We Rode To The Sea by Christine Pullein-Thompson

We Rode to the SeaWe Rode to the Sea by Christine Pullein-Thompson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“This was my first book…” writes Christine Pullein-Thompson in the introduction to the 1973 Collins edition, “…It is the book which made my name. I hope you enjoy it.” And how can you not when this is Pullein-Thompson at her delicious best? We Rode To The Sea takes place just after World War Two and in the romantic backdrop of Scotland where German POWs have escaped, a pony trek is happening, and children can breakfast on lobster. Other things happen, of course, and we learn a lot about ponies and people, and everything ends up in the quite perfect space that only pony stories of a certain time can achieve.

Pullein-Thompson was remarkable as indeed all of her family were. Her mother wrote, her sisters wrote, and they all wrote stories that are imbued with this fierce sense of readablity. These aren’t books about unicorns and pegasi, these are books about fraying halters and bluing manes; the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and their remarkable mother Joanna Cannan, wrote stories of practical romance. They were perfect and all of them perfect in their very own particular way.

We Rode To The Sea is a tribute to the romance of Scotland. The landscape is lovingly described, and the children recite poetry everywhere they go. There’s cottars, and fishermen, and noble warm-hearted people who are bound to help the children because they share the same surname. And the lobster breakfast, dear me, the food in this book swings from the sublime to the sublime, and I rather love it. Much of this is a reaction from the world of rationing and restriction, and if the children aren’t eating then they’re talking about it, and everything is rather utterly fabulous.

There’s a lot here for contemporary readers of pony stories to enjoy, though they may need a note or two to explain the historical detail and political situation of the time. They might also need some clarity on the pre-internet, pre-mobile phone landscape that allows the children to so easily get lost. Lost! How long’s it been since I read a convincing ‘getting lost’ scene in children’s books?

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Amal UnboundAmal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quietly, precisely told story, Amal Unbound is careful about itself and careful about the story it tells. It is also rather unrelenting, quietly bold and ultimately, rather powerful.

It’s the story of a Pakistani girl named Amal who, when forced into indentured servitude, has to survive against a complex, challenging and scary world. And to do so by herself, bolstered by her dreams and hope and ambitions for something other than the circumstances she finds herself in.

Narrated in the first person, Amal Unbound consists of quite short chapters that, as ever, are accessible to the younger readers in this age bracket (I’d pitch this for readers somewhere around ten+, perhaps) but also offer a lot to the more confident reader. Saeed writes in a very quiet, calm and yet rather beautiful manner. It’s eloquent and gently done stuff, and perhaps quite remarkably so when you consider the scenarios she works with. Amal’s mother suffers from post-natal depression, her father is suck into a spiral of ever-increasing debt, and Amal must learn to live in a life full of strangers and fear, far away from her dreams of becoming a teacher. And yet, Amal Unbound comes to remind us that dreams are never that far away from us if we work for them, and manages to do so without straying into Noble Adults Writing About Things For Children territory. There’s a lot in this potent little book to praise, and that’s one of the biggest. This is a book about big issues, without being consciously About Big Issues. It’s simply the raw and honest story of Amal, and a thousand other girls like her.

I’d have welcome a little more context about indentured servitude for younger readers, and perhaps some resources to inspire further thought, though Saeed’s graceful and again, precisely pitched afterword does cover some of this area. She acknowledges the influence of Malala Yousafzai on her story but also the voices of the unknown girls, and that’s a potent note that any educator can sensitively and tactfully explore further with their classes. This is a rarely told story, and it’s one I’m grateful for. I’d recommend it straight away for your September 2018 purchase lists.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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A Hidden Treasure : ‘The Child’s Guide To Knowledge’ (1861)

The-childs-guide-to-knowledge-cover

I’ve been visiting some of my favourite bookshops over the last few weeks and picking up some utter treasures. These are books that wouldn’t and won’t make a fortune if I sold them on, but to me they’re priceless in what they say about our ideas of childhood and children many moons ago. I’m going to introduce a couple of them to you over the next couple of weeks, The Child’s Guide To Knowledge (1861) is the first one up.

It’s a slim, small little thing, the sort of book that could fit easily into your pocket. I found my copy of it in a charity shop at the seaside, and it was dwarfed by the books about it. This is a copy that’s lived a life, and that’s no wonder when you consider the age of it. 1861. The American Civil War was happening, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died, and on March 12, this book was being held by somebody called Richard. He wrote his name in it too.

(I wonder, upon investigation, whether it was this Richard? I’m not sure about the dates, or even if I’m reading his name correctly, but the area feels about right. I’m not sure people would have travelled far from their point of origin, particularly on a fairly prosperous coast(?)).

the-childs-guide-to-knowledge-introduction

I had a little bit of a moment when I found it. I don’t know much about books like this, as they’re about fifty or so years before my specialist area, but I love them. These little collections of lessons and facts to be recited by some poor child in some schoolroom somewhere are fascinating. They tell us what adults thought children should know, and the way that they thought they should know them. This, for example, is onto talking about macaroni by page three. Macaroni! Macaroni comes before the lesson on the constitution! It’s so weird!

A final thing to note is the authorship. A Child’s Guide to Knowledge is written, rather coyly, ‘By A Lady’. (Coincidentally, this sentence tickles me so much, I used it as the background of my Twitter and might never change). The lady herself is never named throughout the text, except refers to herself as the authoress and refuses to add wood-cuts or engravings into the book as they ‘might take off the attention of children’. Seriously, what’s not to love?

Well, I can answer my own question straight away here and refer to the fact that she’s not named. Some of that is obviously due to convention, the status of writing for children at that time, and the blessed patriarchy that we all hold so dear (!). That can be rectified with the benefit of hindsight, and so here’s to you Fanny Umphelby and thank you for giving me so much joy with this peculiarly, brilliant little book. I particularly love how you finished the last page off with a good review.

the-childs-guide-to-knowledge-last-page

 

 

 

Sweet Valley Confidential – Ten Years Later : Francine Pascal

Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years LaterSweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later by Francine Pascal

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I can understand the feelings behind this, and the urge behind it, but Ten Years Later is a problematic and frankly strange book that seems to deny or barely recognise much of the structure and themes that made the Sweet Valley series work. For those of you who collect a certain other series of books, it reminded me very much of The Chalet Girls Grow Up (a book I find utterly fascinating) and in a way, Ten Years Later is fascinating. It is strange and quite weird and full of a peculiar distaste for happy endings and comfortable resolution, but it is fascinating.

I engaged in the Sweet Valley books with a sort of episodic delight. They were never massively big, nor did my library have a lot of them, but I was entranced by their numerous quality. The mythic nature of Jessica’s hair. Country clubs. Apartments. They sang of a very specific and quite dreamy Americana that could be like catnip, and so when I did come across them, I devoured them. I also have very fond memories of the TV series that was shown during the 90s (?), and the spectacular nature of that theme tune.

But this is not a good book. Not really. It’s kind of hypnotic and fascinating and full of a sort of peculiar loathing for the characters of this world. Pascal could be a good writer, but this would have benefitted from some substantial editing, a massive chat about that hideous little ‘where are they now’ coda that’s tacked on the end of it, and a further massive chat about all of the slightly squicky descriptions of everybody’s looks.

I won’t say don’t read this, because I believe very much that you read what you want, always, but I would say that this might not give you the resolution that you seek for this world. But then again, I suppose, the discussion is whether a book like this was even necessary in the first place. Do you need to tie these big wide worlds off with a neat bow? Or is it better to simply step away ? I’m not sure I know, but I know this: Ten Years Later is one of the strangest and, in a way, saddest books I’ve read.

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What Does An Anteater Eat? : Ross Collins

what does an anteater eatWhat Does An Anteater Eat? by Ross Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Picture books are a performative thing. Every book is, in a sense, but picture books are perhaps more performative than others. They are made to be shared and talked about and enjoyed by multitudes of readers. They are made to be read aloud, to inspire funny voices, and to have their corners chewed on by babies who are figuring out this wide, wide world that they live in. I always think that it’s a good thing when you can feel this edge of performance to a picture book, where you can sense the parts you’d emphasise or the parts where you’d tease out the tension to that almost unbearable point, and I always think that it’s a good thing when you read a picture book and can hear the reaction that it would get.

What Does An Anteater Eat? is a book that’s full of that third space, that performative edge, that raw, hysterical laughter that really only little children can do and when they do it, the world laughs with them. And I felt that when I read this book, and that’s something quite remarkable. This is a relatively slender story; an anteater wakes up from a nap, is hungry, and tries to remember what he eats. He asks several other animals who provide both useful and useless answers, before happening upon an ants nest and – well, let’s just say that anteaters don’t actually eat what you think. There’s a nice little note in this about not judging on appearances, and Collins’ art is full of a vibrant, thick sense of colour. He’s an artist doing good things, and his characters sing with this sense of lovely honesty. This is lived art, primal and potent. I also do love a cover that sets itself apart from many of those on the shelves at the moment.

I’d have welcome a little more work being done with the lettering, as I always feel that simply shifting from text into italics is a relatively easy default to choose in a picture book and one which shies away from the added quality good lettering can provide, but that’s a small note for a book as potently performative as this.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Miss Wilmer’s Gang : Bessie Marchant

Miss Wilmer’s Gang by Bessie Marchant

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my first ever Bessie Marchant, and after we got to the bit about taxidermy, I realised that we were in for quite a ride. She’s an interesting author is Marchant, always on my radar with her girls full of Strong And Noble attitudes in Far Flung Corners Of The World, and yet I’d never quite got round to reading her. Well, no more.

Miss Wilmer’s Gang is a curious beast, revolting against gender roles whilst ultimately succumbing towards such, with some rather problematic treatments of colonialism and empire. As ever, it’s a symbol of its time in many respects, but it also renders something quite interesting in its treatment of class and girl/womanhood. Miss Wilmer herself has inherited islands in Patagonia

(HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA)

and has now decided to go and sort them out with the aid of a band of Hearty And Attractive Single Girls.

(HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA WHAT IS THIS BOOK)

This band of Hearty And Attractive Single Girls changes a bit before the expedition sets off, as one of those girls has the temerity to go and get married. Once we’ve finally established our group, the book sets off and we’re off to Patagonia. It’s kind of spectacular how nuts this book really is, because the girls are both Capable and Yet Incapable and the local inhabitants of the islands are rendered as Deeply Problematic Individuals Who Just Don’t Know Help When They See It.

I’m being flippant in a way, because these books were groundbreaking. They’ve aged poorly in both representation and style, but the positioning of girls in these narratives of adventure and derring do was a unique thing to do. There’s a genre of stories where boys wandered off and had adventures in the distant corners of the worlds, but the centring of women and girls in these narratives? Not so common. Not so much. There’s something interesting being said about women and girls here, and the tensions that pull upon that will, I suspect, come to fascinate me.

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Stories For Boys Who Dare To Be Different – Ben Brooks

Stories for Boys Who Dare to be DifferentStories for Boys Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have promised to be, above all things, honest in the reviews that I write and so it’s for that reason that I must confess that I wanted to dislike this a lot more than I did. These books at the moments for rebel girls and boys who dare to be different conceptually bother me; they speak to ideas of gender in children’s literature, for this is what this is, really, and they speak to the state of those ideas being in a somewhat complicated and, perhaps, quite a troubled space. And, because I am somebody rooted in the classics of British children’s literature, it seems to all stem from the mid-twentieth century and the notions we have of girls and of boys in the books of that second golden age that still so heavily comes to influence the state of children’s literature today.

And yet, and yet –

That strapline bothered me. Boys who changed the world without killing dragons? It’s so specific, so madly, utterly, wilfully specific in tone that by perpetuating said tone, that surely it perpetuates a myth of masculinity that the book itself is trying to defy –

And yet, and yet –

That title. Why stories for boys who dare to be different. Different from what? Why is it daring? The transgressive act only becomes transgressive when rendered as such; perhaps this should be a form of normalcy that we should be trying to understand as such. Surely in making something the other, we perpetuate that otherness –

And yet, this isn’t a bad book. To be frank, it’s actually pretty good.

But I still have questions to resolve, and I will resolve them and I will do so with the full and frank acknowledgement that this is a good, kind and thoughtfully constructed book. It is representative, inclusive and frequently moving, encompassing characters such as Nicholas Winton, Taika Waititi and Lionel Messi. There’s elements of it still to challenge, and on fully legitimate circumstances and not ‘grumpy scholarly’ circumstances. Louis Braille is included and yet there’s no acknowledgement of the fact that much of his entry cannot be read by those he sought to help. Similarly, the entry for Junot Diaz suffers from recent events, and I was concerned by some of the looser rhetoric involved in other entries such as “It’s time to take their country back”. That’s a problematic phrase, not in the least for its implicit politicking, and it’s a phrase that, really, means very little. And sure, a very young reader might not pick up on that angle, but they’ll pick up on the language. The phrasing. And it’s that sort of thing in this book that matters and should be fought over, fiercely.

These books are having a moment and I welcome the effort that Brooks has done towards making his contribution a pretty damn good book. I suspect much of its problems come from the hobbles of frame and circumstance, and that I’m maybe demanding a lot of it that perhaps it can’t quite achieve in such a context. And yet, I’m unapologetic in doing so because these books – as evidenced by their raw and fierce popularity – are clearly needed. I just ache for them to, somehow, become something more than what they are at present.

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