This was fun. ‘So You Think You’ve Got It Bad? A Kid’s Life In Ancient Greece’ isn’t the pithiest of titles (and indeed, a structure paralleled by others in the series such as So You Think You’ve Got It Bad? A Kid’s Life in Ancient Egypt) but it is a rather pithy and well-told piece of non-fiction. What’s really interesting is that this comes from a partnership between Nosy Crow and the British Museum and clearly draws upon some of the themes, objects and knowledge of that institution. It’s easy for books of this nature to become simple ‘let me pay you some money and whack my brand on the front of it’ exercises, but I suspect that this is something that wouldn’t ever happen in the Nosy Crow stable. Their books always have a really nice sense of quality and pride about them, and this is no exception.
And so to content –
Covering topics such as ‘The Home’, ‘Diet’ and ‘Fun And Games’, A Kid’s Life In Ancient Greek works through societal rules and expectations for children. I was pleased to see it include a section on ‘Life As A Spartan’ which quite tactfully introduces the hardship of this experience, and I also loved how each section had colour coded page edges – it’s the little notes like this that bind the experience together.
Tonally, it’s more reminiscent of all the all-devouring Horrible Histories series though it does shy away from full on pastiche (which is a good thing!). Instead Strathie takes a lot of pleasure in exploring history from a contemporary perspective and embracing the humour that comes from this: “In Greek Pictures warriors were sometimes depicted with no clothes on. Nakedness was a symbol of bravery in Greek art. It is not a symbol of bravery nowadays. We repeat, it is NOT a symbol of bravery nowadays.” It’s perhaps not the most historical ‘tone’ one might expect, but he does work a lot of information into this, and neatly too.
I loved discovering Marisa Morea’s illustrations. She’s got a very gentle sense of line and colour, embracing that kind of contemporary, natural edge to her work, and as such makes it all very relateable. There’s a substantial mixture of skin-tones and body shapes represented, which is something very lovely to see.
My only concerns with the volume were that I’d have welcomed more being done with the endpapers (particularly as ancient Greek art is so rich with this sort of thing), and the glossary could have done with a little more relationship to the text itself – it felt a little disjointed. Other than that, this is a smart and solid endeavour.
I’ve always had a messy relationship with the Green Knowe stories. They’ve appealed to me less than I suspect their components ought. In other words a mysterious story set in a strange house in the English countryside should have been my absolute jam and yet hasn’t ever. I’ve tried The Children of Green Knowe several times now and failed to launch. Resolutely. Intensely. Might I even call it a bit dull? I might. But then, there’s a lot here that doesn’t appeal to me underneath the surface. Magic’s never really been my bag in children’s stories. Occasionally it can be, in the hands of say a Joan Aiken or Eva Ibbotson, but mostly it’s not. Magic just feels like a slight dodge. Don’t even start me on The Box Of Delights.
And so, you might be surprised to see that I picked up A Stranger At Green Knowe at all. I know I was, but it was the illustrations that caught my eye. That slender, determined line. The eyes of Hanno looking out from the page. Those isolated, clean, powerful moments. Peter Boston’s work here is remarkable, dancing as it does between raw intimacy and intense power. He made me go back to Green Knowe and I am glad he did for A Stranger At Green Knowe is something else. It’s the sort of book I want to refer to in every proposal for a project for now on, because I just want to say ‘I want my work to feel like that moment just after you finish reading A Stranger At Green Knowe’.
Much of that moment is driven by the tone of A Stranger At Green Knowe. It’s not unusual for a children’s book to wear its heart upon its sleeve, or to make great statements of intent from the get-go. Somebody like Katherine Rundell has this great gift of giving you the blueprint of a story from page one, spilling out sensation and richness from the first page, before letting you actually discover what happens. And that’s what A Stranger At Green Knowe does. It gives you that texture, that richness, of what it will be from the very start.
This book does not shy away from what it is. It is magic, but it is found and real and vital magic, and it is unsustainable magic and it is magic that hurts as much as it gives. There’s a message here of love and tolerance and acceptance, but there’s also something more. You learn that the impossible simply cannot be. Nothing lasts forever. Every bubble bursts. Even the one about Green Knowe. That doesn’t take away the magic of what can be held within; rather, it asks you to look again at it. To savour that moment. To live.
I will go back to this series again, and it is all because of this book and its beautiful tragic heart.
A quirky twist on the ‘first words’ format for babies and toddlers and where others may stray toward the traditional and expected, Aleph embraces the deliciously surreal. The images are big, often falling off the page, with more than a hint of those thick felt-tip pens about them, and cover everything from a circle through to a toucan. Every now and then named characters- Popov, Romi, Cyrus and Aleph – appear for their own little moment, before disappearing again. It’s a weird lovely and kind of spectacular mixture of modernism, with a distinct hint of the old masters about it. There’s more than a touch of Matisse in Coat’s handling of line and colour for example.
What I loved about this is that there’s some sort of narrative coherency – a big thing to ask of a book of this nature – but there is. Chick goes to cat goes to car and then toucan. Words echo each other aurally or thematically or sequentially. It’s not consistent – bunny / cupcake / wolf – but then, in those sequences, shape or colour picks up the narrative bat. There’s a lot of care under the surface of this, and it shows. There’s also a lot of opportunity to extend the images in diverse directions – there’s a lovely page with a baby’s dummy on it, for example – which the list of words names as ‘shhh’ rather than ‘dummy’ or something along that line.
Aleph would be a literally perfect gift to a young reader, but it’s also got a substantial appeal to those interested in the power of illustration for this age-group. It uses a rather unusual neon tone throughout, giving the whole book this quality of being barely contained within the page. I loved it. It’s distinct, it’s unusual and it’s fun.
Until We Win by Linda Newbery is a slender, accessible novella touching upon a key point in suffragette history. It’s framed through the perspective of Lizzy, an everygirl who comes across the work of the suffragettes and becomes a passionate supporter of the cause. Believing in Deeds Not Words, she undertakes action until she – like her sisters – is imprisoned. The backdrop to all of this is the build up to World War One, and there’s a little introduction and prologue delivered retrospectively by Lizzy where she looks back and talks abut the Summer that was and the years that followed.
Barrington Stoke deliver, in their words, ‘super readable’ texts and this is a worthy addition to their list. It’s deeply accessible, both through format and style, and there’s a lot to give somebody here. It’s perfectly pitched for those who may feel unable or intimidate by thicker, heavier books and could work as a nice lead-in and confidence booster. I also enjoyed the note from Stewart Easton which explained his reasoning behind the cover design. This sort of thing is so important because it tells you who’s ‘behind’ the book, as it were, but also encourages readers to question and think about the book as a whole. It’s never just about the words on the page.
I was impressed at how much Newbery packs into this. I have such a lot of time for her as a writer, and love what she does. I found some of the beats she touches here a little familiar and thus not as startling as they could be, but if you’re new to the topic then that may slide you by. I’m also going to take this moment to suggest that you head towards Newbery’s kind of remarkable back catalogue. Here’s a few I’ve reviewed.
There’s always been something special about Robin Stevens’ work for me. I’ve been a fan of her since Murder Most Unladylike, a book that features in my thesis and a paper I’m working on and a presentation I’ll be doing in a couple of months. I get a lot from her work, and I enjoy working with it. I enjoy reading her books. I love them, in point of fact. She writes golden stories full of such utter quality and they’re great. They’re also fiercely committed to representation, diversity and equality and some of the steps made in Death in the Spotlight are beautifully handled.
I found the context for Death In The Spotlight to be a little artificial, but once I moved past that I remembered how good these books are. Stevens has the great gift of pulling you on the journey with her. And you can have doubts, and moments when you question it, because Hazel or Daisy are doing the precise same thing all along, but then you solve the crime. Figure out the murderer. You test yourself against the book at every step and when you finish it, you end up in such a good and satisfied place that you forget any of the doubt you had. I love how Stevens does that. She allows you those moments to question and doubt, and she says that it’s okay. It’s such an expression of faith and trust in her readers, and I love it.
I have my suspicions for the future trajectory of this series, as we’re moving towards a tumultuous period in British history, but I’ll not dwell much on that. I shall simply say that I’ll be there with these books and waiting to see what happens. I love them a lot, I really really do.
The more I read of Bessie Marchant, the more I enjoy her. She is a writer who hybridises Elinor M. Brent-Dyer at her Ruritanian best with the entirety of the Boy’s Own Genre, and makes it her own. She is rather fabulous, and her books are a joy.
Here’s the Wikipedia summary for A Dangerous Mission: Tatna is a young school teacher in Petrograd, Russia. She gets caught up in a bread riot and escapes, disguised as another teacher who is bound for a school in the remote countryside, where she discovers that she has a talent for teaching the local people about responsible government. .
Published in 1918, this is naturally a story which is trying to say a particular thing in a particular point of time. There are certain elements which stick from a more contemporary reading; the notion of the uneducated masses being told what to do is just a little problematic, and the sub-plot with the Baroness (there is always a subplot of this sort of nature in this sort of book) sticks just a tad. Marchant manages to get away with all of that because she is so utterly, utterly devoted to making this readable.
A Dangerous Mission is popular fiction from one hundred years ago, and it wouldn’t have won any prizes then, and it wouldn’t now. This isn’t the highest work by any means, but it is rather fabulous. Tatna is a spirited heroine and somewhat richly impetuous; she doesn’t quite think as much as Marchant clearly wants her to, and there’s something delightful about an author struggling to catch up with one of their creations.
The final movement of the book rather escapes both Marchant and Tatna; there’s some shenanigans, some Fortunate Appearances At The Right Time, and some Problems Getting Resolved, but honestly, it’s hard to be negative about this. This is such a richly readable, rampantly nutty, kind of fabulous story about a girl who changes the world about her, and I will always love such things.
(A brief note from the editor; this is a blog concerned with children’s and young adult literature. Circe is arguably neither. Yet it is remarkable and this blog will always find a home for the remarkable story. This is something to give to those readers breaching the edge of young adult and looking for something else , something remarkable. We often forget about those readers. We should not.)
Lyrical, poignant, powerful and ferociously unashamed of what it is and the story it has to tell, Circe by Madeline Miller is something else. As I do with many of the ‘big’ books, the ones that win the awards and are talked about at length by everyone I know, I began it with fear. I stray carefully into books that are out of my specialisms, because I don’t want to read bad things. I don’t have time for that. Nobody does. Reading is a brief, beautiful marriage and to have one that doesn’t work out? That’s the worst of things, the worst of times.
Circe works out. And it is the best, the best of times.
It is the first book by Madeline Miller that I’ve read, but it will not be the last. Miller’s eloquent and lyrical prose seeks out the roundness of Circe’s story and presents it with such utter truth. It is a remarkable book, evocative of those epic poems that tell stories of long lost and distant heroes; Circe, however, is as present as the keyboard that I type this on. You feel her, you know her, and you live her every breath. There’s something rather remarkable happening here; a story of a woman being told in an intimate, powerful, believable manner – the story of her survival, her loves, her losses, and her rampant, raw bravery.
A powerful, graceful and eloquent story, told with truth, honesty and love. I read this in a handful of days. I would go back to the start of those days all over.