Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley

Milly-Molly-Mandy StoriesMilly-Molly-Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frequently charming and really rather beautifully done, this 90th anniversary edition of the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories is a lovely thing. It’s been a long time since I read Milly-Molly-Mandy and if you’re the same, here’s a brief refresher. Written in the 1920s, MMM is a little girl who lives with her sprawling family in a pleasant little village, and she gets into several very small and rather adorable adventures. They were written and illustrated by Joyce Lankester Brisley who was the sister of Nina K. Brisley who illustrated the Chalet School stories – and this is something that, in a nicely worded afterword, this edition told me and I made a proper ‘I did not know that’ face. The edition includes several of the short stories collected together and as mentioned has a lovely afterword that does something quite remarkable – it speaks to the child. It’s not often you see an afterword that remembers the child audience as much as the adult, and Macmillan are to be commended for this.

The stories themselves are adorable. Simple, soft and very small adventures that even though they involve a lot of language that might not be familiar to a contemporary reader, these are stories that work because of how they feel. They are charming and gentle and simply told things, often centring around a task or an errand or a circumstance, and I did enjoy them. It doesn’t mater if some of the phrases are unknown because these are good stories. Gentle, rich and lovely stories. Lankester Brisley could write, she really could.

An important thing to note is that this book also includes a lot of full colour illustrations. These are richly rendered things, full of lush and gentle detail and rather intensely evocatively. The village and the nice white cottage with the thatched roof are all there and it’s all lovely. Harsher voices might call this sort of thing twee or outdated, but they’re idiots and we know better. The Milly-Molly-Mandy books are gorgeous, gentle things, and in a world where that sort of thing seems somewhat hard to find, they shine. They really, really do.

I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Ink House by Rory Dobner

The Ink HouseThe Ink House by Rory Dobner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spectacularly produced, somewhat slender in the story department, and full of some rather intensely beautiful artwork, The Ink House is somewhat of a paradox. It’s beautiful, first and foremost; written and illustrated by Rory Dobner, an artist with a substantial and impressive commercial portfolio. His work hovers somewhere about the Neil Gaiman / Frances Hardinge side of things; a wild evocation of otherness, coupled with a firm belief that that otherness may in fact be true. His work is careful, and his lines are richly and subtly done, finding magic in the white space of the page and using that as a springboard towards some beautiful spreads.

Now, the paradox. This isn’t a story, at least not yet. The Ink House is a mansion built on a magical pool of ink. One a year, the artist goes off on an adventure, leaving the house free for animals to move in and have a great party. The artist comes back, the animals leave. That’s a great and eloquent frame, but I struggled with the episodic nature of the moments that hung in between. They felt a little isolated, occasionally disjointed, and I’d have welcome another eye over sentences such as “Panic ensues as the animals prepare to leave” (I’m not sure anybody prepares in a panicked fashion?)

Yet, this is beautiful. Even the line I’ve picked out comes with the most delicious spread of horses cantering through a tiled and pillared corridor in an image that made my heart sing. That’s what I mean about paradoxes; this book is full of them. Lines that don’t quite sit and work, and a story that isn’t quite there yet, but some of the best and most convincing black and white artwork that I’ve seen for a long while.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy

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Dancing Peel by Lorna Hill

Dancing Peel (Dancing Peel, #1)Dancing Peel by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s not much I wouldn’t do for one of these glorious Esme Verity covers. The daughter of Lorna Hill, Verity has a great grace to her artwork and I love it. The light. The richness. The softness. This is good, classical artwork and rather beautiful stuff. The book itself isn’t, perhaps, the best thing that Lorna Hill has ever done but every now and then it absolutely sings. But that’s Hill all over; sometimes she gets a little lost in the plotting and circumstance (everybody in Northumberland dances beautifully) but then sometimes, she’ll deliver a page as utterly wonderful and as perfect as anything you’ll find framed in a gallery. She’s an interesting author and one that I think tends to be a little forgotten, and she shouldn’t. Not in the slightest.

So to the specifics; this is the first of the Dancing Peel series. It is fiercely, utterly romantic with its ‘Peel’ tower that looks out onto the moors, dancing siblings that explore Spanish dance and ballet respectively, and the hints of romantic destiny over injured and orphaned animals. The latter is done in the way that only Lorna Hill can do, and I love it. Her writing can be very quiet on the surface but a thousand stories and images and sensations are lurking underneath, always.

One final thing to note about this edition is that it is a very beautiful thing and worth hunting out from a collector’s perspective. I’m always loathe to recommend certain books to collect, as I want them all for myself, but you should pick up a copy of this. The cover, as I’ve already mentioned, is divine, but the endpapers feature a map of Northumberland that is rather wonderful. And good endpapers, as any fule kno, are everything.

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Mary And Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Júlia Sardà

Mary, Who Wrote FrankensteinMary and Frankenstein by Linda Bailey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It has been a long time since I have read something so perfect as this, and if it doesn’t win the Kate Greenaway Medal this year, or at the very least make the shortlist, then I’ll hand in my badge. I’m not sure that I have an actual badge, so to speak, but I’m trying to work on a metaphor that tells you how great this book is and how blindingly, utterly, brilliant it does what it does, and so I’ll hope you’ll forgive me my delirium and go out and buy it straight away. Because it’s good. Honestly, it’s more than that. It’s perfect, and I’m delirious over it and I feel like I want to write a love letter to Andersen to say thank you for letting me take look at it (their edition is out in October 2018, it has the slightly different – and better – title of ‘Mary And Frankenstein’, and have I mentioned you should buy it?). This is a gift, this book, and here’s the part where I tell you why.

Written by Linda Bailey, Mary and Frankenstein explores the story of Mary Shelley. The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the creator of modern science fiction, the girl who loved Percy Bysshe Shelley, the girl who lived, Mary Shelley is a fascinating and complex figure. And in the hands of somebody lesser, her story might have suffered. It might have been reduced to one of those hagiographies we see so often at the moment in children’s literature, and it might have been sidelined for the stories of those people she lived and loved with. But Bailey doesn’t. I knew we were in good hands when I read her author’s note and saw that she’d thanked an academic for critiquing the manuscript. This is everything, my friends, because it shows somebody who takes this seriously. It is a privilege to write these sorts of books, and it is a skill to write them well. Bailey does that. She does that so well. She has a clean, simple, and deeply restrained style that delivers such calmly beautiful lines as:

“Mary’s mother was a great thinker. She wrote books to say that women should have the same rights as men. She died when Mary was only eleven days old.

Can you miss someone you’ve never known?

Mary does”

Just, let that sink in a little. The great grace of that, the restraint of that. The way it gives you everything and manages to hold itself back from giving you too much. It’s brilliantly done. And it’s smartly done. It gives children a chance to find something else out on their own, to fill in the absence with their facts and stories, to look up into the sky and tell their own story. After all, “Writers dream stories, awake and asleep.”

It’s beautiful. And it’s even more beautiful when it’s paired with the incomparable artwork of Júlia Sardà. I’d encourage you to have a look at her website and this review about the process of illustrating this little gothic masterpiece, as her artwork here is almost incomparably done. It’s immense, it’s ferociously unique and particular, and it makes me breathless. Her use of line and colour is so wonderfully done, and she has this great gift of being able to centre her images and find the humanity of them (an apt skill when we consider the topic!). There’s a lot going in in this amazing book and yet, even as the wind whips the trees or as owls fly through the sky, your eye’s drawn to Mary. Her red hair, her white face, her story. She will be heard, she will be seen, she will be told.

Oh this book, I could write for days about it…

I will teach it in my classes, and I will hand it to those who tell me that children’s books are the easy options, and I will nominate it for the Kate Greenaway and I shall will it to win every award on the planet, because it’s outstanding. It’s one of the best picture books I’ve ever read.

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Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich, with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

Dear Evan HansenDear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think that to understand this book, you need to understand the context of Dear Evan Hansen itself. Dear Evan Hansen is a musical that’s rather wonderful, even when you just listen to the soundtrack and have to hit Wikipedia to work out what’s going on. It’s been on Broadway for a while now, and is due in the West End in 2019.

The musical is eloquent, fiercely potent, and beautiful put together, and touches upon issues of grief, mental health, anxiety, loss, and the impact of social media in navigating all of this. These are increasingly present and potent issues in today’s society, and Dear Evan Hansen is rather outstanding in how it handles this. I like my musicals, and I like what this one does. It marks its space in the world in a particular way, and it does it with a lot of style, honesty and precision.

This book is the adaptation of the musical, commissioned by the creators, and thus something rather interesting in itself. You can see television and film being adapted easily, readily, into prose, but it’s rather less common with the musical. Much of that sings (badumtish) of the way that musicals themselves are constructed, adapting an already published text, or the difficulty one might find in say translating an iconic visual into prose, let alone the precision and honesty of young adult fiction.

There’s a part of me panicking already at the thought of adapting a Gene Kelly number into text, for example, and I suspect I wouldn’t have touched this commission with a bargepole. Emmich is to be praised for taking this on, and with what he delivers, because it’s a decently rendered thing. It is, however, not the best book I’ve ever read. It could do with a little clarity at some points – particularly to those who are new to the musical – and there’s a curiously forgettable air to the prose, which slightly threw me. Dear Evan Hansen is anthemic, but I suspect this isn’t the best form for that anthem to take. (Sidebar: a part of me longs for a graphic novel version)

But, I do think you should read this and here’s the part where I tell you why.

This is a book that functions as part of a moment and should be considered within that context. I think it might have struggled being told by itself, but when you read it and recognise what it’s part of, then it’s easy to see that it’s something kind of fascinating. It’s telling a story to an audience that, perhaps, may never get to Broadway or the West End, and that in itself is something to applaud. It’s telling a story of people at their worst and best, and it’s touching on topics that so very rarely are exposed with such candour. It’s a good story. It’s a brilliant story. It’s just not that great a book.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Tales Out Of School by Geoffrey Trease

Tales Out of School: A Survey of Children's FictionTales Out of School: A Survey of Children’s Fiction by Geoffrey Trease

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Epochal at its time, this book sought to locate children’s fiction as an object of serious critique. It came during a powerful point in the history of British children’s literature, that mid-twentieth century that saw so many of the classics we refer to on a daily basis take their first breath in the world. Trease, now somewhat lost from popular knowledge, wrote powerful historical fiction for children which merged historical accuracy with characters designed to appeal to both sexes. He wrote for children – not just for boys or girls. Tales Out Of School sees him turn his hand towards theory, and attempt to deliver a critical survey of the last hundred years of children’s fiction, to figure out how it does what it does and why that matters.

It’s interesting to me how many of the books he references as totemic are now relative unknowns, and how some other titles have endured. I suspect that there’s a discussion yet to be had about the great patriarchies that dominate and construct classic British children’s literature, but let’s save that for a day when I’m feeling grumpier. What’s worth celebrating today is Trease’s attempt to rationalise children’s fiction not only to himself but to others. This is a book that looks outwards, incorporating feedback from readers, parents and educationalists. It does so a little stiffly at points, as Trease seeks to relocate his authority as ‘A Writer’ but in the whole, it’s an interesting piece. He’s arguing, essentially, for discussion and action; to try and locate the ‘best of one’s self’ within children’s books, and to write, promote and sell and read the books that do such.

On a side note, there’s a fabulous moment in his chapter about the school story (Chapter IX : Midnight In The Dorm) and forgive me for quoting it at length. He acknowledges a letter he received from the ‘joint-principals of a London school’ who write that “We have looked through several schoolgirls’ annuals… and find they give a very false view of school life. The fourth form seem to run the school – the head-mistress is generally a dignified but distant figure-head, and the assistant mistresses either young, very girlish and so popular, or middle-aged caricatures. In one a party of girls were allowed to go for a picnic some miles from the school without any mistress. Among them was a ‘Ruritanian princess with a gang of international crooks after her. She had been sent to the school for safety and was naturally kidnapped on the picnic.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I take two things from that. Firstly that book sounds an awfully lot like The Princess Of The Chalet School, and secondly those joint-principals sound amazing.

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We Rode To The Sea by Christine Pullein-Thompson

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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