolution halfway through and things go full crazytown and I love it. I can’t tell you how much I adore her talking about things like Bolshevism and Student Revolution because they’re clearly such alien concepts to her. (Redheads at the Chalet School I’m looking at you). And so we get some rather wonderfully ambitious writing here with talk of politics, Bolsheviki agents, revolution and uprising, and it’s all utterly off its noodle in a way that only Brent-Dyer can do. Singing in the cellars! Gunshots! Stale bread with honey whilst the proletariat swim through floods! I have never known an author so keenly devoted to hybridising ridiculous and wonderful in her work as this one.

Plot. I suppose we should talk plot briefly, because that’s what we do in such things like this. Jennifer’s talented with the piano, weirdly pretty if you do her hair right, very British, destined for great things and also an orphan (naturellement). She’s got chums, gets a bit wound up when there’s a storm on, there’s also a bad girl who turns good, some terribly overwrought social drama, and a magnificent ruritanian Kingdom where everybody goes about by horse and carriage and wears national dress 24/7. Honestly, what is life when you have a book as delightful as this?





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The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


It was only when I finished The Year Of The Runaways that I managed to figure out what wasn’t working for me. There’s a lot here that does; it was nominated for the Booker in 2015 and rightly so, it’s a big story of social realism,almost incomprehensible in scope and vision, attempting to tell the story of several youthful Indians who leave their homes and attempt to start over in the United Kingdom. It is hard, brutal and unforgiving, and this book shines a spotlight on the people at the heart of that. It made me think a lot about the Great American Dream and “The Great British Dream”, the shape of it and the truth of it. This isn’t a story that provides answers to that, instead it attempts to understand the grim and horrific edge of it. Life isn’t easy for our protagonists. It is psychologically, emotionally, bodily taxing. It takes from them as much as it gives. And sometimes what it gives is so very little.

Like I said, there’s a lot here that works. Sahota is a powerful and competent storyteller, though I wish he’d found a little more solidity at points. There were several key moments I missed because I just didn’t pick them up and ended up rereading, and those moments felt often intensely fragmentary and brief – when in fact, they proved definitive for the characters in question. I found a lot of interest in his story about the female protagonist – Narinder – and rather ached for more on her. Sahota is good and strong and this is a great book. It brings humanity into politics and asks us to see beyond the stories we are told. To the truth of them, however awful or wonderful it may be.

But it’s those fragmentary moments in the text that bothered me, those bits where the story shied away a little from delivering on the promise or the situations that it presented. It was as if it didn’t quite have the time to spare for them when, in some senses, dwelling on them was precisely what needed to be happen. There’s a balance to be found of course, in every story, and sometimes the pace or the scope can pull away from the moment at hand. When we go big, it’s so very easy to neglect the tiny precise moments. The small, brief stuff. And yet, when we go big as storytellers, when we write a story that is as immense and as scopey as this, it’s the tiny stuff that matters.





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The Cage by Alberts Bels

The Cage by Alberts Bels

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My journey into Latvian literature continues, thanks to my friends at Latvian Literature who hooked me up with a review copy of The Cage by Alberts Bels. As problematic as it is to classify a nations output on the very few titles I’ve read (here’s my review of In The Shadow Of Death), I’m very much in love with the introspective philosophical edge that I keep finding. These are books that think very much about what they are, and what they want to say – there’s a care in every word, and The Cage is a perfect example of such. I loved it. There’s so much here to think about, to hold, to consider.

The Cage is a mystery novel set in Riga, and concerns itself with the disappearance of a local architect. And yet, as with many novels that can be summed up in such a way, it’s about everything other than that. It’s about the people in the story, their lives and loves and intersections. It’s about a society that’s tightly woven to prevent this sort of Unusual Thing happening – there’s some very deep and pointed political commentary here which gains extra resonance when you learn that The Cage was first published in 1972, during the time when Latvia was under Soviet rule. And it’s about the cages that all of these people – and us, ourselves – live in. Real, metaphorical or otherwise.

I liked this a lot. There’s some big philosphical questions here but it wears them lightly, and you’re able to savour it at a whole range of levels. If you want to figure things out you can, but if you don’t – if you just want a superbly crafted and rather fascinatingly told mystery – then you can have it. It’s the sort of book that lets you come back to it (I’m on my second reading at the moment, fascinated by the twisting edges of it – the way it dances and slides always a little bit ahead of me) and I think there will be a third. The Cage is the sort of book that can give you that. It’s very worth hunting out.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.



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The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf edited by Susan Dick

The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I am circling around the work of Virginia Woolf, dipping in my toe every now and and then and trying to figure out what this author is for me and what her work can be. I struggled a lot with some of her longer texts and still do, and so I wondered for a while whether we were ever going to wholly click.

But then I found this, this collection of shorter fiction – some that barely even make a page – and it is a wonderful and fierce treat. For me, this is where her strength lies. There’s something so utterly appealing about the way she can capture mood and place and space within a few lines, something so rather wonderful about how she can spin a piece completely on its head with a final sentence, and I loved every inch of this collection. And the final lines! Woolf knows how to end a piece!

The Complete Shorter Fiction Of Virginia Woolf is gathered into years; we have the ‘early stories’ before moving to 1917-1921, 1922-1925, and then 1926-1941. A certain preoccupation can be felt in these sectons with similarities of theme or colour or style, and the hints towards her wider work can be palpably felt at points. Yet even without this sort of contextual, scholarly edge, these are wildly wonderful stories. Some work better than others, some have more plot whilst others barely even hold the notion of ‘plot’ (whatever that may mean) in their grasp, and some storm off the page with heart and sentiment and fire.

Favourites included Memoirs of a Novelist, a fierce and somewhat heartbreaking story about a female biographer of the late ‘Miss Willett’; A Haunted House, which sees a ghostly couple walk through the shadows of their fomer life in searching of something; A Society, a brilliant (god it stopped me in my tracks) breakdown of the idea that men are smarter than women (it’s so, so brilliant); and the outstanding Lappin and Lapinova, a relationship based around the fantasy (roleplay?) that both partners are rabbits (amazing, amazing, amazing).

I talk a lot about elasticity when it comes to a text, the notion of stretching the page and the book itself to become something unknown, something different, something new – of pushing at form and shape and texture to find that edge of a book that can be completely made yours. Woolf’s short stories are an education in how to make that happen. God, they’re good. So good.

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Lockdown Libraries

I had the sudden realisation the other day that due to the *gestures vaguely* everything of everything, this is the longest I’ve ever been without going to the library. Eighty-two days. Or, as the internet has helpfully informed me, eighty two days is the equivalent of over 22 % of this entire year.

Libraries matter a lot in my life, and the absence of them has been a strange and tender bruise. When I was looking for somewhere to rent, I would look for somewhere near the library. When I moved somewhere new, I would go and sign up at the library. I have worked in them, I have laughed in them, and I love them because they symbolise so much of what we can be.

This period has seen my approach to reading change, not only because of the absence of library visits but also because of the (forgive me for gesturing vaguely again) everything. The first few weeks saw a frantic tidy up of bookish things, a purposeful addressing of the TBR pile – a pile more ambition than stability – and then I threw things away. A reaction to it all, I suspect, but also one of those long needed jobs. There were certain rules of course (I’m not a monster). Anything that’s a tentative throw and is still in print can be thrown. Anything that I’ve not looked at for a long time and can be replaced can go. The Elsie Oxenhams must be placed in a bag to go and then they must return for they have a peculiar and quite lovely staying power.

I packed up six bags of books. And the books stayed in the bags.

They didn’t come back out again. I didn’t have that moment of doubt. I didn’t tearily smuggle something back upstairs at midnight promising never to leave it ever again (not that I’ve, errr, ever done that). The books stayed in the bag and even though they still haven’t gone (circumstances!), they are going. And I don’t really remember what’s in there, but they’ve already left my little library.

And nothing has yet replaced them. No library books, no secondhand hauls (I am aching to head back into my favourite cobwebby auction rooms let me tell you that), no charity book shop bonanza. Just that light and tender bruise, the space on the table that looks fine but – if you touch it, if you recognise what isn’t there, if you see it – then it hurts.

Eighty-two days. It’s weird, right? The moments where you realise just how strange this process is. The moments where you think – this is embarrassing. I should have more than three books on my account but three is all I have. It means that I’m going to be spending the first weeks of a pandemic with a biography about a Nun, an emotional look at the cultural life of American immigrants, and Elton John’s autobiography.

And inevitably I read them all in minutes and thought – what now? what now?

(Of course in the scale of things, all of this is small. So small. I do not want my library back – or indeed any library – to return to public service until it is safe, feasible and realistic for them to do so. I especially want the needs of library staff made paramount during this process and I recognise that many of you will have been working wonders through this entire period through online services and support and distanced working. I will go another eighty days, another hundred, if it means that library staff remain safe and healthy and able to do their jobs without fear. It also goes without saying that I wish you well if you are a member of library staff, and that you have my utmost support and love and respect at this time.)

A tender and most peculiar bruise this whole thing, but the thing about bruises is this: they heal. And the books shall wait, and the reading shall come back, and I shall comb the secondhand bookshops once more.

This is only how we live now.

And now is not forever.


Two quick updates: this blog shall no longer be covering Harry Potter nor any of the related media. It has been a while since I have covered any and it has never been a particular focus, but this is how things shall lie from this point on. It is also worthwhile reaffirming that I welcome authors from diverse backgrounds and under-represented cultures getting in touch if they think my work – both here and on BookRiot, where I write a weekly newsletter of new children’s book releases and also co-host a fortnightly literary fiction podcast – may be a good fit for their book. I want to know you. Here’s my contact form or you can reach out to me on Twitter. Thank you.

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In the Shadow of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis

In the Shadow of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


[I am very grateful to my friends at Latvian Literature for securing me a review copy of this. As ever, my opinion is my own. I’d not be writing this if it weren’t…]

First published in 1899 and based on a then contemporary newspaper account of several fisherman who were lost at sea after the ice floe they were on broke away, In The Shadow Of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis is pretty much the perfect short story. It is a quick read and yet, in many senses, not; I keep looking at it and wondering just how it does what it does. It’s like one of those pebbles you drop into water, the ripples echo out from it and the landscape is forever changed by its presence. A big book, a little book, a haunting book. A good book, yes.

Blaumanis is new to me and I didn’t know who he was or what to expect of him. And so, if you’re like me, here’s some facts from the edition itself. Blaumanis (1863-1908) is “noted especially for his numerous short stories and plays, and for his command of literary realism”. Later it talks about how “energised by the social issues of the day, he honed a deep sympathy for the lives of ordinary Latvians”. And that’s a really good point to link back to In The Shadow Of Death itself, it’s a story of the everyday person. The people who make the world turn – the people who carry out their jobs because they have to, and who deal with all of the dangers and difficulties that simply living may bring. This is such a tense, unnerving story because it feels so real. So immediate. So brutally matter-of-fact.

Blaumanis writes with an incredible restraint, and reminded me in many ways of Hemingway’s frank directness. There’s also a hint of Virginia Woolf in here, that nuanced, deep eye for style and structure and theme; these are characters that you get to know very briefly but intimately somehow, people made flesh and truth in a moment of a paragraph. It’s so subtle this book and so clever, so small and yet so, so big.

My thanks again to the team at Latvian Literature for hooking me up with a review copy.

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Fracture by Andrés Neuman

Fracture: A Novel by Andrés Neuman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I’ve been making a deliberate push for a while to read more translated fiction, a reaction, I suppose, to the world we find ourselves within at the moment and the way that even the bottom of the road seems a little unknowable and a little distant. I want to connect, I think, I want to read about the cultures and the worlds that I can’t go to just yet, I want the barriers to fade away into nothing, I want to live.

And living comes through literature, specifically translated literature, the sort that takes language and gives it something new and fresh, each word paying tribute to the story it translates but also the story it wants to tell, this delicate narrative formed somewhere in between two worlds and giving me a snapshot of the world within its pages. Translation is hard, and I admire those who do it. I also want more of it, more of these books that challenge me to read outside of my experience and my worlds, and I am so grateful for those books that make me pause and realise something new, something acute and sharp and deliciously big about life.

My first such moment came in the opening chapters of Fracture, a novel I picked through nothing more than some determined searching on Netgalley, and it was a sentence that made me pause and think: so you are to be this sort of book, are you? A line, so simple, but one that shot through all of the mugginess I’ve been having whilst reading lately, a line that made me sit up and really see Fracture for what it was. For what it was going to be.

And it is good this book, it is good and big and full of being. It is about those things that connect being, those lines that form between us all and connect and pull and tease and fracture, those moments that echo for years and worlds to come.

Mr Yoshie Watanabe is a survivor of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And when an earthquake strikes Tokyo in 2011, triggering the Fukushima nuclear disaster, his memories of those prior disasters bring him to make a decision that will change his life. During all of this, four different women share their memories of their time with Yoshie, reflecting on a life lived and loved across the globe. And through it all, the memories of conflict, of disaster – of moments that reverberate for so long, too long, not long enough.

I liked this a lot. Neumann’s writing is lyrical, artistic, and though at some points I felt it got away from him, they were few and far between. The overall impression is of a writer who knows what he wants to say about the world and how he wants to say it; these are big, moving questions and to be able to articulate them is a gift. Fracture is a big, big book that pushes the world open and lets you see it for what it is. Highly recommended.

My thanks to the publisher for approving me on Netgalley.

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The Lord Of The Rings film trilogy by Peter Jackson, the art of storytelling, and season eight of Game of Thrones

It’s not a good sign when you watch something and think, quite clearly, of something else that did it better. But that was what happened on my watch of the final season of Game of Thrones, a season that was derided by pretty much every critic I read and person I know as appalling. They were not wrong. This was a season that folded within itself, grossly rewriting characters and forgetting years of slow and rich growth. But you know this, we all know this, and my finally watching these episodes will only serve to confirm how right we all were. Stories cannot be shot in almost total-darkness, characters cannot blink their way across the country, and goodwill can be lost – so, so easily.

It was The Long Night that broke me, an episode that should have been the pinnacle of so, so much and the way that it was not. The way that none of the marquee actors died (although here’s to you hot knight), the way that other characters just went off to the coast for a while on their dragons before popping back to see what was going on, and the way that the Red Witch just became the Red Witch Of Plot Convenience. And as the episode finished, I knew one thing very clearly: I had to rewatch The Lord Of The Rings film trilogy.

And I had to rewatch one very particular part of it.

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Pennington by KM Peyton

Pennington by K.M. Peyton

Pennington: A Trilogy by K.M. Peyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I bought this primarily because of the hideous cover, dazzled as I was by this rendering of Patrick Pennington in a way I had never quite imagined him before. And for a long while it stayed unread and at the bottom of my TBR pile, occasionally beaming at me in all its awful glory without ever quite being read.

Of course, I knew the Pennington books and had read them all before in singular editions. In many senses, I was telling myself that I didn’t need to read this, that I knew the books, that I knew what KM Peyton could do. And that – perhaps – this cover, this brilliant monstrosity, was all I had this edition for. I knew the books well enough. I did not need to go back to them.

And then, I did. Weeks of lockdown and a slowly diminishing TBR pile, and this – the survivor – greeting me at the bottom of it. I hadn’t read anything properly for weeks; in a way, I was the pond-skimmer, an insect moving my way along the top of the water and never quite fully reaching that which lay below. I read, but I didn’t. I turned the pages, but I didn’t.

But it is for such moments that KM Peyton is made for. She is a writer who can find the elasticity of a moment, stretching it until everything that it could be and everything that it is has been explored. And although, perhaps of the three, Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer feels its age a little, this is a remarkable, brilliant collection of stories. It is life, it is love, and it is written with such a beautiful and eloquent fluency that I reread whole chunks of it in a slow stupor of wonder. Her eye for detail! The nuance of emotion! The way she can see everybody and allow them to simply be!

Oh the glory of a writer at the peak of her powers, the glory.

(Cover’s still awful though).

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Some News

A slightly “more coherent than yesterday” post about my news…. 🙂

Big boots and adventures

My debut children’s book HOW TO BE BRAVE will be out in 2021 in both the UK and US, and I am SO excited to introduce you to this world. Here’s a few tweets on the topic..

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Some news

(I wrote a book).

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Seven Men of Gascony by R. F. Delderfield

Seven Men of Gascony by R.F. Delderfield

Seven Men of Gascony by R.F. Delderfield

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(And what do we do in a a pandemic, but turn to the stalwart classics of the bookshelf?)

I do not remember the first time I read Seven Men of Gascony but I know that it was a long time ago. It was first published in the late 40s, and the work of an author whom I have never quite learnt to love anywhere else but in this book. But this book is enough, this sprawling tale of the last few years of the Napoleonic Wars, it is occasionally trite, occasionally a little manipulative, but rather utterly, endlessly good. I return to it regularly, particularly when I need stories of people being people, of nobility in the darkest of places, of emotion so thick and so painterly that it might be a sunset, and I needed it recently so I did. And I love it still, and I am so glad.

Seven Men of Gascony (those magnificent seven) is written from the French perspective, from the viewpoint of seven men brought together in the chaos of the last few years of the First Empire. It crosses battles, continents, skirmishes in the field, skirmishes in the bedroom, and it is old-fashioned but it works. It’s a classic, one that lets you see into why the French did what they did, why they followed who they did, and because of Delderfield’s background in the RAF, it is a classic which never lets you forget the man on the ground and the blood, sweat and tears that he poured into making the world happen.

You’ll like this if you are forgiving towards boy’s own adventures, or a fan of the work of Bernard Cornwell, or perhaps even in lockdown and desperate for a good old-fashioned roaring adventure. I like it. I like it a lot. And the ending, also, makes me cry. Every time.

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Trials For The Chalet School, an audio review

I’ve been contemplating doing some audio content for a while (I feel like I need to hashtag that liberally but I honestly can’t bear it, so forgive me). The current situation in the world has given me that opportunity and so, here we are with a review of Trials For The Chalet School – a short and somewhat eccentric (play to your strengths, I know) look at some of the most intriguing aspects of this fascinating book. Forgive me my neophyte audio-editing ways, but I hope you enjoy!

Trials for the Chalet School (19:07)

(Music: Xylo-Ziko, used under creative commons).

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The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A lyrical exploration of tragedy, The Other Americans is an incredibly poised and eloquent novel. One night Driss Guerraoui crosses the road and is killed by a speeding car; the novel follows what happens next, spiralling through a series of chapters told by different voices in and out of the neighbourhood. These are the people impacted by Driss’s death – his wife, his daughters, but also the neighbours, the police, and the community at large. It’s a powerful read, and one that works with a lot of subtlety and control to figure out issues of identity, representation and otherness. What is America? Who is America?

Reading this as an outsider to America is a fascinating exercise and a rewarding one; stylistically Lalami is incredible here, working her way through a tightly structured polyphonic text – albeit one where certain voices and characters work better than others – and delivering a restrained and somewhat elegiac examination of identity. I would have welcomed much more about certain characters but I also recognise that there’s a balance to be formed here, and certain things will always remain underplayed or unresolved. There’s only so much we see and, in a way, this reflects much of the journey of grief itself. We see flashes in others, fragments of truth spilling to the surface, but our journey remains our own however much we may wish that it doesn’t.

In trying to characterise this narrative, trying to recognise the texture and feel of it, I keep coming back to the notion of a scalpel. The Other Americans is slender, sharp and so precise in its reach. It cuts so specifically to the heart of the matter, and the truth unfolds so precisely, so slowly, and with such control. It is a powerful, impressive book.

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Cynthia Voigt, Americana and the texture of literary things

“Dicey looked out over the tall marsh grasses, blowing in the wind. If the wind blew, the grasses had to bend with it.”

I don’t remember the first time I read Cynthia Voigt. I do, however, remember what it was that I read. A book called Homecoming. A title that bore little resonance to my rural childhood, more concerned with ponies than proms, but it stayed with me for years. And it stayed with me in a particular kind of way; I would struggle to tell you much of the plot now other than a brief precis, but I would not struggle to talk to you about the way that book felt. Not how I felt when reading it, but the way that the book felt. Books hold a quality about themselves, a texture within. Some are spikey, some are loving, and some sing of endless blue skies and a country almost too rich and too big to be understood. America. A land I had not visited but could feel within these pages, an introduction to another world.

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About that secret project I've been working on…

Hello! So, over the past few months, I have been working on a small secret project and now I can tell you all about it. Essentially, I got increasingly grumpy and decided to do something about it. Grumpiness is a very good motivational factor! My grumpiness centred about the increasing realisation that the women writers I collected and loved were so often erased from literary histories. Much of this I think comes from out conceptualisation of literary history itself and how it is so driven by patriarchal concerns and the like. You hear a lot about people like Charles Dickens, right, but you very rarely hear about people like Angela Brazil who basically defined the term popular bestseller. E Nesbit only just got the really decent biography she deserves (here’s an affiliate link to the one I mean – it’s really a very good book and I do recommend it). Bessie Marchant was the GA Henty of her day, but there’s like three articles on her in the entirety of Google Scholar and a ton of him. And The Chalet School In Exile is begging for a Netflix adaptation, but I’ll bet you good money that nobody there has ever heard of it.

So! What to do in such circumstances?

You set up a micropublisher, call it Hot Pot Press, and teach yourself how to publish and publish these stories. You teach yourself how to do it (this is no vanity press btw) and you undertake projects for friends and family until you figure it all out.

And when you do, you launch herstory, which is a range of formerly out of print and forgotten children’s classics by female authors – the first of which is Miss Wilmer’s Gang by Bessie Marchant – and you give them a new introduction and a further reading list and all of the added content you can stuff into them on the tiniest and most non-existent of budgets.

You tell people that this is about rewriting wrongs, about bringing these women back into the critical picture, about making them part of the literary world once more. You adopt the mantra that publishing is a feminist act. You realise that this is your academic attitudes made flesh, that research is nothing unless you bring people and stories with you.

You set up options for people to support your publisher by micro-donations or simply following it on Twitter as the world is a lot to handle right now and support is welcome in all and any forms, and when you’ve done all that, that’s when you draft a post all about it on your blog.

And then you press publish.

Miss Wilmer's Gang by [Marchant, Bessie]
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Unexpected Archive Delights : 1920s Children’s Book Adverts

I am constantly surprised by archives. I know that’s an incredibly strange thing to say and one that sounds even stranger when you are supposed to know what you are looking at, but it’s true. I am surprised by archives; the way they give me something that I request that comes with a thousand other delightful things. Much of this is the nature of research itself, that need to pursue one thread of thought whilst ignoring the others that tug at your senses – but sometimes, it’s nice to look at those other things. And so I did and I do, because they tell you everything. They tell you about the texture of that thing you’re looking at. They tell you about the readers, about the writers – everything, really. It’s all clues towards understanding the thing that you’re interested in.

And sometimes, they tell you about the books you have on your shelves, even now.

Here’s some rather lovely adverts for then-new publications from WR Chambers, a firm of publishers based in Scotland. They are a publisher that may be well familiar to a lot of you. These adverts and book reviews come from the Life Of Faith – a weekly religious newspaper that covered ‘spiritual life’. It cost twopence and covered everything somebody involved in religion may wish to know – whether that’s the details of the nearest service, or what books to buy the younger members of their family. There were many other adverts from Chambers but I picked out the ones with the most notable titles and authors.

First up is this lovely advert from November, 1927. I particularly enjoyed the strapline underneath THE SEVEN SCAMPS (did the copywriter give up at this point, we wonder?). I’m also very fond of the title to Josephine Elder’s latest…

A 1927 advert for books from WR Chambers.

Now it’s time for November, 1930, and a slightly longer write up of the new titles (two pictures). The Life of Faith featured books regularly but children’s books only seemed to creep into these end of year round ups. It’s interesting that they did! It tells you a lot about who the reader of the Life Of Faith was – that they had enough disposable income to buy books as (presumably) Christmas gifts, and that they cared about “good, healthy stories”. I think my favourite here is again the rather “I’ve given up and gone home for tea” description of the Chalet School books…

A 1930 editorial for new books from WR Chambers.
A 1930 editorial for new books from WR Chambers.

And now, an advert from 1927. It’s the prices that are the most interesting here I think – look at that distinction between “new books” and “cheap editions”. There’s also a story here in how Eustacia Goes To The Chalet School is listed under the ‘New Books For Boys And Girls’ section.

A 1927 advertisement for new books from WR Chambers.

I was also very much delighted to find connections to another popular girlsown author. Here’s an advert from the Life Of Faith in 1916 and in the top right hand corner is a poem. Have a look at the author. Do you recognise that surname? (It’s Elsie Oxenham’s dad…).

A 1916 advert from The Life Of Fait featuring a poem by John Oxenham.

And now for something completely different. Let’s end with a look at a Bovril advert in 1927, and a marketing department that’s decided “go big or go home”.

A 1927 advert for Bovril reading "DRINK BOVRIL ONCE IT'S IN YOU IT'S SINEW"

(Amazing, right?).

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Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


There are some books you know – or at the very least, think that you know – before you get anywhere near to reading them. Bridge to Terabithia is one for me, and Marianne Dreams is – was – another. I thought I knew it, I thought I understood it, I thought I recognised its place within the world and then, at last finding a copy, I read it and realised I understood nothing. (I especially did not understand how any child reading it could ever draw anything again after reading it, but that’s by the by). This spooky, strange, and viciously tense book is a remarkable thing and I rather loved it.

Marianne is bedridden through illness, and she draws. She draws a world into life and enters it through her dreams – finding everything that she’s drawn on the page coming to strange and peculiar life. A house. A landscape. A world. A boy at a window, looking back upon her. There are connections here to be teased out; who, what, and why, until suddenly things are almost beyond her control and a brave and bold fight against the forces of darkness must begin.

This is one of those deliciously unclassifiable books that the fifties did so well. Children’s literature was entering a phase of peculiar and radical richness (for more on that, Kimberley Reynolds’ Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction is a treat) and Marianne Dreams sings of power in every inch. The children are no virtuous angels; they are unhappy and peevish and angry and true, and they learn that even in their isolation, they are not alone. They learn that actions have consequences, that events can spiral out of their control, and that – even when all seems lost- they have an agency and a power that can work against it.

And we, as the reader, learn to never look at a sketch in quite the same way again. The unnerving wildness of this book!

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Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm

Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm

Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I’m always interested when a book does something differently, and this really does. Orion Lost is a big, meaty science-fiction story set aboard a space-ship where everything suddenly goes wrong. And the only people who can put things right are the kids – thirteen year old Beth and her friends. Being in charge is never easy, and it’s particularly uneasy when your crew is panicking, you’re responsible for the lives of every one on board, you’re ricocheting from crisis to crisis, and the AI might actually be evil.

There’s a clear heritage here to things like Firefly, Star Wars and Star Trek, but what really appealed was how Chisholm handled his characters. They’re real people, flawed and fascinating and this is a story that you don’t want to put down. I had no expectations about this when I started it, but then I really couldn’t put it down. It’s a big, powerful, hooky read.

Also, I was pleased that it’s as big as it is – there’s a lot of story here, in a way that’s perhaps unusual for middle grade books, but it’s all there for a reason. I thought that the ending could perhaps have done with a little more and that’s again an unusual thing for this age-group. Stories sometimes strain against circumstance and genre, but this is a story that fits so very well into its situation and could even give more under the circumstances. I really do want to say something about the engines being able to take it but I’m not sure I can write that in an appropriate ‘Scottish engineer on the Enterprise’ tone of voice so just consider it as implied, thank you.

This is a really great read. I was happily surprised and I’m delighted to be; this is something fresh, unique and rather well handled indeed. And it surprised me – a lot – and I love that.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg

Glass Town cover by Isabel Greenberg

Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës by Isabel Greenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I am increasingly conscious that I am moving closer to the world of the Brontës, falling in love with it, and not being remotely mad about this, not at all. I would have fought against this a few years ago, I think, reading them as something distant from what they are. Something dull, something ‘bonnety’, something related to distant schooldays and the memories of tearing a text from limb to limb and leaving little to nothing left there to love, to lose onself in. But I have learnt how to read since then, and by ‘read’, I mean to read for myself. This isn’t about literacy nor the understanding of shapes and comprehension of words, it’s about reading. Selfishly, wholly. Completely. Reading not for the reaction of others but for the reaction of myself. And to trust in that. It’s something I took a while to figure out: my reading has validity. And also, that it doesn’t matter what route I take to get to a text. It just matters that I take it.

My route to the Brontës began with Emily and Wuthering Heights, and the slow realisation that I could not ignore storytelling as fierce as this. And so I worked my way into their world, reading books about them and books by them and books like Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg, books that are something so magical and wild and weird and delicious that they spill out of simple classifications and into something else entirely. Technically this is a graphic novel, a blend of fact and fiction, a story of the Brontë juvenilia and the stories held within, and it is that. But it’s something else entirely, and I think that something is magic.

Magic. We read it as one thing, but it’s so often another. Opening your eyes. Picking up a pen. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat. All magic, magic things but infinitely different. The act of conjuring. The act of making. The act of faith. A thousand different things in this world are magic and they are intoxicating, teasing, all-enveloping. Writing was the Brontës magic, a way to slide from one world into another, and the moors were their magic, a way to stand on the edge of the sky, and each other were their magic, these small potatoes in their cellar, these sisters.

I think that’s what happens here in Isabel Greenberg’s book, magic. Worlds slide into worlds, lives fold into each other, stories map landscapes, oceans are formed, stars are made, stories are told. Greenberg’s art borders on a spectral edge, capturing the tense edge of life on the edge of the moor, a life fighting against everything that happened, another world haunting the skies above Haworth, a castle in the sky built by words and stories and dreams.

The other great part of this book is Charlotte’s story. There are moments here that are intensely saddening, handled with a great and subtle restraint, and it is remarkable. I loved it. A lesson in dreams, a lesson in heartbreak, a lesson in imagination. A lesson in heartbreak, a lesson in love, a lesson in life. This book really is a stunning achievement.



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Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other cover by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


(The dizzying joy of finding a copy of this in the charity bookstore, when you’re still the 449302nd reservation on the library copy…)

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is a novel of such utter articulacy that I scarce know how to handle it. In fact, I didn’t quite know how to handle it when I finished it and instead did an attractive ‘stare into the ether and realise that I’ll never write anything as good as this’ type thing, and then I got my act together and began to write this review. Because this is a book, a book of such utter craft and perfect skill that it’s almost a lesson in how to be brilliant. Confident, competent, crafted to within an inch of its life and never – ever – feeling overworked, this is a remarkable and wonderful thing.

It is mostly a story of women of colour, a story of identity and faith and peoplehood, a slow and subtle and rich investigation of what makes us the people we are, what makes us tell the stories we tell, what makes those stories live and love and survive. At one level, you could read Girl, Woman, Other as a collection of short stories – each focused on one individual – but then you realise that you can’t. They all reflect and cast light upon each other and, at the end, bring you home in a way that you could never have quite expected. It is beautiful, beautiful.

There is also pain here, and it is unflinchingly rendered. Women are angry, women hurt, women fight, women live. Feminisms are made and torn apart and remade. Evaristo handles it all with such an amazing skill that I’m made breathless by it; there is poetry, there is light, and at the worst moments, there is a restraint that peaks so much of her talent as a writer. It’s easy to overwrite something. It takes strength to pare a text back to the bones. A balance, found, hold. Savoured. It’s just – impressive. Utterly, utterly so.

(Finally. I do not see how this could ever share a prize for anything: it wins, it wins, it always wins.)



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The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


Here’s the thing: I admire what Pullman can do; I admire the way he can articulate things; I admire the worlds he has creates with all of their wild wonder and glory; but I do not admire this book. It is overlong, overwrought and often – frankly – dull.

I wanted to like it a lot. I’d waited for it for a long time, due to a reservation queue of thousands, and I was excited to get my hands on it. But that excitement faded, it faded so swiftly, for this is not the best of his work. Pullman is a good writer but this is something like fifteen books packed into one, and all of them begging for an edit in a way that I have not witnessed for a long time. There is a story here. There is always a story with Pullman, often a powerful and wonderful one, but here it’s drowned in noise. Theory. Metaphor. Commentary. Politics. And all of this is fine, providing it’s managed. Providing at some point it stops – simply, briefly – to let the book breathe.

But it doesn’t. We have characters stopping to info-dump with each other for three hundred pages before wandering off and never being heard of ever again. Important Things Being Discussed In Impenetrable Manners Between Important People With Increasingly Incomprehensible Symbolic Fashion. Tired tropes of sexual violence being used to little to no effect. Messy subplots. Fifteen page arguments about theory. And then there’s the characters who swim in and out every ten chapters so that you can never quite grasp who and what they are or even, really care.

This feels like a book that has been told that it’s important and begun to believe it.

And oh, I did not care about it. I cared at first because I loved the story of Lyra (oh that past tense, that past tense). I have sat on her and Will’s bench in Oxford, I have trod in her steps, but now I do not care. I just don’t, and that saddens me so much. She is one of the biggest, wildest characters to take part in the literary world and yet here, she’s neutered. Every single step, every single breath. And I know (hope) that this is the stutter before the step of her journey, the moment where the world beats her down before she rises, but I do not care any more. I am done with these, I think, and so there we are. I am tired of this series and I am done.



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The Highland Falcon Thief by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman

The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is such a lot of fun. I went into The Highland Falcon Thief thinking well, I am ancient and absolutely have no interest whatsoever in trains, and I came out and realised that I loved it. There is a scene, for example, where they fill up the train with water (this is a thing!) and it is pretty much one of the best scenes I have read for a long while. It’s breathless, visceral and genuinely good storytelling – and one that actually made me look up steam-trains on Youtube for the first time in ever.

Harrison Beck has been invited to join his Uncle Nat on the final journey of the royal steam-train: The Highland Falcon. Things go awry, as they do in all stories, and suddenly Harrison finds himself making friends and investigating the mystery of the Highland Falcon Thief. Told by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman, this is such a vibrant and well-crafted story and one that gives you an incredibly rich mystery/adventure in the process. Mystventure? Forgive me, I am fond of tenuous portmanteaux.

Evocative of Robin Stephens’ delicious mysteries, with a side-order of Agatha Christie – and a little bit of Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure – the Highland Falcon Thief is the perfect title for confident, independent readers. If they’re not, then it’s perfect for a bedtime read as well but be warned – you’ll have to deal with a fair few ‘just one more chapter’ requests. And, I suspect, not all of these requests will come from the child…

Vibrant, fun and just really really good storytelling, this is one of the best books I’ve read for a while. I loved it.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Animal Farm : The Graphic Novel by Odyr

Animal Farm graphic novel cover by Odyr

Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel by Odyr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


There’s a part of me that can never quite cope with Animal Farm, having read it as a pony-loving child and immediately bonding with Boxer. For those of you who know the story, you’ll know now why I can’t quite cope with this book that promises one thing on the surface and gives you something quite different instead. It’s a lot to handle at an impressionable age. It’s a lot to handle at any age, I think, this book. It is rather, endlessly, brilliant.

(I also remember being marked down in a test about Animal Farm. We were asked how we knew Snowball was a pig – a reading comprehension passage – and I put “because I’ve read it”. And I got told off! The injustice! I suspect Orwell would have found it rather amusing though…)

But this isn’t the book, it’s a graphic novel adaptation of it and as such, there’s an almost separate story being told. It might be easier to refer to it as a translation, because that’s what you have to do. You have to find the heart of the story, those beats that echo, and you have to relocate them. Find space for them. Make them talk to art and make art that talks back and, in that conversation, deliver that indefinable thing that makes a graphic novel work. It is a dance, a spell, magic. And I am so in favour of people doing that with classic texts, because it does not matter how you find a story or what version of it you read. It matters that you find it. That’s it, that’s all.

And this is such a finding; Odyr’s work here is boundless, rich and there’s no frames throughout which is such clever work. Frames stop something. They capture it within a moment. They hold it. And this is a story that doesn’t need that – in fact, works actively against it. Moments bleed into moments, the message falls off the page, and – when it gets to those darker moments – there’s nothing to save you from them. Lines are powerful things, but the omission of them is equally so: a purge occurs and the pages are split with red, the moments fall off the page and into the world. Odyr’s loose, rich, emotional art seeks for the edge of that world and finds it. I found evocations here of JMW Turner, and that intrigued me. That pastoral edge turned dark. The ever-England turned black. The darkness in the light. Fascinating, powerful work.

I still couldn’t quite deal with what happens to Boxer.



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Lorna at Wynyards by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Lorna at Wynyards by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lorna at Wynyards by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer is a lot of fun and, I suspect, worth five stars for the fabulously awful “JO BETTANY IS MY FAVOURITE AUTHOR I HAVE ALL HER TITLES AND OH YES SHE IS ALSO A FAMILY FRIEND WE LOVE HER WE’RE BESTIES” reference. Honestly, what’s not to love about Brent-Dyer becoming self aware and feeding the intertextual scholars of the future?

But I digress: a review of Brent-Dyer is not just about ‘hey here’s the awful bits’ (for there are, quite often, rather a lot), it is also about recognising the good and the charm and the wonder of an author who could be very very good on her day. Transcendent at points, and one whose longevity and continued appeal is not a mystery once you find those moments. Lorna is a good book, not because of Lorna herself but because of Kit and Aunt Kath. They are family relations, Lorna is sent there for reasons that don’t make much sense, there’s a thousand other subplots, everybody has ridiculous names and even more ridiculous meals (sardines and chips, with cake for dessert???), there’s far too much information about wool (!), and because it is Brent-Dyer there is a moment of mortality thrown into the mix for good measure.

(It is a moment, by the way, that is quite beautifully handled)

But here’s the thing: it works. Brent-Dyer is in a good place here, comfortable and charming and vibrant, and she rolls the whole thing along with a lot of skill. Of course there are moments when she stutters, but they’re few and far between. This is a solid, good read.



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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d waited a while to read An American Marriage, forced by a long reservation queue (always a good sign), and I was not disappointed. It’s a novel that I went into a little blind, conscious of the noise about it and the fact that it had hit a lot of big lists, and in a way I’m glad I kept that distance. And so I shall try to keep it here, conscious of the way this book shifts and slides under your feet until you are not quite sure what’s happening other than to know that it hurts. It hurts, and it’s also – somehow – inevitable. It’s painful and sad and it hurts. Oh how it hurts.

Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, until circumstances rip them apart. This is the journey of that moment, a lifetime together and apart, emotions trying to mend themselves after the impossible, people trying to continue, people trying to live. Jones is an impressive writer here, suffusing every word with a kind of indefinable sadness. This isn’t a life lived by Roy and Celestial, this is the two of them fighting to survive in a situation that neither of them made nor remotely chose. And so they make choices, good and bad, happy and said, painful and magical, and life flows about them until – well, I shan’t say.

This is a novel that you think has ended, and then realise that it hasn’t, and then realise again that it really hasn’t and this ache – this desperate, painful, raw ache of life is endless. It is a powerful book. It’s also one that I had to put aside halfway through and step aside from, partially because of that powr but also because of the sweeping inevitability of it. There’s a movement here towards a resolution – I couldn’t figure out what, or for who, or how or why – but I knew it was coming. That it couldn’t be sidestepped. That it couldn’t be escaped.

It’s been described as a great American novel this, and I don’t think that’s far wrong. It draws on some palpable traditions within American literature and some stylistics that felt familiar (evoking a memory of Alice Walker’s work in particular, though I’d be struggling to pin down the precisions of that). I twist, slightly, at referring to it as the great American Novel as it’s a text that bucks under such a label. It feels historic, for me, rather than achingly present (and prescient) and perhaps I’d describe this as Life Literature (lifelit? is that a thing?). A life lived. A life that hurts, that’s taken from you, that’s found where you least expect it, that is, that is, that is.

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Polly Piglet by Enid Blyton

Polly Piglet

Polly Piglet by Enid Blyton

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


“And what did you do when you finished reading Polly Piglet by Enid Blyton?”

“Well, my imaginary friend who has been invented to help me make a rhetorical point on the internet, I screamed. And then I screamed some more and a little more and a little more because what the actual hell is this book”

“I mean, that’s a reaction.”

“I KNOW RIGHT”

“I’m not sure what else I’m meant to say here”

“Perhaps you could give me a prompt in order to explore this book further?”

“Ah okay. SO COULD YOU EXPLORE THIS BOOK FURTHER?”

“Indeed I could, my rhetorical friend! I bought it because I had never heard of Polly Piglet by Enid Blyton. I knew she had a propensity for this sort of jazz, but I never knew that it could be so blunt and so – awfully – amazing.”

“I feel you’re skirting around the point a little.”

“POLLY PIGLET HAS NO CLOTHES AND NO FRIENDS, EVERYONE HATES HER UNTIL SHE STEALS SOME CLOTHES OFF THE WASHING LINE, AND THEN SHE GETS PICKED UP BY MISTER PERCY PIG, AND THEN SHE MAGICALLY HAS NINE PIGLETS, GROWS OUT OF HER CLOTHES AND IS LEFT JUST WITH A RIBBON, BUT SHE’S NOT LONELY NOW HURRAH”

“…”

“…”

“I think that’s an ambitious hurrah.”

“THE MOST AMBITIOUS HURRAH OF ALL OF THE HURRAHS THAT HAVE EVER BEEN HURRAHED”

“Can you stop shouting?”

“I’M NOT SHOUTING, THIS IS JUST FOR RHETORICAL EFFECT.”

“…”

“I AM EMPHASIZING THE UTTER LUNACY OF THIS BOOK.”

“…”

” ‘YOU STILL LOOK LOVELY TO ME, THOUGH NOW YOU ONLY WEAR YOUR SKIN’ SAID PERCY PIG”

“…”

“…”

“WHAT???”

“exactly.”




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Children’s Picturebooks : The Art of Visual Storytelling by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles

Children's Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling front cover

Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A revised edition of their original 2012 text, Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles ‘Children Picturebooks : The Art of Visual Storytelling‘ (2019) occupies a space somewhere between academia and coffee table. It offers a general introduction to the world of picture books whilst occasionally pausing to dive deeper into the theoretical issues about them. It is a beautiful, big volume (and one with a reasonable price point, she says, conscious of the ridiculous cost of many of these things) and also one that delivers copious and rather beautiful imagery. Some of the text gets a little lost against the artwork – particularly in the case studies, I felt – but the art is often so strong that I suspect this is a rather inevitable thing. And there are some pages that are simply breathtaking, focusing on risk-taking and wonderful artwork that hasn’t yet broken through the restrictions of the general UK publishing market. Please can somebody publish an English language version of Håret til mamma? It made me stop in my tracks.

Children’s Picturebooks is a valuable foundational read, to study and use as an inspiration for creative work and research. Practicalities preclude me recommending it as a lightweight, quick read – it is a hefty, big beast of a book that covers everything from a brief history of the picture book through to non-fiction, boutique publishers, and much much more. Interleaved throughout all of this are some fascinating case-studies focusing upon the work of particular artists, writers and publishers. These are an immensely important and valuable selling point and one that make this book very interesting. It’s so important to see page dummies, initial sketches and outlines – developmental media – and hear from the creative in question. I was a little concerned at first that many of the interviewees seemed to be drawn from the same pool (no pun intended) but this broadened out as the book developed.

The academic bibliography is also incredibly useful, though I’d have also welcomed a bibliography of the picture books featured in the text. I was also conscious that this book does focus quite heavily on European / Western titles – though a distinct effort is made towards non-English language titles (particularly in the chapters detailing difficult / challenging topics), it does tend to lean towards UK specificity. This is no bad thing, but I’d have welcomed it to wear its context a little more overtly on its sleeve and also have more Dick Bruna and Shirley Hughes. Everything should have more Dick Bruna and Shirley Hughes.

So, to sum: a valuable, broad, big introduction to the world of picture books. A little picky in its approach (but then, you have to be if you’re doing something that offers an introduction to the world of picture books and don’t have three hundred million pages to do so…), but still an incredibly interesting and fascinating read, particularly if you’re new to the sector. And the artwork! Superb.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments (The Handmaid's Tale, #2)

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I have had complicated feelings about The Testaments ever since it was announced, ever since it was nominated for the Booker, ever since it shared the prize with Girl, Woman, Other, ever since all of this and more. It is not that I disliked it, nor that I did not want it, but rather I felt uncomfortable about the position it was coming to occupy in the world. I wondered if we were looking towards this to answer questions and to resolve issues in a way that we would not ask many other books to do and if, perhaps, we were reading more the cultural discourse about this book rather than the book itself. Messy thoughts, I know, but present and vital to acknowledge in my understanding of this book.

I came late to The Handmaid’s Tale, reading it after I had watched and loved the series itself. I am sometimes dazzled by visuals and the high art of the adaptation hit home for me in a way that the book never quite did. The Testaments feels like a book that would not have existed without the series, and it feels filmic and big and global in a way that the tight, claustrophic horror of The Handmaid’s Tale did not.

Is one of them then better than the other? I’m not sure, nor do I think that’s a useful rubric to apply. They are simply different and, I think in the case of the Testaments in particular, one could reach so far as to say that it is good but not particularly great. Parts of it feel rushed, parts of it feel strange, and the motivations of one of the big leads in it are difficult to manage or, at the least, understand.

Did I like it? I did, I think. It was alright. It was satisfying, though I do not think it was revelatory. And the ending felt too quick, too clearly obvious for the world that it lived in.

Like I said, I have complicated feelings about it.



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Introducing ‘Novel Gazing’ – a biweekly litfic podcast

So, I have a piece of exciting news to share with you. Novel Gazing is a biweekly podcast from Book Riot devoted to literary fiction and I am one of the hosts of it. I host alongside the lovely Mary Kay and together we talk about literary fiction. You can subscribe here or wherever you get your podcasts. Episode 0 is available now!

Podcasting is a whole new world for me but I LOVE IT. The team at Book Riot have been immensely supportive, taught me a ton of new skills, and I have loved every step of this process. Mary Kay and I get to talk books! And laugh in the face of literary snobbery! It’s a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll be part of this journey with me. I love it. But it’ll be better with you listening along. See you there?

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Merry Christmas!

Thank you for being a part of this blog this year! This is a very good corner of the internet and you are one of the lovely community of readers who makes it so. I am very happy that you’re here.

I wish you a peaceful and happy Christmas, doing what you love best and being with the people who make that happen. And I wish you a particularly peaceful Christmas if this time of the year is difficult for you. Be kind to yourself, you are valued, you are loved.

See you next year x

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In The Grip Of Winter by Colin Dann

In the Grip of Winter

In the Grip of Winter by Colin Dann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been picking my way through the Farthing Wood series, driven by an urge to revisit these emotionally scarring books of my childhood. Though somebody like Richard Adams will always have the crown of accidentally emotionally traumatising children (Plague Dogs! General Woundwort! the! horror!), books like The Fox Cub Bold are right up there with them. This isn’t a situation where everything always ends up well. Dann was a naturalist and wrote from experience and although the Farthing Wood animals remain bound by a vow of mutual friendship, others do not. There’s a blunt honesty to these books that even now I am rather fond of.

In The Grip Of Winter is the second book of the series. The animals of Farthing Wood have relocated to White Deer Nature Reserve, a space of safety and sanctuary. Everything is going well until winter arrives. It is one of the coldest and hardest winters on record and the animals suffer. Not only do they have to deal with the fierce temperatures and the lack of food that brings, but they also have to face poachers breaking into the park. The poachers are armed with guns, and killing – inevitably – occurs. It’s down to the wiles of Fox, supported ably by Vixen, to sort things out…

Upon rereading this, I had quite the memory realisation. When I was a child, I had an intermittent cast of imaginary friends that would join us on car journeys, running along the side of the road at the same pace of the car. I don’t think I ever imagined them to anybody but there was White Rabbit, White Horse, White Tiger and – you get the picture. But I realised that this naming comes from the Farthing Wood books – a series where animals are mainly named things like Hare, and Ginger Cat, and Tawny Owl until mates, children and friends of the same species turn up and start to complicate things. My adult feminist side kicks slightly at Whistler’s mate – a heron, so named because of a hole in his wing – being called Whistler’s mate throughout this book but that’s a small point to pick.

In The Grip of Winter is an impressive piece of work and functions as an honest and good introduction to stories about animals for young readers. It feels different to much of today’s children’s literature and I suspect much of this comes from Dann’s naming style – Fox, Vixen, Kestrel etc – but also from his matter of fact knowledge about the natural world. The domestic animals remain domestic, the wild – wild. The biggeranimals eat the smaller (though, as I say, the Farthing Wood creatures abstain from eating each other) and Simba, we eat the antelopes and then we turn into grass and the antelopes eat the grass and it’s the circle of life.

I don’t think we write children’s books like this any more, and I suspect there’s a space in the world for a reprint of at least the first in the series. But, for now, I’ll continue picking them up when I find them in the charity bookshops and continue to savour this intriguing, occasionally brutal, and somewhat rather fascinating series.



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Burt Lancaster : a watching and reading guide

I remember the precise moment I understood Burt Lancaster. Or, at least, I remember the precise moment I understood that person he was on screen – the person he wanted to let me see. It was From Here To Eternity (1953) and it wasn’t the scene you might think. Though the film is justifiable notable for a thousand moments, let alone that iconic moment between Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the surf, it was a scene in the bar that got me. The soldiers are on temporary leave, carousing and partying. A simmering tension explodes between two of them in a bar. Warden – Burt Lancaster’s character – breaks it up.

There is a lot of talent in that room. Montgomery Clift. Frank Sinatra. Ernest Borgnine. And then there’s Burt Lancaster who just takes all that star-power and eats it for breakfast. He is a big man at this point, all muscle and height and power, and yet he moves with a lightness that I still can’t quite understand. Look how he places himself in this scene, how he handles himself – how he smashes that bottle only when he has to. This is West Side Story but with soldiers; a ballet of power, force and raw, sudden anger, and Lancaster the passionate, mad, desperate heart of it all.

Image: Nick Cravat and Burt Lancaster perform on the parallel bars. (Library of Congress – public domain)

Burt Lancaster was discovered in an elevator. Anybody who looked like him – a tall, handsome guy – was bound to be an actor, reasoned the producer who rode those few flights with him. He invited Lancaster to an audition, the audition was successful, the rest is history. But every history comes with a story of what happened beforehand, and Lancaster’s story comes from the circus. He was an acrobat and together with his friend, Nick Cravat, formed Lang and Cravat and joined the Kay Brother’s Circus. Although injury formed a halt to his act, Lancaster and Cravat stayed close friends. You can see Cravat as the mute Ojo in The Crimson Pirate – mute, only because Cravat’s broad New York accent would have been somewhat out of place on a pirate ship on the high seas. A fascinating film in many respects – not only in how it gleefully goes past stupid and all the way back to brilliant – The Crimson Pirate sees Lancaster and Cravat leap and swing their way through the rigging, pausing only to break the fourth wall and address the camera directly, or to smile in a devilishly handsome manner at the local ladies.

A bodily actor at the best of times, Lancaster’s movement and grace could shift from elegance to pain and suffering in a heartbeat. Pent up in a small room, or limping down a traintrack, Lancaster could give you a man that’s done with the world and everything in it without a word. But when he does speak, he talks quickly, sharply. He talks in the manner of somebody who knows he’s going to be listened to. Who knows that he should be heard.

“Here’s this great big aggressive guy that looks like a ding-dong athlete playing these big tough guys and he has the soul of—who were those first philosophers of equality?—Socrates, Plato. He was a Greek philosopher with a sense that everybody was equal.” Tony Curtis, qtd. Burt Lancaster : An American Life.

Titanic in every sense, Lancaster had a prolific career that ended more recently than I realised. Forced to retire in 1990 after having a stroke, and passing away in 1994, his final role was in Field of Dreams in 1989. It’s easy to see actors of his ilk as belonging to another generation and so it’s rather strange to see him on the same screen as Kevin Costner. But time is tighter than we realise it to be, and even though he’s older, it’s his voice that makes the scene for me. Lancaster tells a story like it’s the first and last time he’ll ever tell it. There’s a cadence to his work, a rhythm. A song. In a way, he’s balanced on the bars and working the moment, same as he always did. But that’s Burt. That’s what he does.

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Book Reviews

It’s a No-Money Day by Kate Milner

It's a no-money day

It’s a no-money day by Kate Milner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


It’s difficult to tell you how important this gentle, soft book is and so I hope you will forgive me if I jump straight to the punchline: It’s A No-Money Day by Kate Milner should be on your shelves. And if you run a library or you are in a school or if you are anywhere that has shelves that are accessed publically, this book should be there twice over. We live in complex times that are often brutal for those living in precarious circumstances, and one of the duties of any librarian or educator is to work to understand and support those in such a situation. To allow their stories to be heard, supported and understood. To allow the children living within such situations to be heard, to be seen. And having books like this on the shelf is important. It just needs to be there. It should be there.

We often work to privilege the adult within children’s literature, to make ourselves feel better and be able to remember those times when the most important thing was what we’re going to have for tea. Those times when nothing mattered but finding the perfect stick, or simply standing and staring for hours at the bright bright blue of the sky. And books like this challenge that sense of comfort – they challenge the notion that everything should be kittens and rainbows because they represent something else. A childhood that is experienced by a whole world of children every day, right now. The truth of an uncomfortable and sometimes quite horrific world. This isn’t a book that channels Rousseau and puts the children in some unattainable Garden of Eden; this is a book that has curled wallpaper on the walls and mum silently crying in the background because she does not like going to the food bank.

I have such time for what Kate Milner does. My Name Is Not Refugee is a remarkable thing, deftly handled and sensitive and kind. It’s A No-Money Day is similarly remarkable; Milner balances the hard truth of this story with some wonderfully intimate moments of kindness. This is a family on the edge but they are still a family full of love and heart for each other. They are human, and I think that’s Milner’s great gift. She finds the humanity in these painful, big stories and makes them accessible and real for very small people. And, I think, for big people too. There is something to be said here for the lessons that this book can give us all. It is important, it is awful, it is necessary. Milner is doing immense things here.


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Annotated: Sabre The Horse From The Sea by Kathleen Herald

My research has been recently turning towards juvenilia – stories written by girls, for girls, and what that tells us about being a girl – and it bought me to an extract of Sabre The Horse From The Sea by Kathleen Herald (in: Where Texts And Children Meet, eds. Bearne and Watson). It is an extract that stopped me in my tracks and one that I do not think I’m quite over yet. Or maybe ever.

Kathleen Herald is perhaps better known under her married name of KM Peyton. Still writing today, Peyton is a remarkable figure. She is perhaps even more remarkable when we consider that she wrote Sabre… when she was fifteen. Fifteen! Forgive me but I’m going to have to shriek over that a little bit more before we continue. When I was fifteen, I could barely write a coherent sentence let alone deliver something as sophisticated and as fiercely wonderful as this.

Sometimes when I am obsessed over something like this, I have to investigate it. It pays for me to dig beneath the surface of what a story is and how it’s been presented. It’s my first stage of understanding – I need to figure out those intertextual points of reference, those beats that connect to another story in the world, and figure out why this story works the way it does for me. Whether that’s punctuation, or sentence structure, I can only figure it out when I burrow into the text itself and make it my own.

I also thought it might be something fun to share …

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Book Reviews

Walking Distance by Lizzy Stewart

Walking Distance

Walking Distance by Lizzy Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Existing within the city – within the world – is often no simple nor straightforward thing, particularly for a woman and Walking Distance by Lizzy Stewart is no simple nor straightforward thing. It is a complex, challenging, reflexive, and occasionally deeply wonderful meditation on life within the city. On taking the streets that “would make your parents uneasy”. On taking up space. On being.

There’s a rich heritage to this sort of thing ranging from Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin through to A Room Of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, and, I think, those eternal stories see a young woman trying to figure out who she wishes to be in the world whilst the world threatens to move on without her. I’m trying not to say ‘things like Bridget Jones’ but I am essentially saying ‘things like Bridget Jones’. Some of the spreads where Stewart looks at herself as much as the world about her are precious moments of story where her lines and colours move as much as the text itself.

I think that notion of movement is key here; this is a comic that moves, whether that’s those delicious moments of abstraction that conjure stormy skies and the Thames in the same breadth, or a panel with a figure in the distant corners of a housing estate. A woman existing, with something she is moving from and something she is going to. A woman with story, whether that’s Meryl Streep or Nola Darling. I was intrigued to see how Stewart navigated her story; this is a text that could be read as being “of woman” (in those readings that we see so often and sometimes so reductively applied to women writing about womenish things…). Stewart works hard to question that kind of globalist reading, recognising that she can not speak for other women’s experiences within the city and only her own. And yet there’s a strength in that singularity, a fascination in it that the book almost seems shy or nervous of recognising.

I think what I’m reaching for her is the notion of an echo, a ripple. A pebble dropped in the middle of an ocean. An impact made. An articulation of a moment; a parallel found. A slight, slender thread in the messy, complicated dark. A story of the individual, but also a story of us, of all of us.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Comics

The Dead Queen Detectives : The Crown Jewels by Bevis Musson

The Dead Queen Detectives : The Crown Jewels

The Dead Queen Detectives : The Crown Jewels by Bevis Musson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


One of the things I like to do is tweet about when I’m going to a comics convention and ask for advice on what to buy. I know what I like – feminist, girl-focused comics – and I know what I’d really want – a boarding school based comic that is good and does something akin to Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike for the genre – but I grant that sometimes we do not always get what we really want. However, I did get the creator of the Dead Queen Detectives tweeting me with the words “like the Four Marys” and that, my friends, was enough to send this to the top of my shopping list.

The Dead Queen Detectives : The Crown Jewels by Bevis Musson is a treat. It’s basically the Four Marys meets Corpse Talkt and I loved it. The Dead Queen Detectives are Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Anne and Queen Victoria. There are also the Dead Queens Detectives : International Queens who are Hatshepshut, Isabella, Catherine and Marie-Antoinette. And then, there’s also The Legion Of Substitute Dead Disputed Queen Detectives who are Boudicca, Empress Matilda, Lady Jane Grey and Mary Stuart. I mean, there’s a cast, right?

I had a few reservations about the font and lettering choices – the cover font doesn’t work for me at all on a thousand different levels, and it’s repeated within so I found that a tad problematic to work with. There were also a few moments in the text and captions that I felt could have benefited from being revisited and either tightened up or dropped. And yet, I massively enjoyed this and would go back to it in a heart-beat. I am here for comics doing intriguing, strange and delightful things and The Dead Queens is all that and more. It’s a fourth-wall breaking, deliciously anarchic thing and every now and then it absolutely shines.



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Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell

Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise

Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


My stance is clear, I think, and has been so for a while: children’s literature is important and to assign a value judgement upon it, indeed to assign a value judgement upon any form of literature is an exercise full of redundancy and wasted effort. Books are important, and no genre or age-group or vaguely ambitious grouping thought up by somebody with too much time on their hands should impinge upon your reading of whoever and whatever you want. And yet children’s literature is undoubtedly marginalised; we adopt, as Katherine Rundell recognises in this potent volume, an attitude that takes us away from such things. We read one way, not the other; we reach for increasingly complex and challenging things when, I suspect, a night reading a picture book would be of much more benefit.

It is this at this point that the slender sized and lengthily titled Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though Are So Old and Wise places itself; it seeks to question that movement of “readerly progression” from and away from children’s literature and to remind readers of just what is that they’re giving up and the somewhat misguided rationales that may be driving such. Katherine Rundell is a beautiful writer and this is a book that burns not only with grace, passion but also with knowledge – it quotes everybody from Martin Amis through to John Donne without pausing for breath.

It’s because of this that Why You Should… felt like something of a tease to me; it is a book that left me wanting more. Rundell is a brilliant, brilliant writer and critical thinker, and I would love to hear more about why she moves more towards “children’s fiction” than “children’s literature”, for example, or what she actually thinks about the influence of adults upon children’s literature – a debate that is very present within academia but somewhat delicately stepped back from here. There is a bright and burning and fiercely eloquent core to this text, and it shows itself fleetingly – but when it does, it is so very worth holding onto. I think that I just wanted a little bit more of that edge.





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Sensible Footwear : a girl’s guide by Kate Charlesworth

Sensible Footwear: A Girl's Guide

Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide by Kate Charlesworth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to talk about Sensible Footwear by Kate Charlesworth without telling you what an utterly wonderful book it is. It is simply wonderful, this powerful, personal and political story of LGBTQI+ history within the United Kingdom from the 1950s to the present day. I was very young and in the first years of school when section 28 was enacted and I do not ever remember being taught about histories like this. Though I can’t directly link it towards the act itself of course, what with being tiny and not present behind the scenes in any of the schools I subsequently attended, it is important to note that at least one classroom grew up without the awareness of things like this. Stories. Culture. People. And it is never just one classroom, never.

And so we turn to stories to fill those gaps, and to provide those narratives of histories and lives lived so beautifully, so brilliantly in a world that was not yet ready or willing to hear them. Charlesworth delivers here not only just a personal memoir that documents her own realisation of her sexuality but also the stories of a thousand others. Each decade is introduced with a contextual double spread that talks about the LGBTQI+ events of the period and Charlesworth handles these stunningly, juxtaposing events such as the opening of Gay’s the Word bookshop in 1979 (still trading! go!) with John Curry’s performance at the 1976 Winter Olympics. These are people – places – things bursting from the pages, bustling against each other, and it is rather, utterly brilliant.

Charlesworth is also somebody who knows how to handle a page. She packs the decade spreads with information, but then – when she has to – she knows how and when to give space. I was moved to tears by several of the pages in the 1980s, for example, and I loved her engagements with pop culture – there’s a part where she discusses Doris Day and Calamity Jane and it is remarkable, wonderful stuff. It’s full of power, every inch of it, and it’s an education on more than one level.

Would I recommend Sensible Footwear? Undoubtedly. It’s a memoir on one level, a history lesson on another, and a tribute to those who had to live in a world that was not ready or willing to let them do precisely that. It is a staggering achievement.



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Adapting literature for television: (or, why doesn’t The War of The Worlds work for me)

My house has been watching the recent BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds, and we have been disappointed. It is not that the story itself is at fault, for it is not. There isn’t much of HG Wells’ work that is. The problem resides in that notion of adaptation, of taking something that works in one medium and making it fit for another, and how sometimes a text exerts considerable effort against allowing this to happen. I write of a text as though it is a thing, capable of feeling and thought and reason, and in one way it is. “Language is a skin”, says Barthes, “I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” Words seek for connection, for sustenance. Language does not exist in isolation. Neither do texts. They yearn for connection, for completion. For readers, yes, but also for each other.

I’m reaching slowly here towards the notion of intertextuality, that is, to turn to Barthes once more, the “quotation without quotation marks”, the point of connection within one text to another without perhaps either of them ever quite knowing it. Of course, sometimes they do and those connections are made with a sly look towards the camera and a knowing wink, but sometimes those connections are like smoke in the wind. Solid, for a brief moment, seen only by a privileged few, and then gone, changed into something else –

It’s that point where adaptation lies. Do you hold onto what was – the memory of that moment of solidity – or do you yearn back towards the text that was and not the text that shall be? Do you craft something that echoes the memory of itself, or do you try and remake that thing however imperfect or laboured that remaking might be?

I remember being terrified by the War of the Worlds album when I was younger; I remember the precise point

I’m listening to it now, remembering that moment. The way that it’s layered, so thickly with story and sound, the way that it gives space to the action and the way that it gives space to the utter madness of what’s happening. There’s a risk in adapting something in that we want to fill every inch of the silence with something. It’s a risk in anything, teaching for example. I have taught myself to not fill the silences when I teach, to let other people step into that gap and provide the answers that I’m asking for, rather than providing them myself. Rather than filling the silence.

The War of the Worlds is a quick book, pacy in that way that so much of Wells’ work is, but it is a book also full of silence. How can anything concerned with an invasion from another world not have silence? Horror – fear – terror. It’s noise, but it’s also silence. You don’t think when you’re scared but then, once you realise what you’re scared about, that’s the point where it becomes horrific. That’s the point of realisation. That’s Thunder Child disappearing and the knowledge that there’s nothing else out there that can save you. That’s knowing that the Earth belongs to the Martians.

That’s silence.

The War of the Worlds BBC

And I think that’s where the BBC series struggles. It is an adaptation concerned with filling the gaps, with giving you big set pieces that are undoubtedly well done, but there is nothing in between but circumstance. Characters are parted, characters reunite, and roofs fall in conveniently specific manners to kill off secondary characters. A scene is reminiscent of Dunkirk; a character says ‘we’re sailing to Dunkirk’; an echo becomes a bludgeon, the quotation becomes no longer silent but bold, underlined and framed on the wall for all to see. This is not a book that should be seeking for such moments, it is the book that made the echo happen.

We shall prevail with this adaptation and watch the rest of it, out of morbid curiosity I suspect rather than anything else, but I do not think that it will be good.

(His Dark Materials, however, is rather transcendent.).

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Book Reviews

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman

Ducks, Newburyport

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The fact that it’s a book consisting of an internal monologue of a housewife, the fact that it’s juxtaposed against the story of a lioness in the wild, the fact that ‘the fact that’ reappears so much in the first few pages that you almost recoil in horror at the thought of reading this for the next three million pages, the fact that this is not a slender book, the fact that it’s enormous and makes the TBR pile at the side of your bed swell to twice its size, the fact that ‘the fact that’ starts to disappear within moments, the fact that you think you might hate it but then realise you love it, the fact that this reads like Oulipo meets Sarah Kane meets GBBO, the fact that it’s a stream of consciousness, a stream of feminine domestic noise in a way that just doesn’t exist in literature, the fact that the first time this is broken by something more formally punctuated and structured that you almost feel it in your gut, the fact that for pages this can spin into something avant-garde and borderline ridiculous before spinning right back into the world and making all your senses come alive, the fact that the thought of editing this makes me terrified in a way I cannot begin to articulate, the fact that I would have edited this, just a tad, if I had that thankless job, the fact that this book is, despite that, stylistically remarkable, the fact that it is still rather marvellous and terrifying and brilliant all at once even with its flaws, the fact that it is all of this and so much more besides.

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Things are going to be changing a little bit at Did You Ever Stop To Think towers

Hello! I’ve been thinking about this for a while and circumstances (more of which in later posts) have helped me come to a bit of a decision. Things are going to be changing a little bit at Did You Ever Stop To Think and I wanted you to know the rationale behind that. The first thing to say is that I am not quitting. I love this blog! I love writing it and I love talking to you. I have met many of the people I have come to know online and you are all great. This is a good corner of the internet full of good people, and I like that it exists.

What will be changing is this: Did You Ever Stop To Think will no longer be covering just children’s books. You might have noticed a few new titles sneak into the reviews over the last few weeks and they have been tests, of a sort, to see how I can figure it out. To see how they fit. To see what I want the next version of this blog to be.

I started writing this blog a fair few years ago now, and it’s right that every now and then I consider who and what I want it to be. I have evolved since I began and so have you and so has the world and so has literature. I’ve been wondering how to best capture that – and how to best capture the things that are saying increasingly important and relevant things.

There are also some other things happening for me personally which I shall share with you when I can – exciting things! – but they are not necessarily things which fall under the neat umbrella of children’s books. But they are things that I think will interest you and I’d like to share them with you when I can.

And so because of all of that this blog is going to broaden. Children’s literature – good, brilliant, brave and bold children’s books – will continue to form a key part of what I talk about here. I will never let that go. But alongside that, I’ll also be writing about literary fiction, feminist texts, educational classics (my entire PhD realigned after reading The Tidy House by Carolyn Steedman for example), comics from small and indie presses, books about being a woman, books about being a girl, books about writing, theoretical classics, people doing exciting research and anything else that falls into these categories.

There are so many literary things that I’m interested in and want to talk to you about. I hope you’ll come along with me for the ride. x

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The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler front cover

The Snail and the Whale Festive Edition by Julia Donaldson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like what Julia Donaldson does. Her partnership with Axel Scheffler has clearly been fulfilling for the two of them, though I wonder sometimes whether their other work has been consumed by The Monster We Must Not Name That Begins With G. This does happen a lot with popular authors and artists – they gain a sort of shorthand that, for many people, becomes the way to understand who they are and what they do. For Donaldson and Scheffler, that shorthand is so often the Gruffalo (especially in the libraries that I’ve worked in and the readers that I’ve worked with!) that other titles, I wonder, become a little lost in the shadows. It’s been something I’ve been thinkin about – how to embrace that popularity but also how to work to destabilise and challenge them. And so when I received a copy of The Snail and The Whale, and realised that it’s actually been a while since I’ve read a Donaldson / Scheffler offering, I wanted to use it as an opportunity – hence this review.

(Hence! oh dear! do forgive me for that!).

The Snail And The Whale was first published in 2003. It’s an old book in this shifting, quick world of children’s literature today, and has been republished due to a new adaptation of it coming out Christmas 2019. It’s also got an increasing relevance, touching as it does upon matters of ecology and global awareness, so I can see why it’s been republished. It’s a powerful story that reminds children of their agency (even the smallest voices matters!) and I very much enjoyed it. Donaldson’s text is powerful, yearning always to move on and find that next rhythm, that next beat, whilst Scheffler’s art is beautiful. It’s rich, warm and gorgeous stuff though I did have mild concerns about the physics of the whale swimming everywhere with its tail sticking out the water. (I know, I know, fun times at my house.) But! Let’s focus on what this is. It’s an environmental fable, fun and heart-warming, and rather lovely done.

But if I get another picture book come through with rubbish or non-existent endpapers, I will write a strongly worded letter to whoever’s in charge. Picture books deserve good endpapers. They are some of the richest literary earth to plough, and they shouldn’t be neglected or worse, forgotten. Sort it out, publishing.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.



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Snow Still by Holly Surplice

Snow Still by Holly Surplice front cover

Snow Still by Holly Surplice

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Snow Still by Holly Surplice is a charming and cleanly told story, perfect for sharing on a wintery day. A fawn explores the wintery world about them (it’s characterised as a ‘he’ on the back, but as I am no expert in recognising gender in deers and the text never explicitly refers to a ‘he’, I shall settle with alternative pronouns) before returning home to be with their parents. Their adventure is scored by a series of rhythmic couplets, all of which begin with the word ‘snow’. So we have the fawn playing with some rabbits – ‘snow hide’ – and then when the owl flies high above a vast, empty plain – ‘snow silent’. The ending sees a paired couple for the first time as the fawn snuggles in for a sleep ‘Snow safe, / snow sleep’. It’s charming stuff.

Snow Still is told in a series of really elegant big double page spreads that fully embrace the wintery world from all perspectives – there’s a gorgeous moment with an owl that feels intensely filmic, for example, and Surplice does not shy away her subject. This is a book about winter and sometimes books that take on this season can feel curiously empty times, dwarfed not only by the limited colour palette but also the great scale of the thing. Winter is big. Sometimes books struggle with grasping that, particularly from a young and small perspective. Snow Still handles it very well, moving from the intimacy of the forest to the open, big meadow (? it’s under snow…), and using the landscape to give space and rhythm to the story. Even with this, the text does feel a little disjointed, perhaps, if you’re looking for a more conventional style but it’s kind of lovely to let the images do so much work.

A particular hallmark of this book is the use of gilt throughout. Each spread is highlighted with silver and, I admit, I was worried about this being a bit – well – tacky. It’s used fairly judiciously and with some restraint, acting more as a highlight of colour, shape and movement then some cheap effect. It’s a shame that the endpapers don’t push this motif further (use. your. endpapers. people) – they’re ripe for something special as opposed to the rather generic spotted red affair that they are. Nevertheless, this is still a charming book and something that when it works, works intensely well.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Diamond Rock by J. MacDonald Oxley

I came across Diamond Rock a few weeks ago, in a pile of books simply labelled “Antique” in the corner of one of my favourite bookshops. As you might imagine, such a sign and such a pile is the literary equivalent of catnip to me and so I dived and I rummaged and I came out with a pile of very tiny treasures. I’ll introduce you to some more of them over the next few weeks (and I’ll also introduce you to the most delightfully hideous edition of the Pennington series by KM Peyton that I’ve ever seen) but for now, I’m all about Diamond Rock by J. Macdonald Oxley.

Diamond Rock by J. Macdonald Oxley front cover
Diamond Rock by J. Macdonald Oxley, front cover

First published in 1894, Diamond Rock is the story of Dick Freeman and his life in the British navy. It’s the sort of story that makes me want to write BRITISH and NAVY in CAPITAL LETTERS because it is VERY PROUD OF IT’S BRITISHNESS, as indeed so many of the books of these were at that time; the British are the BRITISH who have COME TO SAVE THE DAY, everything’s appallingly racist and grotesquely colonial, and it’s up to Dick – a proto-Hornblower – to save the day. His best friend – slightly feeble Arthur Tenderley – helps him on the way, as do the men who recognise Dick’s excellent and noble qualities and do their best by him because he is that sort of a good chap. Also Admiral Lord Nelson pops up for a superbly overwrought cameo. So far, so hideous, right?

Diamond Rock by J. Macdonald Oxley illustration
Diamond Rock by J. Macdonald Oxley illustration

Clearly this is all pretty hideous and yet, Diamond Rock is told with a fierce verve that makes it work. Of course this does not excuse the other qualities, and I don’t ever seek to do that in the books I talk about here, but it’s important to recognise this book for what it is: this made boys go to sea. It probably helped those same boys go to war only a few years later. Every inch of it tells of an adventure that is literally waiting to be had for the reader. And when you’re on this adventure, it will be perfect: everyone will worship you, everyone will adore you and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to surrender to the French who will admire your plucky defense of the island fort and allow you to keep the colours and thus, your honour.

What mattered it that these bronzed, haggard, weary men, who seemed to be under the command of a bit of a boy, were their hereditary enemies, and had just cost them many lives and done them heavy damages? They were true warriors not-withstanding; and so, snatching off their caps, officers and soldiers with one accord sent up a cheer that awoke the echoes of the farthest crag. It was the spontaneous tribute of brave hearts to brave hearts and many an eye in the garrison dimmed with tears.

(p281).

I read a lot of ‘Girl’s Own’ literature, but Diamond Rock is ‘Boy’s Own‘ down to it’s very bones. The good boys are noble, upper class figures who respect their mother and don’t drink. The bad boys do not. The indigenous peoples are depicted in appalling tones. Slavery is depicted as something fine if you’re nice to your slaves (!), but if you’re not then it’s not great but hey, back to sea with you. It’s eye-opening stuff but it’s also important to recognise that these attitudes existed and for many readers of that generation, they began in the nursery. Dick is something of a Mary Sue; everything happens well for him, and he is beloved by all. He is an ideal of a very specific type of boyhood and I imagine this book made a thousand little boys want to be him.

Here’s Dick being saved from a shark. For a while I thought it was a giant trout or something but no, apparently it’s a shark. It has just bitten his foot:

Diamond Rock by J McDonald Oxley
Diamond Rock by J. McDonald Oxley. “shark”

Though it was first published in 1894, my edition is somewhere from the 1930s. I suspect it was republished into the 40s, judging by the state of some of the jackets on Abebooks. If you’re interested in Boy’s Own literature, naval stories featuring Plucky and Brave Boys Who Love Their Dearest Mamma, or Super Racist Colonial Boy’s Adventures, it’s worth picking up a copy. Even if you don’t pick it up, I think it’s still important to realise the place that books like this had in the world. Stories like these helped build the British Empire, a very specific form of the patriarchy, and some deeply problematic attitudes that I think we’re still wrestling with in this post-Brexit world we live in. Sometimes children’s books from over a hundred years ago can be of more relevance than we think and the importance of taking the “right tack” cannot be underestimated.

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Plus+ : Style Inspiration for Everyone, edited by Bethany Rutter

Plus+

Plus+ by Bethany Rutter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every now and then I am reminded of an interview I read with Beth Ditto, back in the dawn of time when newspapers were still newspapers and still made of paper and print. The author wondered, in the way that was clearly his wont, at the fact that Beth Ditto did not smell like he expected a fat person to smell. And this line about Beth Ditto has stuck with me over the years, a splinter in my thoughts as a fat person learning to live my life and learning to live it on my own terms in a world so often determined to live it for me. The line became became less of a splinter as I realised an undeniable truth: the interviewer was a moron, and sentiments like this, wondered with a faux-artless air, were repellent at every level. He is dead now that writer, and I do not miss his work. But sometimes that line is still with me when I wonder if this is it: that to be fat is to be marginalised, to be brought down to the specifics of the fool that studies you as though you are something to be examined, to be found wanting, to be found nearer to Narnia than to a well-fitted peplum.

(“You read Vogue? … You?”)

And I thought about the Beth Ditto line again when I received a copy of Plus+ from a Twitter giveaway, and when I read it I realised that this is an important, important book. It is the sort of book that makes the line go away; that makes you realise that you exist, that you are – you are. I loved it. I would have cried were I given it as a child. I almost cried when I read it now, because it is so resplendent and so, so simple. Plus size women being fashionable. Plus size women being beautiful. Plus size women rocking something other than the sad-sack dresses that certain high street stores seem determined to perpetuate upon us! Plus size women being themselves. Gorgeously. Fiercely. Wholly. Such a simple thing, such a rarely rendered thing in mainstream publishing.

Were I running a school library, or indeed managing a public one, I would have a copy of this on the shelves – face out, proud, seen. It is a book that holds a thousand tiny revolutions inside it; we speak so often of getting the right book to the right reader at the right time, and I think if this book reaches somebody at the right time, it will change their world. It tells them that it’s okay to be who they are. It tells them not that they can be beautiful – but that they are. Such a quiet thing. Such a simple thing. Such a perfect powerhouse of a book.





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Mischief at St Rollo’s by Enid Blyton

Mischief at St Rollo's by Enid Blyton front cover

Mischief at St Rollo’s by Enid Blyton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mischief at St Rollo’s is never going to change the world. It’s a typically Blytonian school story; new kids go to a school, thing happen, shenanigans, shenanigans, end of term, I can’t wait to go back! It’s not high literature nor is it quite the same as some of her better work in the Malory Towers books, for example. But what Mischief At St Rollo’s is so fiercely utterly readable that sometimes I can’t quite believe how Enid Blyton manages it.

Let me explain a little what I mean by that. Readability is, I think, something Blyton excels at. She is confident, brisk and blunt in her writing. She never uses two words when one will do. She hits her beats, she gives the briefest of characterisation to her characters, and she gets out of Dodge before they even know she’s there. The first page, for example, is brilliant. We are introduced to Micheal and Janet. They don’t want to go to boarding school (does anybody ever in Blyton land?), but their parents are being nice and sending them to a mixed school so they can stay together. Micheal and Janet decide to make the new school sit up a bit. And that’s all done in half a page. Literally half a page. And that’s Blyton, she goes straight for the narrative jugular and doesn’t care less. We know nothing about the room they’re in, what they look like or where they live; we know the important things: school, school, school. And when we’re there, it’s equally brisk. Everything is fine, everything is great, everything is not great! everything is sorted. Hurrah! See you next term!

I mean, it’s awful on one level but it’s brilliant on another. These are books that will make readers out of even the most reluctant individual – even if they don’t want it. There’s no choice and honestly? I rather love how brazen it all is. Enid gets the job done. And woe betide anybody who stands against her.



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We are all Greta : Be Inspired to Save the World by Valentina Giannella, illustrated by Maneula Marazzi

We Are All Greta

We Are All Greta by Valentina Giannella

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We Are All Greta is interesting to me, as it touches on something incredibly potent and present within children’s books and yet a something that is, at present, somewhat under-explored. Some of this under-exploration can be perhaps ascribed to the nature of the publishing process. It is long, and the discussion about climate crisis is now. Translating the cultural discussions we’re having now – translating any sort of cultural discussion – into non-fiction is no easy nor uncomplicated act. We Are All Greta is an important step towards representing both a young activist within children’s non-fiction and also the story of climate change. It is not, I think, the final step in that process nor is it perfect. It is, however, a movement in the right direction.

Valentina Giannella sets out to create a climate change manifesto, framed about the work of Greta Thunberg. She is supportive of Greta’s activism and produces copious data to allow readers to fully understand the impact of climate change and that the activism itself is grounded on substantial scientific data. Each chapter is introduced by some remarkable art from Manuela Marazzi and you’d not go far wrong to have any of these up as a poster in your classroom. Her sense of scale and use of colour palette is impressive. I loved them.

Giannella’s text is translated from Italian, and the translation has some elements of stiffness about it. It’s all important and heartfelt stuff, but sentences such as “They have roped in parents who have had to study just as hard to produce easy-to-understand summaries for distribution in class” could have done with some restructuring. I also wondered at points who this was aimed for: this works to inspire you to save the world, and yet a vast amount of children have already engaged with climate change activisim and, indeed, are leading it. Do we need persuading if we’ve already bought into the message? I have my doubts. But then, this book is something that I’d still suggest for a library. I’d suggest it to be purchased alongside other titles and not by itself. I’d welcome suggestions for what those other titles are [please do comment below!] as I think climate change junior non-fiction is a space yet to be satisfactorily occupied.

A summation, then. We Are All Greta is a little confused but rather stunning to look at it and part of a vital, important conversation and context. It wears its heart on its sleeve and that’s something to be celebrated, even if the message itself gets a little garbled in the process.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Hansel and Gretel by Bethan Woollvin

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel by Bethan Woollvin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hansel and Gretel but not as you know it; the kids are horrible little things and the witch, Willow, is – well, not quite what you think. I’ve known of Bethan Woolvin’s stylish work for a while and so, when I received a copy of this to reveiw from Two Hoots, I was thrilled. There’s a part of the picture book world that embraces oddness; art that longs for wilful disobedience, that aches make a line curve when it should be straight, that wants to have a colour two shades darker than you might expect, that longs to utilise shape in a way that you might never expect. That’s Woollvin’s work right there; modern, full of careful design, and deliciously, obstreperously of itself.

The idea of a disruptive fairytale isn’t that new now, and it’s something that needs to be done with a fresh spin if it’s to have any resonance. Woollvin finds that through her limited palette; the ‘note-colour’ here is orange, splurging and squishing off the page with fluorescent intensity. Hansel and Gretel wear orange, tying themselves intimately into the heart of the text, whilst Willow herself wears a grey/black triangular dress, highlighted only with the tiniest note of orange on a button and on her tights. She is sidelined, separate.

But the ending of this book addresses that sidelining with devastating effect: it was Willow’s story all along. There’s a slightly strange final spread that didn’t quite work for me – it felt a little disjointed – but overall, this is a powerful, stylistically strong text with a deliciously dark and unflinchingly honest ending.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Misadventures of Frederick by Ben Manley and Emma Chichester Clark

The Misadventures of Frederick by Ben Manley and Emma Chichester Clark cover

The Misadventures of Frederick by Ben Manley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


There’s something to be said for subtle, soft strangeness in the world of picture books and The Misadventures of Frederick bathes in that with utter delight. Frederick is a boy who lives inside a mansion and very rarely goes out. He’s bored, sheltered, and protected by the world by furniture and walls that are twice the size of him. One day a paper plane comes through the window – it’s an invite from Emily, a girl outside, and she wants him to come and play. Frederick’s fear of the outside world makes him decline her invitation, but Emily’s not one to be put off and persists…

It’s a weirdly wonderful book this, with a slight edge of strangeness and wonder in every inch of it. Ben Manley’s text is careful and deliciously, delicately odd – Frederick replies to Emily’s invitations in a very particular style and language and it’s perfect – and Emma Chichester Clark‘s art softens anything too strange and scary. The Misadventures of Frederick is a book of balance, however, and the juxtaposition between the inside and the outside world is something else. Inside is dark and shadowy with long and slender shafts of light cutting through windows and into rooms full of outsized furniture, and outside is full of everything. Big rich colours, bright palettes, vibrant spreads of movement and wonder, and the contrast is beautifully, wonderfully handled. There’s a point where Outside breaks into Frederick’s world, a breeze of golden, Autumnal leaves, and it’s delightful, utterly.

This is a class, class act.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love front cover

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to articulate feelings about a book that made you cry with its simple, quiet majesty, a book that now, every time you glance at it on your desk, makes you remember just how powerful story can be. Picture books are, I think, one of those spaces of the literary world where sometimes magic can be made in a way you do not quite understand but are so very grateful for it. Julian is a Mermaid is a dream, packed with magic in every achingly soft line and every gentle, soft note of love being acceptance and acceptance being love. Love. It’s maybe there that this book shines; Julian sees a mermaid at the pool, he wishes to be one, and I shall not spoil the payoff but I shall say that it is a payoff to hold to yourself like gold for a brief, beautiful moment, before sharing it with everybody that you know.

Julian Is A Mermaid is so quiet, so soft, so subtle, and yet so immense. It is a book about love. Julian is with his Nana; a woman built of curves and shape and lovely, lovely heart. The mermaids are three women he sees on the train. He wants to look as wonderful as they do. And, as the book progresses, he figures out how to do that.

This is a book about bodies so rarely depicted within picture books. We have this pearl-clutching fear, sometimes, that we must protect the children from something strange and indefinable without quite realising that we adults are the source of such fear. Children see the world in a particular way, and a good picture book embraces that. The world is strange, all of it, but it is also wonderful. Perfect. And bodies, sometimes, form part of that dialogue, shaped by gatekeepers more than the story, but Julian Is A Mermaid differs here. This book sings with bodies; beautiful, rich, wild bodies, all of them presented with this glorious sense of stillness and truth. They are what they are; they are so very wonderfully people living life in a culture of acceptability and love. The text is spare, beautiful, and the images are something rather wonderful: otherworldly, magical, and yet always within the grasp of a tiny child trying to realise his place in the world.

This is perfect, perfect stuff.



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The Rabbit, the Dark and the Biscuit Tin by Nicola O’Byrne

The Rabbit, the Dark and the Biscuit Tin by Nicola O'Byrne book cover

The Rabbit, the Dark and the Biscuit Tin by Nicola O’Byrne (author)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m increasingly falling in love with books that are a little bit strange. I think we tend to search for the level in children’s literature; we look for the planes that can help us understand these strange small creatures in the world and, in turn, to help them understand the strange, wild world about them. The Rabbit, the Dark and the Biscuit Tin that does that with bells on but it does that whilst never forgetting that essential strangeness that is the world.

It is, essentially, a book about being afraid of the dark. Rabbit is scared of the Dark and so he captures it in a biscuit tin. The Dark explains that it isn’t scary – it is, in fact, very important to the world. And in one page, where Rabbit opens the biscuit tin, the Dark becomes nothing short of magical in an exuberant, beautifully rendered fold out.

Softly strange, deliciously weird and intensely heartfelt; this is a book that tells little ones that it’s okay to be scared of something but you must learn to understand that fear. You must learn to understand their feelings as much as your own. It’s big stuff this, asking for empathy with something as magnificently other as darkness, but Nicola O’Byrne handles it well. Her spreads sing with character; Rabbit dominates his pages with movement, life and vitality. There’s also some subtle work here about the idea of balance; Rabbit is alone and then, in the Dark, he isn’t. He meets baby fox cubs and bats and owls and a whole world that relies on the Dark to make it happen.

I’d have welcomed some more play with the endpapers here as there’s so much to go at with the topic, but even without that this is a fine, rich story that’s perfect to help a little one address nighttime fears.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year edited by Allie Esiri

Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year

Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year by Allie Esiri

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully produced, this is something to wallow in. Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year does precisely what it says on the tin; three hundred and sixty five extracts from Shakespeare for every day of the year. It cover “sonnets, soliloquies, quotes and extracts” and rather delightfully pairs these with a little note of introduction for the relevant time of the year. So, for example, February 14th sees sonnet 29 “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” and a paragraph talking about how Valentine’s Day was handled in Shakespeare’s, er, day. April 1st sees a witty extract from As You Like It whilst November 5th sees Macbeth and Lady Macbeth discuss their plot to bring down the King.

It’s an honest, unflinching volume this, which covers not only the bright fame and glory of Shakespeare’s more popular work but also the darkness as well. As such, some extracts might need contextualising with parents or adults before fully being understood or even read. I suspect something like this might work rather brilliantly in an educational context, with the teacher picking and choosing the passages to support the relevant classes. That’s not to say that it won’t work well for home, especially when read in company, (because, as we can see in this video, Shakespeare gives something for every age ). It’s a book to share and talk about and discuss and argue over and fall in love with.

It’s really rather beautifully done.

I’m grateful to the publisher for a review copy.



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Monica Turns up Trumps by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Monica Turns Up Trumps  by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer front cover

Monica Turns Up Trumps by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The more I read of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer‘s connectors, the more I’ve come to realise that she is an author of extremes. She is either very good or very bad, and only sometimes does she land in the middle. Were I a scientifically minded type I’d call this the “Exile-Althea Equation” and murmur lots of things about context of production and the difficulties of a long and prolific writing career, but I am not and so I shall content myself with merely observing this: it’s easy to figure out what you’re going to get. You can feel it within seconds, and by the end of the first chapter it’s definite. You might be getting pink worms and backflipping ninja geography teachers, or you might be getting searing political commentary, but the important thing is this: you know. And I knew within moments of reading Monica Turns Up Trumps that this was relatively early doors Brent-Dyer, and it was good.

Monica Turns Up Trumps sings of first phase EBD; that richness of setting, flawed and lovable characters, a Misunderstanding Father type who is also an Inevitable Doctor (Brent-Dyer bingo! mark your cards!), and argumentative and somewhat stroppy girls trying to figure out who they are in the world. There are not enough stroppy girls in books, and I welcome more. I think we increasingly try to erase girlish misbehaviour – as indeed, do some of the adults in this book – and yet, Brent-Dyer keeps it in. Girls can be idiots. It’s okay. They’re still great.

Plot? Straightforward, and full of delicious Chalet School connectors. Monica is an idiot. She’s figuring out how not to be. Things happen; she turns up trumps. Honestly, there’s no spoiler here: it’s literally the title of the book. There’s an interesting subtext where her brother advises her father on how to handle her – patriarchy in training, perhaps, but I always see something else when it comes to Brent-Dyer and siblings, not in the least because of the childhood death of her brother Henzell in 1912 and Elinor growing up as an only child. There’s always something curiously sad for me about how she leans towards the big, messy families full of love when the parent/ singular child family tends towards a much more complicated representation. A topic for an essay at some points, perhaps.




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Book Fair 101: everything you needed to know about book fairs

I came up with the title of my autobiography over the weekend. Inspiration struck just after I’d picked up a lovely copy of one of the Moomin annuals, displayed face out on a bookstall at York Book Fair. It was priced at £750. My autobiography is, perhaps unsurprisingly, going to be called: Books I have touched but could not afford. Here’s a sneak peek at the cover.

A cartoon depiction of the Jealous Girlfriend meme in pen and ink against a yellow background; in the foreground, a girl in a red dress captioned "all the beautiful books"; in the background, a boyfriend captioned "me" turns to stare, whilst his girlfriend captioned "bank balance" looks on jealously.
“all the beautiful books, me and my bank balance”

It’s a hazard of attending a book fair, and one that I should be accustomed to by now. I am interested in children’s books and they do not come at children’s prices. Not when you’re at the business end; my strength is in jumble sales and Unexpected Places. I sell books on Ebay when I have things to sell, and the thought of a stand at one of these fairs is a distant and somewhat heady dream. It’s a dream that lives somewhere next to my adorable book cafe that has gingham table-cloths, sunflowers in vases, and a menu full of literary puns.

So how does one book fair under these circumstances? I attended my first book fair when I was a teenager, and have been fairly regular at fairs across the country ever since. I do get still somewhat intimidated by them however and for a long while, I wasn’t even sure if I was allowed to touch the books or pick them up off the shelf. It’s the little things like this – and not just related to book fairs – that I think the literary industry (and libraries!) could do with thinking about more. Once you’ve learned the rules about something, it’s easy to forget that period before where you were still figuring it out. I tweeted this over the weekend, and it’s something I’m actually rather serious about:

Can you imagine if it a book fair had a book buddy? Somebody who said – look, what are you into, great – here’s the stalls you should look at and here are the people you should meet? And what if you could get a buddy for author signings? Somebody who said – I know it’s your first time, look, this is what you have to do, it’s going to be great, I’m here for any questions, have a lovely time.

That’s great, but how do I find out about book fairs in the first place?

I’m glad you asked, mythical internet person! You can look at this list from the PBFA – Provincial Booksellers Fair Association – which covers upcoming book fairs in the UK. There’s also a nice list here of book fairs from Inprint, who make the important point that book fairs can be anything from tiny to several floors and 200+ sellers. If you’re starting out, I’d suggest you look at one of the smaller and more regional ones first and use this as a chance to educate yourself as to prices, presentation and those books that are beautiful but might require your firstborn in payment.

Prices, though? How’s that work?

You are on fire with the good questions today! Prices for books are generally written on the inside cover, or one of the first few pages, in pencil. There’s no sticky labels here because they are the devils work when it comes to book collecting. You’re looking for that little number on the inside, and if it’s not there then ask. Terrifying, right? Obviously. But even if you are screaming inside, all you have to do is say “Thank you” and pull a thoughtful face when you put it back on the shelf. If it helps, you can method act this and pretend that you’re a rich person with millions to spend – but not on that book you’ve just had to put back, so sad! but this is my rich millionaire life!

Not that I’ve, uh, done that.

A cartoon of somebody laying on a couch. Above them, a speech bubble says "What, actually, is the problem?" and the person on the couch replies "I picked up a moomin book and it was £750 and three days later, I'm still not over it."
Four days now, but who’s counting.

Okay, I think I’m getting it. But – can I actually touch books at a book fair?

Yes! Of course! But you do have to do it nicely. York, for example, is a massive book fair, featuring people from across the world, and being able to see their books and handle them is a gift. Book collecting is about that moment of connection with the object. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll know it when you get it. And you can’t get it if you don’t pick up the book and look at it.

There are rules for touching books and some books are substantially more fragile than others so ask if you’re unsure; caution here is a good thing. As a rule though if they’re on an open shelf with others, then you can handle. Cradle it – support the spine – don’t even think about having any food or drink near it. In fact, you shouldn’t take food or drink inside the fair at all. It’s just easier that way. Make sure your hands are clean and dry as well and be gentle. These are old, delicate things. Treat them with the respect they deserve.

Okay. Last question. How do I know what to collect in the first place?

Go read an article I wrote for Book Riot on “How to become a rare book collector“. And then come back. Have a think about what you love and your budget and what’s going to be there that might never be there again. There will always be Chalet School hardbacks in the world, for example, as there’s a healthy collecting culture about them. There are other books though that you don’t see much of – whether it’s for cultural, practical or mystical reasons. I’ve only ever seen one fabulous Barbie hardback from the 60s (and it’s one that I still regret not picking up). But you’ll figure this out, the more you read and the more fairs you attend. In fact, as an eminent doctor once said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

I look forward to seeing you at a fair!

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A Song For Summer by Eva Ibbotson

A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson cover

A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to begin with Eva Ibbotson and then, I realise, it’s here. A sunlit, simple day where breakfast was buttery toast and the world’s open to explore. She’s simple that way, instinctive; food features heavily, sunlight idyllic days too, feature, but also the world is also there underneath it all, ready to be discovered or ran away from. It’s a very particular sort of world populated with pastries and eccentrics, but also a peculiarly distinct ache for something that can never be easily found. Happiness. Problems being answered before they haven’t quite realised that they’re problems. People finding people. Homes being made out of ash. Hearts being made whole when they didn’t think that could ever happen.

And that is Eva Ibbotson for me, an author who brings something perfect to me when I need it; a perfection that isn’t, really, going to change the world for me or solve my problems, but a perfection that will give me time to breathe and escape and find myself all over again. She has her rhythms, of course, but in a way I long for them. A noble young woman of noble ways, irrespective of birth, will continue to be noble and resist he slow, soft, endless love she feels for an equally noble man. Noble ways will keep them apart, misunderstandings too, perhaps, before life will bring them back together. Predictable, yes, but also sometimes incredibly vital. Important. A problem solved. The world coming together, aligning.

A Song For Sumer is, in this wonderful new Macmillan edition, a book that seeks alignment. People are out of place. The world is shifting, moving towards an awful, awful war, and people are trying to find hope in it. Ellen Carr has gone to Austria where she shall keep house for an experimental school (so, intensely, always Dartington ), and she shall fall in love. You know it, I know it, there’s no point in trying to be coy. The question is who and why and where and when, and how many things shall get in their way before they realise that they are meant to be together.

It’s darker too than many of the other Ibbotson titles I’ve read; though the school remains relatively unaffected by the war, and it’s set in pre-annexation Austria, there are still moments that are breathlessly pained. Ibbotson really could write, she did write, and we are so lucky that she did.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.


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Malory Towers, Wise Children, and adapting Enid Blyton

“It’s quite the thing,” said my father to somebody on the phone, “There’s an attempted drowning.”

He was talking about Malory Towers by Wise Children, a play I’d taken my parents to see earlier in the week. The appendix incident doesn’t actually appear; problematic as it is to keep painting your heroine as some sort of violent warrior princess type, but other incidents of this sort do. One, not carried out by Darrell, is invented for the stage and remarkable in its blunt ferocity. It was, as I realised later, a particularly Blytonian thing to do.

First Term At Malory Towers by Enid Blyton cover
“the one with the attempted drowning”

The thing about adaptation is that you adapt. It’s a tautological sentiment I know, but it’s one that I keep coming back to. Emma Rice takes much of her action from First Term At Malory Towers (1946) but embraces incidents from across the series and characters who arrive much later in the books arrive within minutes. But there is only an hour and forty minutes to play with, plus a quite delightful interval; only so much can happen and Rice’s intent is clear. This is a story not of singular female strength but collective. Girl power. Family. Sisters. Support. It’s an interesting angle to take in a series that is so moralistic and convinced of its own righteousness that sometimes it forgets quite what that righteousness is. I think here, in particular, of Amanda Chartelow – a character who drove the vast amount of the Malory Towers themed article I just sent off to a journal. She is celebrated and censured in equal manner, an early rebel-girl in a world where rebellion was not easily nor comfortably allowed.

The Wise Children production is remarkable in many senses not only in the fact that it exists and that it allows these moments of independence, but also in how it speaks to an intensely wide audience. The liberties that Rice takes with the source texts, the elasticity she finds in it and exploits is well deserved and well used. Certain characters are provided with a roundness that Blyton was not able to find at the time, and certain characters are given a softness, a truth, that Blyton perhaps could not see. But then again, perhaps this is the privilege of hindsight and the liberty of being where we are in the world as women, third, fourth, post-feminist wave riders that we are.

The girls are all new to the school in the play, save one, and there’s a moment of pure delight when those familiar uniforms appear on stage. It’s confidently done – there’s a little moment of stage-craft right at the beginning of the play that was pure brilliance – and the actors eat the roles up. Francesca Mills who played ‘sensible, stolid’ Sally Hope was a particular delight, managing to bring the righteousness of Sally to the fore whilst always, subtly, managing to play with that. Sally is a little bit, how to say, dull in the books. Here she’s the exact opposite and yet, somehow, intensely true to life.

Truth, again, is something I keep coming back to. For Kierkegaard, subjectivity was truth and I think it’s a relevant thing to remember at this point. Enid Blyton is a fought-over author and ‘true’ readings of her work are difficult to find, subsumed as they in the discourse about her. Many of these fights are legitimate, earned, valuable things and I do not discount the necessity of them nor do I discount the relevance of them. I think it’s a privilege to live in a time where we have the ability to both have and vocalise those discussions and they are important discussions to have. I also think it’s important to question why many of those discussions happen solely about Enid Blyton and to, perhaps wonder, if some of that centring is because she is a woman writing children’s fiction. To paraphrase Taylor Swift’s The Man: were she a man, then she’d be the man.

(Kierkegaard, Taylor Swift and Enid Blyton! What a Friday!).

Malory Towers is on tour until 5th October 2019, and here’s the remaining tour dates.

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Judy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea Moore

Judy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea Moore

Judy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh man, I loved this! Judy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea Moore is a new venture to me; new author, much more ‘Guide’ orientated then many of my normal reads, and yet it’s a delight. A rampant, utter, delight. It’s vivid, heartfelt, ferociously readable and fabulously ridiculous (the AMOUNT of incidents Judy gets involved in!); essentially, it’s brilliant. It’s perhaps not the highest of literature nor is it perhaps the most challenging – much of it reminded me of Enid Blyton at her determined best – but it is delightful.

When it comes to books like this, I’m always conscious that I’m reading them from a very modern perspective. I was a brownie and a guide, but that was three million years ago, and the thought of going back to that fills me with an abject horror. But back in the day, this movement was an option for young women and girls to get together and do something that much of society did not wish them to do: make a difference. Patriarchy, convention, sexism. All the usual sorts of oppressive jazz. And you can feel these themes in Judy, Patrol Leader because they’re not really subtly handled – essentially it’s GUIDES IS GOOD FOR YOU. All the way through. And usually I’d be bucking against that not terribly indirect sort of preaching but honestly, Judy, Patrol Leader makes me not care about it because it works. It makes guides seem like the best thing ever. You get involved in the most ridiculous shenanigans but then it’s okay because you’re a Guide. Guides! Guides! Guides is good!

Moore is a prolific author, and I’d like to hope her other books are as delightful at this. I will be searching them out on the strength of it.

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The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay book cover

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have such time for what Hilary McKay does, and The Time of Green Magic is a joy. Wild, rich, fantastical, and full of intense, palpable danger, it’s a dream. McKay is good, so good, and the day she is given the freedom of British children’s literature, the better. I am not sure if one can be given the freedom of British children’s literature, but I’d like it to be a thing. There are some authors that simply deserve such a thing.

A contemporary story, set right here, right now, and yet reaching back to the dawn of the world, The Time of Green Magic is quietly immense. It tells the story of a family learning to live with each other after their parents marry; Abi gains brothers, and Max and Louis gain a sister. It is not straightforward, as such things never are, and McKay renders it with her delicious truth. Nobody, I think, does families better. The messy, rich truth of them. The love of them. (One character experiences a ‘first crush’ in this book, and my goodness, it is beautifully, brilliantly done).

But underneath all of this is danger. Darkness. Something that’s almost incomprehensible and yet real. Things have started to happen; books have become real, darkness has gained flesh, and there’s something strange and scary happening that the children are going to figure out how to stop it before it all gets very much out of hand.

I loved this, and though I know I’m a fan of what McKay does, I loved it more because she embraces threat. Darkness. And this isn’t to say that she doesn’t do it elsewhere in her work – most notably in her beautiful, brilliant The Skylarks’ War, but it’s a different kind of darkness I think. Human. Real world. The shadows of The Time Of Green Magic are something different. Incomprehensible. Wild. Dangerous. Scary. (Brilliantly, brilliantly done).

McKay is great, this book is great, and you should read everything she does because it will teach you how just how great and good children’s books can be.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Midnight Is A Place by Joan Aiken

Midnight Is a Place by Joan Aiken front cover

Midnight Is a Place by Joan Aiken

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve never wholly clicked with Joan Aiken. I think, sometimes, some of it stems from my preferences; I like stories with a particular taste and style and frame. I like being able to handle them and know what I’m going to get and then being delighted in how my expectations are subverted. Outfox me, please, I long for it. But I think with Joan Aiken, I’m always struggling to understand, trying to figure out what’s going on and where it is, and how I should feel about that. This is no criticism; it’s a testament to her wild imagination and fiercely convincing world-building. Everything feels right and then, suddenly, off. A mirror, cracked. A world remade and reshaped by somebody who is undoubtedly brilliant. I am a little cowed by that, I think, and it’s hard for me to find my place in the text.

And yet Midnight Is A Place is outstanding; fierce, rich, full of detail, but it’s a detail that I chase after and never quite get hold of. There’s so much packed in this novel – family history, dramatic personal change, hogs! in! sewers! – that I ache for time to explore it, to discover more about this and that before being pulled away to study the other. And again this is a testament to how good she is: there’s so much here, whether it’s the nuanced, subtle details of character, or the barely managed wilderness of the landscape, or it’s simply those hogs that roam the sewers that thread like an artery underneath the world.

But here’s the thing: sometimes it doesn’t matter how I feel about a book. I can not be wholly comfortable with something, but I can recognise how great it is. I can recognise the mark of an author who is fine, fine, fine with her craft and I can understand how important this might be to somebody just discovering what language is and what it can be shaped to be. I would recommend this without batting an eyelid because it is good, powerful, bold fiction.

(et aussi j’aime Anna-Marie).

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New Class At Malory Towers

Malory Towers: New Class at Malory Towers by Rebecca Westcott, Patrice Lawrence, Narinder Dhami and Lucy Mangan, front cover.

Malory Towers: New Class at Malory Towers: Four brand-new Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Malory Towers is having a moment. The past couple of years have seen theatre adaptations, news of the rights being sold to the BBC, and the publication of this: four new Malory Towers stories from Patrice Lawrence, Narinder Dhami, Rebecca Westcott and Lucy Mangan. It’s worthwhile pointing out now that I come to these stories from a very particular place. I have written about Malory Towers academically. I’m working on an article about it now. I’m not really, I think, the target age group for this volume. That honour goes to new readers, fresh to the series, looking for a way in. It’s very much for the new reader. Not the old one who goes ‘does this volume edit out Darrell lamping everyone in sight or does it keep it in’.

For my tastes, this volume could have done with a little more curation. A little foreword before each story would have been nice; something just to set the scene and tell the reader where they are. The Malory Towers saga is big – and that’s even when you just consider the original texts. If you consider the bind-ups, Pamela Cox’s sequels, the general mythologies about the series, let alone the mythology about Blyton herself, you have a lot to deal with. And I can feel where these stories are going; they want readers to find their space at Malory Towers. They want readers to be part of that, and I love it, but I’d have liked a little more curation.

Having said that, however, some of the stories are excellent. They’re all very good, because I don’t think you get away with not being good in a volume when there are only four authors to begin with. There’s nowhere to hide, and all of the authors set out their stall delightfully. Lucy Mangan is very on brand with her bookish tale, and I very much want Patrice Lawrence to write something longer. Her opener about new girl Marietta strains at the edges of its word count; there’s the promise of something rather brilliant here and I’d love Lawrence to come back to the school story genre at some point. I also had a lot of time for Narinder Dhami’s funny and lively story of new girl Sunita Sharma and Gwendoline’s mistaken identity. Talking of Gwendoline, Rebecca Westcott is unusual and welcome in how she seeks to give Gwen some depth as opposed to making her the punchline. There’s a lot in Westcott’s story to love, though the conclusion didn’t quite work for me.

I think the ‘new girl’ premise stumbles a little the more you go through this volume, though each author is strong enough to make it work for themselves. There is, however, a little note of repetition to certain elements and a slight sense of everybody hitting the same beats. It’s important to note however that Blyton loved this sort of thing and embraced it at every chance she got. It’s also important to note that the school story genre adores these sort of rhythms and so this is very much on point. Now, if I can have that Patrice Lawrence boarding school story?



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Flash by Joyce Stranger

Flash by Joyce Stranger front cover

Flash by Joyce Stranger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have been longing to reread some Joyce Stranger for a long time. I wasn’t sure which title I wanted to start with, or indeed what many were about, but I wanted her back in my life. And when it came down to it, I couldn’t quite remember why. I could remember the sensation of them; the way I devoured them, in that slightly giddy drunken haze you do when you’re a kid and you find somebody new to read and realise how prolific they have been, years before you were born, how much you have left to read of their work. How it might never end.

I remember one of her books, vaguely, about being something to do with shire horses and another about foot and mouth disease (a mystery to childhood me), and then there was this. Flash. A book about a dog, a book that is bluntly adult in fashion and yet somehow rendered for children . I was intrigued by it and so I got it, and I read it, and I remembered just how grimly honest Joyce Stranger can be. This is not the happiest of stories; things do not go well.

And yet Flash is beautifully, brilliantly written. It wears its age heavily at points, and its agenda also, but Stranger is such a good, vivid, wild writer. She’s not what I would call a modern writer, perhaps even back in the 70s, there’s something else here and I wonder if it’s almost naive. I mean naive very particularly here; innocent, natural, unaffected, because I think that’s what this story is. Stranger commits a thousand literary sins; she’s fond of an omniscience which allows her to see inside the head of every character, sometimes to weary effect, and she’s fond of a diverting segue that sort of (sorry Joyce) isn’t.

But Flash works. I can see why it got published, why it sold, why Stranger became who she was. There’s something of Enid Blyton’s determined power about it that carries it through the dull parts, and Stranger works, so hard, to get her point across. Occasionally it falters, occasionally it get super dull, but it works. Grimly, bluntly, naively, this works. It’s not pretty nor is it perfect nor is it kittens and roses and rainbows, but it works.

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Dancer In The Wings by Lorna Hill

Dancer In The Wings by Lorna Hill front cover

Dancer In The Wings by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The more I read of the authors I read, the more I become convinced that there is a fine line between ridiculous and genius. So close and yet sometimes, so very much one or the other. It is the problem, I think, of being so squarely located within a series and world that you, as the author, have created, and being unable to find your way out of it. The Drina books suffered from this towards the end, I think, because it was too far in. So did Harry Potter if I’m being frank; I ached for it to be edited so much more towards the end of the series, and yet there they were. Behemoths, character-locked, mythology wrapped islands. Maybe it’s a problem of series fiction, and not one of genre at all. Maybe that’s what series do: leave you wrapped up in a problem of your own making and you’re just left trying to find the way out.

And so to Lorna Hill, and this delightful yet inherently ridiculous affair. Annette Dancy (“dancey by name and dancey by nature” reader, I die) needs to get to Scotland. She has no money but a great idea. Inevitably, none of that matters because everything works out! As you always knew it would! This isn’t a spoiler! You knew it from the moment you read it!

There’s something comforting about Lorna Hill and I do love her, but this is essentially ‘dancer on a boat and then dancer in Scotland’ and she’s done it better elsewhere. Much better. Dancer In The Wings just feels comfortable; a book span out of air, easy as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West. And even in that comfortable ridiculousness, there are moments when it’s still perfect, albeit briefly, so very briefly, because Hill does write a bloody good dance scene. You root for Annette, even though she’s an idiot, and you root for dancing on a ship, even though it’s ridiculous, because Hill makes it work. It’s comfortable, comforting stuff, and sometimes that’s what’s needed. It’s not the highest of literature, nor will it last with you very long after it happens, but for a moment? It’s ideal.



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Princess Anne by Katherine L. Oldmeadow

Princess Anne by Katherine Oldmeadow front cover

Princess Anne by Katharine L. Oldmeadow

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Princess Anne by Katharine Oldmeadow is a pleasant enough diversion from the world, but it was fairly unremarkable. It reads like a sort of Sara Crewe / Abbey Girls / Pollyanna mash-up, which is delightful but not the sort of thing I’m ever going to be able to review coherently. Because, when it’s done, it’s sort of – just – done. You’ll know the feeling; there are those books in the world that are lovely and satisfying but when you finish them, there’s nothing left. A perfectly good cake that’s perfectly pleasant for a couple of mouthfuls but once it’s done? Nothing, but nothing stays of it.

And I like my books to stay. I like them to find a place in the world and make it their own. I like being able to think of them in ways that I do not expect, and to find connections between them. A web of words, perhaps, if I’m being fancy, but mainly it’s the memory of them. That moment of the read. The thought that I could have it again. The memory of how good it was.

Princess Anne sort of doesn’t have that. It’s put together very nicely for 1925 but does have an oddly patchwork affair. She is orphaned. She’s sent to stay with a horrible aunt. The horrible aunt sends her to school. Some of it works, particularly the moments where Anne makes friends, but mostly it’s a game of catch-up. She’s perky here, despite the awful circumstances, and then she’s perky elsewhere, despite the similarly hideous situation, and that’s great but it doesn’t really make her particularly interesting. If you think of The School At The Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, published the same year, the difference is remarkable. Grizel (a little bit of a cow at the best of times) is interesting. Anne, on the other hand, sort of skips through everything and finds the best in it. Kittens. Rainbows. Unicorns.

(Though I am fond of the point where she finds a friend by quoting Milton at everyone. It’s the sort of ridiculous whimsy that this genre does so very well).

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A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley front cover

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s interesting how you can sometimes come to the right book at the wrong time. The first time I read this book, I was in the basement of a dusty university library and I was late for my shift. I skim-read and I did not really get it. I suppose you wouldn’t get anything under such circumstances, not when your mind is elsewhere and the sort of book you’re reading isn’t the sort to want to bring you back. I know that A Traveller In Time doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t seek to be heard; rather it wants you to listen, and sometimes it takes a long while to find the moment where that can occur.

But it does occur, that is the thing with these books; moments happen when you least expect them, and I found a copy of this in a seaside town this week and I thought: it is time that I read this again. Properly. Completely. Not with the sort of half mind that looks elsewhere, but rather my whole attention. And so I did, and I realised that this is a fearlessly well-told story in the manner of something very eternal in British children’s literature; complex, challenging, wildly magical, ferociously melancholic, and rather, utterly good. It is also that rare thing: a classic that feels classic, timeless, a pebble thrown into the pond and felt in books like Charlotte Sometimes; Tom’s Midnight Garden; and the Green Knowe books. The reverberations, endless.

Penelope is visiting family at Thackers; the year is 1934, and somehow – even the text lets it happen in a blink, a sentence – she becomes a traveller in time and part of the 16th century. She can move from one time to the next and back again; a ghost, a dreamer, and whilst in the past, she becomes part of something beyond her control. A plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots. It is the sort of deliciously big story that only children’s literature of a certain time and place can do, and Uttley revels in it. Her language is complex, challenging, and big. So big. Everything about this story and its fantastical, grey, magic is so very big.

And it is melancholic, as somebody on Twitter described it to me. It is full of a desperate ache for the inevitability of things; the world turns, people live, people die, and to be a brief part of that world is a painful, brutal gift. It is a gift that nobody would ever return; the preciousness of it. The perfection of it. But it is not easy and it is all the better for it. I have increasingly come to think that those authors who can do this understand the brutality of childhood. The raw truth of it. The way perfection and heartbreak can dance together, so close, so tightly wound. The way a day can be beautiful and then desperate, all at once.

It is a book that will wait for you to be ready to find it. And once you are? It will give you everything.

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This Is A Dog by Ross Collins

This Is a Dog by Ross Collins front cover

This Is a Dog by Ross Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this vivid, bold and deeply emphatic takeover of a picture book by a dog. It is nominally ‘My First Animal Book’; a Ladybird-esque introduction to a series of animals, but that’s not good enough for the dog who makes it all about himself. This, as you may imagine, does not go down terribly well with the other animals…

Collins is a distinctive presence in the world of picture books, and this is ferociously joyful. The dog himself is one of those scrabbly everything breeds and almost bursts out of the page. He’s beautifully rendered presence, chaotic and unpredictable, and some of the spreads where he winds up the other animals are delightful.

What’s interesting about this book is that Collins plays a lot with subtext. The book begins with a fairly standard and familiar device of “This is a [insert animal name here]”, before the dog scrawls over the text – rewords it – steals it. It’s lovely, sophisticated stuff that plays nicely to the growing confidence of a child reader. It would also reward somebody able to confidently read the book ‘as it should be read’, so to speak, whilst ignoring this subtext and letting the kid figure things out for themselves. I like books that do this sort of thing – that believe in their readers – and so This Is A Dog scores highly here.

I felt, however, there were some points where it stuck the landing. I am always disappointed when a picture book does not fully embrace the transformative powers of the endpaper (particularly in a book like this which is so concerned with questioning, testing and playing with the idea of a book itself), and there were two spreads that felt a little filler. The conceit here is so good and I think it’s almost there in realising it, and in a book as good as this – as close to brilliance as it could be, these things stand out. However, I am no tiny child and I am not its intended audience. I would happily give this to a thousand readers straight away and would be intensely happy in doing so. It’s fun, bold and lovely storytelling that does something kind of wonderful. I pick up on these points that bothered me and I mention them for one reason: I can feel how close this book is to being something remarkable.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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The Key To Flambards by Linda Newbery