Ella On The Outside : Cath Howe

Ella on the OutsideElla on the Outside by Cath Howe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charming, subtle and incredibly – suddenly – moving, Ella On The Outside is one of those delightfully unclassifiable ‘thank god it’s in the world books that Nosy Crow does so well. It’s due out on May 3rd and I think it’s something to get on your radar now.

Ella is the new girl at school and things are going as well as you might expect under the circumstances. She’s trying to fit in, not really managing, and there’s this big secret that she’s not allowed to tell anybody. When she’s made friends with by Lydia (and I phrase that most deliberately thus), the school’s number one, things seem to work out but they really don’t. Lydia wants to know what Ella’s secret is and nothing’s going to stop her from finding out. And the worst sort of secrets are the ones which, inevitably, make themselves heard.

There’s a lot of heart in this, and Cath Howe’s writing is perfectly pitched. It captures that confusion of trying to do the right thing, trying to fit in, whilst all along not being sure what that right thing is. It’s a horribly familiar sentiment whatever age you are, and Howe gets the horrible edge of it so well. She also manages to get those moments of connection perfectly judged, those moments when you meet somebody who might normal and might be nice and might actually just turn out to be a friend after all of the drama has worked itself out.

Ella On The Outside also touches on some important issues, namely parental responsibility, the influence of prison on families, and mental wellbeing. Howe handles these well, and gracefully; I am increasingly looking for authors who present adults as adults within children’s literature, flawed and honest and real and scared, and this is a massive mark in this book’s favour.

I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy.

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Max the Detective Cat – The Disappearing Diva : Sarah Todd Taylor

Max the Theatre Cat and the Disappearing DivaMax the Detective Cat and the Disappearing Diva by Sarah Todd Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s been a spate of detectives in the world of children’s books over the last few years. There hasn’t, however, been a detective with four legs and a white tail. This is Max the Detective Cat who lives in the Theatre Royal and solves mysteries. There’s bold, and then there’s making your lead protagonist somebody who can’t communicate with humans bold. I’m pleased to say that, for the most part, Sarah Todd Taylor pulls it off.

There’s a little bit of scene setting at the start to get Max into position, as it were, and once that’s achieved, this book races off and merrily does its thing. And it does race. It’s sparingly put together in some nicely accessible chapters that are beautifully illustrated by Nicola Kinnear. I’d have welcome a tiny bit of variety with the images that open each chapter; there’s a mouse running across the stage and they are beautifully rendered but represent a bit of a lost opportunity with the storytelling (what would happen, for example, if the mouse’s position changed slightly as the book went on?). But I do also acknowledge that I am greedy with books like this because when they’re this enjoyable, you want more. Always.

I was a little concerned at how the resolution might be handled with the whole, you know, cats not being able to communicate intricate details of mysteries to humans thing, but it’s surprisingly convincing. I have to give Taylor a lot of credit in making this work, and making it work so plausibly. Her language is clean and direct, with a few very nice moments of character development for Max. There’s more to come from this series and I really do look forward to reading them.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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“Help, my child isn’t reading!”

I had a couple of really interesting chats recently with parents concerned about their children’s reading habits. They weren’t reading. They don’t read. They don’t read challenging books. They won’t pick up a book. And when all you see in the media is reports about how children don’t read, and this means your child in particular, that’s a tough subject to deal with.

So, here’s some advice on what to do in those situations. I don’t have children, but I’ve helped a lot in a variety of situations. More to the point, I don’t have any ties to advanced reading schemes or organisations who’d like you to purchase their product to help you read better. I’m in this for you and your kids, and let’s do this together.

Any tips you’d like to add, do let me know.

  1. Model good reading behaviour in the house. Have books present and as part of your daily lives. Make sure that you read visibly in front of your child.
  2. Sign up to the library, and go there as part of your routine. Don’t worry if they don’t pick up books the first time, just have a cup of coffee or something and pick up a book yourself, and then head home. This isn’t about getting stressed.
  3. Stop talking about the subject. If you’re worried that they aren’t reading, and keep having a go, then I know I wouldn’t want to read in the slightest. I know this is hard, and I have my utmost sympathies for those going through this. We want the best for our kids, but badgering and flashpoint conversations aren’t going to do that.
  4. See what they’re interested in and embed reading around those opportunities. For example, if they keep watching you cook or want to help in the kitchen, get them to help plan meals and read recipe books. Help you write out a shopping list. If you’re putting together shelves or something and they want to help, get them to read out the instructions.
  5. Take them for a visit to a comics shop, or to a comics festival. Again, this isn’t about ‘reading’ per se, but rather the exposure to literature and formats that they’ve maybe not particularly recognised.
  6. If they’re into computer games or coding, recognise that these are pretty valuable reading experiences in themselves. Quiz them about the games narrative, or get them a non-fiction tie in.
  7. Talking of tie-ins, if a kid is interested in a subject then they’ll tend toward reading the tie-in. Check out books by Youtubers, books about Minecraft, books about Warhammer 3000.
  8. Explore alternative reading formats. Audio books whilst in the car (captive audience), or spaghetti letters on toast. Something weird, something interesting. And again, if the parents aren’t interested, then why should the kids be? Make reading a full family act.
  9. Read out loud wherever you can. Even if it’s just to your partner, or to gran and grandad; this is about modelling good reading behaviour and showing the benefit of literature. Plus, it’s fun.
  10. Your child is probably reading more than he or you thinks. Celebrate the moments where you connect, and make reading a treat. Have a bun, have some time together, and don’t worry. You got this.

The Weaver : Qian Shi

The WeaverThe Weaver by Qian Shi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love in this debut picture book from Qian Shi, not in the least her fine and delicate artwork that sings of heart and love. The titular weaver is Stanley the spider who collects things and keeps them in his web. One day, his collection is washed away…

Where this book shines is in the artwork. There’s a sort of animated edge to Shi’s work, that roundness of line and that vibrancy of colour that makes many of these pages into something quite special. I’m always partial to a book that does something with endpapers, and even more partial with a book that does something good with endpapers, and these are subtle and wonderfully handled here. I’m also very fond of the balance here between double page spreads and multiple beats on the same page: this is a book which is almost filmic in its structure, with the storyboard of images and text working together so very nicely.

The story itself is simple, teaching children that they can hold onto the memory of something even when the thing itself is not there. There’s an obvious applicability towards grief and loss towards such a narrative, but this is also maybe a book to trot out when the favourite toy goes missing or when a big life change is about to occur. Shi’s text is sensitive, gently paced and restrained, knowing when to step back and let that fine and heartfelt artwork shine through. A charming, rather beautiful and rather evocative book.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Janie Steps In : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Janie Steps In (La Rochelle, #7)Janie Steps In by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know where to begin with this delightful little box of tricks, so perhaps we shall be like Fraulein Maria and start at the beginning for that is a very good place to start. And beginnings, really, are a strange thing to find in this book because it is the end of the La Rochelle series and many of the characters face the fate of being interwoven into that series. This is not a problem, if we are precise about it, for Janie Steps In holds approximately 303048 individuals who are destined to be head girls and prefects within its pages. But, it also holds a chapter called The Apple Riot, shines a spotlight on the epitome of dysfunction that is the Chester family, and, what’s more, throws in a little lesson on ‘don’t marry the first hottie you meet’. To be frank, this is Brent-Dyer at her chaotic best.

Our interest in this episode is Nan Blakeney who hasn’t got over the death of her mother quick enough. She is not helped by her cousin having quite the family likeness (really not Nan’s problem for not getting over things then, is it?) and thus is sent off to Janie Lucy who is the spit of Joey from the Chalet School books and clearly one of Brent-Dyer’s great literary loves. Everything gets a bit hysterical, the servants do all the work, The Apple Riot is an outstanding chapter borne from something I can only attribute to a fever dream, and this is just good, brilliant stuff. Everyone is jolly, and everyone loves each other in a hearty sort of fashion (except Rosamund who is CLANNISH and Cannot Cope With Interlopers) and did I mention the apple thing?

I honestly think this might be one of my favourite Brent-Dyer books. She could hit some lows, and I’ll never be backward in pointing those out, but she could also hit some heights. This is amongst the best of her work; it’s warm as sunlight, easy and friendly (even when dealing with the more dramatic bits) and lovable. These characters are occasional tools, but madly vibrant. You finally get to figure out why everybody was super weird about Barbara Chester when she joined the Chalet School. And, if that wasn’t enough, there’s even one of those spectacular EBD ‘there’s no clues but X has been pregnant and whoops here’s a baby’ moments.

I loved this. I really, really did.

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Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley : Sue Purkiss

Jack Fortune: And the Search for the Hidden ValleyJack Fortune: And the Search for the Hidden Valley by Sue Purkiss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My eye was caught by the premise of this one. Jack is an orphaned boy and, after one prank too far, his Aunt washes her hands of him. Jack is sent to be with his Uncle, an exploring botanist, and the two of them are off to the Himalayas to find the rare blue rhododendron. But, as such things always are in books, that’s a lot easier said than done.

Jack Fortune and The Search For The Hidden Valley is a very enjoyable thing. Occasionally some of Purkiss’ prose feels a little conscious, and I’d welcome some clarity to the structure of the novel at points, the weight of the adventure carries her through. This is a really unusual setup for a book – not the adventure elements, but the botany subtext – and I think that’s a very welcome thing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that merges botany with a Boy’s Own adventure, and the little historical note for context at the back of the book is nicely done.

Set in eighteenth century England, and touching on issues of colonisation and British rule, there’s also an option for a lot of related discussion. Jack’s interactions with the locals are nicely done, if a little too briefly, and I’d welcome this sort of discussion being pushed forward in the sequels – I suspect there may be a sequel. It feels as though there should be. I’d like there to be one. There’s something so delicious about the premise, and Purkiss’ clear love of the genre, that one book really isn’t enough.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The circularity of debate

I have become increasingly conscious of the circularity of many debates within children’s literature, and the way that, so often, these feel as though they’re pushing against an echo chamber. Does it matter to talk about such things when it feels as though nobody’s listening? Of course it does, for words are weapons and vital moments of truth. Disrupt the narrative within the space that you exist, yes, always do such a thing.

But I think, as well, that when a debate hits the wall with such thudding regularity, and nothing seems to change, then questions need to be asked. The debate needs to be reframed. The question itself needs changing.

I need to problematise statements. Statistics, as we know, can say anything we want them to say. One in five people do this, but four in five do not. Read them from the left to the right, and then from the front to the back, and you’ll find a different story.

This is why, when I read a headline about what children’s literature is, and is not, I ache to see the data. I want to know what books you read, and if you think young adult is all about sparkling vampires. I want your credentials

(I also ache to examine our need to understand the absences and shortcomings of children’s literature in a way that, I think, we do not do with ‘adult’ literature. Related to that, I want to examine the cultural ownership of children’s literature. I read very of certain genres. I do not, generally, find myself writing about the deficiencies of such genres. Yet with children’s literature, we own it, and I suspect this is simply because we have all experienced a form of childhood. Were there a form of age after adulthood, I suspect we would look back on ‘adult’ literature and similarly question what it was and what it was not).

In response to all of this, I have made several decisions regarding my approach to reading and writing about children’s literature. I’ve been putting these into practice over the last few months. Here they are:

I don’t, and will not, write about tokenistic attempts at representation, but rather recognise those books that present the world as a rounded and diverse space. I do not seek tokenism, or knee-jerk attempts at diversity, but rather a simple questioning of the decisions and the defaults that are made and perpetuated throughout a book’s production.

I shall question the narrative  around certain issues where I can, and in the space that I can. I have, for example, become increasingly frustrated at how certain issues are represented and have begun to actively seek alternative perspectives. Whether that’s reading outside of my genres or looking for more translated fiction (for which I’d welcome reccommendations), I am trying to challenge the defaults that I cling to.

I am a researcher, a blogger, a writer and a librarian. I wear a lot of different hats depending on what day it is, and I think it’s vital to question the assumptions that I make. And perhaps that’s the way to disrupt the narrative, right there; to understand your place in the system and to question that. To problematise it, to ask – what if? I am interested, for example, that with one of the more recent ‘children’s books do this’ newspaper pieces, the only negative responses I saw were from male authors. I’m not calling out names but rather asking for a shift in perspective.

Perhaps, as Ice Cube would have it, it’s time to check yo self before checking the work of others.

It’s only through self-questioning that you can start to figure out the position that you play in the system and once you’ve figured that out, you can change it. Maybe just a little bit, but it’ll be enough. It’ll be a point that, when the debate rumbles round one more time, makes the track skip just a little bit and have the world pay attention to what you’re doing.

No more yelling into the echo chamber.

The Stone Bird : Jenny McCartney, illus. Patrick Benson

The Stone BirdThe Stone Bird by Jenny McCartney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took me a long time to understand The Stone Bird. When I first received it for review, I read it and didn’t quite connect with it. There was something not there for me, and so The Stone Bird slid to the pile of books that I don’t review, and it stayed there for a while. It was only recently when I revisited this pile, for I dislike not being able to write about books, and reread The Stone Bird that I realised I’d missed something. Whether that was me, or it, I’m still not sure, but I’m here and writing this review because this is an intriguing and very quietly powerful book. I suspect, perhaps, that quietness may lead it to be overlooked at first. It’s not a noisy story, and Patrick Benson’s illustrations, though wonderful, are a gently poised thing.

But quiet books matter, as much as the noisy ones, and the more I studied the pages of The Stone Bird, I began to understand the place in the world for this book. It’s a rainy day book; the sort that might get pushed under a cushion at first, but then suddenly catches your eye and is read and sings with that reading. It’s a long journey book, a thick summer evening book, a nestle into your life and never let go book. It is both sad and wonderful, elegiac and hopeful, poetic and soft, and I took a long time to realise that.

The story itself is one of apparent simplicity: Eliza has a pebble from the beach, and she knows the truth of it. It is no pebble, but an egg, and one night it hatches… There are some loose edges to McCartney’s language which I welcome; this shouldn’t be a story about precision and definite resolutions. Patrick Benson, illustrator of the blessed Owl Babies approaches this story with a quiet sensitivity. His work never rears off the page but rather lulls the reader in. It’s soft, rich, shimmering artwork that plays with edge and frame, and somehow manages to catch the thick heat of a summer’s day. It is a powerful, beautiful work and I am so glad that The Stone Bird gave me a second chance.

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A Spoonful of Murder : Robin Stevens

A Spoonful of Murder (Murder Most Unladylike Mystery, #6)A Spoonful of Murder by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There was a point in reading this when the back of my neck started to tingle. It’s not often that happens, but when it does, it’s the sort of thing you need to pay attention to. And I think you’ve experienced it too; that little sensation that you are reading something that is kind of superlatively wonderful, and your whole body has realised it. A literary spider sense if you will. The voice that forms afterwards and whispers: this is good.

I had that with A Spoonful Of Murder. I had it in spades. Most specifically I had it with pages 98-103, if you’d like me to be very specific, but this book is just a delight from start to end. I am a fan of Stevens’ work. I adored Murder Most Unladylike ( my review is here), and its sequels have been nothing but a vibrant joy. I even wrote about Murder Most Unladylike in my thesis and will bore you to death for hours on its nuanced representation of transgressive girlhood; and I love A Spoonful Of Murder with all my heart.

I really, really do. One of the things I love about my job is that I get to push good books at people. Not, I hasten to add, literally. I do not stand on street corners pushing books. I talk to people in my libraries and I share with them the books that are just classy and good and brilliant things. Stevens is at the top of her game here, because she takes risks and makes them work in a quite wonderful fashion. This isn’t the same old same old framework, resting on its laurels. Hazel and Daisy are in Hong Kong and there’s a murder and a kidnap to solve.

The relocation means that, for once, it’s Daisy who’s out of her depth and trying to figure out the ways of the world. It’s deliciously done, without ever disempowering her, and can I tell you how difficult an act that is? To write and to never, ever, not even once, devalue nor disempower character? It’s a rare, rare thing and one that is kind of beautiful and wonderful to read. It also speaks a lot about Stevens’ trust in this series and her work. She doesn’t mess this up, not once. Hazel is wonderful throughout, providing an introduction to her home city of Hong Kong and the intricacies of dim sum even as she’s wrestling with the thought that she is, herself, a suspect.

Good books make me happy. Good series make me even happier. Stevens manages to make each of these accessible to new readers, but also to old, and every single paragraph is just a joyful and gorgeous thing. It’s books like this that make me run out of superlatives.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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The Belles : Dhonielle Clayton

The Belles (The Belles #1)The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t usually step towards fantasy, but The Belles caught my eye. Camellia Beauregard is a Belle, tasked with ‘controlling’ Beauty in the gray and dammed world of Orléans. It is only through appointments with a Belle, that people can be transformed and made beautiful. Yet, upon arriving at the royal court, Camellia and her sisters come to realise that everything is not as they dreamt it would be. Beauty, and the search for it, can be deadly. And a girl who can control that may be asked to make some impossible choices.

That’s a good hook right there; a premise that sings towards some vital discussions, and places The Belles at a very vital intersection in Young Adult literature. This is the book that, for example, (Modelland by Tyra Banks) was trying so very hard to be. Beauty, and the commodification of that, the corruption of that, is something that needs to be bought out of the shadows and subject to critique. As The Belles shows, and as Barbara Kruger might say, your body is a battleground.

So The Belles hits notes that needs to be hit, and it hits them well. It took me a while to get into this, though I suspect that’s partially my unfamiliarity with the genre but it is worth mentioning. In contrast, however, the final third or so was a powerful reading experience with some severe, scarring scenes. As Clayton remarks in the afterword, this is a story that’s been gestating with her for quite some time and you can sense that. There’s a lot of rich detail work and it’s convincing. There’s no loose space in this world; it all makes sense and combines to deliver something that, ultimately, is a powerful and kind of brilliant read. The second half of this book is a genuinely great read. I suspect the first half is too, but it just took me a long time to get into it.

A final thing is worth mentioning. You know how certain books become very conscious of their first part in a series and end with a madly infuriating cliffhanger? Well, the Belles does end with a cliffhanger but it manages to get away with it because I actually cared. Funny how good writing does that to you.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Alpha : Bessora, Barroux, (Sarah Ardizzone (trans.))

Alpha. Abidjan to Gare du NordAlpha. Abidjan to Gare du Nord by Bessora

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to know how to classify this raw and brilliant book, so perhaps I shall classify it as a story about people and leave it at that. I was lucky enough to interview Bessora, and her translator Sarah Ardizzone here and I’d urge you to check out their thoughts about Alpha. There is a lot of depth here and care, and it shines through to the final product; a graphic novel of unsparing, simple truth.

Alpha is trying to get from the Ivory Coast to the Gare Du Nord in Paris. His wife and child have made the journey before him, though he does not know whether they were successful. He does not know if they are even alive. Life isn’t easy like that. This book doesn’t give you the simple Hollywood narrative, it gives you something rawer than that. It gives you a burnt, bitter truth and makes the faceless known.

I heard Bessora speak about this book (a quote I include here in this article about children’s books featuring refugees) and her comment that “We are all somebodies, not nobodies” has stuck with me for months now. She is a precise and beautiful writer, and when her language works with Barroux’s simple and blunt artwork, Alpha comes to possess a fierce and unflinching beauty of its own. This is a powerful book. It might be too true for some.

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An interview with Bessora and Sarah Ardizzone : two-thirds of the creative team behind Alpha

One of the highlights of Pop Up Lab this year was hearing Bessora the author, and Sarah Ardizzone, the translator, deliver a key note about their graphic novel Alpha. Alpha is a fascinating project; originally published in French and republished in English by the team at Barrington Stoke. At a conference that discussed the importance of visual literacies, the book had a deeply relevant part to play – and I’m grateful to both Bessora and Sarah for answering my further questions about it.

If you’d like to read more about the conference itself, here’s an interview with the founder and I also wrote up some notes about the day here – these will be of particular interest if you’re looking at visual literacy in your work (I hope!).

And of course, it’s important to emphasis that Bessora and Sarah Ardizzone are only two-thirds of the team behind Alpha. The third, Barroux, worked on the art and did so quite stunningly. You can view his website here and I’d urge you to do so. Alpha is a remarkable book. 

Bessora and Sarah talking about Alpha
Bessora and Sarah talking about Alpha

Why do you think it’s important to visually represent the story of Alpha? Do you think the story would have changed if you’d have told it in a mainly prose format?

Bessora: I usually write novels, in which I take all the space:  in novels, images are either described and/or suggested so that the readers can build them through their own imagination. Alpha is graphic: I had to leave room for the imagination of Barroux, who introduced his drawing as a second language. The result is an immediacy – images are an intimate language and the first element one reads as a child.

What sort of opportunities for conversation do you think Alpha prompts?

​Bessora: Alpha is an opportunity to talk about an incarnated man, who could be our brother, our cousin, our friend, our neighbour’s husband, or ourselves.

It is about an intimate who experiences an unbelievable adventure, an intimate that the media makes a foreigner, while the story concerns us intimately.

With Alpha being written originally in French, and translated into English, do you think it reads differently? How has the translation – or has the translation – affected its message?

Sarah: The message remains the same. With the subtle difference that Alpha is an undocumented economic migrant travelling from Ivory Coast in francophone West Africa to Gare du Nord, Paris, France – so Anglophone readers are removed from this story in comparison with French readers. This, in turn, may spark a more empathetic (but also more romanticised?) response to the personal tragedy and human crisis depicted. Otherwise, I would hope that the ‘everyman’ quality of Bessora’s writing – the diary jottings of a person with a simple education, a man who is occasionally naïve, but whose insights affect us all – communicates just as powerfully in English. It’s also worth pointing out that the text looks different. The UK edition is published by the independent Edinburgh-based publisher, Barrington Stoke, whose priority is making stories accessible to every kind of young reader. This means that Barroux’s handwritten text (French handwriting can be difficult for UK readers to decipher at the best of times) has been replaced by a serif font.

Alpha was subject to some very specific creative constraints, such as the diary format and within the artwork. Can you talk a little bit more about these and the impact they have on the story?

​Sarah: As the translator of a graphic diary, my job is to translate the words and the pictures. Bessora wrote the original text before the artwork had been created by Barroux. But now that both exist, I have to marry them in my word choices – capturing Bessora’s tone and Barroux’s palette. Barroux’s creative constraint this time around was the idea of a cheap notebook (perhaps bought in a corner shop in Abidjan) and a kids’ pack of felt-tip pens: my words needed to communicate that non-precious approach to “getting it down” or putting the words on the page, while at the same time conveying the poetic, resonant touch with which Bessora infuses her writing.

Alpha’s a story about people, and I’m interested in how this was reflected in its collaborative production. Do you think this has impacted upon the story itself?

Bessora: First there was the meeting with Barroux, who desired a book on this very large subject “‘immigration”. My role was then to refine the subject, and to embody it. I constructed the story by myself, with the leitmotif of making Alpha, a person (a somebody), and not a thing (a nobody) as migrants sometimes appear. Barroux grafted on the text, which he enriched and nurtured with his images. Then the process was extended through Sarah’s translation. It is a collaboration … not simultaneous, which is reflected in the way the collaboration is established between the protagonists of the story: to survive, Alpha and his pals must be in solidarity.

Sarah: I couldn’t agree more with Bessora – particularly when it comes to the sense of solidarity this book sparked.

One of the many things I love about Alpha is that this story doesn’t ‘belong’ to any single person.

It was inspired by an undocumented economic migrant who frequented the artists’ squat where Barroux had his studio: and Togola’s story is the greatest human story of our times, that of a desperate exodus and a thin welcome. The story was researched by Bessora – but in a sense we have all “translated” it, and the wider public continues to do so. The book was acquired by Barrington Stoke, when they spotted it at the Spectacular Translation Machine (STM) that we staged at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015. An STM is live, collaborative translation at its most exciting. It involves displaying all the images (but not the text) from the book, as if at an art gallery, and then encouraging the general public to choose an image that speaks to them, collect the text that goes with it from the volunteers manning our “reception” and set about translating the words – with help and support from on-tap expert translators. Together we translated most of the book in a single day, but what was most inspiring about this process were the conversations that were struck up between participants, as they talked about what it is that we think we’re doing when we translate.

Alpha is a story that deals with challenging topics. Do you have any tips on how to approach or manage such topics when reading books of this nature with children?

Sarah: Two words come to my mind: simplicity and truth (even if it’s a truth from a fiction).

Children must be protected, but it is useless to lie to them about the state of the world.

And finally, what’s your favourite book?

Bessora: It depends on the day … At this moment, it’s Zoonomia, because it’s the only one I can read since I’m trying to correct it. It’s being published in February!

Sarah: Texaco by the Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau – who writes about the fallout of slavery and makeshift housing on his volcanic island. His style makes for a Creole epic that is fabulous (in the literal sense of the word) and searing, and it is exquisitely translated by Val Vinokurov and Rose-Myriam Rejouis. It is also one of the only novels I know dedicated to an urban planner.

Thank you Bessora and Sarah! 

Five Fall Into Adventure : Enid Blyton

Five Fall into Adventure (Famous Five, #9)Five Fall into Adventure by Enid Blyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a little part in this where Julian, after detailing the current predicament that the Famous Five have gotten themselves into, remarks, “…This is all very stupid and melodramatic” and it’s kind of the highlight of the entire book for me. It’s a breaking of the fourth wall, a moment where Blyton throws all of her stubborn fire at the critics and goes ‘well, yes, it is kind of melodramatic but it’s what happened and besides I’m writing this and not you’ and I love it. The Famous Five are such iconic figures, even to those who maybe have never read any of the original books, that Julian’s wry little comment sings of wall-breaking and authorial intervention, and it’s great. Give me more of this Blyton, more of this author and her stubbornly determined narratives that barely pause for breath.

The ninth of her Famous Five adventures, this is a fairly standard sort of affair. Something happens, something else happens, somebody pops up, shenanigans, shenanigans, everything’s fine and we’re back at home in time for tea. And oh the food in this book! It’s great, and a reminder of Blyton’s childish eye for detail. Note that I don’t use childish in the pejorative manner, but rather as a recognition of Blyton’s eye for perspective. She got children. She understood them. And, for a book first published in the 1950s, she knew what made them tick. Food. Fun. Friends.

This isn’t high literature, and that’s a debate that, in a way, I’m bored of when it comes to Blyton. What I find interesting and exciting about her work is how it is so fiercely determined to make sure the reader has a good time. These are books that will be read even when the reader isn’t sure that they want to do such a thing and they’re still remarkably accessible even to present-day readers, what with her use of syntax and bluntly direct prose. It’s not pretty, but it is remarkable and so very, very, brilliantly readable. I suspect that it’s long past time to bring Blyton in out of the cold, and let her be remarked upon as one of the canonical lights of children’s literature.

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The Arrival : Shaun Tan

The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It hit me recently that I’d never reviewed this, this story of eloquence and love and shadows, and that was something I had to make right. The Arrival holds a difficult place in my heart in that, I think, I read it too soon. Too blindly. Too hungry for words and language and precision. Reading can be selfish, sometimes. You can ache to remake the text in your vision, to dominate it with your perspective and views, and thus deny the value of the read itself. We read for others. We read for otherness, for voice, and for echoes to map our lives against, and sometimes I don’t do that. Sometimes I can get a little lost, and need to step back, and remind myself that this is not my story. I do not own this text. I am a reader. I own my reading of that, but I do not own the other.

And so I came back to Shaun Tan, drawn in part by a political and pervasive rhetoric that seems to seek division where there is none to be found, but also because of the stillness of that front cover. It made me understand what I had done to this book before, and it make me realise how I needed to approach it now. I look at a lot of books as part of my job, and stillness is not something you see that often on a front cover. Yet, as I look at it now, I can see that it’s not still. That it’s a moment, an encounter, and this is a split second point between it. Stillness in movement; being able to capture that precise, delicate, beauty where the two of them meet eyes and properly see each other? Beautiful. Perhaps, too, the essence of this book. The encounter where things become Things, and Known, and Named.

So, the book itself. It is wordless, split into six “chapters”. I say “chapters”, because honestly, imposing an idea of sequence on this poetic narrative seems difficult. It is linear, but it’s also not; the story of people coming to a new land, forming connections, but also what came before and after, the stories that thread through us on a daily basis, the web of connection that is life, I suppose, just living and being and loving. Moments. Beats. The dance of your heart and the stillness that comes when you find home.

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A Change Is Gonna Come

A Change Is Gonna ComeA Change Is Gonna Come

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Change Is Gonna Come is a compilation of short stories and poems from 12 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers, ranging freely over a series of topics and themes, and pretty much all of them are rather wonderful, powerful contributions. What really struck me about this collection is the care that’s been taken over every element in it; from the striking and wonderful cover design (for more on that, have a look at this, to the note in the introduction from the editorial mentee (a good thing, publishing world), and the inclusion of debut writers, A Change Is Gonna Come feels like it’s been loved. And that sensation of love is powerful when it slides into the hand of the reader, so very powerful.

A frank highlight for me was Tanya Byrne’s lyrical and incandescent love story ‘Hackney Moon’. Byrne is a writer whose debut Heart-Shaped Bruise was something I called kind of spectacular, and Hackney Moon is right up there. An aching, tender, and fiercely told love story, it’s honestly, one of the best things I’ve read for a long time. I finished reading it and did one of those little ‘oh that was good’ pauses. (Don’t you love them?)

Another highlight for me was Aisha Bushby’s ‘Marionette Girl’, a distinctive, eccentric and powerful story of growth. Bushby’s writing is sympathetic and kind, but also full of a very subtle sense of drive. The sense of a character pushing up against barriers all around her mixed with the knowledge that she’s going to break through. Does that make sense? I hope it does. This is a story full of drive and determination and power, and it’s kind of heartbreaking and beautiful, all at once.

What a way to start the year this is!

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Seven Scamps : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

This is my last read of 2017! I wish you a lovely new year, and if festivities aren’t your thing, I also wish you the chance to spend the evening with a Very Good Book….

Seven Scamps (La Rochelle)Seven Scamps by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a delightfully weird book. I’m aware that’s a label that can be applied to much of Brent-Dyer’s work for me, but here it feels particularly pertinent. The Seven Scamps are actually a bunch of brats, abandoned by their restless father who goes off abroad, picks himself up a new wife with a daughter of her own, and then pops back. There’s some mad oddness here, with the father being attracted to his new wife and her daughter because of the daughter’s blonde plaits, a theme that carries on with the father being proud of his own children’s hair. It made me think of how long hair, and the ‘inappropriate cutting there of’ is actually quite a strong theme throughout Brent-Dyer’s work (see Janeways, Lavender, etc…). There’s a thesis in that. Could somebody write it for me?

Every now and then though this book steps away from weirdness, and hits raw and ferocious heights. Brent-Dyer still can’t handle a proposal without getting lost in a knot of euphemisms and Meaningful Looks, but she can handle a sickbed scene. The one in Seven Scamps is something else and for me, made the book what it is. She might not be able to cope with the new style she was attempting to adopt here (“episodic lolz”) but when she writes about people, the fragility of them, and the strength of love, she is remarkable.

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Things I would like to see less (and more) of in the world of children’s books in 2018

Less…

  • Strong Female Characters Who Are Strong In One Way Only.
  • Strong Female Characters Who Are Violent And Thus Strong And That Is About All You Get.
  • “I read Harry Potter once…”
  • Looking into the mirror scenes.
  • Lists from headteachers of Approved Literature saying that they read Boccaccio when they were two days old, and why haven’t you?
  • I Write For Print Media And Bloggers Are Killing Critique.
  • Sexual agency being used as a negative character trait (tbf, this applies to pretty much all the media I consume).
  • Woe, The Children Are Not Reading articles.
  • Woe, The Children Are Not Reading What I want Them To Read articles.
  • Critical comment being legitimised from those who do not engage with what they critique.
  • The male gaze.

More…

  • Thicker paper quality.
  • Exploitation of endpapers.
  • Festivals paying authors.
  • Authors, in general, getting paid a realistic wage.
  • Regionally influenced content.
  • Illuminated first letters in chapters (my god how I love this).
  • Diversity, particularly with focus towards race, sexuality and social class.
  • Recognition of what is done well, when it’s done well.
  • Debut books.
  • Risk.
  • Poetry.
  • Public library advocacy.
  • Big, ambitious, world-shaking stories.
  • Alternative family structures.
  • Connection between the academic world of children’s lit, and mainstream publishing.
  • Unconventional heroes.
  • Pony stories.
  • Disruption of the canon.

Fanfic : M*A*S*H / Chalet School

I had one of those days recently where I wanted to write something different. That different turned out to be fanfic and, in particular, the oddly specific pairing of M*A*S*H and the Chalet School. I was interested to see if I could make it work, if I could scratch that odd little tingle of an idea and turn it into something else. Fanfic has always had that appeal to me of being a stretch in language; and this proved to exercise some peculiarly distinct muscles. I’ll add it in at the bottom of this post.

Here’s a link as well to an appropriately seasonal, and somewhat fanfiction-esque, story that was in the news this week. Turns out JRR Tolkien was also Father Christmas in his spare time.… If you’re in Oxford, between June and September next year, I suspect this might be an exhibition to visit. If you do, please tell me ALL about it.

Here’s the piece I wrote:-

‘And all around me, they die’

Continue reading “Fanfic : M*A*S*H / Chalet School”

The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage : Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1)La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to review this book so, forgive me if I take a while to get to the point. If I’m honest, I’m not wholly sure as to why I didn’t like this and I’m not sure that that dislike comes from me, as opposed to the text itself. Like I said; difficult.

Let’s do the formal bit first. This is a prequel to the events of Northern Lights. There’s a boy and a girl and a baby named Lyra. Things happen; characters make cameos, and I am left ferociously whelmed by the whole experience. (“I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you just be…. whelmed?” “I think you can in Europe.”)

If I’m honest, and these reviews are the space to be so, La Belle Sauvage is a solid adventure story that tastes of Peter Ransome and Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell and that’s about the all of it. That is not to say that these are bad references to pick up on, because they are the very opposite of it. Ibbotson and Rundell and Ransome are totemic and magnificent, and to participate in that space on an even keel is a marvellous and beautiful thing.

There’s some hints of something else too in this book, even though the last third feels like a different book altogether (and I wonder, so much, at that structure), and the wilderness of Pullman’s power sometimes makes itself known with ferocious strength, but as a whole this book lacks something of the raw tenderness that his work can achieve. Is that an oxymoron? Can tenderness be raw? I’m not sure, but I know that it’s the best way to describe it. This universe of daemons and witches allows it. Longs for it, sometimes. You share the deepest part of yourself with somebody else, and have the pain and the ecstasy all at once. La Belle Sauvage doesn’t quite connect, somehow, and it might do in the following books, it might find its space in its wild and wonderful world, but right now it feels anticlimactic. It doesn’t feel like the book it should be.

I was also concerned at the shaping given to many of the characters here and indeed, even in writing that, I have to stop and choose my words carefully. What am I trying to say? I think I am trying to say that I loved Malcolm and his heart, but I did not like certain aspects of how the characters were constructed. Perhaps that comes from spending the last few years embedded in books that talk about girlhood and womanhood, but I ache somewhat when women perform the role of caregiver and when girls become romantic pawns – and have this element of their characters be not treated as powerful. Does that make sense? Honestly, I’m not sure, and I wonder if, in a way, I’m writing this review too soon. But then again, when can you write a review? Sometimes I write about a book the moment I finish it because I’m hungry and giddy and mad with love, and sometimes I wait and try to let the thoughts settle in my head.

And now that I have done that, we are here and I am left with this : I think this book could have been better and I am still not sure how I feel about that.

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Egyptomania : Emma Giuliani and Carole Saturno

EgyptomaniaEgyptomania by Carole Saturno

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something very good has been happening in children’s non-fiction over the past few years. This is something to add to that realm of good things. Big, bold and rather deliciously put together, Egyptomania is a look at several key aspects of Ancient Egypt. Where this book differs is that it’s a hybrid of fact and papercraft; nearly every page has a fold out or a tag to explore further.

It’s a beautiful book. Giuliani’s artwork is wonderful; clean, big and rather wonderful, ranging over topics such as temples, pharoahs and the ever-appealing mummification rituals. The mummification page in fact is one of the best in this book, and allows the reader to quite literally peel back the layers of the mummy and discover the processes which have helped to create it. It’s very nicely done, and one of those spreads that makes you realise the benefit of papercraft in a non-fiction book like this.

I would have welcomed a slightly more robust paper quality here, but I do recognise that there’s a balance to be made between the level of engineering that’s gone into making this work and the final price point. Having said that however, in the hands of a careful reader this book’s a gem. It’s distinct, it’s interesting, and it’s genuinely very beautifully done.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Freshers : Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

FreshersFreshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Messy, chaotic, and laugh out loud funny, this is something rather joyous. A dual narrative, crafted by dual writers, Freshers was one of the most refreshing, honest and wildly moving young adult novels I’ve read for a while. There was the slight plus of it being set in ‘York Met’, a thinly veiled University of York with aggressive geese and Betty’s making cameo appearances, but that’s really just the icing on top of the cake.

Not many young adult books head into university. This isn’t a new thing; I work a lot with girls’ school stories, and a common critique is that they don’t deal with their girls once they’ve left school. There sort of is nothing beyond the school. And whilst a lot of that reflects the fact that, thanks to *cough* the patriarchal system of values that they were about to enter there was no future *cough*, it’s also an absence that’s ripe to explore. Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellis do it justice. Beyond justice. They hit on all the big points of those first few weeks of the university experience; bad sex, bad food, bad decisions, some of the best friends you’ll ever make, and then pack it with a little bit more.

And then, just in case you’ve not had enough, there is the most beautifully wonderful usage of Brie within a book that I think I’ve ever seen.

Freshers somehow manages to stay away from the obvious, and the cliche, and rings all the truer for that. It hits all the high points – and the low points – that university is. This is kind of special.

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The Wrong Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Wrong Chalet School (The Chalet School, #28)The Wrong Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is so wholeheartedly a good book. In a way, it’s a prototype for the ideal school story. The new girl arrives; highjinks jink, a Talent Is Discovered, and another girl gets her comeuppance. The difference with The Wrong Chalet School is that it’s so fiercely dippy that you can’t be held back by doubt or questions. This book is what it is. It doesn’t hold back from itself and that’s what makes it so special.

Katherine Mary Gordon is our new girl, and could it be that she’s been sent to the wrong Chalet School? Of course she has, and that’s where the joy of this begins. It’s delivered with such conviction and such heart that even as the coincidences continue, and the plot gets delightfully caught up in itself with pay-offs and cross-references, you just love it more. And when Brent-Dyer cracks out one of her patented moments of heartbreaking loveliness, you just cry and then you love it a little bit more.

I’ve been on a Chalet School kick at the moment and I suspect that I’ll leave it at Wrong for a while. It’s not to say that I won’t come back to these books because I will always come back to my beloveds; but rather, to say that I don’t want this read to be diluted. The ‘island’ phases of the Chalet School have always had a special place in my heart because they are just so richly done; more so than ‘stately home in the country with a Queen Anne vibe’ and, forgive me, than ‘the kind of magically extendable Swiss Platz’. I believe these books in the Tiernsee and here, where the girls hold ridiculously elaborate pageants in the sea, and have swimming lessons and accidentally get stung by jellyfish. I don’t know, this is my heart maybe, this place of ridiculous joy.

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Joey Goes To The Oberland : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

(Forgive me, but I’m on a Chalet School kick at the moment… 🙂 )

Joey Goes to the Oberland (The Chalet School, #33)Joey Goes to the Oberland by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s not my favourite this one, and yet it’s still oddly hypnotic and occasionally rather lovely. Set outside of the school, Joey and her family are moving house. They are to set up in Switzerland and inevitable highjinks will occur before they arrive there. Some of the highjinks are a little more convincing than others (oh my gosh they forgot the macs! wait, they bought some macs!). There is a special place in my heart for the fifteen hundred pages discussing the bathing arrangements in an antiquated French chateau, and yet it’s still delightful. Tedious but delightful. Ridiculous, yet beautiful. Inane, and yet delightful.

This is just past halfway in the series and we’re not far enough into the madness for the wonder of those early books to have been lost. Miss Ferrars and her speedboat remains on the horizon, and sometimes, suddenly, when Simone pulls rank on Joey, or when Robin’s around, everything in this book absolutely sings. Talking of Robin as well, she gets palmed off to the convent a little too quickly for my liking. There’s a lot that happens ‘off-stage’ in this book, to be reported back to the reader after it happened, and I can’t decide whether that’s awful writing or, having not read the unabridged edition, the distinct skill of the Armada editing team.

Also, the language here is peculiar; every other chapter title features the word ‘Surprise’, and Joey’s family is repeatedly referred to as the ‘brats’. Forgive me if I’m forgetful here, but I honestly don’t remember this reoccurring in any of the other books and it’s an odd choice here. Jo’s a lot of things (she says, backing away slightly from listing them all) but I never have her down as somebody who’d call her kids brats.

Also, then there’s the sandwich thing. *looks at camera*

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The Chalet School and Barbara : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and Barbara (The Chalet School, #34)The Chalet School and Barbara by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the point in the series where we have what we’d now refer to as a reboot. There are now two branches of the Chalet School, plus St Mildred’s, plus the girls who act as companions to sick relatives and sort of pop in every now and then for a bit of algebra, and it is all very confusing. But then that’s always been the way if you look at the detail of this series. The Chalet School is not one for precision, not consistency, nor parsing the timetable and wondering if a girl has her lesson with the lower or upper form does that mean that the entire school is studying the same subject at the time?

I’m digressing; this is charming. It’s gentle, too, in that sort of delightfully comforting way these books can be. Nothing really much happens; people think about how much Beth Chester’s turned into a fox and how sad she’s not been snapped up, we have the phrase “the very latest thing in lifts” which is so unbearably delightful I can’t bear it, and the equally joyful piece of ridiculousness that is “put forth a tiny rootlet”. It is too, too delightful.

To return briefly to the point about Beth for a moment, it’s important to remember that this book was first published in 1954 and that a whole generation of women would have still been coming to terms with their status in a new world. There’s something oddly mournful here for me, and it centres, perhaps, on the way EBD clearly yearns for marriage for so many of her characters. Even Grizel gets married (and she’s a right nightmare). I won’t dwell on this topic any more here but will simply recommend Helen McClelland’s outstanding biography: Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer. It’s great, and sensitively done.

So! Charming, gentle, and oddly beautiful, this book’s a joy. It’s one of those Chalet Schools that revels in the detail and you don’t really care, because you’re discovering this new world at the same time that the girls are. I can imagine this obsessive detail about the pattern on the curtains (I’m still not 100% sure of what cretonne is), the order of morning baths, and Clem’s weird ‘stick a leg out of your curtain thing’ might pall to new readers, but really if you’re reading this then you’re not new. You’ve been indoctrinated, and your life is all the better for it. These books are ridiculous. They are wonderful. They are everything.

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My Little Pony : The Ultimate Guide

My Little Pony: The Ultimate Guide: All the Fun, Facts and Magic of My Little PonyMy Little Pony: The Ultimate Guide: All the Fun, Facts and Magic of My Little Pony by My Little Pony

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am very much here for the firmly feminist message that is the My Little Pony series, but I am also here for very nicely done media tie-ins. It’s very hard to judge this sort of thing objectively, because it is so often done poorly. You’ll know the sort of thing; they appear suddenly at Christmas and have whatever it is slapped across whatever was left over at the back of the store room. And they’re poor ; thin paper and even thinner pages, with the sort of font size that you used when you were trying to convince your teacher that you’d done a longer essay than you had.

This is great, genuinely, and it’s not often I’ll say that about this sort of book. It’s immensely good value for the price point, delivering an encyclopedic dissection of Ponyville whilst throwing in some smart and beautiful messages about empowerment, friendship and self-belief. That’s the sort of thing I can get behind, and when it’s wrapped up in something as well put together – and as genuinely good – as this is, then it’s a pleasure to do so.

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The Murderer’s Ape : Jakob Wegelius

The Murderer's ApeThe Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The titular Murderer’s Ape is Sally Jones and she’s also our narrator for this gently told story of murder, double-crosses and false imprisonment. It’s an interesting note to take for such a dramatic series of topics but then again, Sally Jones is an interesting figure. She’s the best friend of the Chief, and together they run a cargo boat. She’s the engineer, who lives with humans, and although she doesn’t speak she can understand everything that they say. The Chief and Sally Jones take on a job and it ends badly; the Chief is accused of murder, and Sally is forced to go on the run. Can she clear his name? Can she survive?

I read the hardcover edition from Pushkin Press (my thanks to them for the review copy), and it is a beautiful edition. I bang on a lot about the importance of design when it comes to books and this is perfectly and distinctly done. A book can look good, but one that looks good and distinct? That’s important, and it’s nicely done here.

Quietly and lengthily told, The Murderer’s Ape isn’t, perhaps, the quickest of books. It took me a while to read, but it wasn’t a traumatic process in the slightest. Narrated by Sally Jones, this is a quiet tale of peril and trauma that skates the edge of some nasty topics (anarchism, forced imprisonment, the idle rich, revolutionaries, and abusive relationships) whilst never quite wholly engaging with them. Some of this distance comes from Sally’s position of remove, never quite accepted for who she is except for when she’s with her friends, and the overall effect is rather one of gentle disturbance.

That’s not to say that this book doesn’t pose some big questions. Far from it. Sally is constantly required to assert her presence in a world that is not wholly comfortable with her, and that question of negotiated identity is something very important to children’s and young adult literature. The best of these books allow our protagonists to find out who they are and, more to the point, who they can be. Sally is aided and abetted on her quest by a variety of characters who illustrate both the good and bad sides of humanity. It’s up to Sally to decide how to live, and to survive.

For me, The Murderer’s Ape sits somewhere on the lower edge of Young Adult, and on the higher edge of Middle Grade literature, and that is something I welcome very much. This is a book which should be placed into the hands of those who want meaty content, but may be, perhaps, unable to deal with the darkest edge of what young adult can (and indeed, should!) provide. The short and precise chapters, told in Sally’s clean and clear prose also would fit very nice as a bedtime read. There are eighty so it may be a lengthy process, but then again there’s nothing wrong with a slow read and in fact, it’s something that might prove quite appropriate to this rich and classic tale.

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Poo Bum : Stephanie Blake

Poo BumPoo Bum by Stephanie Blake

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I get books recommended to me a lot. Poo Bum has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while; but when a lovely librarian friend of mine told me that it got the “best reaction she’d ever had” at story time, it slid right to the top. Story time is one of those very specific tests for picture books and not all of them manage to pass it. Not all of them should pass it, in a way, because some picture books are made for very close and confidential shared reading, but those that do pass it are very special beasts. They’re books which translate to a very wide audience in a very short period of time. And they’re books which, when handled by a good librarian, help to make reading an event, a moment which burns very precisely and potently in the brain, and helps to pull young readers on a journey that’s going to last them a lifetime.

Poo Bum is outstanding. It’s wicked and naughty and just far enough past that edge of inappropriate to feel naughty, but not to far so that people get alienated. I’m loathe to give you too much details because really, the twists in this story are everything so I’ll settle with the blurb that simply says: “Once there was a little rabbit who could only say one thing…” As you’ll remember the title of this book is ‘Poo Bum’, you might imagine what that thing is…

The copy I’ve got from the library aches with being read a thousand times, and I love that so much that I can hardly deal with it. That’s another test for a picture book; the audience is still learning to figure out the idea of the book itself, and books that can survive that wear and tear whilst keeping the essence of themselves together, are very important things. Poo Bum is rendered in such potent artwork, and punchy text, that I suspect it would survive the apocalypse. The colours are bold, often primary, and often still have the tangible mark of creation on them; those lines and scratches that show you exactly where the pauses and edges were.

And oh, this is funny. It’s funny and it’s smart, and I can see exactly why it hit home. Turns out librarians know exactly what they’re on about. Who’d have thought?

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Why We Took The Car : Wolfgang Herrndorf

Why We Took the CarWhy We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After spending time as a writer in residence for a road, I’ve been increasingly interested in the role of ‘roads’ in children’s and young adult literature. Young adult literature, in fact, has a perfect sort of marriage with the metaphor of the road, where the open road promises freedom, independence and self-determination, and it’s a sense of liberty which is always in sharp contrast to that which exists at home. Furiously well known in its original German, Why We Took The Car is a translated novel that sometime burns with brilliance and sometimes widely misses the mark. It’s a book of dualities where sadness battles with raw and fierce happiness, and nothing sometimes battles with everything. I think it is occasionally rather perfect. Sometimes it is not. But then again, that’s the sort of delicious thing about roadtrip novels; there are moments, as with every journey, that the getting there matters as much as the destination itself. The journey might be quieter, duller, but it’s still so very important.

So here are our travellers: Mike, our narrator, who is a boy who doesn’t fit in, and a new boy at his school called Tschick. Tschick doesn’t fit in either, being an emigre from Russia, and also possessed of problems of his own. A slow twist of circumstances and parental absences lead Tschick to give Mike a dare. It’s time to go on a road trip. Tschick has a stolen Lada, Mike has some money, and the open road’s calling them…

Messy, wild, eccentric, this is a book that burns on the edge of the world. I liked it a lot. It’s scrappy at points, and very definitely not perfect, but then again there’s a point to be made that a teenage narrator who’s just had the trip of his life wouldn’t ever be especially coherent. Yet that’s not to say that there isn’t potency here; there’s an encounter with a family that is one of the best and most brilliantly unexpected things I’ve read with a long while, and the final movement of the book itself is kind of awe-inspiring. I think that’s the best way I can describe Why We Took The Car; sometimes it is perfect, and sometimes it is not. Such is life. And sometimes, you don’t know that, until you go out and live it.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Visual literacies, comics and Mark Twain : An Interview with Dylan Calder of Pop Up Projects

I’m lucky enough to be attending an event tomorrow which focuses on something very dear to my heart – visual storytelling. As you’ll know from my picture book reviews in particular, visual literacy is an important and powerful thing that is, so often, misunderstood or denied its critical relevance. Pop Up Lab, the brainchild of Pop Up Projects, is looking to address that in a day devoted to the topic, with contributions from some really exciting people working in the area. 

Pop Up Projects was founded by Dylan Calder, and I’m very excited to say that I have an interview with him to share with you today. I asked him a few questions about his organisation, visual storytelling and the role that comics currently – and should – play in the classroom. 

Dylan Calder of Pop Up Projects
Dylan Calder

Did You Ever Stop To Think : What prompted the organisation being formed and why focus on children’s books in particular?

Dylan: We are driven by a desire to see children from all walks of life access and enjoy literature – not just as something to be studied and deconstructed in school examinations – and, fundamentally, to encounter author role models – people who write and illustrate for a living. Children’s authors, in the main, have this extraordinary ability to show children what’s possible, what you can achieve, what you can strive to be through the writing, drawing and making of stories. We’re not here to sell books to families who already read widely; we’re here to bring literature to life in ordinary, mundane, diverse, deprived and isolated places. We want to tap into that audience of readers who are yearning for great literature but due to curriculums, budgets, closed libraries, family economies, and teachers who don’t know what’s relevant and contemporary, aren’t accessing it.

Why have you chosen to focus on visual literacy now, and what you see this as covering? How would you define visual literacy to the interested onlooker?

Visual literacy is the most inclusive form of reading and writing you can do. It’s simultaneously complex and accessible, and children of all abilities and needs can read and tell visual stories. Visual stories are – in my words – narratives told in sequential images, although individual images can in themselves contain single narratives.

How do you think comics currently function in a classroom? What role do they play? And, in an ideal world, what role should they play?

I don’t think they even feature. I think teachers who have a pre-existing passion for them would use them; probably most would go down the superhero route – which is great as it’s the route many kids take into reading enjoyment. But comics can be truly complex things – wonderful in the expanse of their narratives, often breaking out of the frames to challenge and disrupt form. They’re the perfect things with which to study sequential narratives, pace and cliff–hangers, and – most importantly of all – that writers’ rule of ‘show not tell’. Comics are collaborations too (writer, illustrator, colourist, letterer, editor, art director) – and they have restrictions (format, dimensions, number of pages, colour schemes) – which help structure the stories. Comics have a lot to teach about writing– and, let’s not forget, comics are written; they’re not in any way some lower form of literature. I’m not at all into literary hierarchies, but if I were then I’d put comics – great comics – right at the top. And by comics I also mean graphic novels, graphic reportage, graphic memoir – all those ‘higher–brow’ ways of saying ‘serious comics’. Comics are where diversity is happening more. Check out the multicultural cast of characters in something like The Wicked and The Damned (and it’s the rule, not the exception, in many comics publishers) and tap into the world of comics memoirs to learn all about growing up in Iran, Kashmir, Palestine.

Is there one tip you’d give people who want to help children develop their visual literacies?

Give them illustration at every age. Don’t tell them they’re too old for anything. Encourage them to draw; to mimic illustrators and their styles; to draw as much as write stories. Look for the complexity in illustrated books and comics. Explore comics with children, explore comics yourself; there’s a lot of seriously incredible stuff out there.

And finally what’s your favourite children’s book?

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn – it’s not considered a children’s book anymore but was so radical and beyond it’s time; the first novel in the dialect of a poor illiterate kid; and the story of an abused boy forming an incredible, beautiful bond with an abused man would be radical event today. I’ve read it six times.

Images courtesy of Pop Up Projects. Thank you! 

An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings : Rob Hodgson and Aidan Onn

An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings by Rob Hodgson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like this. A joint production by Rob Hodgson, and Aidan Onn, it was Hodgson’s artwork that originally caught my eye, with its exuberant and definite renderings of creatures ranging from the Sphinx through to the Werewolf and the Kraken. Hodgson delivers such rich and deliciously dark work, that manages to juxtapose a childish aesthetic with some gorgeous little touches. Let me explain a little more about that phrase of ‘childish aesthetic’ as I think it’s one that’s worthwhile to explore here. The visual literacies of children fascinate me because they are marked with a sort of infinite potential. A line on a page could be a pony, a house, or a comment on post-modernism. And yes, some of that has to do with the development of motor skills, but it also has to do with the fact that children can work in this sort of creative world of infinite potential. It’s the same with writing, and any other creative practice; we learn to work within frames. And that’s a good thing, because when we subsequently break them and remake them, we are better than what we were before. Learn the rules. Break the rules. But don’t forget to embrace that period of before, where a horse can have three heads or an antelope can sit down for tea. And that’s what I mean with Hodgson’s work, he kind of goes ‘here’s a blue minotaur’ or ‘here’s a pink Kraken’, and you believe it because it is delivered with such emphatic affirmation. It’s great.

One thing to note is that this a book that deserves a better cover than the one it has. The world of children’s picture books is a busy one, and this cover isn’t ideal. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork that reoccurs in the book itself as the illustration to the ‘Troll’ page, but when people describe it as dull and dark to me then that’s feedback I need to note and recognise. Admittedly you’ll not see many picture books which go for the dark blue palette of this cover, and there’s an argument for it standing out for that reason, but equally there’s a question to be asked about the cover when it comes to reprints. A similar question could be asked about the unexploited space of the endpapers at that point.

So, to sum, there are parts of this book that are under-exploited, but there are points that fiercely and satisfyingly hit the spots. I can imagine this going down well with a primary audience (expect lots of shrieks), and also as part of some dark and deliciously wintry creative writing and imaginative artwork sessions. I can also imagine it pairing very well with something like Bernard by Rob Jones.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Conversations with dead authors : Enid Blyton

 

  1. Enid Blyton

“Can you write a biography of somebody without ever knowing the true facts? Why, you barely know anything about me.”

She’s bored and not trying to hide it. I suspect that she never hides the way that she feels. I saw the little flash of irritation when they took a little too long to bring her tea and I watch her now as she bites down on her cake to discover jam inside of it.

“Jam,” she says, with tight fury, “Jam should never be unexpectedly found in things. It should always be obvious. It should be announced and spread lavishly on bread thick with butter, and it should be on scones,” – she draws out the o, rounding it with feeling – “but never, never, unexpectedly on a cake.”

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The Little Library Cookbook : Kate Young

The Little Library CookbookThe Little Library Cookbook by Kate Young

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been waiting for this book for a while, ever since I came across Kate Young’s work online and, in particular, the moment where she made breakfast rolls as inspired by The School at the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. What more perfect an aim could one wish for then a cookbook inspired by literary foods?

And this, this is perfect. It is a very particular sort of perfect, one crafted by brown-butter madeleines and porridge and Rebecca and The Bear Nobody Wanted, shifting from ‘before noon’, to ‘around noon’, to ‘after noon’, ‘the dinner table’, ‘midnight feasts’, ‘parties and celebrations’ and ‘christmas’, and stopping off at My Life in France and My Naughty Little Sister on the way.

The Little Library Cookbook is a delicious and intoxicating mixture of memory and recipe, where writing nestles up against recipe (which is, to be frank, a form as elegant as any poetry you’d dare to mention), and Bad Harry sits on one page whilst on another, Young’s writing makes me want to try porridge. Porridge. I can’t stand porridge, but this book makes me want to stand it, makes me want to try it through writing as delicious as this: “Pour the oats and water into a saucepan and leave to soak while you have a shower or check your emails or snooze against the doorframe – 1o minutes will do.” Food, books, and snoozing. I am sold. I even want a spurtle.

I’m not one for cookbooks, not normally. I find them a little removed and unachieavable. Aspirational, yes, and inspiring, sometimes, but somehow never quite doable. But oh, I love The Little Library Cookbook because it’s a tribute to language and fiction and food, all at the same time, and fiction sustains us, in its way, as much as a fried egg on toast does. This is cookery for readers and Young doesn’t leave you behind. Her recipes are friendly and kind and honest; swap this for that, if you don’t have this, here’s a substitute, and her book choices are delightful.

I love work like this, and I love it when it feels like you’ve known a book for a long time even though you’ve just met. The Little Library Cookbook feels like family. It feels like home.

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Ottoline Goes To School : Chris Riddell

Ottoline Goes to School (Ottoline, #2)Ottoline Goes to School by Chris Riddell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s very easy for somebody who reads a lot of books to miss an author. And yet, equally, it’s also very easy to have a consciousness of who and what that author is and how they do what they do. This is where I stood with Chris Riddell; conscious that I hadn’t really read much of his work, but conscious that his work was good. And I’d come to that decision for a variety of reasons, not just for the quality of his art work which burns from his books like fire, but also because of the children I knew who pretty much swallowed each and everything he’d published. Sometimes the biggest thing for me, as an adult who’s involved in children’s literature, is to step back and recognise my position as a guest in this space. And if an author’s work is devoured, furiously, hungrily, then that’s an important thing to take note of.

I picked up Ottoline Goes To School after Chris had delivered a charming and annoyingly inspiring lecture at Homerton College. I didn’t possess the persistence or elbows to get to the bookshop first and grab the sumptuous Travels with my Sketchbook which I’ve had my eyes on for a while, but Ottoline Goes To School was an appropriate, and by no means secondary, choice. I was intrigued to see what Riddell did with the school story because they are sort of my thing. And when I got it signed by him, I did my traditional slightly incoherent stare and babble because that too, is also my sort of thing.

This, the second of the Ottoline series, is a delight. Ottoline is off to the Alice. B. Smith School For The Differently Gifted; a boarding school for children with a special an often quite peculiar gift. As she’s trying to figure out what her gift might be, a ghost starts to haunt the school…

I was trying to figure out the best way to describe this lovely book and the idea I kept coming back to was cleanliness. That’s perhaps a little bit of an odd phrase to use and one, I suspect, which doesn’t crop up in children’s literature criticism that often so let me explain a bit more about what I mean.

Ottoline Goes To School is one of those books that balances word with image and does so without compromising the integrity of each. In fact, it’s so beautifully and carefully balanced, this mediation between the visual and the textual, that every page is a delight. And it’s challenging too! Whilst Ottoline is engaged in the complexities of a new school and a Slightly Tremulous New Friendship, Mr Munroe is carefully scouting out the school and trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s the cleanliness, right there, that ability to balance and deliver whole, heartfelt, narrative in word and image without compromising or pressing on the space of the other elements within the spread. This book is so clean, so crisp and sharp, that it’s a joy.

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The Princess and The Suffragette : Holly Webb

The Princess and the SuffragetteThe Princess and the Suffragette by Holly Webb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been really interested in Webb’s recent turn towards some of the classics of children’s literature. She’s not alone in this of course, Jacqueline Wilson delivered the delightful Four Children And It, whilst Kate Saunders wrote the powerful Five Children On The Western Front.

Webb turned towards the rich grounds of The Secret Garden with the sequel: Return To The Secret Garden and in The Princess And The Suffragette delivers a sequel, of sorts, to Sara Crewe, Or What Happened At Miss Minchin’s (also known as A Little Princess). I say ‘of sorts’ because this is both a sequel and yet also a sort of spin-off, taking the character of Lottie and exploring the circumstances that bought her to Miss Minchin’s Seminary. It’s an interesting angle to take what with Lottie being, to be fair, a bit of a moppett in the original books and locating the subsequent story within the confines of the school. I don’t know about you but (spoilers!) when Sara left, I left as well. These books don’t look back. Not much of children’s literature does (oof, there’s a sweeping statement; forgive me, we’ll explore this more at a later date…!).

Where Webb shines is in how accessible and genuine she make all this feel. Lottie’s slow political awakening, and the parallels to A Little Princess, never feel forced. They never feel definite either, edged with more questions than answers, and that’s another credit to Webb. Books provide answers, sure, but they should never be pat or glib, and sometimes presenting an answer as another question is the truest thing that a story can deserve. And that’s what Webb achieves here; Lottie questions her assumptions and decisions, and Sara, thankfully, is mostly in the background. This isn’t a book which attempts to appropriate Sara, with all the goodwill of the original book, and repurpose her narrative for some forced, farcical reasons, but rather a book that seeks to understand the charged social atmosphere that the young ladies of that time were being asked to exist within. And I like that.

I am grateful to the author for a review copy.

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Here I Stand : Amnesty International UK

Here I StandHere I Stand by Amnesty International UK

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this pained, poised collection of short stories and much of that comes from its careful and classy curation. The authors, ranging from Frances Hardinge through to Sarah Crossan, and Chris Riddell, sit alongside a foreword by a human rights lawyer and an afterword, of sorts, consisting of an interview with Chelsea Manning. Most contributions to the collection have a brief afterwood explaining the context behind the piece, though one of the strongest – ‘Barley Wine’ by Kevin Brooks doesn’t have one and I wonder if it’s actually stronger without such. That brief quibble aside, this is a smart collection and one which hits home, immensely.

‘Here I Stand’ has the subtitle of ‘Stories That Speak For Freedom’, and covers a wide range of topics including genital mutilation, human trafficking, terrorism and racism. An obvious caveat applies around the element of trigger warnings here, but as I recommend with every book of this nature, read it yourself and use it sympathetically and with an eye towards being led by the relevant child’s response. Books like this offer such a valuable spotlight on those issues which often don’t get spotlit and when carefully and considerately mediated, that spotlight can often be revelatory.

I don’t want to speak of highlights here because somehow this doesn’t feel appropriate, but rather I want to look at those pieces which sang out for me. The collection is immensely powerful, but as I said previously, Kevin Brooks’ contribution was something quite remarkable. Ditto ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ from Chibundo Onuzo, a story on the topic of child soldiers, which instead of taking the more expected motifs of its theme delivers something quite astounding. This is the gift of collections like this, the gift of perspective. Sight. A new eye on the familiar. Sometimes stories do become familiar and thus unseen; to deny that familiarity is a great thing. Onuzo’s bare, pained eloquence here speaks volumes.

I like this volume, and I like the careful craft that lays behind it, from Chris Riddell’s beautiful artwork through to the stories, poems, and especially the graphic contribution from Mary and Bryan Talbot with Kate Charlesworth. I think it’s important to recognise that stories, particularly of this nature, aren’t just these neat things tied up in bows and that embrace of diverse form is another point in Here I Stand. It’s a tired phrase to call something important, but then again, so many of the books being published at the moment are. Here I Stand stands firmly with those, and indeed manages to carve a space of its very own.

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My Miniature Library

My Miniature Library: 30 Tiny Books to Make, Read and TreasureMy Miniature Library: 30 Tiny Books to Make, Read and Treasure by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s been a bit of a delay in my reviewing of this because, to be frank, I’ve been too busy screaming with joy over it. Every. Single. Time. I’m not one for craft, really, as I have the adeptness of a lemon when it comes to such things, but My Miniature Library is adorable. And accessible! And a conceit so delightful that it almost beggars belief!

Presented in a robust box, the contents of My Miniature Library make up thirty small books – both classic and less well known, alongside several blanks to create your own book. These books can be subsequently displayed on a small bookshelf, which can be then situated against the backdrop of the box which, on the interior, is patterned with a wall scene and carefully laid floor (seriously, if you’re not squeaking with joy at this point then we need to talk). The tiny books themselves are madly delightful. I’m not sure why such extremes of scale are, but these are beautiful. The instructions are clear; super little people might need help with the more fiddly aspects, but this teaches bookbinding! sequential literacies! how to make your own book! how to become madly possessive over beautiful things!

God , I love this. It’s adorable. Buy it for the young people in your life and then borrow it.

(And by borrow, I mean buy them another and keep one for yourself).

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Looking for Enid : Duncan McLaren

Looking for Enid: The Mysterious and Inventive Life of Enid BlytonLooking for Enid: The Mysterious and Inventive Life of Enid Blyton by Duncan McLaren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is possibly the strangest and yet, maybe, one of the most brilliant biographies of an author I’ve ever read. It’s an approach that I don’t think would have worked for anybody but Enid Blyton and so, perhaps, the unorthodoxy of Looking For Enid was always destined to work when its subject was such a furiously unorthodox figure herself.

Looking For Enid sets out to discover the truth behind the myth. Enid Blyton for me has always been one of those authors who controlled her brand. Image was all, irrespective of that which went on behind the scenes. The most immediate example of this is her utobiography, The Story Of My Life which still remains one of the most audaciously artificial texts I have ever read. Enid didn’t – doesn’t – give away her truth easily.

Yet Enid Blyton is an author we all know, and much of that’s due to the cultural shorthands that now, rightfully or wrongfully, surround her name. A ferociously readable writer, possessed of an almost Sisyphean urge to write, she produced bluntly workmanlike narratives that often denied elegance but could be read. Undoubtedly, those narratives are also often coloured of problematic social, gender and ethical characteristics, and I don’t deny nor seek to excuse that. I’m not a fan of Blyton (though I’ll fight the corner for Malory Towers and St Clare’s to be considered as expressions of feminine potential within a society designed to not recognise such), but I do find both the author and the reach her work still has upon British children’s literature utterly fascinating. I’d never heard of Looking For Enid and so was intrigued to see what

Looking For Enid visits locations connected with Blyton; Beaconsfield, Beckenham and Bourne End, with a sort of madly ecccentric metafictive fanfiction element in which the Five Find-Outers attempt to solve the mystery of Enid Blyton’s lost books and in which McLaren slightly Mary-Sue’s himself into the role of Fatty. Along the way, you learn perhaps a little bit too much about uteruses (seriously) and McLaren’s sex life (honestly) and a lot to do with carp (I’m not making any of this up). There’s a lot of Freudian-esque reading into the subtext of Blyton’s work, which, to be frank, always makes me slightly jaded. You look hard enough, you can read a phallus into everything.

Plus the uterus business, really.

But I’m still giving this four stars, and that comes from a recognition of this book’s mad brilliance. It’s infuriating, yes, and could do with stepping away from the socratic exposition that McLaren does tend to engage in with his partner, but it’s sort of fabulous and vividly unique. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like this that is so – madly honest – about what it’s like to be a fan, and to love something, and to also just want to find out more. Looking For Enid certainly concludes by finding her; I’m not sure that it’s my Enid, but I do know that the ride towards that point is kind of unforgettable. Mad, weird, totally bizarre, and a bit super odd at points, but also, sort of brilliant.

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The Explorer – Katherine Rundell

The ExplorerThe Explorer by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brief moment of context.

I didn’t wholly connect with The Wolf Wilder as much as I did with the rhapsodic and blissful joy of Rooftoppers, and so The Explorer was a book that I read with a little bit of nervousness. Rundell is transcendent, capable of paragraphs that feel like the first footsteps in new fallen snow, but sometimes I connect with her work less than I’d like to. Much of this comes back to my position as reader and my natural predilection for the things and contexts that I love. The Paris of Rooftoppers, for example, is something much closer to my heart than the snowy wilderness of The Wolf Wilder and that’s, perhaps, inevitable. We are readers after all, all of us, and each of us come to a book with a different story of our own. Each book will connect with a reader in ways almost unfathomable to understand. Sometimes it will hit home, and sometimes it will hit home. It’s important to understand this, this aesthetic of reading, because it’s something that can be almost disassociated from the stylistics of the text itself. As I said, Rundell can be transcendent, furiously so, but sometimes it’s the content that fails to connect. You can appreciate something so very much, and be envious – desperately so! – of such skill, whilst also recognising the ways in which it does not wholly hit home for yourself. Though it sounds decrepit to say this, the more I read, the more I recognise the legitimacy of disconnect. You can love something. You can also recognise the beauty in something but not, perhaps, find it life-changing.

So, having said that, and given you some context as to where I was for this review, The Explorer hits home for me. So beautifully, so powerfully, so genuinely so. For me this is Rundell’s texture, these stories of children being bold and brilliant in the most unusual of circumstances and fighting against a world that does not seem to wholly recognise their wonder. She is an author with a childist point of view, that not only positions children as beings of power within their world but also as beings with agency. Power, for me in Rundell’s work, and agency are quite different things. The ability to do something, and the actual doing of that something can often be miles apart. The love, really, that Rundell has for her characters, and the belief that they can do what they need to do.

This is a story of survival, and it’s one pitched for the middle grade audience, so we have moments of terror and furious delight, often tumbling together within a matter of sentences. Nothing is certain in this forest other than the love and faith and strength that friendship and belief can bring. The children are delightful, Max – the youngest – is furiously perfect, and the book sings of the sheer need to have an adventure. As one of the characters comments at one point, “You should always dress as if you might be going to the jungle. You never know when you might meet an adventure.” The Explorer is touched with a little bit of madness, that feverish urge to look beyond the far brow of the horizon, and I loved it. It’s a book that reminds us to be prepared for adventure, whenever and wherever it may come.

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A Wrinkle In Time : Hope Larson, adap. Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic NovelA Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of books in the world I haven’t read (she says, channeling Franco Moretti) and one of them is A Wrinkle in Time. I’ve a strange antipathy towards classics, and fantastical classics tend to slide towards the bottom of that pile of antipathy. I’m mixing my metaphors quite hideously here, but generally I don’t head towards the classics and I head towards the fantasy classics even less. Some of that stems from the fact that I don’t tend to read much fantasy, and also from the fact that I’m a selfish reader. Honestly, I am. I talk a lot about books and I love books in a furious, forever sort of manner, but sometimes I want to have my reaction be my own. And the classics, in particular, are coloured so very much by what they come to stand for, that sometimes reading them can feel like a futile act. How do you read something when everybody’s already read it for you? It’s for reasons like this that I have a mad sympathy with any child who’s told to stop reading what they want and to instead read what an adult thinks they read. Ten books you should read by the age of ten? Bite me. Eternally.

I’ve been very aware of A Wrinkle In Time for a while without quite knowing the details of what it was. Something to do with something about space, and time, and that was about it. I didn’t really want to read it, but I wanted to read Larson’s adaptation of it. It caught my eye in the bookshop and I was feeling flush. The colours intrigued me; a palette of blues, greys, blacks. Colours of twilight and the thin grey dawn. And so I read it, and then I loved it, and I wept in the bath over the ending.

I can’t tell you how well Larson adapted the original text, not whether this was a faithful or divergent adaptation, but what I can tell you is this. Sometimes it’s good to come into a classic in a different way, and when you’re guided by a wide-eyed Charles Wallace or the unknown strength of Meg Murry, rendered in Larson’s expressive, precise and heartfelt lines, it’s a pretty good route to try. What a lovely, unexpected joy this was.

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Stardust : Jeanne Willis & Briony May Smith

StardustStardust by Jeanne Willis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let’s talk about confidence.

Confidence is hard for big people, let alone little people, to maintain, let alone figure out if they even have it in the first place. The world is an intimidating space and circumstance conspires to place people in intimidating positions. Whether that’s your first day at school, a birthday party where you don’t know anybody, or simply walking past some bigger and scarier children at the park, life as a child is hard. And it’s easy to want to make this easier, it’s easy to want to wrap up a child and say – look, stop, this is not your life. Not yet. You don’t have to feel like this, because I am not going to let that happen. I won’t let you feel that way, not yet, not ever.

Let’s talk about realism.

It’s going to happen. At some point, your child or the children you look after or see in the bus, will feel intimidated by life and there’s nothing you can do to stop that. Life is life is life. One of the biggest things that children’s book do is help in such circumstances. And when these books are shared in loving situations, savoured slowly and closely, that’s when you help your child deal with those moments that you’d maybe rather they didn’t have to deal with. You give them models of behaviour, of potential reactions to model, and to maybe think about when they’re in the nursery and having to deal with the world by themselves.

Let’s talk about Stardust. I don’t need to tell you about the quality of Nosy Crow books at this point; just remember that they can handle books well. And that’s so important because a beautiful book tells you that what is inside is important. A child, especially those who are developing their literacies, might not be able to fully verbalise why, but they’ll get that this is an important thing.

Stardust is the story of a young girl who feels overshadowed by her sister. Her sister’s the best at everything, and the younger sister never quite manages to be number one. But one night, her grandfather tells her a story about how the whole world is made of stardust, and how she’s always been a star in his eyes. The lesson obviously sticks, because the final spread sees the now grown up girl on her way to the moon as an astronaut. This final image, my friends, is a kicker.

Briony May Smith’s artwork is joyful. It’s very calm and quiet; round, thick lines, with the constant evocation of something other in that dark sky, blues and blacks and dotted with pinprick sharp stars. She’s got something of a serene quality to the spreads too, a sort of timelessness that’s not going to allow this book to date. I really loved one spread in particular which depicts big sisters and little sisters across the world, using a variety of skin tones, cultures and costumes, yet all of them connected by the quiet consistency of line and shade. It’s subtle and yet delightful. My only sadness with this book is that it needs endpapers; there’s space for something exuberant here, particularly after that end note of the book, and without them, there’s an unfinished note in the music of the book.

So let’s talk about confidence again. What Stardust does is it models a situation of empowerment for the reader; the grandfather who believes in her, and the little girl who grows up, becomes an astronaut and flies to the moon. It is powerful stuff, and it’s perfect for anyone who feels a little wobbly with life. Adult, child, dog, cat, whatever, whoever. This is generous, powerful work and it’s hard to not be moved by it.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Diary of a Tokyo Teen : Christine Mari Inzer

Diary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Draws Her Way Across the Land of Trendy Fashion, High-Tech Toilets and Maid CafesDiary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Draws Her Way Across the Land of Trendy Fashion, High-Tech Toilets and Maid Cafes by Christine Mari Inzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s something immensely charming about this slender yet lovely memoir of a trip that Inzer took to Tokyo by herself at the age of sixteen. Diary of A Tokyo Teen documents this trip and captures those moments when the Japanese-American Inzer begins to understand and rationalise her place in the world as somebody who is, as she phrases it, always”halfway home”.

I picked this up on Amazon, pushing a gift voucher to the very edges as is the way with such things, and I was delighted by it. There’s an undoubted naivete to some of Inzer’s work; a few of her panels feel a little isolated and disjointed, but it’s easy to forgive this when you consider the book as a whole. There’s such a rich sense of heart here; thick and emphatic lines, fat and bold colours and some utterly delightful glances into the Japanese culture. What’s also delightful is that Inzer does not deny her perspective as a teenager. This book crackles with honesty, whether it’s wishing that the hotties on the train would look up from their phones or to doodling a cartoon face over hers on a photograph.

This is early stuff from Inzer, but it’s full of promise and joy. It’s hard to deny the richness of her work and I suspect, hope, she’s got immense things to come for her in the future. Diary of a Tokyo Teen is a delight, and one that I suspect might be inspirational.

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So I found my first subject

So I’m currently down in Cambridge, working on the #a14stories project, and I spent much of yesterday outside. The grounds at Madingley Hall are free to enter to the public, and the gardens are beautiful. There’s influence here from Capability Brown, but also from something rather distinctly English; topiary hedges, and striped lawns.

I wanted to spend some time outside in paticular because true writing, for me, doesn’t always come from staying inside and being locked up in a room. That’s where the words come from, don’t get me wrong, but the story, that comes from experience. From watching, waiting, listening and talking to people. It’s about finding that headspace where stories can happen and then, later, remembering that and punching out the words when it’s just you and the computer, that’s the work.

One of the things that I’m starting to come across in this project is the impact of the road upon the immediate, local landscape. It’s one of the first things that people tell me when I mention the project. They tell me that the redevelopment and works have gone on for so long that, in a way, they don’t ever think that it’s going to be finished. I’m not here to promote the redevelopments nor to take a side, so it’s important for me to listen and try to understand these perspectives.

And so I went to the trees.

I started to map the treeline.

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And after a while, I found my first subject to write about…

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Listening to the wind

I’m writing this with the windows open; a rare thing in England, even during the Summer, but it’s one of those nights where you can’t not do such a thing. It’s cold, don’t get me wrong, but in a way that’s perfect. I don’t want to be warm. I don’t really want to be inside, and in a second I won’t be. But for now, I have to tell you this : it’s my first night at Madingley Hall, as the A14 Writer in Residence

Birds! A shadowy wheel of them, one of those huge dark swarms that black out the sky, swallowing the blue with their wings –

(Oh, I wish I could write quicker to catch this, I wish words could fall from me quick as breath, because the birds have already gone, they’re distant, and the world has stilled again.)

Madingley has air like glass, clean and clear and sharp. It breaks, sometimes, and refracts, letting something through before sealing up again.

I am going to write here. I am going to hear stories from people.

My favourite one today has been from a gentleman who drives 400m along the A14 every day before turning off. I rather love the idea of being so familiar with one, tiny, precise piece of landscape.

My own story has been fifteen minutes of mild panic when the junction my satnav wanted to take me down was a junction no more. A friend has told me about a murder mystery game she had which was set at Madingley Hall (trust me, I’m going to find out more about this). And as I sit here, staring out of the window. I know I’m going to go for a walk in the grounds tomorrow and figure out the connections between this place and the villages behind it and the shifting, sinuous line of the A14 that lurks beyond the line of the trees.

Tell me your A14 stories? Memories? (Murder Mystery Games?)

Malibu Summer – Sweet Valley High: Francine Pascal

Malibu Summer (Sweet Valley High Super Edition, #4)Malibu Summer by Francine Pascal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s been a long while since I read a Sweet Valley book, and even longer since I’ve seen the TV adaptation, but I’ve got neither out of my head. There’s something about these books that I’ve grouped with something like The Babysitters Club, Bug Juice, and A Horse Called Wonder, those stories and shows of glossy sunlit Americana that did nothing but appeal to somebody who was more familiar with rain and bare, grey days. And the TV show! That theme tune! Could there be two different girls who look the same as Sweet Valley High ?! These are my madeleines, Proust, deal with it.

The delight of the Sweet Valley books comes in their matter of fact bluntness; they are what they are and they make no bones about it. Elizabeth is sensible, Jessica is not. Everyone is incredibly foxy, and spend much of their day foxing about the beach or foxing at the shops, looking foxily at beautiful and expensive yet foxy clothes. There’s usually some sort of slender moral, but mainly there’s foxiness, and it’s oddly spectacular. We, the adults, the patriarchy, whatever, we often denigrate books like this, all too easily, because we’re simply not comfortable with the fact that there’s a space for romance and simple, bold brushstrokes in young adult literature. In young adult life, really. We laugh at the way people obsess over bands, and find comfort in fandoms, when really these are all just facets of life and have no reason to not be in literature. I will fight you, Britishly, with severe looks and tutting, if you suggest that they should not be.

Malibu Summer is spectacularly unapologetic in doing what it does: there’s romance, several jaw-dropping subplots, some delightfully nutty nuance on Lila’s choice of swimming costume, and I loved it. Yes, certain aspects may have dated at this point, but as a whole the book is wonderful. Nothing makes sense. Everything glows. Everyone is foxy. Everyone gets a job or a hottie or some sort of moral fulfillment. It’s brilliant. I loved it. What a ridiculous, gorgeous, honest book this is.

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I’m going to be a Writer In Residence at the University of Cambridge

I’m trying to be coy but I rather think that title has given it away a tad. So without further ado, I have some rather exciting news to share.

I’m going to be working with the University of Cambridge for six weeks this Autumn, as the A14 Writer In Residence. 

I’m going to be based for three days a week at Madingley Hall, near Cambridge, where I’ll get the fantastic opportunity to work with users of the A14 and help them develop their creative writing, alongside developing my own writing in response to the area. During the residency, the wonderful team at the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education will also be leading several creative writing courses and pop up events. We will also be launching an anthology of all of the best work written during the residency, including a special piece by me.

What all of this means is that if you’ve ever driven the A14, or connected with the landscape around it, we want to hear your story. 

(We really, really do.)

I’m going to share as much as I can with you throughout this process, whether that’s writing, interviews, or behind the scenes information,  because that’s incredibly important to me and also, because, one day you, or your kids, are going to see an advert for a wonderful opportunity and wonder if you can or even should apply. (Here’s the thing. You should. The world needs your voice. I want to hear what you’ve got to say.)

I’m also going to talk a lot about children’s books. 😉

So now’s the time to let me know if you’re in the area, or have connections to the area? Are you a business owner? Do you fancy getting you and your employees on board? Are you a parent? Would you like to get your children involved? Do you commute – work – live anywhere near the A14? Do you work with children in the area? Have you always wanted to write but never known where to begin?

Are you none of the above but know somebody who is?

Please let us know! You can make contact with ICE and myself on Twitter, leave a comment on this post (please let me know if you’d like it to stay private and I won’t publish it), and we’d love to hear from you!

Now, let’s get going .. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Secret Of the Old Clock : Carolyn Keene

The Secret of the Old Clock (Nancy Drew, #1)The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to consider just how old this series is now. The Secret of the Old Clock, the first in the mythic Nancy Drew series, was originally published in 1930 with a substantial revision in 1959. That’s a fair while, even for me who quite enjoys the more ancient side of children’s literature. Yet this edition of The Secret of The Old Clock is fresh, breezy and reads rather as if it could have been written yesterday. There’s still a space for this ferociously girl-positive novel, even when you pause to consider and dissect its Blytonian morals and broad paintbrush approach to society’s morals.

Nancy Drew herself is a delightfully persistent girl with nothing better to do than wander around and solve mysteries, and occasionally deliver papers to her father’s clients. She’s one of those characters that makes a thousand points of sense within a book and yet, outside of it, is so rampantly confusing that you can’t quite figure out where to begin. But you believe her, and this book takes you with her, every step along the way. Yes, The Secret of The Old Clock blithely trots from crisis to crisis and Nancy skips from problem to resolution without barely messing up her hair, but you do not stop reading. It’s kind of fascinating to realise how purely, vividly readable this book still is.

As I said earlier, there’s a space for Nancy Drew in the contemporary world of children’s literature and that space is this: alongside Robin Stevens, Clementine Beauvais, Katherine Woodfine, because Nancy is still awesome. Horrendous, too, in a myriad of ways, but underneath it all, still pretty fabulous.

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Pandora of Parrham Royal : Violet Needham

Pandora of Parrham RoyalPandora of Parrham Royal by Violet Needham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve known about Violet Needham for a while but never really known about her, the specifics, at all. I had a vague idea that she was a contemporary of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham, but then, as I never found her work either in the library, bookshops or charity shops, I sort of placed her in the background. Needham was texture; a name I knew, but didn’t.

A few days ago, I homed in on that familar Girls Gone By spine in a shop, and picked up a copy of Pandora at Parrham Royal. It’s a crazy title, backed up by the equally crazy blurb on the back. Let me directly quote the first three sentences: “When Pandora comes to Parrham Royal she finds many problems and a strange mystery facing her. During the war years she and her mother had lived and worked with a band of guerillas in Greece. After her mother’s tragic death she comes to England to live with her father, whom she barely remembers, and her cousins, whom she does not know at all.” I’ll stop there because, to be frank, there’s little else I can add to that remarkable opening. I’ve read a lot of books from the 40s – 50s, and can confidently say I’ve never read anything quite like this. It’s a book that more than lives up to its synopsis in a sort of remarkably distinct, and stubborn manner. I can see why it wasn’t reprinted, and I can see why it’s relatively unknown today, but my goodness, this is such a strange and fabulous and marked book.

One of its most notable characteristics is the spectre of the war upon it; Pandora, herself, spent the war living and working in a sort of M*A*S*H unit deep in the Greek mountains where she helped nurse soldiers back to life and helped them die in peace. I’m conscious that I’m overusing the word ‘remarkable’ when I describe this book, but there’s very little other words that will suit. I’m thinking in particular of the moment where Pandora is revealed to have an excellent throwing arm – one which is subsequently revealed to have been because the soldiers trained her to throw grenades. I mean – my goodness, this book.

Pandora’s not the only one marked by the impact of the war; one of her young cousins, Mary, suffers a type of post-traumatic stress from being trapped in a bombed out house, whilst the estate of Parrham Royal has half-seceded from the present day and instead found solace in a landscape
where Greek mythology can co-exist alongside wartime stress and strain. It’s a fascinating, complex, challenging book. It’s not an easy read; Needham’s an idiosyncratic wielder of commas, delighting in sentences that start to lead one way then turn sharply into something else. And, if I’m honest, the book’s ending could have done with some fierce editing and somebody going “So Violet, yes, it’s kind of madly magnificent and oddly compelling, but if you could – maybe – just – clarify a few points for me?”.

I don’t know what to make of this book, really, because it’s so fiercely singular. It’s compelling, though, even when it’s less than lucid, and I suspect that’s what’s going to stay with me. Pandora of Parrham Royal is so fiercely determined to be what it is and you can’t help but love that. Even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it thinks it makes sense but really doesn’t, this book is remarkable. There’s really no other word for it.

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The legitimacy of critique : or, who am I?

(This is today’s post – a long read touching on criticism, the internet, and also distant reading. There’s a bit of theory, but I hope it’s worth the effort. If you’d like to read other longer posts in this series, here’s the archive of long reads.)

I have a friend who’s researching narrative autobiography, and every now and then, when we’re out, it’s fun to talk about the great self-questioning nature of her research. Of course all postgraduate research is self-questioning and often far too much so. The question of one’s mental health during research is something I’ve covered elsewhere, but I want to talk here about the legitimacy of critique. Or, to be more specific, the legitimacy of critics.

I’m reaching the end point of my research and am working on making it a springboard into something else. This requires talking to a lot of people, and pitching a lot of ideas, but I’m doing it with the realisation that I am a new person now. Research – this period of frantic question, determined typing, and ferocious passion – has changed me. It’s made me more confident (more argumentative, as my family will point out) and it’s led me towards questioning everything in my sector of children’s literature. I am moving into better and greater things but I will do that reflexively. I don’t leave readers behind. You, and the people I work with, the people I share texts with, all of you will come with me for the ride because literacy – power – doesn’t work when it’s in the singular. This is a collective effort, a collective strength, and the ability to question – to realise – to challenge – and to understand – is vital.

This has never been a blog for me, and my children’s books, it’s a blog for us.

Continue reading “The legitimacy of critique : or, who am I?”

Moon : Britta Teckentrup

Moon: A Peek-Through Picture BookMoon: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you ever wondered why the moon shines in the night-time sky?

There’s something to be said about the idea of grace in picture books. It’s an airy idea to grasp, particularly when rendered in the flatness of paper and print, but it’s something that, in the best picture boos, is most definitely present. Moon is very much that; it’s a delight. Airy, magical, and graceful , it moves around the world, tracing a series of night time scenes set under a silvery waxing, waning and full moon.

And it is graceful, because it’s such a restrained book. The palette is one of shadows, of muted and restricted colours, greens and blues and blacks, a landscape lit up under the light of the moon, and then a sudden flare of colour. There’s a scene that I love, amongst many, where the moon looks down at penguins, and there’s so much life on the page, that even though the palette is carefully, beautifully, modulated, the spread sings. Do you see what I mean about that idea of grace? The balance here between the pattern of the penguins, that downward shift of the land, and the remote, precise, glory of that slender moon. It’s an eloquent spread precisely because of that balance; so genuine, so gently done.

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One of the other notable elements of this book is the use of cut outs. The moon itself  is a cut out space in the page which varies as you read through the book, ultimately moving through a full lunar cycle. It’s subtle work, and manages to move the book into something where you don’t just turn the pages, you go back and forth, loooking at the moon that was and the moon that shall be. I get fulsome about books like this (I know, surprise!) but that’s because they do what they do so well and picture books build readers, and this book burns to be read under the light of a full moon at bedtime.

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This edition is due out on September 7th, and I’m telling you about it now because I think it’s one to get on pre-order, and into your budgetary / lesson / teaching plans. I also think it would be an utter delight for anyone going on a camping holiday, or anybody who’s a little bit afraid of the dark. Where Moon shines (badumtish) is in how it creates this sense of connection; the moon itself may appear slightly differently to everyone but it is the same moon. We’re all on the same planet and oh, isn’t it beautiful.

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My thanks to Little Tiger for the review copy. Yes, I screamed a little over-excitedly when I got it.

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Bad Book Article Bingo

Here’s a little something to turn to when you read that next badly written article about children’s and young adult literature. Cross them off when you find them mentioned!

Vampires Computer Games I blame the parents
Youtube Twilight CLASSICS
I blame the children Television I blame education
“When I was young…” I blame the authors NOBODY READS THE CLASSICS
I blame modern life Hollywood I blame everything

How famous were the Famous Five?

My thanks to Nikesh Shukla for the tweet that unknowingly prompted this pleasant and super nerdly distraction from my thesis …

  • The Famous Five are Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog. humans and dog. For the purposes of this post, we’ll discount Timmy (as much as it pains me) and thus work with individuals.
  • With their respectively privileged circumstances, let’s say everyone has a fairly high life expectancy where they all hit seventy eight or so and thus meet approximately 80,000 people each.
  • (There are other numbers around, but this is based on each of them interacting with 3 new people a day. Which is a big and ambitious number, but I imagine, something that socially thrusting and somewhat irritating Blytonian characters are more than capable of. “Here’s your paper Miss.” “DID I TELL YOU ABOUT THAT TIME ON KIRRIN ISLAND?”)
  • 80,000 people x 4 gobby souls =  320,000 individuals met in total. 
  • The books were published between 1942 and 1962.
  • UK’s population in 1942 = 48 million (ish)
  • UK’s population in 1962 = 55 million (ish)
  • So let’s, roughly, say an average population of 52 million (yes, roughly, I know, shut up, this is the most maths I’ve done in years…).
  • And that through their life the Famous Five meet approximately 320,000 people
  • We can therefore conclude that the Famous Five are Famous for almost 1% of the population of the UK.
  • So not very famous.
  • Ta-dah.

 

(Thank you to the lovely @yayeahyeah for helping me check my maths! I am no mathematician … can you tell?!)

When Dimple Met Rishi : Sandhya Menon

When Dimple Met RishiWhen Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Dimple Met Rishi is a ferociously charming book. It’s also a book I heard about on social media and so, I suspect, might be my reposte to those critics who think that book-talk on social media is the death of everything they hold dear. People talk about books, freely, fascinatingly, and that talk is driven by emotion. In the case of When Dimple Met Rishi, it was a talk that sang of love, all the while accompanied by that cover, that rich, beautiful cover.

And I’m always a little nervous because I don’t want to be the person who, for want of a better phrase, shouts against such a loving discourse. Like what you wish, talk about what you wish, and if you’ve read the book, if you’ve participated in the world, if you’ve quizzed your reaction as much as the thing that you’re reacting too, then fine. Your perspective is warranted, welcome. Necessary, really.

When Dimple Met Rishi is delightful. It is a book that more than easily stands up to the discourse around it, and more so, drives it through having such a genuinely beautiful, eloquent and passionate narrative that slides out from its pages, easy as air. This is a good book. It’s a very charming, distinct, book, which tells a very beautiful, very empathetic love story.

Dimple Shah and Rishi Patel. They’re both attending the same summer school programme for coders, and they are part of a “suggested arrangement”. That is to say, they’re part of an arranged marriage. Rishi, a wild romantic, is on board. Dimple, slightly less so…

When Dimple Met Rishi tracks the development of this relationship; unabashedly so, and it’s just lovely. There’s a slightly fumbly last few pages as Menon brings all of the threads together but really, the threads are so gorgeous and you’re so invested at that point that it’s easy to let that slide and just will them all to get together.

The other thing to note about Menon’s style is that it’s very quietly frank. She moves from discussing a group of ‘Aberzombies’ to theistic semantics, and does so in a tone that is very well handled, sympathetic, and also intensely welcome. In a way, I can’t recommend When Dimple Met Rishi enough really, as it’s such a quietly multi-faceted piece, full of an intense, vibrant heart and what’s not to love about that? It is a good book.

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Listen to the Baby Animals : Marion Billet

Listen to the Baby AnimalsListen to the Baby Animals by Marion Billet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I need to tell you a little bit about this book that, I suspect, might appeal quite immensely to the adults amongst you who have Suffered From Noisy Book Syndrome. Come on, we all know what I mean. Those books that children adore – and rightfully so – but that you’re quite tempted to flush down the toilet after the 365th tinny repetition of ‘Jingle Bells’.

THIS BOOK HAS AN ON AND OFF SWITCH.

IT IS HIDDEN BEHIND A PANEL THAT IS ACCESSIBLE ONLY TO ADULTS AND THEIR DEXTEROUS DRIVEN BY NECESSITY AND AN URGE TO PRESERVE THEIR SANITY FINGERS.

Like, what an amazing thing is that? It’s pretty much the interactive board book equivalent of inventing the wheel and I love it, ferociously, because it’s a gesture towards the parents as much as it is to the children. This isn’t just to turn the noise off; how much of a Gandalf will you look when you turn the noise on? Clever design benefits everyone, and Nosy Crow are so on the ball with this. Immensely.

I wouldn’t be writing this fulsome review of a book based solely on a switch, brilliant as it is, because the book itself needs to stand up and be worthy of interest in its own right. I think sometimes, especially with this age group, we can rely on tricks and *jazz hands*, and the story element itself gets neglected. Luckily enough, Marion Billet has done something quite intensely charming here. It’s a simple journey through a series of scenes, each of which introduces a baby animal with their parent, and the artwork is charming. Round-edged, thick, blunt colours, and a gentle prompt for the reader to encourage interaction.

This is delightful all the way through, from Billet’s fat and thick use of colour, through to the sounds – actually real life yips from puppies and cheeps from chicks (no tinny nonsense here!). I’d also direct you to Billet’s Listen To The Birdswhich features actual recordings of nightingale song and sort of blew my mind a little bit.

I could write about board books like this forever.

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‘Roads’ in children’s books

As I’m sure you’ll know, I have a particular interest in the representation of landscape in children’s books. Landscape tells you everything, and yet it’s often one of the more forgotten elements when people talk about a book. Consider the difference between the two sentences below.

The cat sat on the mat in a field.

The cat sat on the mat in the ocean.

Two entirely, viscerally different scenarios and all of that comes from adding a little bit of context. Location. Landscape. Setting.

I’ve been thinking about roads at the moment, and in particular stories where roads form a key point of the narrative. I don’t want books where roads appear in the background or as a vague element in the illustration, I want them to be centralised within the text. Characters, if you will, in their own right.

So this post is essentially to ask for some help! Do you know of any children’s books – picture book through to YA – that might fit the bill? If you do, please let me know in a comment below and I’ll collate the results into a reading list . Thank you!

I Dare You : Reece Wykes

I Dare YouI Dare You by Reece Wykes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a picture book and honestly? I get a little twitchy when I’m away from them. I get a little nervous, as though a part of me is missing and it’s a part that can only be completed by delightful endpapers and books that give you the world in a handful of words. Picture books are the buttress of our literacies and they make us who we are.

And I Dare You by Reece Wykes is rather, utterly gorgeous. It’s the tale of two bored gorillas playing a game of dares. The game starts in relatively innocuous circumstances before slowly building up as the dares became even more and more outrageous until the final dare – one which I won’t spoil for you here -is posed. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully handled moment that spirals off into somewhere delightfully suggestive in the final endpapers. (A brief note: books that give different front and back endpapers, that little bit behind the cover and before the ‘story’ itself, are perfect. These are immense spaces and Wykes uses them quite perfectly).

There’s a lot to love about this dry, dark, funny book and it comes from both the text and the imagery – as all good picture books should. Textually; there’s a dominant motif of ‘I DARE YOU…’ which begs for the exuberant chant of storytime. There’s also a useful point to be made in I Dare You about the risks of taking dares too seriously and though it’s not explicitly made (thank God), the lesson is very much there. This is one to have around to prompt conversation and to consider; and that’s something very important indeed.

Where I Dare You also shines is in the vibrancy of the art work; it’s a nicely restricted palette of muted greens and the blankness of the page that lets the colour of the two gorillas – blue and orange – sing in cntrast. The gorillas, though, my goodness. Great stylised, suggestive lines – the fluidity of their arms – as they slide subtly into greater and more outlandish dares, always subtly catching each other’s eyes and making sure that they’re noticed. Cleverness isn’t easy in picture books; quiet cleverness is even harder. These gorillas sing with skill. This book is such an unexpected, offbeat joy and the ending is perfect. It’s a lot to ask to pack so much into so little and yet I Dare You does it with spades. And Gorillas.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Learning how to be not afraid

I was asked, the other day, in the middle of a conversation: “what has life as a research student taught you?’.

And my answer was: “it’s taught me to be not afraid.”

I was a little bit surprised as to where that came from and more so, perhaps, in how I phrased it. I think that language reveals a lot about people and that the unguarded utterance, the blurt, the interruption, they say perhaps even more.

I have learnt to be not afraid. Not unafraid; not that, because to be ‘not afraid’ or ‘unafraid’ are two slightly different things. Two fine, finely similar carvings in the tree of life but one with a line that slightly moves to the left instead of the right. Fear, I think, is always there in life. It is pronounced, it is shadowy, but it is almost always there. Doubt. Shadows. Light. Darkness. We don’t live wholly in one space nor the other, but flit between the two like a moth seeking a flame.

You might be asking what this has to do with children’s books; after all, this is a bookish blog to talk about bookish things and bookish things are always worth talking about and understanding in depth. And that’s precisely what being ‘not afraid’ is all about, I think, especially as an adult who engages in children’s literature. I am transgressive. I am other. I am not the child. I am an adult. Does my presence erode the very thing I love? That, perhaps, is a question for another day – but the question for today is this: how do you learn to be not afraid of the things you love?

(A memory from school : a discussion of Snowball from Animal Farm. How did we know he was a pig? Because I have read the book, I wrote, but because I had not referenced the quote we were given, I was marked down)

I have learnt to be not afraid of children’s literature. I don’t think, maybe, that I ever was palpably afraid (and indeed, how difficult to quantify such a sentiment), but I was afraid of the discourse around them. I was conscious of the conversations and questioning of my space within that dialogue. The space. I am, I was, I will be forever bookish, but the bookish world is a difficult space to navigate even then. And if you are not bookish; if you have been halted at one of the barriers that we adults are so keen to place in your way, then how do you navigate that? How do you defy that fear and learn to live and survive and thrive ?

(A memory of a reading competition in school. I read “too fast” for the rules and was quizzed as to whether I was cheating).

I have learnt to be not afraid of thoughts, of thinking, and of stating that opinion. We seek to silence opinion so easily, and to hold onto yours is the greatest thing. I attended a conference recently where we spoke of how a conversation of certain authors became gendered as masculine because only the male authors in this discipline were talked about. And thus because the discourse became gendered as masculine, more male voices were privileged, and others were forgotten and silenced.

I work for children. Not, perhaps, in a literal sense, but they are centred in everything that I do. A consciousness, an awareness, that my subject and its application exists in bedrooms and at bathtimes and at storytimes. That it can be fought over in the pram or on the bus or with your friends discussing who writes the best pony stories. That it is a subject driven by passion, by love, and that to participate within it is a privilege.

I have learnt that the barriers we place in front of literacy are made to be questioned, challenged and – quite often – broken.  And I have learnt that that journey is no fun unless I bring others with me along for the ride. These are your books; our children’s books; their children’s books; humanity’s books.

I have learnt to be not afraid of telling the world of what I love.

 

 

Collecting Sticks : Joe Decie

Collecting SticksCollecting Sticks by Joe Decie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was at a conference the other day where talk turned to the idea of ‘kindness’ and how writing can give an opportunity for emotions to be expressed another way. To shine a light into the darkness. It’s a complex idea and one that I suspect I’m going to be unpicking for a while, but what stuck with me was that idea of kindness. I have been moving closer to it for a while now, seeking it particularly in the children’s books I work with but also elsewhere. That acknowledgement that the world is a complex and challenging and intimidating space and that we are just people trying to do our best in it. Kindness. It’s hard to find in a book, hard to consciously seek it, but when you find it, you find a fat and rich and genuine warmth that sings of love and hope and belief in people in all of their foolish and idiosyncratic ways. Kindness.

And so I came to Collecting Sticks by Joe Decie, a comic book that I’d seen reviewed elsewhere and ordered at the library as a consequence (reviews! they work! colour me stunned!). It is a beautiful, beautiful book and I loved it. It’s a slender, elegant visual note, rendered in a black and white wash and wry notes and asides towards the reader. It’s autobiographical, covering a glamping trip undertaken by Decie’s family, but rather deliciously global in the same way; Decie focuses on the moments at the heart of his panels and lets the white space of the page or the quietly focused background of the panel provide that universal backdrop that means these moments of family and conversation could, perhaps, be in your house right now. It’s delicately done and all rather wonderful.

Seek this out if you’re a little tired with the world, or if you’re looking for something to remind you of the intense potential of people. Collecting Sticks has such a delightful warm rhythm to it that it beats with family life, of closeness and of love. It’s eccentric, funny, and self-conscious, and it’s full of utterly delightful beats. And it is full of kindness. Warmth. Empathy. Love.

This is a beautiful, beautiful little book.

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Thank you Michael Bond

I’m supposed to be editing my thesis, and yet here I am trying to hide my tears because of the death of a man I never met. Michael Bond has died, and I am beyond words and yet words are what I turn to. How do you express your grief? How do you express your grief when you know that it will never, remotely, hit the kindly grace that Michael Bond hit in every sentence?

You begin, perhaps, by saying thank you. It is a simple sort of thing to say and yet one that I keep coming back to over and over again.

Thank you.

Thank you Michael Bond for your stories; for Olga Da Polga, Monsieur Pamplemousse and for Paddington. Thank you for your genuine and kind and warm and rich stories that defied their apparent simplicity to cut deeper, deeper than anybody may have ever expected.

Thank you for marmalade sandwiches. Thank you for making children the centre of your stories, thank you for trusting that that story was worth telling. Thank you for bears. Thank you for overly ambitious guinea pigs. Thank you for Pommes Frites. Thank you for honesty. Thank you for gentleness. Thank you for seeing the best in people, whoever they might be.

Thank you Michael Bond.

We were so very privileged to have known you.

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Losing my marbles (or the day I visited the Miffy Museum in Utrecht)

For those of you who don’t know of her, Miffy is a joy. She is a small white rabbit created by Dick Bruna and I love her greatly. Dear Grandma Bunny, for example, is one of the best picture books that have ever been made and The Little Bird isn’t far off. Miffy is one of the points that I include on my 54 places to begin when thinking about children’s and young adult literature, and I hope that by now you’re starting to realise how important Dick Bruna was. His art was precise, beautiful and incredibly eloquent. We are a poorer world without him, but we are so, so lucky to have had him.

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Born in Utrecht, and beloved by the city, Bruna and his work are now memorialised in every inch of the town. From a pair of familiar ears peeking out from a shop window, through to traffic lights that offer red bunnies for stop and green for go, Utrecht is rightfully proud of its artistic son.

I took a day out from a week in Amsterdam to go over and visit; and oh, it was glorious. This blog is a safe space to confess such things and so I confess this to you: I lost my marbles and I loved it. There is something madly joyful about being unabashed in your loves, and when I sat in the reconstruction of Bruna’s studio in the top floor of the Centraal Museum, I cried.

bruna miffyThere is something very religious about this sort of thing for me; this travel to pay tribute to somebody, and it’s not a sensation that I can easily verbalise, but I can recognise. It comes when I love something and I do, frankly, love what Dick Bruna did for the world. He drew sensitively and smartly and warmly and to be a part of that story, even at this late and painful moment when you know it can’t continue, is a gift.

If you’d like to visit Utrecht on a similar pilgrimage, here’s some useful information for you. It is very easily accessible from Amsterdam station (literally half an hour train ride and then about twenty minutes walk from the sation). There are two points you’ll want to go to, the Miffy Museum and the Centraal Museum where Dick Bruna’s studio is in situ until 2025. You can buy a combined ticket for the two. The Miffy Museum itself is, I’ll grant, somewhat scant on the museum aspects but it’s oddly joyous to see a horde of little children racing around and enjoying themselves in that intense, whole-body, way that little children do. It’s a beautiful tribute and one that, in its way, left me as moved as visiting the recreation of Bruna’s studio did.

Here’s to you Dick Bruna, and thank you for your work. You made my heart break, you made it whole, and you made that happen with such unconscious finesse. You were – you are – you always will be – a gift. Thank you.

Piglettes : Clémentine Beauvais

PiglettesPiglettes by Clémentine Beauvais

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m always a little wary when I get offered a book to review that’s been written by somebody I know in real life. One of the things that I’m very deliberate on is that when I review, it comes from a place of honesty. And sometimes, I get concerned that that place might be affected by the people I know and because I am British and genetically trained for introversion, I get a bit conscious of that and so, every now and then, dither. So, I shall dither no more and simply tell you this: I’m lucky enough to know Clémentine in real life and she is as generous a scholar as she is as wonderful a writer. Piglettes is a joy and it is ferocious and particular and vivid and wonderful. It is a wonderful, wonderful book and it should be very much on your radar, my bookish friends.

Mireille, Astrid and Hakima have won a competition that nobody really wants to win. They are officially the three ugliest girls in their school and, because this is a competition that happens entirely online, there’s nothing that the school can do about it. It is something that the girls have to deal with on their own – or, together. The three of them band together in their adversity and decide that they’re going to cycle to Paris and gatecrash a garden party ran by the French president – a party that each girl has their own particular reasons for being there. It’s a trip powered by sausages, cheese, and cycles and it is glorious. I loved this. I loved it so much. There are moments in it that had me in raptures and moments that had me in tears; Beauvais writes with such nuance that this book gives you everything. Cheese. Lessons on body image. Friendship. Love. Sausages. It is a delight.

One of the big things about this bok is also how it treats some deep psychological issues. It’s easy to see it all about the sparking wit and humour of the narrator, Mireille, but there’s such a depth to it. Her wit and her humour comes because that’s how she’s learnt to survive and, in a few painfully beautiful asides, this becomes revealed as she wills her fellow ‘piglettes’ to not cry and show how upset they are. It’s painful, it’s gorgeous, it’s beautiful. And my god, the food in this book is something else. There is a special place in my heart for young adult books that dance with joy over sausage recipes. What an utter treat this book is. I want to wrap my arms around it and never let it go.

My (immense) thanks to Pushkin for a review copy. It’s due out in July. I suggest you make a note in your diary.

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Talking Empathy with Sita Brahmachari

I am immensely proud to be able to share a guest post with you today. I won’t ever deny that I’m picky about this sort of thing but that’s because I know you and I take this seriously. Children’s books are important, statuesque things and even more so in the frail and friable world we live in today. It’s with great pleasure then that I bring you this guest post, on Empathy Day, from Sita Brahmachari.

The topic of empathy is a subject close to the heart of Brahmachari’s new novel, Tender Earth, and it’s something which has characterised much of her other work. I have a world of time for the eloquent, graceful and kind Kite Spirit, Artichoke Hearts and Jasmine Skies and look forward to reading and reviewing Tender Earth in due course.

A final note: I was lucky enough to hear Sita speak at a conference a few years ago. I still remember her generous and inspirational words. My thanks to her for this.

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Tender Earth by Sita Brahmachari

‘A coming of age story for young protesters everywhere.’

Tender Earth is endorsed by Amnesty International UK because it illuminates the importance of equality, friendship and solidarity, and upholds our right to protest against injustice.’

Tender Earth is one of Julia Eccleshare’s picks of the month

‘A sharply observed and warm-hearted story about change and transition in adolescence, Tender Earth also carries a powerful message to all young readers about tolerance, integration and the need to stand up for what you believe in.’ Julia Eccleshare/ Good Reads

June 13th sees the first national empathy day and it feels to me like we need to see and feel greater levels of empathy on that day and every day. As a mother I worry about the impact of the often heartless, reactive words and actions that young people hear and experience every day. I have a thought a great deal about this when writing Tender Earth. How are young people navigating their way through the trials and conflicts of this time? How can we help them?

Many characters in Tender Earth feel that the things they hear and see on the news, as well as exchanges on social media, lack a common humanity but there are also moments when my characters step inside the shoes of others and get an insight into each other’s way of life. Sometimes these insights begin with a small conversation at a bus stop or in a school corridor but they can be like a door opening just a little crack to let you in …. But because we are inquisitive, questioning beings we want to open that door wider so that we can see and experience what’s behind it and try to understand another’s experience no matter how hard that might be.

‘Laila I really want to invite you to where I live, but it’s nothing like your house! I don’t ask people back usually,’ Pari says as if that’s a good reason not to invite me.

‘I don’t care what it’s like’

‘Actually…ever.’

‘What… you’ve never had anyone back from school, not even in primary?’

Pari shakes her head.

In Tender Earth each character who feels true empathy for another finds themselves having to ask some searching questions of themselves about what they can and should do to help each other.

World events impact on Laila, Kez, Pari and their community just as they impact on you and I and they are stunned and saddened by some of the hateful actions of people in the their own city, but the thing about empathy is it demands an action no matter how small or seemingly insignificant this action might seem to the world. Even a small action, like laying a flower on a memorial for the children of Manchester, lighting a candle or a minute silence can be a powerful reminder of our human ability to feel deep empathy for each other.

The fact that through stories, through fiction and non-fiction we can step into another person’s life even when they may be so different to ourselves is something that gives me hope in Tender Earth that young people might change the world for the better.

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In the words of the late Jo Cox MP

“We are far more united than the things that divide us”

The artichoke charm that appears in all three of my Levenson stories Artichoke Hearts, Jasmine Skies and Tender Earth is for me an empathy symbol and a metaphor for the process of writing. The outside leaves symbolises the guarded, protected layers we all often show to the world, it’s only in unpeeling the layers by getting to know someone’s story that we get to the softer more expressive heart of a person and in discovering that heart we ourselves are moved and changed to act differently.

If you are looking for articles and information about working with young people to extend empathy or sharing where young people can go to explore this further. Here are some links that I used in my research…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/23/psychopathic-murderers-manchester-attack-terrorists

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/jo-cox-maiden-speech_uk_5762de5be4b03f24e3db840f

http://www.empathylab.uk/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/virtue-in-the-media-world/201507/news-stories-the-power-empathy

https://www.amnestyusa.org/about-us/who-we-are/local-groups/

https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/jan/12/books-breed-tolerance-children-read-errorist-attacks-paris

www.sitabrahmachari.com

My Name is Not Refugee : Kate Milner

My name is not RefugeeMy name is not Refugee by Kate Milner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this increasingly complex and difficult world we live in, I’ve been looking for books that help to explain and support younger readers. They have often proven of immense value to myself and the dual appeal of texts like this to both adult and child cannot be ignored. Step towards children’s books if you’re struggling to find answers; there’s something to be said for the pure poetics and the stylistic truths that can exist in this space.

I was delighted to come across My Name Is Not Refugee, a picture book which tells the story of an unnamed mother and son who need to leave their home. As we go along their journey, the text occasionally turns towards the reader and asks a direct question of them: “Can you speak more than one language?” or “What would you take?” It’s a simple technique and yet an incredibly potent one. Books like this thrive not only on the story that they provide but also on the discussion they provoke. I was very pleased to discover an excellent teacher’s resource kit for My Name Is Not Refugee and would direct you there as a matter of haste.

Milner’s great strength comes in her restraint; the text is poised and quiet, simply rendering the events with a sort of matter of fact air. Being a refugee is scary but also “quite exciting too”, yet she doesn’t hold back from showing the moments beyond those words. Some of the most powerful spreads in the book show great scenes beyond the text; swathes of tents in the distant, or a host of people sleeping on mats on the floor. What makes these even more beautiful is how Milner uses white space; many of the images are wrapped in white space, and so become evocative, painful little moments. It’s the detail, really, of a big journey that’s almost too big to understand, and it’s gracefully done.

There’s a lot to love about this incredibly deft and sensitively told picture book. Bring this towards little people who are asking questions – and bring it towards those little people who aren’t. My Name Is Not Refugee has this great, great range of appeal and I have a lot of time for it, I really do.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The New School at Scawdale : Angela Brazil

The New School at ScawdaleThe New School at Scawdale by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a lot of time for Angela Brazil and The New School at Scawdale is a very distinctively Brazil book. It drifts rather pleasantly from set piece to set piece but doesn’t really do much with what it has. Back in the day Angela would have been all ‘here’s a Nazi spy!’ and ‘here’s a long lost relative!’ and ‘hey, here’s a mysterious castle’ or some such, but The New School at Scawdale simply moves on.

None of this is, however, to say that it’s a bad book. Far from it, The New School At Scawdale is almost the epochal Brazil text. It’s jolly, and vibrant, and the girls roar with character. There’s that distinctive reluctance to use the word ‘said’ – characters frown, expostulate, ejaculate, quaver, demur and wail (p110, all) and my vocabulary shoots up immensely as a result. There’s that brief bit where we all bang on about Nature For A Bit, and there’s that other brief bit where An Accident Is Swiftly Averted. There’s also some curiously distinct elements that sing with detail; the most notable of these is a visit for two girls to the BBC which is rendered with a knowledge that must come from a real life experience. It’s an odd note in this text that’s almost twenty or so years past where it should be, and yet it’s a note that makes this almost more real. It’s rather intriguing in its own tiny way and yet, once it’s done, it’s very definitely done.

The New School at Scawdale is a treat, but it’s nowhere near her best. It’s pleasant, it’s jolly, and it’s lovely but really it’s just a year in the life of Aileen Carey. The incidents are beautifully written, and the characterization is fiercely vigorous, but it’s not brilliant. But then, even when she wasn’t brilliant, Brazil was still sort of amazing.

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Things A Bright Girl Can Do : Sally Nicholls

Things a Bright Girl Can DoThings a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been sitting on this review for a week or so, in that gloriously selfish phase of having read a Good Book but not wanting to talk about it. Sometimes I want to wallow in that sensation and just hold it tight to myself, that feeling of having read something transformative, big, honest and real. The events of the past few days have, however, reminded me of the importance of talking about this sort of thing and so here I am; earlier than I intended, because this book is not due out until September, but I think now’s the right time to tell you about it.

Sally Nicholls is a joy. She has this great gift of story; and so I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Things A Bright Girl Can Do. It’s Suffragettes, it’s history, it’s bravery, it’s love. It’s gorgeous, really, and it made me so utterly possessive of it. It follows the stories of three different girls as they work to realise their political and personal views. They fall in love, out of love, and the relationships which underpin this novel are beautiful and sensitively told. Honestly too; there’s no easy racing off into the sunset here, everything has to be earned.

I loved this book. It’s so determined and genuine, and Nicholls tells the story with such a straightforward honesty that it’s hard to not get sucked in. It’s a perspective that I haven’t read enough of and so I also welcome this. To add to that, I’m also very grateful for the rise of overtly political and politicised young adult fiction. Things A Bright Girl Can Do doesn’t sugarcoat the process of becoming politically active, but it does render it as an absolutely vital experience.

And it believes in teenagers, young people. It believes in their chance and their ability to make a difference. Get this on pre-order now, and when it comes shelve it with something like Troublemakers, and let them work their respective magics.

As I said at the start of this review, I didn’t really want to talk about Things A Bright Girl Can Do because I was selfish over it. Possessive. But here’s the thing, that’s what a good book gives you. You have that moment with it and then you realise that, as great and vital as that moment is, it’s time to share it with the world because you can’t let a book that’s as good as this go unheard.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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I Have No Secrets : Penny Joelson

I Have No SecretsI Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this potent and markedly well-told thriller, not in the least the vibrant delight that is the narrator Jemma. Unable to communicate, yet possessed of a quick-thinking and fiercely distinct personality, Jemma now needs to communicate more than ever. Somebody has been murdered – and somebody’s confessed to Jemma that they did it.

Much of the strength of this book comes from Jemma; she’s a delight. Funny, warm and brave, she’s the centre of her foster family and the secrets that they hold. She witnesses her foster siblings fight their own battles, and upon the news of a personal revelation for herself, she starts to take some immense steps towards independence. It’s difficult to not root for her; She’s so well-drawn and convincing that I Have No Secrets races by.

I was in a bit of a reading dip before this, having just read a ton of things with hideous opening chapters, but I couldn’t put this down. Isn’t that cliche? Yet all cliches come from fact and in the case of I Have No Secrets it’s true. I couldn’t put it down. It was refreshing, and sort of wonderful even in how it dealt with some very dark and complex issues. To put the murder itself aside, both Olivia and Ben, Jemma’s foster-siblings, face some complex troubles of their own.

Thematically, it’s a little Wonder and a little Jacqueline Wilson, and as much as it pains me to do that compare and contrast thing, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise with this book because it’s in doing that sort of comparative analysis that you realise how this book is something furiously singular, immensely readable and something quite valuable indeed.

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Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979 : Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a delight.

The second of two boarding school histories that I’ve breezed through recently, Terms & Conditions is an absolute delight. The first – Alex Renton’s Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class was a much more different experience, focusing as it did upon the male experience of boarding school life and wrapping this around his own experiences. I found Stiff Upper Lip a dry read; interesting, yet I skipped over a substantial chunk of it.

Terms & Conditions, however, wasn’t anywhere near long enough. I loved it. I devoured it. I suspect my different reaction to the two books is partially due to my own research interests and angle of interest, yet Maxtone Graham writes with a sheer verve and narrative drive that can’t be denied. This is an honest, warm-hearted, genuine and sympathetic book.

Ending just before the popular arrival of the ‘duvet’, that blessed piece of night-time warmth, Maxtone Graham ranges through a series of tightly structured chapters constructed around the recollections of her interviewees. Being a big children’s literature fan, I was delighted to find that Judith Kerr functioned among these. What’s great is that Maxtone Graham admires these women that she works with and talks to, and she admires them openly. It’s so interesting to me, this complex ideal of the boarding school woman – of women, generally – because as they grow older, they are expected to be less visible. Less forthright. Yet as Maxtone Graham comes to articulate, these are the women that have remarkable stories – ranging from being pummeled outside in the dark as part of a new girl ritual, through to spending the night on the Kings Road with boys and making it back to the convent school in time for morning. I welcome anybody who works to make these stories visible, I really really do.

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“Not just a children’s book”

I attended a talk the other week, one of many that came all at once as these things to do, and whilst I was there I took some notes. I take notes often at this sort of thing, because my brain often reaches a point of fullness that means I can’t take anything else in. I write the words down, let them sit there on the page, and then I come back to them later and reread them. I don’t often think about what I’m writing, but sometimes a phrase hits me and I am blinded by it.

“Not just a children’s book,” they said, before moving onto another point. The phrase was throwaway, careless, and I suspect that the ramifications of what it meant were barely considered. But it’s a phrase I hear often at talks, and it is one that has come to concern me.

Language, you see, is a precise and clean thing. We make it inept, we make it fuzzy, because we are inept and fuzzy individuals. We bring a thousand different interpretations to a word because we have lived lives. Stories. A ‘cat’ is a ‘cat’ but it’s never just a cat. That ‘just’ is almost redundant there, do you see how? A cat is a cat but it’s never a cat.

Nothing is ever just anything.

A children’s book is never just a children’s book because it’s that ‘just’ that colours the object with a sense of distaste. It’s an apologetic just, an excuse to escape the label of ‘children’s book’ and to apologise for what that might mean for the content of the talk. But to do so, to explain that your topic is not ‘just’ a children’s book implicitly denies the value of the term itself.

Am I about to try and define what children’s literature is? I’m not sure. A part of me wants to slide towards that age old cheat of defining what something is not; a definition of exclusions and oppositions. But perhaps I can cheat that desire as well and instead tell you that quite often, I simply think of the idea of an intended reader. An intended reader is that fuzzy individual for whom a book is intended to be read by. For children’s books, that intended reader is a child. And note the looseness of that phrase; intent, child – they are immense terms and one’s which I have used deliberately lightly. What is a child? What is intent? What is language? Do we even exist right now?

Excuse my hyperbolic self-questioning, but I’m trying to make a point. Labels come from people as much as they do from the language itself. A word is a half-formed thing, to paraphrase Eimear McBride, and without the reader to provide some form of concretization (cf. Wolfgang Iser), the thing remains unformed. Does a word make a sound if it falls in the forest?

So: to children’s books, and the way they are not ‘just’ children’s books. It is that just that rankles with me; an individually placed value judgement on that which follows. Not just a “children’s book”. But what is? What isn’t? How are you so uncomfortable with that book being intended for a juvenile readership that you feel the need to absolve it of that labelling? What do you do to the books that you leave behind?

In writing about the mystery genre within children’s literature, Adrienne Gavin and Christopher Routledge suggest that “perhaps because adulthood is a mystery to children and childhood has become a mystery to adults and neither can ever ‘solve’ the other state, mystery has a particularly strong presence in children’s texts.” (2001 : 2). It’s a quote I’ve been wrestling with for my thesis, but one that holds relevance here. If a book is “not just a children’s book”, then that’s a perspective that comes from adulthood. It suggests the awareness of some sort of other book that may exist, a wider taxonomical understanding of literature, and also the awareness that you – as an adult – are supposed to not read this books.

To call something “not just a children’s book” is a deleterious act of adult appropriation that damages not only the very idea of children’s books but also, indelibly, the subsequent critique of them.

Like I said, I find it problematic.

 

 

 

 

The Hate U Give : Angie Thomas

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is remarkable.

The debut novel from Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is a ferociously crafted and brilliant and startling novel. It’s hard to not exhaust myself of superlatives for it but it is something else. I’m often a little nervous about those books that get a lot of good press because I don’t want to be the one who goes ‘actually..’. I really don’t. I don’t review to shoot things down, I review books for their bookish ways. For what they can say and do and how they say and do it.

Page two. That’s how long it took for me to know that I was going to review this book; that’s the moment when I read a sentence so utterly perfect that reader, I stared at it and marvelled at how wonderful a thing language is. I stared at the sentence in the way you do when you read a lot of things, when reading is your quote unquote job and you have seen it all before but you have never seen this. The Hate U Give gave me something new, something so fiercely beautiful and resolute that I’ve had difficulty stepping away from it. Thomas’ use of language is immense. Firmly, fiercely, immense.

Starr lives in two worlds; high school and home, poles apart. When she is the only witness to a shooting, those barriers start to crumble and Starr must figure out how to live her life and how to find justice. I read this, I devoured it, and it made me think of that maxim often trotted out in creative writing classes. Write the story you need to tell. Not the story you think people want to hear, nor the story that you think people might be able to sell, but the story you need to tell. And that’s what Thomas achieves here; every word cracks with fury and pain and beauty. It is remarkable. It should be epochal.

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Shocks for the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Shocks for the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #29)Shocks for the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a point somewhere around Peggy that the Chalet School series seems to start to mark time a little. The novelty of the Island setting has worn off, a batch of eminent faces have been shipped off to the Oberland and Canada respectively, and so we’re left with a school that doesn’t quite have the right feel to it because it’s waiting for the status quo(s) to be restored. But then there’s Emerence, and everything comes back right again.

Shocks is the debut of Emerence Hope, a little “firebug” from Australia, and she’s obnoxious and brilliant. I’d forgotten how much I loved her, but then, really, she does everything that she does in this book and it’s a delight. It’s so easy for Brent-Dyer to present girls who adapt and thrive, but she steps back from this with Emerence. She’s allowed to be hideous; and it’s interested to read this sanctioned bad behaviour against somebody like Eustacia who, simply, isn’t allowed to get away with anything remotely similar without being badly physically punished. (I adore Eustacia, she is my secret star of the series).

One of the great things about having so many characters removed from the forefront is that it allows some others to step up. There’s some lovely character work here for Jack Maynard and Captain Christie respectively, whilst the book also contains one of my favourite moments in the entire series. It’s a moment of ferocious particularity but one which has always stuck with me. I won’t spoil it for you but suffice to say it was the first thing to teach me what tautology was. Vocabulary tuition! Plus a lifelong concern about dying from hiccups! What a series this is!

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Troublemakers : Catherine Barter

TroublemakersTroublemakers by Catherine Barter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to write this review. I loved Troublemakers but I didn’t know how to write about it. It’s a curious thing, sort of not quite what I expected it to be and somehow more than that. It’s a big book. It’s thick and edible and layered with a thousand different notes, and all of them hook into you and don’t let you go. I loved it. I don’t know how to write about it, so maybe I’ll try and give you something different than my normal reviews.

But let’s begin with the blurb. Alena lives with her half-brother, Danny, and his boyfriend, in the east end of London. She has never known her mother who died when she was a baby. Danny and Nick are her family. Danny, though, has taken a job with a local politician who’s aiming to be London Mayor; somebody is terrorising the local area by leaving bombs in supermarkets, and Alena’s suddenly desperate to know more about her past. Her family.

This is a coming of age story, and it’s a yell into the world, that moment when you walk to the edge of the beach, dip your toes in the sea and yell out into the blue beyond that you are here that you matter that you exist. Troublemakers is an affirmation; a defiance, but it’s also somehow more than that. It’s like Sunday Lunch with the people you love, those lunches where you know everything almost a moment before it happens because you know these people. It’s about family, forgiveness, foolishness, love. The shape of people. The mistakes of people. The love. The cup of tea, the feet up on the sofa, the recognition of what makes you you. It’s a little bit Jenny Downham, a little bit Annabel Pitcher, but it’s very much itself. It’s feelings, and fear and friendships. Coffee. Hope. Hate. Joy.

I still don’t know how to write about this book, but oh I know how to write about what it made me feel.

My thanks to Andersen for a review copy.

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Courage Mountain, or the one where Heidi falls in love with Charlie Sheen

It’s been a while since I read Heidi but I have some fairly solid memories of it. Mountains. Goodness. Goats. That sort of jazz. It was with interest then that I came across a film called Courage Mountain which was a sequel to Heidi, but involving an Italian boarding school and the advent of World War One.  Naturally, I watched it to save you all the bother….

(spoilers ahead!)

Now boarding school stories are one of my greatest love (this might not come as a surprise to many of you but I thought it was worth putting out there) and this one starred the wonderful Leslie Caron and, uh, Charlie Sheen. As Peter. Peter the goatherd with whom Heidi has a romance, and I can’t quite write a sentence that conveys how much my toes curl at remembering this. Sheen can be good. He can be blinding. He is woefully miscast in this role and it’s quite the thing to hear Heidi in her cut-glass English accent chatting to Sheen, about four hundred times her age and size with his American accent wholly intact, on the mountain surrounded by goats. And there’s panpipes. Did I mention that? Lots of miming to panpipes, and when Charlie Sheen gives Heidi his panpipes to remember him by, reader, I died.

So. Heidi has money now and has been invited to an Italian boarding school run by an Frenchwoman who was bought up in England (or something, there is a terribly convoluted line to explain Caron’s accent) and she must decide whether to go or stay. Naturally Heidi and her Beautiful Hair That Never Loses Volume leave. She encounters cockney urchins in the train station (there is a lot you just need to accept in this film), and ends up at the school. Heidi is an Innocent Urchin and thus comes across the staples of these stories; the mean girl, the girl-who-will-be-friends, and then Leslie Caron leads all the girls in skipping across the verandah and Heidi wigs out glamorously at the gramophone because She Is An Innocent Urchin With Beautiful Hair.

Oh I forgot, whilst at the station Heidi comes across the panto villain of the piece who is nattily dressed and practically twiddles his moustache at her (Not a euphemism….).

The school section is relatively brief, before the house is requisitioned by the Italian Army who throw in the odd ‘Signora’ because They Are Italian. Most of the girls are sent home save a handful whose parents or Noble Mountain Grandfathers can’t be reached. Heidi and her fellow Beautiful Haired Urchins With Artful Smears of Grease end up at the workhouse where the moustachiod villain and his paramour (sister? Factotum? lover? the film is very unclear about this) put all of the urchins at work making soap. Heidi glowers at everyone (and never once loses the volume in her hair) before escaping down the drain with her school friends. The other urchins are basically forgotten about at this point.

This is the bit where the film gets spectacular (more so). Heidi points at some mountain in the distance and goes “That’s Switzerland over there” and so the girls decide to go there. On foot. Through World War One.Whilst being chased by the moustachiod villain from one side, and noble Charlie Sheen coming to save the day from the other. It’s handy, really, that there’s only one mountain between Switzerland and that Sheen’s a bit of a dab hand on his skis (the ski sequence is, in itself, outstanding. It’s a James Bond rip off done by Channel Five…).

Everything ends up well though! Charlie Sheen skis the villain off the mountain, Heidi and him get together, my toes curl so far that they practically fall off my feet, and Leslie Caron ends up shacking up with Noble Grandfather and the Urchins Are All Safe And Their Hair Is Spectacular.

Here’s the trailer. It’s pretty much the whole film in two minutes.  I hope you enjoy every single thing about it.

 

“Their climb to freedom will be their greatest adventure”

 

 

 

Pigeon P.I : Meg McLaren

Pigeon P.I.Pigeon P.I. by Meg McLaren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When it comes to picture books, I always, always have to talk about the complexity of them. They are hard beasts to get right, they are even harder beasts to do well. Pigeon P.I is something quite oddly wonderful, a sort of mashup of gumshoe detective drama with a lot of bird puns and something quite delightful in the process. Forgive me for simply reciting the blurb in whole but I think it does the business better than anything I can

CASE No. 621 – Feathered friends are going missing all over town, but private investigator Murray likes the quiet life … until a little bird tells him a story the famous Pigeon P.I cannot ignore.

There’s such a lot to enjoy in this book from the wry beginning of “Business was slow / just the way I liked it” through to the exuberant flurry of detail that dots nearly every page and in substantial amounts. Some of the more specific puns may require explaining (“Privet Eye – Gardening Solutions”) but it’s a delight to pick them out and this is a book that will sing with repeated reading (“Two beaks are better than one”). As Murray starts to work his way through the case, he comes into contact with a range of individuals – plucky canaries, furtive pigeons, and the reveal of the eventual kingpin is a delight. It’s a soaring, intense, bold double spread and one that stamps the book with such a moment that you can’t help but stop and drink it in.

I’d definitely place this a little towards the older edge of picture books, somewhere around Elys Dolan and Sarah Bee because of the dense detail and puns. It’s such a smart and witty book, and it’s one that gives different endpapers! Endpapers are so important! The reader gets a guide to investigation at the start of the book – take quiet snacks, and not ‘quiet but impractical’ snacks such as jelly; whilst the end of the book has tips on advanced detection featuring Duck Tracy and Sherstork Holmes. A delight. A bold, mad, glorious delight.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Calling – Endgame #1 : James Frey

The Calling (Endgame, #1)The Calling by James Frey

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

 

 

The reviewer sat down. She opened up her laptop. She navigated to Goodreads. She typed in the title. She found the book. She rated it one star.
She paused.
She had not enjoyed The Calling. She had found it somewhat challenging, complex, problematic.
It had begun promisingly; a good looking book is a good looking book.
It speaks of money, cash, investment.
Hope. Ambition.
But this book had not provided hope.
Or ambition.
It was not that the narrative was problematic. It had reminded her oddly, confusedly, strangely of The Amazing Race. It was The Amazing Race meets The Hunger Games and, in a way, she could deal with that. She could even deal with the paragraphs that seemed to be averse to indents, to the stilted and problematic third person, or to text that used one adjective when three could do, because this looked like it could be an interesting book.
But The Calling was not an interesting book.
It was a bad book.
She began to read parts of it out to the people she lived with, asking them to share in paragraphs that read like the literary equivalent of a hernia. A moon was 21 degrees above the horizon. Cars drove through countries and each and every country was named. Characters were bored, and the causes of their boredom were listed for the next five thousand paragraphs.
This book read, she realised, like somebody who was trying to hit word count.
Like word count, the count of words, the word of counts.
And she liked some of it, even though she was appalled by how badly it was written. How poorly it was scribed. How problematically it was inked.
But mostly she disliked it.
She did not normally review books like this, but The Calling had frustrated her. Annoyed her. Made her disgruntled.
It was in the distrust of the story for itself. There was a good story underneath it all, she realised, but it was so desperately cloaked with something else. Something that wanted to dazzle and spin. Something that felt it necessary to point out every little piece of detail in the scene. Something that could squeeze thirteen hundred words out of a person standing up.
Something that felt a little bit frantic and a whole lot of unnecessary.
She did not normally review books like this.
It did not feel constructive.
But The Calling had made itself an exception.

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The Yellow Room : Jess Vallance

The Yellow RoomThe Yellow Room by Jess Vallance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t know what to expect from this. I picked it up because of the cover, and for some reason came home from the library with a handful of yellow books. Perhaps colour-based selection will be my new method when I’m not sure what to get; after all, it worked perfectly here. This is a hell of a book and it is surprising. It’s not often that I get to use that about a thriller because we are so familiar with what they do. We are trained to look for twists and turns and lies and deceit but sometimes a book just throws itself in a direction that you don’t expect. And when it does it well, oh that’s a good moment indeed.

The Yellow Room is outstanding.

The central protagonist, Anna, received a letter from her father’s girlfriend, Edie. It is unexpected: her father is dead, and Edie would like to meet her. The two start to form a close relationship and Edie provides much of the mothering that Anna lacks and needs – her own mother is preoccupied with work, and their relationship is deeply fractured. Yet Edie has problems and secrets of her own;, and secrets always have a way of being found out…

Vallance’s writing is calm and controlled and wickedly strong. It’s hard to write something like this because the temptation is to strew it with Conscious Things That You Should Pay Attention To. Vallance doesn’t do this; she laces her work with a sort of conscious believeablity throughout and everything that is within it is sort of normal and okay and then, when the shifts come and Things Happen, you sort of can’t process it because it’s so out of the blue and yet, in a way, it was there all along. That is an awful sentence but it’s the nearest I can come towards conveying the experience of this book. The last third, in particular, is vital and tense and brilliant.

I also loved how Vallance didn’t seek the easy way out. I’m starting to cleave towards these texts that treat every individual within them as human. Adults, child, all of them. No character left behind, no character placed in just as a cardboard cut out. Everyone has motivation, depth and when they do the things they do it is understandable. It is sympathetic, even when they are awful and unconscionable things. Give me depth, and I will follow you to the moon and back. I really will.

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The State of Grace : Rachael Lucas

The State of GraceThe State of Grace by Rachael Lucas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grace, the titular heroine of The State of Grace, has Aspergers. She also has a horse, and a boy that she sort of likes but doesn’t quite know how to act with. Coupled with this her dad is on long work trips overseas, her mother is starting to act weird, and her sister has secrets of her own, there’s a lot going on. Throw in a horse, some nice little nerdy in-jokes, and you’ve got quite a charming story driven by an intense sense of heart. I liked The State Of Grace. It’s a little messy, a little tumbly, a little disjointed, but unerringly driven by a sense of love and a determination to let Grace tell her story.

I really appreciate Lucas for centring Aspergers within this. People look for reflections of themselves within literature, and even more so when it comes to children and young adult. Whether that’s a drive driven by the adults or the young readers themselves is a debate for another time, but it happens. It’s one of the most consistent questions I get asked, irrespective of context. “Do you have a book about…?” Where The State Of Grace shines is both in its frankness of discussing Aspergers but also in the additional material at the back which covers more about the issue.

I also really loved the horse element in this. Grace has an Arab called Mabel, and that’s something we don’t often see in contemporary young adult. Her relationship with Mabel is sensitively told, and gives Grace both a sense of power and responsibility. It comes towards the fore at the end of the book and though I won’t spoil the incident in question, the reaction on Grace’s part is immensely true to life.

Tonally, The State of Grace has a lot to pay back towards the old Pullein-Thompson books but also towards a modern sort of romance vibe. It’s very genuine and somewhat innocent in feel, but really sort of determinedly charming with that. I liked this. Also, on a slightly tangential note, I would definitely welcome more male representation in texts of this nature. I really hope The State Of Grace signifies the start of that movement and of that discussion.

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Talking Mobile Fictions, Digital Storytelling and Hairy Maclary with Alastair Horne

Forgive me resharing this, particularly if you subscribe to both my blogs, but I think this deserves it. I interview Alastair Horne regarding his PhD research ; we touch on digital storytelling, apps for children, tips for authors on social media, his favourite children’s book and Hairy Maclary. It’s so worth a read and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Big boots and adventures

I’m privileged to be able to share something special with you today. This is an interview I did with Alastair Horne about his PhD research. Alastair is looking at the role of digital devices in fiction and how they’re affecting the relationships between author, text and reader. His topic really struck home for me because children’s literature has a relatively uneasy relationship with the digital device. It’s a relationship that I’m not sure should be as uneasy as it is but it is uneasy nevertheless. You only have to look at the fairly regular headlines that talk about children being addicted to screens to see the sort of dialogue that I’m referring too. 

That’s what drove me to get in touch with Alastair, alongside a general intrigue for his research topic, and I’m immensely grateful to him both for saying yes and also giving me some incredibly thoughtful answers. I…

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Wuthering Heights : Emily Brontë

Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s odd, sometimes, how a book holds a consciousness in your brain before you have ever read a single page of it. Wuthering Heights is embedded somewhere in there, somewhere near Kate Bush and somewhere near the moorland that turns to grey and steel on an Autumn morning.

A while back I read my first ever Jane Austen. I have now read my first ever Brontë. These aren’t books that sit comfortably within my world; I am somebody who reads a lot, but I, as everyone does, have my grooves. So I went to Emily and to Wuthering Heights, prompted somewhat by To Walk Invisible in the hope to finally read a Brontë and to step out of those grooves once more. It’s good to do that every now and then.

So.

How long can I put off telling you what I thought about this book?

Everyone is horrible. Everyone is horrible and Northern with a capital By ‘Eck (I am Northern and stuggled substantially with the dialect of the novel), and everyone just gets horribler (forgive me, but it’s the only way I can express it) throughout the novel. It’s not an easy read. It also somewhat baffles me as to how I had grouped Heathcliff in ‘Fictional Attractive Gentlemen Whom Everyone Has A Crush On’ because he too is hideous. And the dog thing! I admit that I got to a point with Wuthering Heights where I grabbed the nearest person to me and said, “Do you know what’s gone on now?” and told them and then we discussed how on earth that sort of thing goes on and then the weather and the buses, for we are British and that is what we do.

I shall take a deep breath now, and restore a semblance of normality to this novel. Emily Brontë can write, undoubtedly. She burns with this sort of wild anger and love, so often the same thing here, and her description of landscape is superb. Ineffably so. These are lived in moors and known spaces; and I think it is in those moments that the novel worked for me. I write about the representation of landscape in my thesis and so it is a topic close to my heart. The setting of a scene can tell you everything before anyone has even opened their mouths.

But Heathcliff is not a hottie. Everyone else is moronic. Everything else is angry.

This isn’t a book about love, not really.

It’s a book about selfishness. It’s a book about locking the door and locking the world far away, and for me, as a reader located within that world, I felt invasive. Wuthering Heights screams to be read and fights, furiously, to hold its story to itself. Perhaps that’s it, right there. Perhaps that’s it.

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A Library of Lemons : Jo Cotterill

A Library of LemonsA Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is a beautiful day and I would like to talk to you about beautiful things. I would like to talk to you about quiet and gentle and sympathetic and kind books and A Library Of Lemons is all of that and so much more.

I have a lot of time for Jo Cotterill. I adored Looking At The Stars, a wise and sensitive and graceful book about living in the worst of times, and I loved A Library Of Lemons. Absolutely, furiously, painfully loved it.

Calypso and her dad live alone in their big, dusty house. Her mother died, and they don’t really talk about it. Instead, Calypso’s dad preaches the values of inner strength and self-reliance and then mainly just locks himself away to work on his book. There’s never any food in the fridge, and Calypso is forced to look after herself. A lot. She withdraws into her love of books and fiction and the gap between her and her dad seems to widen. The arrival of a new girl at school, Mae, changes that. Calypso and Mae become friends. And, upon seeing how life can be in a normal house, Calypso starts to realise that her and her Dad have some serious problems to address.

I talk a lot about kindness in middle grade fiction because I think it’s a very important element to consider. It’s not that I want everything to be hugs and roses because nothing is. It’s more that I want the awareness of people being people, and that not everything in the world is as cut and dry as people being good and people being bad. People are people. And I think to realise that; to portray adults as fallible, to portray children as participants within a world that isn’t black and white, and to do that kindly is an immense gift. Cotterill writes stories that don’t leave people behind. Everyone earns their space and fills it, and it’s all done in such a subtle, nuanced way that is remarkable.

One thing to note about A Library Of Lemons is that it deals with some very serious issues, including bereavement, grieving, depression and young carers. It does all of this in a very gentle, honest way that I suspect would be immensely helpful to those needing to articulate such issues and I would immensely recommend it to those working in such a context. But, as ever, please read it yourself beforehand. I always say this because it’s vital to know a book and the issues it touches upon before dealing with it in a sensitive context. Plus, it is a joy. A Library Of Lemons is one of those books that reaches out to those on the edge of society and pulls them back in. And I think that is something rather beautiful indeed.

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Prisoner of Night & Fog : Anne Blankman

Prisoner of Night and Fog (Prisoner of Night and Fog, #1)Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Prisoner of Night and Fog is set in extraordinary, awful times. It’s 1930s Munich and Gretchen Müller has grown up under the protection of her Uncle ‘Dolf’. ‘Dolf’ is Adolf Hitler and Gretchen is his beloved pet. The daughter of a Nazi martyr, Gretchen has been bought up in the parties ideology. Yet one day she meets a Jewish reporter, Daniel Cohen, who tells her that her father was not martyred. He was murdered – by somebody in the party. Together, Gretchen and Daniel set out to discover just what happened to her father….

It’s the story that got me with this. There’s something incredible here, but I don’t think Prisoner of Night and Fog quite manages to follow through on the vivid, awful truth. Though several characters are identified as fictional, many aren’t and Gretchen comes into contact with a wide range of actual people. Hitler. Rohm. Eva Braun. Angela “Geli” Raubal. It’s a vivid context and one that should make a young adult novel burn. I’m not sure that this one does that. There’s a lot of running from one plot point to another, which becomes oddly repetitive, and Gretchen herself is somewhat toneless.

Sometimes I recommend novels more for the context of what they deal with. I do think Prisoner of Night and Fog is worth a read because the setting and the historical narrative is fascinating. I suspect in a way that it might have worked better were the novel itself less safe. That’s an odd thing to say in the context, and bear with me for a second whilst I explain it.

Let’s say ‘A girl sits down at the table, eats her lunch and gets up again’.

Now, let’s say something like: ‘A girl sits down at the table, eats her lunch, and then the table eats her.’

It’s a farcical example but I’m trying to make the point that sometimes a narrative needs to startle and snap when you least expect it. And when it doesn’t, and when I’m longing for it to be brave and reckless and unpredictable and it doesn’t – then I end up feeling somewhat disappointed. There’s a big story here and it’s one that would sing in young adult work; Prisoner of Night and Fog makes a good attempt at telling that story, but doesn’t quite succeed.

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The Girl’s Companion (ed.) Mary A. Carson

The Girl's CompanionThe Girl’s Companion by Mary A. Carson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to tell you how much I love this book. I think we begin with what it this book is; it’s a fairly solid text split into a series of chapters, covering a range of things that Respectable Girls might like to do with their free time. I love books like this because, quite often in their very dry way, they reveal much more about the world than they think. Think about why we don’t have them now really or, if we do, how we don’t easily embrace such extremely gendered dynamics. And if we do write them, then what do we have in them? What’s the thing that we think girls should know? And why do we think that girls should know them?

‘The Girl’s Companion’ has some delightful moments. Split into a series of different sections beginning with ‘indoor arts, crafts and hobbies’ through to ‘the social side’ and the great ‘yeah I ran out of titles’ section known as ‘miscellaneous’, each section then covers things ranging from insect collecting through to lawn tennis and how to change a washer on a tap.

There are some moments of delightful eclecticism. The chapter talking about camping calmly suggests meals such as toad in the hole, and steamed puddings. The illustrations in the gymnastics sessions detail a girl in sensible pinafore (with a tie!) undertaking exercise ranging from bars through to rings, never quite once being allowed to crack a smile. I adore them. I could live forever on illustrations that break down netball into blithe ‘this’ and ‘not this’ instructions. Here’s a few of my favourites that I tweeted..

I think the great wild peak of The Girl’s Companion comes in the riding chapter. It’s written by the legendary Primrose Cumming and the opening paragraph is a thing of utter and somewhat mad joy. I love it. Like I said, these books tell you so much more than they think they do. And in the instance of the riding chapter, it tells you all about the adventures of you and your new horse.

Named Barry.

(Oh ‘The Girl’s Companion’, let me count the way I love you!).

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Wild Animals of the North : Dieter Braun

Wild Animals of the NorthWild Animals of the North by Dieter Braun

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The latest step on my Carnegie / Kate Greenaway catch up is Wild Animals of the North by Dieter Braun. Genuinely a little bit breathtaking, this is something rather special.The conceit is simple and easy to grasp: Braun lists a selection of the wild animals to be found across a series of regions in The North. This can cover anything from killer whales in the Arctic through to pandas in Asia. And, as I said, it is something.

It’s hard to quite do justice to Braun’s big, bare, stylish artwork so instead I’ll direct you to a gallery of images. This is remarkable work, genuinely. One of the big points about this book is its size. It’s maybe a little difficult to wield for tinier hands, but that gamble pays off as it allows the artwork to breathe. There’s something rather special about just going big and bare with your work and it’s a gamble that pays off. Some of the images are genuinely breathtaking. All of them would be perfect as pictures on the wall.

Each image of an animal is labelled both with its English and Latin names. Some of them come with extra paragraphs of information, a little eccentrically formed, but still rather charming. What gives this book its strength is that sense of individuality about it. The weight of the paper. The texture of that front cover. The nuanced picking of detail in those paragraphs. I learnt things! (Learning things from a book – who’d imagine such a thing?!)

I loved this. It’s inspiring, distinct and fiercely unique work.

And I want pretty much all of it on my wall.

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Beck : Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff

BeckBeck by Mal Peet

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m catching up on my Carnegie reading for this year and Beck was always going to be near the top of my list. From its story of production where Mal Peet passed away whilst writing and Meg Rosoff finished the manuscript, through to its critical reception, Beck is an eyecatching novel. I was never going to start anywhere else. Mal Peet was a remarkable writer and I could talk for days about his work (see here for reviews of Tamar and Life…). Peet wrote about faith and hope and big, sprawling stories of life. I loved them. I am so sorry that he is no longer with us.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t like Beck. Not at all, really.

The titular Beck is an orphan born of an encounter between his mother and an African American soldier. Left alone in the world, he is shipped to Canada and the supposed care of a group of Catholic Brothers. It won’t leave much to the imagination if I tell you that Beck does not receive anything remotely approximating to care. It also won’t leave much to the imagination if I tell you that this involves abuse. It is important to read this yourself to fully understand the nature of this but it is written very barely, very plainly, and rather horrendous through its banality. Searing is one way to describe it. Beck moves on, scarred and restless. Another time, another place, the hope to connect. He moves from circumstance to circumstance, some good, some bad, all the while trying to find his place in the world.

It was, as Goodreads somehow delightfully phrases it, just ok.

My dislike didn’t come from the graphic content, though I do recognise how this problematic for some and I would recommend reading it yourself before working with it. Tonally, Beck reminded me a lot of The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks and I wonder if this does win the Carnegie, whether there will be a conversation to have about the evolving tone of children’s literature and what we consider as meritable in the field. Is meritable a word? I don’t think it is, but I think its appropriate.

I got Beck yesterday afternoon (A library open on a sunday? Imagine!), gleeful after my reservation came in early, and I finished it that same day. And all I had was a glorious sense of disconnect. A book that should have meant something to me, really sort of didn’t.

Beck is a beautiful told story, but it’s a story told at a distance and whilst some of that is incredibly justified and thematically appropriate, there’s very little chance to connect. It’s like sitting on a train and seeing beautiful scenery beyond the window but the train never stops. I couldn’t pinpoint the precise moment where Rosoff took over from Peet’s unfinished manuscript but I could tell a tone shift in the final quarter or so. The book becomes something quite different and problematic. Do I mean problematic? Yes, I think I do. I can’t comment on the representation of people in this book, and would direct you towards other and own voices to seek that veracity, but I can comment on structure and plot. And I found it problematic. The book sort of burns towards a point where you kind of think it will go off and do its own thing – a defiant unwillingness to conform – and I wanted that.

But then the fire goes out. Wet twigs on a smoking fire.

And that’s relevant for the story told here, but it doesn’t make a book. It really doesn’t.

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Writing outdoors

Sunshine makes me want to write outside. 17498869_10158391832070371_2801967951944888519_n.jpg

I remember the first time I figured out that writing did not have to be bound to the page, hunched over in ink and pen. I was at university, at a course I did not quite understand, and we were asked to write.

We were asked to write in anything other than pen and paper.

The liberation of it! The terror, too, because when pen and paper are nearly all that you know, to step away from them is hard. Illegitimate. Writing  – important writing – consists of paper and rules. Ink. Capital letters and full stops and precise nuance thought.

Writing is craft. Precision.

Writing is about knowing the rules – and knowing that you have the right to break them.

Maybe that’s it; really, that’s it right there.

Learning to write is about learning how to gain legitimacy for your practice.

17499518_10158391832075371_2478436796866356456_n (1)

Picture books, art, and the appreciation of things

I have a passion project. Thanks to Facebook, and my inability to hold onto a USB stick for more than thirty second without losing it, I have started to gather an album of picture book images. The curation method for these is simple, eccentric. I have to like it. I have to be able to talk about it.

(How curious it is that books are one thing when read privately, selfishly, but quite another when we talk about them.)

I did a talk the other day to some local sixth formers about life as a researcher, doing this. Books. Literacy. Trying to understand one of the most global, primal experiences.  Reading. Communication. Everything builds from books, I said, everything.

12109240_10156176844855371_1421000328376951833_n.jpg
More Katie Morag Island Stories : Mairi Hedderwick

I described research:

Asking why. Asking, always, asking why things are the way they are and what can we do to affect, address, challenge, question that.

12523984_10156710864075371_3334033171539341968_n.jpg
Cloudland by John Burningham

And I showed them Art.
Capital A, capital ART.

1794818_10156180160780371_5620268026656119163_n.jpg
Madeline in London : Ludwig Bemmelmans

Picture books are something which we treat, sometimes, too lightly.

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Five Senses : Herve Tullet

We’re driven by our sense of adulthood. Age based imperialism. A sense that we know better, that we shouldn’t be reading these things.

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A Brush with the Past: 1900 – 1950 The Years that changed our lives : Shirley Hughes

So sometimes, I asked them to just look at things.

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Refuge – Anne Booth & Sam Usher

Because looking – seeing – is where it all begins.

All of it.

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A Taste of Chlorine – Bastine Vivés

Us.

Evie’s Ghost : Helen Peters

Evie's GhostEvie’s Ghost by Helen Peters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a story to tell you about this. I was chatting with one of my lovely librarian colleagues about the books I was going to review and mentioned ‘Evie’s Ghost’. It turned out that her daughter had adored Peters’ The Secret Hen House Theatre and had gone so far as to buy a copy of it for a friend for her birthday. Now that says a lot for me. I love children’s books, but I’m not a child. A recommendation from those ‘on the ground’, as it were, is an important and wonderful thing. I value them. Immensely. And so when I came to read Evie’s Ghost I was so pleased to see that Peters was worth it. This book, a sort of Tom’s Midnight Garden meets Charlotte Sometimes, is charming. Intensely.

Evie has been sent off to stay with her godmother whilst her mother has gone off on honeymoon with her new husband. Bearing in mind that Evie doesn’t know her godmother, at all, it’s all a bit awkward. However, the first night in the spare room changes everything. Evie goes to bed in the present-day and wakes up in 1814. She’s a housemaid, forced to scrub and clean and do thousand tasks whilst being painfully encouraged with the odd clip around the ear. But she’s gone back in time for a reason. Something awful is about to happen in this house and it’s up to Evie to solve it…

One of the great things about Peters’ writing is that she manages to juxtapose the everyday with the fantastical. You believe Evie’s journey between times, and you recognise her reaction. The sensibilities of a modern child, with running water and amenities, is neatly juxtaposed against the historical context of 1814 where quite a few things are different. There’s a lot of history and period terminology looped in this, and it’s handled really well. It’s a charming, pacy, rich adventure story. I rave a lot about the books that Nosy Crow produces but they have an eye for story. That transferable, rich, layered sense of story. Evie’s Ghost is such a solid and rich story. I read a lot for this age, and I’m always intrigued by those stories that catch me by surprise. This did, and I loved it. I also really welcomed how Peters … (view spoiler)

I love how I’m coming across some smart and genuine time-slip stories at the moment. Maybe this is the next thing? If they’re all as good and as well told as this, then I’ll be very happy.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy. Evie’s Ghost is out at the start of April.

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The Jamie Drake Equation : Christopher Edge

The Jamie Drake EquationThe Jamie Drake Equation by Christopher Edge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about The Jamie Drake Equation. It’s not only a book that twists something quite classic and contemporary together, delivering a science fiction story driven by smartphones and astronaut dads, but it also sensitively and truthfully deals with what it’s like to be the family that’s left behind. How would it feel to see your Dad in space? And, more to the point, how does it feel and what can you do when something goes wrong?

The Jamie Drake Equation is presented beautifully. It is a good looking book, and it looks exciting. The lettering and the stars all hang suspended in the sky, and they shine. There’s something here instantly for those who are interested in space; everything about this book’s front cover is telling you to look upwards and towards the sky and the stars. The title is a constellation itself, the letters drawn between star points and oh, it’s clever and smart stuff.

Edge writes with an engaging and delightful competence. The Jamie Drake Equation is a spectacularly accessible read which, somehow, manages to juxtapose Fibonacci sequences with aliens with the realisation that whatever shape your family may take, it is still your family. I loved this. It’s so kind, and so well-structured, and just a great, fiercely satisfying read. Edge has it with these stories, he really does.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Orangeboy : Patrice Lawrence

OrangeboyOrangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Orangeboy is one of those books which begin a long time before you read it. Take a moment and look at that front cover, that stark brilliant splash of vibrant colour that spills against the white background. It is an amazing piece of design and, as I have said before, design speaks a lot about a book. From the perfectly pitched cover of Trouble through to pretty much anything published by Nosy Crow, design matters. It speaks of ambition and it speaks of power, of doing anything in your arsenal to make this book stand out and be read.

Marlon’s big brother, Andre, went down the wrong path and now, Marlon seems destined to follow him. But he’s fighting all the way, trying to figure out what’s happening to him and how – or indeed if – he can get out of it alive. There’s a line on the blurb that does somewhat give away the first twist, and I’d say ignore it if you can. Don’t read the back of this book, trust me, because when that first twist hits, it’s quite the moment.

I suspect that from the state of this tight and fluid and gutwrenching novel, that Lawrence has much more in her. The first book is always the first book, and sometimes it speaks of that. There are a few moments here where the narrative kind of outpaces itself, and then everything races to catch up. It’s true to life, painfully, but I’d have welcomed some time for the text to realise where it is. Breath. Shadows and light, loudness and dark. Lawrence is so very brilliant in this story and I wanted more time to bathe in the richness of her writing, the dense word-clouds of music and of pop culture references and of relationships, both good and bad. I suppose it’s selfish, really, to imagine a book should be written for my needs alone and yet books like this make me selfish. I want more of them. I didn’t want Orangeboy to end. Those dynamic, awful, hideous last few chapters where everything happened and couldn’t be stopped, made me stir the beans for my lunch with one hand and read with the other. It is the very definition of an unpotdownable book.

Marlon is forced to make choices throughout this novel, from a good life to a bad, and when history and relationships and love and loyalty and family come calling, he’s forced onto a path not of his choosing. It’s a hard read, Orangeboy, searing at times and yet, as I say, unputdownable because you can’t help but wonder what you’d have done in the circumstances. There’s a lot of opportunity here for discussion and several ‘discussion points’ are included at the back of the book.

I welcome Orangeboy. I think it’s important. I appreciate how it doesn’t make things easy, not once, not ever. That’s life for a lot of readers. I think it’s right to write about that. I think it’s even better to write about it as well as this.

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Horrible Bear! : Ame Dyckman & Zachariah OHora


Horrible Bear!Horrible Bear!
by Ame Dyckman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this vibrant and carefully pitched picture book. Horrible Bear! is the story of a girl who is out flying her kite one day. The string snaps and the kite falls into the cave of a very big and very sleepy bear. He’s asleep and, awfully, manages to roll over on top of her kite and crunch it. The little girl loses her temper and yells: “HORRIBLE BEAR!” She stomps home in that delightful full-body stomp of anger that small people do, and the bear is left to come to terms with what’s just happened. Naturally, he’s a bit upset as well and decides he’s going to be a HORRIBLE BEAR! Just as he’s leaving the cave and coming down the mountain to roar at the girl, the girl manages to break her beloved toy. Upon realising how horrible she’s been, she apologises to the bear who promptly helps her put her toy back together. Adorable, no? It’s a very charming and lovable story full with some pertinent and gently told messages.

When it comes to picture books, everything matters. Everything. There were two words that glared a little for me from the text because they didn’t feel quite as universal as I’d have liked. I know, I know, I can hear you commenting on how picky that is and it is a picky comment. But it’s a comment that comes from the nature of picture books and my love for them and my want for them to reach out to a whole world of readers and to do that with a whole fistful of meaning and weight in each and every word. There’s nowhere to hide in a picture book and it’s right to acknowledge the slight down notes in an otherwise wonderful book because everyone gets better, always, and Dyckman and OHara are rather wonderful already. The dynamic art of HORRIBLE BEAR! is testament to that, as is that subtly written note of regret on the part of the girl. It’s easy to judge in books like this, to get all high-handed and moralistic, but Dyckman reins it back. Her language is precise, kind and subtle. It’s a great line to walk and one that speaks of a great understanding of children and of learning.

Where HORRIBLE BEAR! absolutely shines is in its use of detail. This isn’t a story that forgets what’s happened to concentrate on the next page. It begins on the title page, where underneath the dedications from author and illustrator, a small girl with vibrant red hair sees the string on her kite snap. And then we’re in, pounding through a story where the bear sleeps with a little tiny teddy bear of his own, and when the girl gets back into her bedroom, we can see the bear coming out of his cave up the mountain through the window in her room. It’s so utterly lovely and smart that I can get picky with this book. I can get picky because it’s so vividly on point at certain moments that I want all of it to be up there, reaching the great heights of storytelling that it has the potential to do. This is vivid, exuberant, eccentric, and kind work. HORRIBLE BEAR! is rather wonderful. Just don’t forget that exclamation mark!

My thanks to Andersen for a review copy.

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Fish Boy : Chloe Daykin

Fish BoyFish Boy by Chloe Daykin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this determined novel from Daykin. Fish Boy, her first book for middle grade readers, sings of something very peculiar and very distinct. Billy Shiel is a boy with a lot on his mind. Some of that centres on his mother’s mysterious illness, some of that centres on his troubles at school where he’s not really managing to cope and so he swims in the sea and listens to David Attenborough and somehow, manages to keep going. Just. But then everything changes when a new boy starts at school and a mackerel swims up to Billy and starts to talk to him…

It’s a delightful book to sum up because it is so resolutely what it is. The episodes between Billy and the mackerel sing of something so resolutely other and unknown that there’s a temptation to tie it off with a precise explanation. This, I’m pleased to note, is something Daykin resists and I applaud that. The world has space for mystery and for doubt and this book sings of that edge in between knowing and unknowing. Fact. Fiction. Sometimes it’s very hard to parse the world when you’re under a lot of pressure. It’s even harder to do that when you’re dealing with unknown and unnamed illnesses, as Billy and his family are.

I like this. I like Daykin’s fragmentary and determinedly restrained prose. It’s shard-like at points; jagged, bare-boned paragraphs that consist of maybe one word or two and even then, you’re not sure you wholly know who’s speaking or where the language is coming from. Magic. Mystery. Mackerels. Even writing that makes me smile. Give Fish Boy to those readers who love David Almond but also Micheal Morpurgo where he’s at his more magical. There’s something rather beautiful about this stubborn, pointed, eccentric and utterly vivid novel. I really hope it swims.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Girl Online – Going Solo : Zoe Sugg

Girl Online Going Solo (Girl Online, #3)Girl Online Going Solo by Zoe Sugg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This, the third in Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg’s series of young adult novels, solidified something for me. I’ve written about her her work before, and about the frustrating tendency for the media to leap onto her as a scapegoat for all that is wrong with the world in a literary sense. And so here I am at the third in her series about blogger Penny, and I have reaffirmed some thoughts for myself. These are generous and warm-hearted novels and I am glad that they exist.

Girl Online : Going Solo sees Penny come to terms with living her life and facing the world alone. What’s really joyous is that this book doesn’t shy away from the nature of young adult independence and the pitfalls of that. Penny experiences panic attacks, anxiety and the great sudden joy of making new friends and finding her place within the world. Underneath all of this are some nice and quietly handled moments of social commentary.

These are great books, genuinely, because they do what they do very well. There’s an almost palpable sense of wearing their heart on their sleeve and I like that. There’s a place in the world for books that do that, and I think the Girl : Online series does it immensely well. We speak a lot of the importance of voice as readers and writers; of knowing the way you want to say something and understanding the import of how that it’s said. And that’s where these books shine; they are palpably approachable, genuine and kind.

And I like that.

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Children’s literature and the great ‘oh’

This post marks the debut of a new series on this blog, namely a collection of longer and more in-depth pieces. Long-reads, essays, that sort of thing. They will be able to be read in sequence or in isolation, and I hope they’ll help to shed some light on children’s literature. And on tigers. 

Let me know what you think x 

 

I. Introduction

I’m in a taxi, on my way home from a conference, and we’re cutting through the streets of York. As shops blur past us, and tourists pause to photograph each other against increasingly antiquated backgrounds, he asks me, in that way that taxi drivers do, where I’ve been. A conference, I say, and then in that still somewhat disbelieving frame of mind, I add, Cambridge. Cambridge. I have spoken about my research at Cambridge and it is all still a little unreal to me.

Oh, he says, and what were you talking about? Children’s books, I say. Or rather, in my dizzy and deftless and exhausted manner, I fall back on the language of the weekend and refer to it as children’s literature. Pony books, I say, to be precise. Words. I struggle sometimes with them when all I want to do is talk about them. The knot of language in my throat, coupled with the weekend I have had, makes me fall silent. Makes me wait for his reply.

Oh, he says.

But this time his oh is different. It is a flat oh, a sort of dimly appalled oh, the oh that speaks of somebody who has entered a conversation that they do not wish to end.

It is the sort of oh I have heard before.

Continue reading “Children’s literature and the great ‘oh’”

Wing Jones : Katherine Webber

Wing JonesWing Jones by Katherine Webber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the first things to note about Wing Jones is the beautiful production values that surround it. There’s a lot to be said for noting how people publish a novel. A lot of them exist in the world. A lot. How do you make yours stand out? How do you make yours sing of the faith and the hours and the money and the love that you have poured into it? In the case of Wing Jones, it’s a dynamic cover and some beautiful ombre page edges that shift from pink through to purple and oh, it’s beautiful. It says so much when publishers do this sort of thing because the book itself, it becomes something a little bit more eye-catching, a little bit prouder, a little bit more determined to make its mark.

And Wing Jones does, immensely. It’s the story of Wing Jones who doesn’t easily fit in. She has one grandmother from China and another from Ghana, and knows the problems of figuring out who you are in the world first hand. Her brother, Marcus, though, he’s working it out a lot easier than her. But then something terrible happens and it’s down to Wing to figure out who she is all by herself, save for the help of a magical dragon and lioness who come to her in the night. It’s a fiercely contemporary novel which deals with some stark issues and yet, there’s that touch of magical realism to it. A poetic of space, somehow, that twists the world that Wing’s in and makes it something else. Something that she can control. Something that she can run in.

It’s Webber’s debut novel this and there were a few moments where I’d have liked it being crafted in a slightly different manner, but I say this in the light of the great achievement that this book is. I am picky, undoubtedly so, because I think Webber’s quite remarkable with her language and oh, how I want more of that. She writes with a cadence that I’ve not found for a while, a sort of musical rhythm to her paragraphs, twists of languages and sudden symphonic sentences. And that, is perhaps more than anything, the reason I recommend Wing Jones. Webber’s language, her ability to craft a world that is rarely written of, and her ability to make that sing, utterly, and to make it beat like the pounding of your first-fallen-in-love-heart is quite something. Wing Jones is good. Extremely. Utterly. But I suspect Webber’s next book might be even more so.

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Margot and Me : Juno Dawson

Margot & MeMargot & Me by Juno Dawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s hard to write through tears and yet, here I am, pushing through and trying to capture what makes Margot and Me so rather utterly wonderful. It is wonderful. I have written a thousand sentences trying to capture the nuances of this beautiful and heartfelt novel and I don’t think I’m anywhere near capturing it.

But I will try, and it starts with how Dawson understands character. She writes thick and fat and full and round people, believable people, understandable people, and this book is one that it’s hard to step away from. I love it. I love Dawson’s writing and how she crafts something so perfectly nuanced and, when it needs to be, kind.

Margot and Me is a split narrative between present day, where Fliss and her mother have moved to her grandmother’s farm in Wales, and the second world war diaries of her grandmother. Fliss’ mother is recuperating from chemotherapy and the farm stay is to help her recover. But Fliss’ grandmother, the redoubtable Margot, is not the easiest person to live with. It is only when Fliss discovers Margot’s WW2 diaries and starts reading them that she comes to figure out a few things about her…

Margot and Me inhabits a very distinct ground and it owns that ground so clearly and distinctly and so brightly and so perfectly. Think of the perfect A Little Love Song, think of Carrie’s War, think of The Other Way Round, and you’ll have an idea where this ferociously contemporary and deeply sensitive and nuanced book is. It hybridises that second world war story of growing up in extraordinary times with a consciousness that life, living, whatever time it is, is complex and troublesome and hard and a story that is needing to be told.

And I am still crying over the way it so, so perfectly does that.

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Dragon’s Green : Scarlett Thomas

Dragon's GreenDragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dragon’s Green is a really intriguing book and one that I sort of thought I wouldn’t like and then really rather did. It reaches in a thousand different directions, some more successfully than others, and when it hits, it’s utterly wonderful.

So, a plot precis: Euphemia Truelove, pupil of a school for the Gifted And Strange, is set to inherit a very unusual library from her very unusual grandfather. And alongside that inheritence come problems of a very deep and dark nature that can only be solved with some friends, some magical boons, and a lot of bravery. It’s the first novel of a series and, perhaps even more praise-worthily, manages to deliver a self-contained story that doesn’t have one of those hideous ‘tune in next time’ cliff-hangers.

There’s a place for this sort of novel within children’s and young adult literature and I’m pleased that Thomas is filling it. I get asked quite a lot about books to read after Harry Potter and despite a lot of effort (again, some better than others), there’s never really been anything to fill that gap. Dragon’s Green inhabits that ‘next’ space really nicely and in doing so, delivers something that speaks to both Harry Potter but also to Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson. And they’re not authors to invoke lightly, but Dragon’s Green, when it connects and when it hits its moments full on, invokes those connections and does it with spades.

I like this. I like the complexity of it, and I like how straightfoward Thomas is in delivering it and I love how much she trusts her characters to do the things that they need to do. It’s not a perfect novel. There’s a saggy middle which loses its way somewhat, and there’s a few moments which needed a bit of rereading in order to fully understand. But, even having said that (and it is something that definitely needs to be acknowledged) I didn’t stop reading this wonderfully distinct and convincing novel. I didn’t want to stop reading it at all. There’s the kernels of something very good here.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Talking politics

In an increasingly visible year, full of increasingly visible and often questionable political rhetoric, I’ve been looking for resources that help us explain this to children. It’s easy to underestimate what a child knows of society, and it’s easy to not discuss this sort of thing. Childhood is childhood and I get the precious protection of that. But equally, we live in a context of connectivity. We are global, we are social, and people talk.

Here’s a few resources that may help you talk with your children or those you work with. I’ve added the date in brackets after each entry for a static entry. I’d like to list more so please do feel free to comment with anything useful that I may have missed.

Inside, Outside, Upside, Down : Yasmeen Ismail

Inside, Outside, Upside DownInside, Outside, Upside Down by Yasmeen Ismail

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to like about this charming sequence of activity books from Ismail and I think a lot of centres on the value of an unfinished line. Take a look, next time you’re somewhere bookish, at a similar book, maybe one of those colouring in things that are everywhere. Take a look at how they construct an image. I’ll guess that it’s definite, solid, unbroken line. The sort of line you colour firmly within the boundaries of. Those lines are great and gorgeous and serve an incredibly relevant function in that context but Ismail’s lines are different. They have space in them; air, and don’t quite touch at the end, or run over a line, or leave a little gap before bouncing out into the whiteness of the page beyond. And that’s important in a book like this, aimed at those who have a little bit of dexterity in drawing, a little bit of ability to colour (4yrs+), because it allows mistakes. It allows ownership. It allows and it facilitates drawing to fall out of the gaps and spill across and over things. It’s a simple thing, but it’s smartly done and it recurs in the other book in the series I had a look at: Push, Pull, Empty, Full. Ismail gets line. She gets the freedom of it and what it can tell a reader, even when they don’t know that it’s talking to it.

Content wise, Inside, Outside, Upside Down is a joy. Three characters, Duck, Bear and Rabbit, explore a range of situations involving paired words and opposites over a series of double page spreads. In one example, Bear holds his bag right side up and the reader is asked to colour Bear’s bag. The pairing image, on the right hand side of the page, sees Bear’s bag upside down and the reader asked to ‘draw what’s falling out’. There are some quite complex thought processes here which is why it reaches a little bit towards the older age of the demographic. But oh, Ismail’s use of line and the slightly offbeat questions and challenges towards the reader are so very definitely worth it. What a smart and kind book this is.

I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy of this title.

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Judith Kerr’s Creatures : Judith Kerr

Judith Kerr's CreaturesJudith Kerr’s Creatures by Judith Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to define how beautiful a book this when you’re typing a review in that thick haze you get after crying, but I shall. I shall try.

I love Judith Kerr. There are a handful of authors that I cling to in children’s literature, like somebody who is drowning and in search of a lifebelt and Judith Kerr is one of them. She is my safe space, my shore. I have loved her from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit through to Mog the Forgetful Cat and back again. And, whilst I am on this paragraph in which I confess my love, if you have not seen this documentary on Kerr and her work, give yourself an hour out and do so. It is a joy, she is a joy, and I love her.

Judith Kerr’s Creatures functions as an autobiography, lavishly illustrated and holding many remarkable items relating to a remarkable life. It is graceful and self-effacing and a must for anybody interested in writing, illustration and the life behind books that become classics. Seeing some of Kerr’s earlier work juxtaposed against the proofs of her later work is undefinably wonderful because it allows the reader to trace the development of a brilliant artist. Line, for example, is something I talk about a lot in picture books because you can do so much with such a simple thing. The thickness of it. The thinness. The direction. The boldness. The shape. Try it now, doodle a sad line, a happy line. I’ll bet one curves down and one curves up and that, beyond it, you’ll see the shape of a face tight and sad, or round and full of joy. That’s line, that’s the evocation of line and that’s what we do with it as people. We fill it. We give it context. Kerr’s line is a wonderful thing in that it is human and full of movement. There are sketches in this that sing of movement and of the ability to watch and study people. To find the shape of them, to find the bits that matter in the sketch and to capture that. What skill. What utter, hard-won, determined skill.

I love this book. I am rhapsodic over this book. I love how respectful it is, and how it does not belittle any of Kerr’s remarkable achivements or skill, and how it treats them with the reverence they deserve. This is art and I shall fight you if you say otherwise, for this book is beautiful and we are privileged to have Kerr’s work in our lives.

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