In the time between that review and this, I moved back into academia and my thoughts have become increasingly concerned with two distinct things: that is to say the representation of the female body, and the representation of power in children’s and young adult literature. I tend to lean towards the younger end of the market, in my reading, theory and creative work, and have recently had a project accepted to look at the representation of the preadolescent female body in children’s literature (but more of that anon). For now, it’s worthwhile wedding that idea of ‘power’ and ‘body’ with The Bunker Diary as I think there’s something interesting there – and something that reflects on the state of play in children’s and young adult literature today.
There’s something rather appealing about a book that displays its intent so clearly. Charlie Changes Into A Chicken gives you everything from page one, and continues to do that on every page that follows. It’s determinedly readable (seriously the drive behind this is almost palpable), full of direct address to the reader and some very funny moments. Charlie McGuffin (the layers of meaning in THAT surname…) has developed a curious talent. At times of great personal stress, he turns into an animal – and for somebody who has a beloved brother in hospital, panicking parents, and a school bully on his tail, that’s a lot to deal with.
The first of a series, and Copeland’s debut, Charlie Changes Into A Chicken is, as I say, a determined book. I like that sort of a feel to something; this wants to be read, and doesn’t want to let its readers go without a fight. Copeland embraces every technique at his disposal to keep his readers, and it’s very nicely done. Confidently, too, and that’s something that says a lot about Copeland’s knowledge and belief in his fictional creation. It’s also very funny.
Paired with Sarah Horne’s fiercely dynamic illustration, it’s a potent mix. Horne has a lovely sense of movement and dynamism to her lines; there’s not one instance of her artwork that doesn’t push right to the edge of the page.
You’re Not A Proper Pirate, Sidney Green! is a lot of fun. I can’t imagine things not looking up after a read of this. It really is genuine, exuberant, ‘drop it all at once and have an adventure’ fun. Written by Ruth Quayle, and illustrated by Deborah Allwright, it tells the story of Sidney Green and his dog Jemima who go on adventures – but, according to Captain Shipshape and his pirate crew, Sidney and Jemima should be more concerned with being a Proper Pirate. Right now!
I always think it’s a good sign if a picture book embraces rhythm. It’s so important to understand that these books are not about being just seen – they’re about being heard. You’re Not A Proper Pirate has some delightful refrains, but also some lovely use of repetition. It’s about using all the tricks of your trade to build readers and Quayle works her story to the max to do this. It’s great. It’s also a visual treat. Some of the spreads are busy, but there’s a nice internal logic to them. You can find and work out what’s happening, and much of the credit for that must go to Allwright. She handles a spread well, and the scenes where they go to space are lovely. (Pirates in space, yep). Finally, it’s worthwhile mentioning that – as ever with Nosy Crow – You’re Not A Proper Pirate depicts a wide range of skin colours and genders. This quiet representation is something Nosy Crow books really do excel at.
I do grant that there’s a leap to be made about accepting the presence of a pirate in your local neighbourhood, let alone one who’s concerned for the pirate education of the local youth, but make the leap. Come on. It’s better if you do. This isn’t about pirates at all; it’s rather about finding adventure and imagination in the everyday – and giving yourself permission to be part of that. It’s a great lesson to learn. It’s also a pretty damn great one for adults to be reminded of as well.
It’s the little details about this book that make me happy. The idea of a month-by-month review of the year is no new one within the world of children’s publishing. I recently have been spending several very happy hours with similar titles from the fifties, that show children how to press flowers and make pinhole cameras, and a more modern version of these books is a great and lovely thing. And as ever with Nosy Crow, it’s produced with an absolute finesse that makes the book nerd inside me very satisfied. The book has rounded edges (perfect for stuffing in a rucksack and not getting damaged), and a little ribbon (and books with ribbon are always welcome in the world), and it’s sturdily and robustly put together. This is a book that wants to be used, and should be.
Published in collaboration with The National Trust, this almanac wears its affiliation lightly. It’s not asking children to visit their nearest stately home which was something I wondered about (it’s always a worry in content of this nature). Rather the book works towards a different goal where children of all ethnicities, genders and background work to enjoy the wild world. The artwork is lovely; round and rich and stylised, and full of fun. This is the work of Elly Jahnz who’s done something very beautiful here. It’s hard to make, say, a seashell collectors guide a particularly dynamic spread, but she manages to do so. Working alongside Anna Wilson who wrote this, the two of them produce something kind of delightful. And nice. More books should be nice and talk about everything from making April Fool to how to go wild swimming.
I’m reviewing this towards the end of January for a deliberate reason. It’s about this time that the post-Christmas blues hit in. Everyone’s back at school, back at work, and the weather isn’t perhaps the best. Perhaps it’s even snowing a little bit (she says, with a look at the camera and a gesture outside her window). Books like this offer a way to navigate those blues and to pull the outside in, and to do so as a family. They deserve a spotlight of their very own.
Endlessly beautiful, in that way that only Hilary McKay can be, The Skylarks War is perfect. I thought it might be on page ninety-seven, and then when I finished it and let out a great gasping sob at that ending, I knew it was. This is rich, wild and lovely storytelling, and reading it is like reading something you have known your entire life. I wonder sometimes at how McKay can do this, and then I realise that I don’t need to wonder. I simply need to be glad that she can, and does, and that books like this are in the world.
It’s a big book as well, this, it doesn’t shy away from some hard and precise horrors in the world whether they are familial, and of individuals who do not know how to love their children or indeed, whether they can, or bigger, made of people fighting and dying in landscapes far away from home. This is World War One, and McKay does not shy away from its great and dark horrors. Some of her writing here is some of her best, I think, encompassing a curious mixture of numbness and truth and sadness and fear and honesty that makes the pages feel almost like a primary source. That they’re written from that time, from that space, from that darkness.
I am concious that I’ve not told you much about the book itself, and in a way I’m not sorry. I want you to feel the texture of it, that great depth that gives you so much in a single sentence, and does so in a way that only McKay can do. This is deep storying, and it is done in such an unafraid and simple and matter-of-fact way that makes it something else. It is a coming of age story. It is a story of family. It is a story about growing up and figuring out who you are in the world. It is a story about figuring out what the world will let you be.
But most of all, I think this is a story about love. Love for family, love for friends, love for each other, and a love of those summers where nothing is impossible. Love that brings pain and love that brings strength, love that brings hope and understanding and heartbreak and joy. Love that is love and love that is given freely, hopefully, tenderly, painfully. Love, love, love. Always love.
The Harriet of Harriet Takes The Field is Lady North and for some reason or another, she’s been lumbered with some ungrateful Guides. Inevitably she manages to turn things around, and they soon worship her in a rather Angela Brazil-esque fashion. Yet Christian manages to shy away from simplistic narratives of hero worship, and instead delivers something complex, deeply political and rather radical. It’s not often you have people discussing how women give birth in a 1940s children’s book for example. Of course the detail is skirted around, but the discussion is present. It’s such a radical, bold move.
These moments of radicalism persist throughout the book. As the war progresses about them, Harriet and her girls become increasingly present participants in a narrative of war and strife. Though much of it remains distant, Harriet herself suffers from the stress and is called up. Again, a lot of this happens off screen, but the effect of it is very much within the text. She’s moved to tears by a child confessing that he wasn’t alive during the last war; she talks to the girls about how to find security within themselves when all is lost, and the suffering of those in mainland Europe is foregrounded to a heartbreaking extent. England must survive, and everyone must do their part.
Much of this is directed towards the reader, and some of it has dated. That’s a caveat you must always apply to books of this nature, but equally you have to recognise those moments when it does something rather brilliant and rather utterly wonderful. There’s a lot of Harriet Takes The Field that slightly misses the moment, but every now and then it gets it. It really, really does. Take the below quote where Harriet muses on the teenagers that she knows:
“They’ve been fine,” she thought, “Fine, all of them. It isn’t for my generation to be proud of them. We’ve thrown our dice and lost. We had twenty years to build a wall against the floods, and we failed. Now these youngsters are fighting knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder with us to save what can be saved. It isn’t for us to condescend to our peers.”
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.
My speciality is Girl’s Own, but sometimes my interest gets caught by those publications intended squarely for boyish readers. Such it was with Young England, a compiled annual of a ‘story paper’ for boys. I picked up copies of the 1914-1915 and the 1909-1910 editions for an absolute song, intrigued by the size of the volumes and their other-worldliness. These aren’t small things, nor are they subtle. Each is very much orientated towards the boys of the Empire, and ensuring their place in the greater scheme of things. And for somebody who’s fascinated by historical children’s literature, and the way that it can reveal everything about the world, these books are an absolute gift.
There’s an interesting breakdown of the 1914-1915 edition of Young England here [link removed 1/9/2019 as no longer valid], with details of the relevant stories in the volume and also a good luck at the images. I want to offer a slightly different review, focusing instead on the tone of the annual and some of the key themes that come across in it. I also want you to imagine yourself as a ten or eleven year old child reading this. Some of the content is rather remarkable, and Young England certainly makes no bones about the fact that it it sees it as noble to fight a war and noble to give yourself for your country. It’s a difficult read at points, preparing as it is a whole generation for military service and sacrifice, and some of the passages are almost incomprehensible.
This is one such passage. It’s from A Good Samaritan on the Battlefield by Margaret Watson, and it made me stop in my tracks. As with many of the ‘real life’ contributions in this volume, it borders on the edge between truth and propaganda. This definitely steps over towards propaganda, telling the story of a young private named John Smith and how he was looked after by ‘Johannes Schmidt’ when injured. The German keeps John and his colleagues alive, feeding and watering him, until he’s forced to retreat and abandon his wards. Upon subsequent rescue by their own side, the Englishmen pay tribute and thanks to Johannes. I got a little lost in the nature of the tribute itself, as it involves something to do with a cairn and rocks, and I couldn’t work out whether these were metaphorical rocks, actual rocks or indeed some weird ‘I say this but actually mean something quite different’ tic of language back then. I kept coming back to this passage however and wondering over it. Worrying too, I guess, sensing at something beyond the words that I couldn’t ever hope to grasp and trying to figure out the impact of that. As a reader. And as a writer.
I tried to find out something more about Margaret Watson, but she’s not an easy one to find. I wondered if these odd little fables, these morality plays of great and deep import, were all she’d written or if she’d ever looked at doing something else. And, I suppose, I wanted to know how she’d felt being part of this collection that urges young boys so gleefully to a war and to a noble, awful death.
It’s wrong to throw all of this at Margaret’s feet, because she’s one voice out of a hundred here. Young England is dominated by these voices which want players in this great narrative of the Empire and of Plucky Britain Doing What’s Right And What’s Honourable. Many of the stories here involve protracted negotiations of honour, redemption, and I was particularly struck by one serial which sees a young family redeem their father who’s been set up by his business colleagues. There’s another which sees the boys of a nondescript public school sacrifice themselves (metaphorically) so that the other man may benefit from their action. It’s not hard to see the attitude here about the war being a Great Adventure – but it’s also not hard to see why a whole generation of boys believed that.
The war underpins nearly everything in this book. Take a look at this game suggested for the boys to learn. It’s called BUCKET DRILL and it involves being able to throw a bucket of water on anything. Not just throw – actually hit that thing with force. As fires are “in these days” inevitable things, the boys can then help to put out a fire if needs be. They can do their part. (They can also do it by throwing water at a “stodgy, good-tempered boy”, and win points “every time you knock the wind out of him or bowl him right over”, which is a remarkable sentence if ever I saw one). BUCKET DRILL is the subtext becoming text. It’s the palpable fear of invasion being made flesh, and the fact that war is coming to their doorstep. Not if – but when. It’s important to recognise that this was a worldwide publication – as evidenced by stories featuring New Zealand, Canada and China – and so many of the children reading this magazine, and indeed the young adults it suggests that you send it onto – were probably already caught up in the war at some level.
I’m not familiar enough with the boys juvenilia of this period to answer such a question so I’ll leave that hanging. Suffice to say, this is a powerful volume with some rather moving qualities and should you come across a copy, I’d highly recommend you picking it up. Young England is like a little time capsule of who we were, and what we wanted our children to be. And honestly, it’s rather remarkable.
Reading Young England also reminded me of something I’d read a while back. It took me a moment to dig out the connection, but here it is. Back when he was eleven, George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) wrote a poem called “Awake! Young Men of England” and had it published in his local newspaper:
OH! give me the strength of the Lion, The wisdom of Reynard the Fox And then I’ll hurl troops at the Germans And give them the hardest of knocks.
Oh! think of the War Lord’s mailed fist, That is striking at England today: And think of the lives that our soldiers Are fearlessly throwing away.
Awake! Oh you young men of England, For if, when your Country’s in need, You do not enlist by the thousand, You truly are cowards indeed.
It’s always a little difficult coming to a series ‘second book in as it were’ as you do tend to miss a lot of what’s gone on. It took me a while to figure out who was who, and what was what, and then I simply gave up and enjoyed the wild richness of Enright’s writing. This is a summer like no other, as all the best children’s books are, and full of some absolutely beautiful moments. I have to say I struggled with some of this as it’s not the quickest, nor most ‘open’ of books, but it is rather utterly beautifully done. Enright is a Newbery award winner (indeed, for the prequel Gone-Away Lake), and this book is full of rich quality in every word.
It’s rather interesting to parallel Return To Gone-Away with an author much more familiar to me, somebody like Philippa Pearce and Minnow On The Say for example. Both books have this rather thick, lovely quality of heat about them, and share a distinctly child-orientated eye. And maybe that’s it, that’s the mark of a good book wherever it may be found or whenever it appears in the series, that concern for the childish perspective and making that way of seeing be seen. Maybe there’s more to it, this ability to make your writing actually be felt … I don’t know. I suspect I’m wandering a little here, so I’m going to move on. Suffice to say, language is rather an amazing thing isn’t it?
Anyway! It was the artwork that caught my eye. I found this in a second hand bookshop that tends to have some super interesting stuff in, and I was entranced. I managed to pick up a UK Children’s Book Club edition (published by Heinemann in 1963, and for sale at 12s. 6d). It’s illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush and my goodness, they know how to handle a line. Every page is full of interest, life and movement. It’s rather fabulous. You can see some samples of their work here.
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.
I’ve been looking for something like Girl Squads for a very long time. This smart, chatty and furiously honest book is a treat because, unlike so many of the others out there, Girl Squads acknowledges the truth about women’s history. It is complex, fought for, and often overwritten by a cultural system which privileges other voices. I’m trying not to write The White Western Patriarchy here, but I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now.
What I loved about Girl Squads is that it’s not afraid of offering an opinion. There’s no romantic hagiographies here; history is rendered as a messy, knotty and occasionally deeply unsatisfying thing. The style is chatty, conversational, occasionally sliding a little too much towards the informal, but as a whole works perfectly. This is big sister history, told to you by somebody who wants you to think about the world and to fight for your place in it. And the women covered are remarkable. It’s split into sections covering Athlete Squads, Political and Activist Squads, Warrior Squads, Scientist Squads and Artist Squads, and covers women’s groups as diverse as The Haenyeo Divers to The Blue Stockings.
Interspersed throughout by Jenn Woodall’s sensitive and richly detailed illustrations (a small cameo to introduce each woman, and a lovely page to introduce each section), Girl Squads is a vibrant, powerful thing. It pays tribute to the complex lives of the women it celebrates and it manages to keep that complexity intact. Being female is a complex, wonderful thing. Not many books recognise that challenge or celebrate it. But Girl Squads does.
I finished this book last night, and ever since then I’ve been trying to figure it out. I was excited to be offered a review copy from the publisher as Celia Rees is one of those great and powerful voices in children’s and young adult literature that you should always be excited for. She is a wild and wonderful writer and when I heard that she was writing something inspired by the early work of the Brontës I was thrilled.
And I am still thrilled in a way, but in that knotty sort of confused manner where you think you should be happy for something but aren’t quite sure if you are; the sort of emotion that makes you question everything about you and do actual real life brow furrowing. Celia Rees is an outstanding writer, but I don’t think this is a good book. It is furiously impenetrable at points, strangely balanced, and full of odd pacing and sudden shifts of tone. When I finished it, I stared at it and realised that I didn’t know what to think of it. I wasn’t sure I’d enjoyed it, even though I knew I loved the parts where Rees wrote about Haworth and the sisters; the intimacy and power of her work here and the way she explored the landscape of these writers was good, strong, wild writing. But I also knew that I’d struggled with the first half, got quite lost in the middle, and then bounded through the final third in as greedy and keen a read as I’ve ever done.
A contradiction, then, but a contradiction that keeps working on you after you’ve finished it. I am done with this book but it’s a book that’s not done with me. I’ve thought about it all morning, I’ve begun this review a thousand times and I’ve begun it a thousand times again. I suspect that Glass Town Wars is a story that’s not just about the book. Does that make sense? I suspect it doesn’t, but I’m going to try and explain myself. Sometimes when we experience story, we can read it and it’s done. Page turned, book closed, job done. But sometimes the story lingers and we can make connections with it in the real world. We turn it over in our thoughts, we think it through and we start to realise that the book we’ve read was just the part of a journey. It’s matured into something else.
And that’s Glass Town Wars; it’s not the best read, but the moments after it are sort of remarkable. When I reviewed Wuthering Heights, I talked about how this was a book that wanted to be read and to desperately hide away, all at once. Glass Town Wars has something of that quality, delivering a narrative of fantasy and of the Brontës which sometimes makes perfect sense and sometimes anything but. It’s a curious contradiction, this beautiful and impenetrable and longlasting thing.
I will defend Lorna Hill to the end of time, but I will not defend this book. It isn’t great, and it hurts me to write that but it’s true. No Medals For Guy is the book that finally convinced me of the great fact that Guy Charlton is a douchebag. Grown up Guy is kind of great if you squint a little and concentrate on him being a dashing rescuer type, but juvenile Guy is the sort of boy you want to throw things at and lock your doors against. And the curious thing is that Lorna Hill is rather besotted with him; this is a book about Guy, and she’s determined to make him rather fabulous, and she’s going to – but she sort of achieves the opposite.
And in expending all this effort to make you love Guy Charlton, Hill manages to rather neglect the others. The things I could tell you about Marjorie and Esme and all the others (two of which I’ve just had to look up the names of) wouldn’t fill more than a minute, and even then I’d be tentatively reaching out at best. There’s an odd subplot involving a girl that the gang make friends with, and an even odder subplot about a ghost and a reporter just gaily spending the night in somebody else’s house, and then there’s this weird and rather over-handled thing about swimsuits.
It’s a strange book this, and a little too blindly convinced in its own merits. Hill was always at her best with stories of the individual, and her early Sadlers Wells stories – of Veronica and Caroline in particular – are transcendent things. No Medals For Guy doesn’t come anywhere near the heights of that for me. It hits similar beats for sure, but never quite with the same conviction or indeed the same heart. It’s a shame because Hill could be something else; but here, she’s not. She’s so very definitely not.
I’m still shaking after last night’s Doctor Who episode. Written by the illustrious Malorie Blackman, a legend in the world of children’s and young adult literature – and former Children’s Laureate to boot, Rosa was set in Montgomery, Alabama and concerned the equally illustrious figure of Rosa Parks.
It’s sometimes difficult to understand story when you’re crying on the sofa. When you’re made breathless by it, and you can’t look away. When sentences make you sick and horrified at the world and then, in the next breath, make you laugh out loud. Emotions matter. They’re a total asset. And when a story triggers them, whether that story’s rendered on a television screen, written in a book or stuck onto the back of the HP bottle, you know you’re onto a good thing.
Malorie Blackman is a good thing. Rosa broke me and remade me and it reminded me of the utter power of story. It’s an unrelenting episode, stark and unflinching and with a remarkably final ten minutes or so. It’s perhaps more remarkable in that the agency of Rosa herself is never affected. She changes the world. She changes the universe. And she does it herself. There’s no machinations, no zapping of an alien to make her sit in the seat, it’s just the circumstances of history and the power of an individual voice. Beyond that, yes, there’s a Doctor Who episode but there’s also one of the lead characters being threatened with a lynching. There’s a moment where two of the leads reflect on how they face modern day racism. This is raw, horrific, outstanding storytelling and it felt like a statement of intent, not only for the show but also Malorie Blackman’s work. She is a storyteller of intense power.
If you’d like to discover more about Blackman’s work, I’d suggest starting with the outstanding Noughts and Crosses series. I review the first one here.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been wanting to write a brief guide on how to pitch your book for review to a book blogger for a while. It seems to be one of those things that a lot of people can’t quite figure out, or get intimidated by, or just sort of blindly hope for the best with. And, really, it’s not rocket science. Pitching your book for review involves a little more than ‘please will you review my book’, but it really does involve a lot less than you think. Here’s my top tips in no particular order.
Know who you’re talking to and what they tend to review. There’s no point in emailing a person who blogs about children’s literature if your book is adult crime. It’s a waste of everybody’s time. Be strategic in your efforts.
Related, tell me why you’ve come to me. Personalise that standard email a little bit and tell me why you think your book and me will click.
Be polite and nice. Niceness on the internet is a good thing. We should all work towards it a little bit more.
If the blogger has guidelines for submission, work to them. In all likelihood they’re not getting paid, so respect their wishes. Don’t repeat email if you don’t get a response.
Respect time frames. Books don’t get reviewed immediately and maybe never. Sending a copy for review does not guarantee a review.
Be prepared for a negative review. Simply thank the reviewer for their time and move on. Don’t burn your bridges in a small community. Don’t make the blogger blacklist you.
Be realistic. This is a hard business, and nine times out of ten, you won’t get a response. If you do get a response that says no, thank them for their time and move on (sensing a theme here?)
Be passionate, honest, and know your market. YA is not just about vampires (and hasn’t been for about three hundred years). Picture books are not an easy option. Tell me about the heart of your book. Tell me why that matters in today’s publishing world.
Don’t pay somebody to do the dirty work for you! I can’t stress this one enough. There are a thousand websites out there that will give you lists and contact details for bloggers. This is usually public information and can be found via a quick Google. Don’t pay. Seriously, don’t pay for public domain info. It’s awful and a blanket email tells me you’ve done no research about who you’re talking to.
Do, however, pay for reputable services done by reputable people. There are people out there who can advise you on marketing or promotion. This is a complex thing, and there’s no shame in paying for services. Do however check their credentials, ask to see a sample of their work, or speak to former clients…
Don’t be afraid. I want to write about good books. I want to share books that have something important and relevant to say about the world. I want to hear from voices marginalised from that discussion. If I think I can help you out, or give your book a review, then I will.
“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?
A quietly, precisely told story, Amal Unbound is careful about itself and careful about the story it tells. It is also rather unrelenting, quietly bold and ultimately, rather powerful.
It’s the story of a Pakistani girl named Amal who, when forced into indentured servitude, has to survive against a complex, challenging and scary world. And to do so by herself, bolstered by her dreams and hope and ambitions for something other than the circumstances she finds herself in.
Narrated in the first person, Amal Unbound consists of quite short chapters that, as ever, are accessible to the younger readers in this age bracket (I’d pitch this for readers somewhere around ten+, perhaps) but also offer a lot to the more confident reader. Saeed writes in a very quiet, calm and yet rather beautiful manner. It’s eloquent and gently done stuff, and perhaps quite remarkably so when you consider the scenarios she works with. Amal’s mother suffers from post-natal depression, her father is suck into a spiral of ever-increasing debt, and Amal must learn to live in a life full of strangers and fear, far away from her dreams of becoming a teacher. And yet, Amal Unbound comes to remind us that dreams are never that far away from us if we work for them, and manages to do so without straying into Noble Adults Writing About Things For Children territory. There’s a lot in this potent little book to praise, and that’s one of the biggest. This is a book about big issues, without being consciously About Big Issues. It’s simply the raw and honest story of Amal, and a thousand other girls like her.
I’d have welcome a little more context about indentured servitude for younger readers, and perhaps some resources to inspire further thought, though Saeed’s graceful and again, precisely pitched afterword does cover some of this area. She acknowledges the influence of Malala Yousafzai on her story but also the voices of the unknown girls, and that’s a potent note that any educator can sensitively and tactfully explore further with their classes. This is a rarely told story, and it’s one I’m grateful for. I’d recommend it straight away for your September 2018 purchase lists.
I’ve been visiting some of my favourite bookshops over the last few weeks and picking up some utter treasures. These are books that wouldn’t and won’t make a fortune if I sold them on, but to me they’re priceless in what they say about our ideas of childhood and children many moons ago. I’m going to introduce a couple of them to you over the next couple of weeks, The Child’s Guide To Knowledge (1861) is the first one up.
It’s a slim, small little thing, the sort of book that could fit easily into your pocket. I found my copy of it in a charity shop at the seaside, and it was dwarfed by the books about it. This is a copy that’s lived a life, and that’s no wonder when you consider the age of it. 1861. The American Civil War was happening, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died, and on March 12, this book was being held by somebody called Richard. He wrote his name in it too.
(I wonder, upon investigation, whether it was this Richard? I’m not sure about the dates, or even if I’m reading his name correctly, but the area feels about right. I’m not sure people would have travelled far from their point of origin, particularly on a fairly prosperous coast(?)).
I had a little bit of a moment when I found it. I don’t know much about books like this, as they’re about fifty or so years before my specialist area, but I love them. These little collections of lessons and facts to be recited by some poor child in some schoolroom somewhere are fascinating. They tell us what adults thought children should know, and the way that they thought they should know them. This, for example, is onto talking about macaroni by page three. Macaroni! Macaroni comes before the lesson on the constitution! It’s so weird!
A final thing to note is the authorship. A Child’s Guide to Knowledge is written, rather coyly, ‘By A Lady’. (Coincidentally, this sentence tickles me so much, I used it as the background of my Twitter and might never change). The lady herself is never named throughout the text, except refers to herself as the authoress and refuses to add wood-cuts or engravings into the book as they ‘might take off the attention of children’. Seriously, what’s not to love?
Well, I can answer my own question straight away here and refer to the fact that she’s not named. Some of that is obviously due to convention, the status of writing for children at that time, and the blessed patriarchy that we all hold so dear (!). That can be rectified with the benefit of hindsight, and so here’s to you Fanny Umphelby and thank you for giving me so much joy with this peculiarly, brilliant little book. I particularly love how you finished the last page off with a good review.
I can understand the feelings behind this, and the urge behind it, but Ten Years Later is a problematic and frankly strange book that seems to deny or barely recognise much of the structure and themes that made the Sweet Valley series work. For those of you who collect a certain other series of books, it reminded me very much of The Chalet Girls Grow Up (a book I find utterly fascinating) and in a way, Ten Years Later is fascinating. It is strange and quite weird and full of a peculiar distaste for happy endings and comfortable resolution, but it is fascinating.
I engaged in the Sweet Valley books with a sort of episodic delight. They were never massively big, nor did my library have a lot of them, but I was entranced by their numerous quality. The mythic nature of Jessica’s hair. Country clubs. Apartments. They sang of a very specific and quite dreamy Americana that could be like catnip, and so when I did come across them, I devoured them. I also have very fond memories of the TV series that was shown during the 90s (?), and the spectacular nature of that theme tune.
But this is not a good book. Not really. It’s kind of hypnotic and fascinating and full of a sort of peculiar loathing for the characters of this world. Pascal could be a good writer, but this would have benefitted from some substantial editing, a massive chat about that hideous little ‘where are they now’ coda that’s tacked on the end of it, and a further massive chat about all of the slightly squicky descriptions of everybody’s looks.
I won’t say don’t read this, because I believe very much that you read what you want, always, but I would say that this might not give you the resolution that you seek for this world. But then again, I suppose, the discussion is whether a book like this was even necessary in the first place. Do you need to tie these big wide worlds off with a neat bow? Or is it better to simply step away ? I’m not sure I know, but I know this: Ten Years Later is one of the strangest and, in a way, saddest books I’ve read.
Picture books are a performative thing. Every book is, in a sense, but picture books are perhaps more performative than others. They are made to be shared and talked about and enjoyed by multitudes of readers. They are made to be read aloud, to inspire funny voices, and to have their corners chewed on by babies who are figuring out this wide, wide world that they live in. I always think that it’s a good thing when you can feel this edge of performance to a picture book, where you can sense the parts you’d emphasise or the parts where you’d tease out the tension to that almost unbearable point, and I always think that it’s a good thing when you read a picture book and can hear the reaction that it would get.
What Does An Anteater Eat? is a book that’s full of that third space, that performative edge, that raw, hysterical laughter that really only little children can do and when they do it, the world laughs with them. And I felt that when I read this book, and that’s something quite remarkable. This is a relatively slender story; an anteater wakes up from a nap, is hungry, and tries to remember what he eats. He asks several other animals who provide both useful and useless answers, before happening upon an ants nest and – well, let’s just say that anteaters don’t actually eat what you think. There’s a nice little note in this about not judging on appearances, and Collins’ art is full of a vibrant, thick sense of colour. He’s an artist doing good things, and his characters sing with this sense of lovely honesty. This is lived art, primal and potent. I also do love a cover that sets itself apart from many of those on the shelves at the moment.
I’d have welcome a little more work being done with the lettering, as I always feel that simply shifting from text into italics is a relatively easy default to choose in a picture book and one which shies away from the added quality good lettering can provide, but that’s a small note for a book as potently performative as this.
This was my first ever Bessie Marchant, and after we got to the bit about taxidermy, I realised that we were in for quite a ride. She’s an interesting author is Marchant, always on my radar with her girls full of Strong And Noble attitudes in Far Flung Corners Of The World, and yet I’d never quite got round to reading her. Well, no more.
Miss Wilmer’s Gang is a curious beast, revolting against gender roles whilst ultimately succumbing towards such, with some rather problematic treatments of colonialism and empire. As ever, it’s a symbol of its time in many respects, but it also renders something quite interesting in its treatment of class and girl/womanhood. Miss Wilmer herself has inherited islands in Patagonia
and has now decided to go and sort them out with the aid of a band of Hearty And Attractive Single Girls.
(HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA WHAT IS THIS BOOK)
This band of Hearty And Attractive Single Girls changes a bit before the expedition sets off, as one of those girls has the temerity to go and get married. Once we’ve finally established our group, the book sets off and we’re off to Patagonia. It’s kind of spectacular how nuts this book really is, because the girls are both Capable and Yet Incapable and the local inhabitants of the islands are rendered as Deeply Problematic Individuals Who Just Don’t Know Help When They See It.
I’m being flippant in a way, because these books were groundbreaking. They’ve aged poorly in both representation and style, but the positioning of girls in these narratives of adventure and derring do was a unique thing to do. There’s a genre of stories where boys wandered off and had adventures in the distant corners of the worlds, but the centring of women and girls in these narratives? Not so common. Not so much. There’s something interesting being said about women and girls here, and the tensions that pull upon that will, I suspect, come to fascinate me.
I have promised to be, above all things, honest in the reviews that I write and so it’s for that reason that I must confess that I wanted to dislike this a lot more than I did. These books at the moments for rebel girls and boys who dare to be different conceptually bother me; they speak to ideas of gender in children’s literature, for this is what this is, really, and they speak to the state of those ideas being in a somewhat complicated and, perhaps, quite a troubled space. And, because I am somebody rooted in the classics of British children’s literature, it seems to all stem from the mid-twentieth century and the notions we have of girls and of boys in the books of that second golden age that still so heavily comes to influence the state of children’s literature today.
And yet, and yet –
That strapline bothered me. Boys who changed the world without killing dragons? It’s so specific, so madly, utterly, wilfully specific in tone that by perpetuating said tone, that surely it perpetuates a myth of masculinity that the book itself is trying to defy –
And yet, and yet –
That title. Why stories for boys who dare to be different. Different from what? Why is it daring? The transgressive act only becomes transgressive when rendered as such; perhaps this should be a form of normalcy that we should be trying to understand as such. Surely in making something the other, we perpetuate that otherness –
And yet, this isn’t a bad book. To be frank, it’s actually pretty good.
But I still have questions to resolve, and I will resolve them and I will do so with the full and frank acknowledgement that this is a good, kind and thoughtfully constructed book. It is representative, inclusive and frequently moving, encompassing characters such as Nicholas Winton, Taika Waititi and Lionel Messi. There’s elements of it still to challenge, and on fully legitimate circumstances and not ‘grumpy scholarly’ circumstances. Louis Braille is included and yet there’s no acknowledgement of the fact that much of his entry cannot be read by those he sought to help. Similarly, the entry for Junot Diaz suffers from recent events, and I was concerned by some of the looser rhetoric involved in other entries such as “It’s time to take their country back”. That’s a problematic phrase, not in the least for its implicit politicking, and it’s a phrase that, really, means very little. And sure, a very young reader might not pick up on that angle, but they’ll pick up on the language. The phrasing. And it’s that sort of thing in this book that matters and should be fought over, fiercely.
These books are having a moment and I welcome the effort that Brooks has done towards making his contribution a pretty damn good book. I suspect much of its problems come from the hobbles of frame and circumstance, and that I’m maybe demanding a lot of it that perhaps it can’t quite achieve in such a context. And yet, I’m unapologetic in doing so because these books – as evidenced by their raw and fierce popularity – are clearly needed. I just ache for them to, somehow, become something more than what they are at present.
There’s a lot to love about what Polly Faber does and I, for one, hope she continues to do it. I had, and continue to have, so much time for her work on the Mango and Bambang series ( which I review here), and Pony on the Twelfth Floor is an utter, rich delight. Faber is very quietly producing a canon of classy, rich and rather delicious children’s stories and they all have that classic edge of timelessness about them. They’re rather like a slice of cake that gives you everything you need, and a little bit more besides, and when you’re finished, it’s all good. Everything is good. Frankly, everything is lovely.
This is a pony story steeped in pony stories, and I will always respect those who both know and love their genre. There’s a Sweetbriar reference (!) alongside several deliciously knowing references, and really, that was enough to have me fall in love with this book. But it’s not just about jokes, and Faber knows that for this book is underpinned by heart. Kizzy wants a pony in that desperate, endless way you do when you are a certain type of person of a certain type of age. (And note, how I do not specify that age because I think it is an ageless sort of love.). But because she lives in a twelfth floor flat, in the middle of a very urban environment, it seems as if she won’t get one. That is until she sees one munching on flapjacks in the supermarket.
And that’s how it begins; a twist of circumstance, a love of the most fierce kind, and this book roars from that point onwards. Kizzy is true and real and lovingly drawn; she’s the child who used to comb the ‘win a pony’ competitions (not, says I, that I did or anything) and the child who practices cantering down the street. And none of this is rendered as something to laugh at, or something to be embarrassed by, because it’s right. There’s nothing wrong with love and faith and believing that one day the world might conspire to give you your hearts desire.
Another thing to note is the illustrations done by Sarah Jennings, because they’re lovely. They’re just the right side of Thelwell, and full of a delicious sense of humour in every line. Flapjack is distinct, and lovely, and it’s hard to not fall in love with him because you get it. You get it. Look, I know I’m burbling, but honestly I don’t care. I like this book. I love it. It’s so rich and so honest and so heartfelt, and it’s utterly well done. What a time, what a world.
And yet, having swung into this review with such a glorious opening sentence, I’m not sure where to begin. Much of that, I think, stems from the fact that we know Black Beauty. It is a story that’s slid so far beyond what it was that it now holds a rather mythic quality. Of course we know Black Beauty. We might not know the fine, fine detail of it, but we know the feeling of it. The sensation of the text. The way that it’s the story of a horse’s life, and it can be suddenly something rather awful, but you are tied to it, and you have to keep going to find out what happens, and when you finish it, there’s a peculiar sensation of quality and the realisation that you’ve read a classic.
Because Black Beauty is a classic. Stylistically it’s somewhat heavy when read with a contemporary, critical eye, and I’ll grant that I slid over some of the passages, but then I dallied with a sort of indulgent joy over the moments presented in others. Over Merrylegs, mainly, but also over other characters and of the determined grace to be found in Sewell’s writing. For it is a graceful book, no doubt, but it is also a hard one for it does not run away from the darkness. Do I give you spoilers? No, but I tell you that if you don’t know the detail of this book, then you will find it darker than you expect and should you present it to a new young reader for Christmas, as a benevolent and book-loving adult might do, you will probably emotionally scar that child for life. But that is what this book does, and you’ll just have to welcome them to the club.
What’s really interesting about Black Beauty is that it presents the reader, even in its grimmest points, with a methodology for change. It tells you about the world that is what it is, and offers you a chance to impact that, to change it. There’s a resonance there for a modern reading, one that I didn’t quite expect.
The versatility of Dawson never fails to astound me. She is a writer who imbues a sense of truth into everything that she does, and this is no exception. Clean is a beautiful book. It really is, because Dawson manages to twist all of the pain and anger and fear and sadness into something honest and truthful and human. That underneath it all, we’re all still people. We’re all still somebody and sometimes finding that somebody, that essence of truth, is the hardest thing to do. This book is full of truth, but also of sympathy. Being human isn’t easy. It’s not pretty. But it is achievable, someway, somehow.
Rich socialite and it girl, Lexi Volkov is forced into rehab after a near-overdose. It’s time to get clean and to face up to her demons. As she gets to know herself, and her fellow inmates, she starts to realise just who she really is. And who she’s going to be.
Reminiscent of Melvin Burgess at his fiery best, this is an unsparing and unafraid book. It touches on some challenging issues, uses some challenging language, and yet does it all in a justified and straightforward manner. Dawson’s not working for shock value here, but rather for a kaleidoscopic truth. Lexi isn’t the most likable of characters at times, and yet, in a way, that made me like her even more. It’s easy to root for the people who have failings, and for the authors who allow these failings to be shown. It’s human, and I like writers and books that are able to acknowledge the truth of that experience.
I also have to add a note of praise for the Quercus design team. This is an outstanding front cover. Absolutely, so.
I had a lovely opportunity the other weekend to revisit the University of Roehampton where, seven (!) years ago, I studied my MA in Children’s Literature. It’s a course that changed my life, not only through the legitimisations of the interest that I had but also through the groundwork it gave me to explore those further. It is also a course that I fell into somewhat by accident; I found it a week before the course launched, wrote an essay that basically said “I QUITE LIKE BOOKS”, sent them a copy of my undergraduate dissertation, and Bob was my proverbial Uncle.
I was invited to share a panel with the lovely Mat Tobin of Oxford Brookes, to talk about potential career paths after the degree, and it was a genuine pleasure to do so. In a way, it took me a while to find what I do now because I did not realise it was an opportunity. Does that make sense? I’m not sure it does so let me try to explain a little. I come from a background where academia was never really part of the conversation. I was not the first member of my family to go to university, but I have been the first to work towards this as a career. As a choice. And finding that break, realising the procedures that led towards it, it took a while. Practicalities. Paying the bills. Little things.
So, now I have a portfolio career. I write, I research, I teach. I temp. I blog. I run my own publishers (scream, etc). I sell articles. I pitch. I poke, in a very Britishy fashion, at every door that might be happen and though I might have to screw my courage to the sticking post, I do. It’s a work in progress, and there’s things I could do better and things I could do more of, but I am happy. I am, I really am.
And visiting Roehampton gave me a delicious opportunity to reflect on that. I stopped the night before the talk, and managed to spend some time on campus that evening. It was a peaceful, hot evening and it was only the second time I’d ever been there.
That’s the curious dichotomy of being a distance student; you study, intensely, with somewhere and maybe never visit. But when you do, you get refreshed. You get, in a way, a metaphorical shot of thoughts and creativity and recognise the agency that you possess as a student. Students are powerful creatures and I think that sometimes, when you’re a distance learner, it’s easy to forget that. I’ve experience of being one, but also of supporting them in a professional context so trust me, I know what it’s like from both ends. You work in isolation, connecting through forums and online media, and maybe that’s about it. Your host institution remains a name. Opportunities like the NCRCL open day, and the wide range of lectures and events that Roehampton do (some of which that made me very jealous!) allow you to connect to the community that you are a part of – a community that you’ve always been a vital part of. There’s a way to be a distance learner but also to be a part of the world of campus, and I think they’ve got that really nicely figured out.
The Open Day itself was lovely. I got to chat with a lot of the current students, and get very envious of their poster skills (seriously, I belong to the ‘just whack a picture up and hope for the best’ school) and also to hear Dr Zoe Jaques of the University of Cambridge speak. She’s great, and her talk reminded me that you’re always learning. There’s always something to be found in the research of others that will apply to your own. I celebrated this by having a very indulgent late lunch and writing my own personal manifesto for learning. An affirmation of sorts, I guess, but also a reminder that I can never remember yourself/yourselves until it’s too late. But then, isn’t that the thing about learning? You’re always in a dialogue, and even if it’s just with yourself, then it’s enough. Because, at the end, you’ll be something more than you were before.
Many thanks to Alison, and the team at NCRCL for such a lovely day. Here’s to the next.
This is a remarkable and show-stopping thing, let down only by the printing format itself. Lee’s art is a delicious joy, telling the story of a girl on a visit to the beach. It’s wordless throughout and delivered in a simple, clean palette of blacks and whites and blues, and it’s beautiful. You can see some pictures in this tweet and really, it’s the moments of this book that make it what it is. That sheer, wild pleasure of stamping in water; of teasing the edge with your toes before jumping fully into it; of being soaked, suddenly, beyond your imagination, before you can quite realise what’s happening. It is lovely and it’s very, deliciously primal. Wave is a book that speaks to that child that we all have inside of us, and I would pay quite happily to have prints of it on my wall. The vibrancy, the sheer truth of Lee’s art is inescapable.
As I said however, the book is let down by the printing and the relationship between the artwork and the gutter. The gutter is a pivotal space within picture books, providing as it does a space for innovative acts of storytelling but also for training children to understand the shape of books, and the pattern of reading itself.
In Wave, the gutter is too tightly bound or the dimensions of the artwork are off or something, because certain parts of the image get caught up in the gutter and lost or cut-off. The girl, for example, loses part of a limb at one point, whilst the delicious edge of the wave, with its kaleidoscopic edge of fragmented blue, is stopped bluntly by the gutter. I can see some point for that in some spreads, to emphasise the barrier between the girl and the wave – the distance – but in others, the gutter forms a heavy handed truncation of what might be a perfect, endless book.
Wave thus becomes a bit of an oddity, where the raw, distinct beauty of the book and its utterly perfect grasp of the ‘moment’ becomes tied back by this gutter problem, becomes bound by something heavy and solid and blunt. It is an undeniable recommendation nonetheless because Lee’s artwork is beautiful. Utterly, utterly beautiful.
There’s a point towards the end of the first chapter of Home Home where I got The Feeling. You’ll know what The Feeling is; it’s that moment when you read something, maybe a word or a sentence or a metaphor, whatever, but you know that it’s good. Your spine tingles. Something settles inside your head. The conscious recognition of skill, there, bubbling beneath the surface. The realisation that you’re in good hands.
Home Home is the story of a depressed Trinidadian teenager, Kayla, who is sent to live with her Aunt in Canada. Whilst there, Kayla must come to terms with her mental health, her new family and indeed her new home. I received it for review from the publisher and was grateful for the offer: I want to find these sorts of books and see them participating within the world, and Home Home more than holds its own. It’s worthy of attention on a thousand different levels.
My only caveat with Home Home is that it is a relatively slender piece, and as such seems to almost finish before it starts. There’s an undoubted element of frustration there that I need to acknowledge because, I suspect, were it given some more space, this could be something kind of great. At present, it feels like there’s not enough space for it to fully explore its potential but, equally, it offers a ton of potential for follow up activities and close reading exercises.
I also don’t want to deny the fact that what is in Home Home is kind of fascinating, occasionally rather beautiful, and kind of great. Home Home exists somewhere between raw, Tumblr-esque truth and a whole hearted stream of consciousness vibe. There’s power here, particular in its honest and vivid truth and the way that it sometimes tumbles together and makes itself known at the least opportune moments. It feels in fact like something that you might find tucked away on a blog somewhere by somebody who feels the need to express themselves and to feel out the edges of that expression, and in the process to find themselves. I don’t think that’s a bad legacy for a book to have.
There’s a reason I practically fainted when I found this in the pound shop and that reason is this: A Pony For Jean is a stone-cold classic, rich and evocative and unapologetically ponyish and it should be in the hands of anyone who is interested in ponies, children’s literature, or those curiously timeless stories that bubbled up in the 30s; stories of girls and families who survived troubling times simply by being themselves to the utmost and most emphatic ways.
Forgive me for being disjointed, but books like this are history and Cannan is a pivotal figure in the world of pony stories. She was one of the first (perhaps the first? I’m not sure) to write from the individuals perspective, stepping away from that Black Beauty-esque point of view, and stories sing of practical and foolish and passionate and realgirls who just burn from the page with presence. And of course, she was the mother of the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and delivered one of my favourite ever quotes where, upon the birth of Diana and Christine, she was asked “Are your twins normal?” Her delicious reply was, “Good God, I hope not.” What is there not to love about this person?
A Pony For Jean is one of those awful books that will give you the impression that the world is like this, that this is what it does, and if circumstance conspire and your rich cousins are just rich enough, you too will end up with a pony of your very own. It’s the stuff to scar you for life. It’s perfect.
I had a bit of a lovely moment the other day. I found a clump of the books that I collect, and I bought them all because it was one of those rare occasions where I could actually afford all of them. And now, several days later, I’m still riding that wave of delight that only comes when you find the thing you love and are, due to circumstance and the twists that life gives you, able to make that thing your own.
Book collecting is a curious thing. I have been doing it for long enough now that I’m able to walk into a bookshop and scan the shelves within minutes. The books that I collect are distinct enough in cover and spine to make themselves known to me, and if they’re not there, then it’s a different sort of visit. One where I wallow in familiar names and new ones, and maybe take something different home. But if they are there, then, it’s something quite perfect. The heart quickens, and you tell yourself to stay calm because, inevitably, you won’t be able to afford the one you’d like.
But sometimes the stars come together, and you’re able to take one or more home. And that moment of connection is such a potent and precise kind of energy that I suspect, were it able to be harnessed, would power a thousand cars for a thousand days. The thing is, you do not collect stories without having a story of your own. Each book that you collect, each title that you invest yourself in, each author that you find a little bit more about yourself, becomes part of your own story. And so, when you find these titles in the shop or a new book by that author that you’ve been collecting, there is a little part of yourself located in the finding. You find yourself, and all of the other selfs that you’ve ever been.
There’s a parallel here for any sort of collection; that sense of knowing the story of each thing and how and when it came into your life, but it always feels a little bit more powerful for me because I collect books and books are powerful things. Books endure, and have done so in a fairly recognisable form for centuries. I suspect, for example, if you were to place a 1990s brick phone against an Apple Watch and presented both to an individual from the 1600s you would have substantial difficulty in persuading them that they were the same thing. But a book, with its recognisable form and shape and intent, has that coherence pretty much whenever, wherever and however you find it.
I keep returning to that notion of the finding, for I am as fond of that as I am of the having. The finding is the chase, you see, and it is a rather beautiful thing. Being a book collector means that you have that peculiar need to just check a bookshop that you’re passing, or to pause when you are on holiday somewhere to pop in a bookshop that you’ve never been to before. You learn to accept that books may make themselves known in the most inopportune of moments; when you are walking back to the train station after a conference, or indeed backpacking across a country on the other side of the world. This is what it is, this integration of the find into your life.
That’s what book collecting does; it slides away from that semantic precision of ‘collecting’, redolent as it is to me of Boy’s Own trips to the Amazon and butterflies pinned in tragic horror to cases, and instead becomes something rather more embedded. Something closer. Something lived, lived and learnt. Something felt. Something felt deep down inside of you, where feelings lose their precision and instead become raw and un-edged and indescribable things. That’s where book collecting lives, there.
I have been aching for a reread of Pat Smythe’s pony books for quite some time, and so, dear reader, when I found a copy of The Three Jays Against The Clock in the bookshoop I clutched it to my chest and practically skipped all the way home. It’s difficult, sometimes, to understand the place that a series can hold in your hearts but for me, these Pat Smythe books were everything. They were full of that intense detail that only the small and ponyish child can wallow in and they were never that easily available so they became something of the Chalet School of the pony world, to be read and devoured on those fleeting moments when they appeared back in the world.
Much of these fleeting appearances stem, I suspect, from the fact that they were not as brilliantly rendered as some of the pony books that were in the world at that time. And there were a lot of pony stories making their presence felt, from the Pullein-Thompsons through to Ruby Ferguson. Pat Smythe is no P-T sister, and I’ll take that critique and live with it, quite happily because I don’t think that’s the space that she ever should be considered in. Smythe has this habit of being most practical with her work; a conundrum is introduced, a cliff-hanger posed, but then we are all sorted and back with the ponies and jumping clear rounds. And I love that, God, I love it so much. You can’t remotely consider these as high literature but you can absolutely worship at their altar of readability.
So this is the second in the series, and it’s resolutely Blytonian in its furious efficiency and blunt style. The Jays decide to go on a pony trip, calling in every now and then to let Pat know that they’re alright. They inevitably run into problems on the way, and a lot of Useful Pony Knowledge is imparted with not the least hint of subtlety. We learn how to make string from a ball of hemp (seriously, even typing that sentence sounds like witchcraft) amongst a thousand other pieces of information ranging from how to walk a course to why you should never judge a book unless you’ve read it. It’s delightful. It’s resolutely of its time at certain points, but then you read these sorts of books with an awareness of the differing – and by no means appropriate – cultural standards of those times.
One final thing to note is that this book contains one of my absolute favourite sentences at all time: “Nuts,” said the simple child simply. . And if ever a sentence captured style, and the thrust, and the sheer lovable frankness of these books, then I think that this may be that sentence.
Julia Gray is quietly producing some of the most complex and challenging books out there, and Little Liar is a spectacular addition to her canon. I’m fascinated, really, by books that do not do what you expect of them nor what you think they should, and this is one of those books that quietly and determinedly does what it has to do in its own way and pulls you in with every step it takes. I have time for books that do that, and I have such time for books that do it well.
Nora, the narrator, is a liar. She has told lies before, about many things, but one lie in particular starts to change everything. Like a pebble dropped in water, there are ripples and aftershocks that reach farther than Nora can imagine. Her new friendship with the rich, unpredictable and talented Bel is impacted; her world changes. And choices, inevitably, have to be made.
I devoured this. I’m not sure the ending quite delivered on what I wanted it to be, but then I’m not sure something like this can ever do what you want it to do because of the nature of the beast. I’m also not sure the title is the best one, and I have concerns about it being overshadowed by more visible titles. I say these sorts of things because the story here is so very good that I do not want that to happen. It’s precise, pained, and beautifully crafted, and every now and then Gray has the skill to throw in a minute that makes you genuinely gasp. And I did, and can I tell you how rare that is? To physically pause and gape at a book and have that moment of full body reaction?
Little Liar is a complex book full of complex characters and it’s often unattractive, dark and challenging. There’s a level of bravery in that because nobody can easily, nor coherently, be rooted for and nobody gives you those (so often impossible or ripe with cliche) moments of fictional happiness. But then, do you have to root for somebody in a book? You can root, perhaps, for the way that a book makes you feel; the way it may bring you to the edge of your senses and block out the world beyond it; the way that you can’t describe it in one sentence; or, perhaps, the way that you are genuinely part of this world and at a loss for what will happen next but knowing, knowing that you can’t stop reading?
I liked this. Shevah is one of those authors whom I’ve been aware of for a while but never got quite round to reading; suffice to say, she’s a joy and this is a solid and richly told story of family fit to put alongside the work of Hilary McKay, Jacqueline Wilson and Susie Day.
‘What Lexie Did‘ follows a lie that spirals out of control in that way that lies can and so often do. Lexie is best friends with her cousin, Eleni, who has a heart condition, and has looked after her all of her life. Their friendship is one of delicious intimacy and all consuming-closeness, again in that way that early girl friendships so often are, but all that is tested after Lexie tells her lie. It ends up pulling the family apart, exposing tensions between her parents and Eleni’s parents, Eleni and Lexie, Lexie and everyone, and everything goes horribly wrong. She knows she has to tell the truth – but where? When? How?
Shevah’s got this lovely richness about her work, and I was very pleased to see that she’d spent some time ensuring the honesty of writing about a Greek Cypriot family. It pays off; this is a book that’s thick with identity and loveliness. Shevah also deserves plaudits for her handling of the adults; they’re realistic and sympathetically drawn. I liked this a lot. It’s a genuine, heartfelt and rich book – and any book that has a cinnamon cake recipe at the back of it is a good book by me.
This is great. It bounces along in that determinedly vivacious sort of way that Angela Brazil does (“Girls! Girls Everywhere!”) and then completely forgets about plot and has a natural history interlude that goes on for about three hundred pages, before plot reasserts its ugly head and everything gets resolved and sorted out in about five pages. It’s a joy, really, this ridiculous and beautiful and furiously of its time book, and I devoured it.
Deirdre and Dulcie are bosom friends, in that bosomy sort of way that Brazil did so well; one is slender and one is stout, one is picturesque and one is a redhead who is “somewhat obtuse” and a new girl has been put into their bedroom for the new term. Crisis! Inevitable tensions! Moreso when the new girl has lived in Germany and can speak fluent German!
Published in 1914, this book is very much of a particular time and bent. Angela Brazil had such a lengthy and prolific career that she wrote across two world wars (how awful that is, to have experienced that sort of thing twice…) and her work changes quite dramatically in my opinion. The first world war is greeted with a sense of wild patriotism, where the girls hunt out spies and knit socks and all that sort of thing, but the second? That’s a quite different story; the girls are secluded from the world in countryside mansions and asked to believe in themselves. The books look inward, I guess, as opposed to outwards. The visible acts of patriotism in WW1 shift to some sort of internal stiffening of ones resolve. And so, The School By The Sea does engage in some distinctly complex social dialogue. More complex than I think the book quite realises; Gerda is frankly bullied by some of her compatriots before the truth is revealed and the truth itself ties into some typical themes and tropes of Brazil that I won’t spoil here. Suffice to say, there’s a subtle challenge presented towards a blanket anti-German sentiment and that’s interesting to me because I’ve not seen it elsewhere in her work. That nuance of understanding identity.
And, on another note, the opening to this is iconic. Forgive me for copying the first few lines below, but it’s really rather something and speaks of Brazil’s new blueprint for the genre:
“Girls! Girls everywhere! Girls in the passages, girls in the hall, racing upstairs and scurrying downstairs, diving into dormitories and running into classrooms, overflowing on to the landing and hustling along the corridor — everywhere, girls! There were tall and short, and fat and thin, and all degrees from pretty to plain; girls with fair hair and girls with dark hair, blue-eyed, brown-eyed, and grey-eyed girls; demure girls, romping girls, clever girls, stupid girls — but never a silent girl. No! Buzz-hum-buzz!”
Sometimes Enid Blyton could be rather brilliant. I picked this up in a second hand bookshop the other day as a treat to myself. I had a vague memory of the title and, what’s more, I had the odd ache for something simple and rich; a Blyton of the most Blytonian sort, where the bad guys get what’s coming to them and the morals are bluntly rendered and the world is forever sunlit. The Children At Green Meadows delivered all that and more. It is a delight, and it kind of put me back together a little bit.
The family at Green Meadows is having difficulties. Granny refuses to sell their ancestral home, and Father is invalided, which means that Mother is having to keep everything going. Things change though when a new block of flats opens nearby and the inhabitants realise that they can’t keep pets there. These pets, inevitably, find their way to Green Meadows and everything spirals from that point. It’s a book of wish fulfillment and sudden, sharp emotion (particularly in the subplot of Father who has been invalided after an act of mysterious Great Bravery).
Sometimes Blyton could be rather brilliant, and she is very much that here. The story bowls on in a gloriously rich and blithe sort of manner; everything and everyone is lovely, and even though horrible things may happen, lovely things subsequently happen, and she gets that desperate urge for a dog, so much that you may even come to imagine that faithful companion. There’s some blunt moralising, as there is with much of Blyton’s work, but here it’s a justified bluntness and I rather appreciated the point that she makes. This is lovely, and it’s a perfect introduction to Blyton and, indeed, reading itself. I often talk about how Blyton is furiously readable and this is the perfect example of it. There’s not one inch of The Children At Green Meadows that feels flabby.
It’s very easy for me to become a little cocky when it comes to reading children’s books. I read a lot of them, and when you read a lot of anything, you become familiar to the tips and tricks that such books use. You become wise to how they do what they do, and to be frank? Sometimes you become a little bit blind. Sometimes it’s easy to read something not for what it is, but for what you think it is. It’s a trend that I’m increasingly aware of within myself and so I am thrilled and delighted by those books that challenge my preconceptions. That rear, perhaps, out of the paths that I have chosen for them and ask me to consider them anew and with fresh, eager eyes.
Looking After William is a perfect little book and I adored it. It’s told very simply, often pairing a clean sentence with a vibrant and rich double page spread, and it has this sort of timeless, rich taste to it. A lot of this is due to Coy’s quietly confident language, but also the rich, unfinished edge of her artwork. These illustrations sing with unfinished energy and movement; they’re part of the tapestry of this life, and rich with an almost infinite sense of potential. She’s not afraid of the more abstract edge either, pairing a lion tamer scene with an astronaut, and linking the two through some smart visual clues. There’s also a delightful hidden thread throughout the book, with the cat, and some thickly gorgeous endpapers.
I love books like this, because they speak. They speak out and loud and proud about what they are and this is a book about love. It’s the story of William and his Mummy; but, is in fact, told from the child’s point of view. It’s such a subtle and clever way to flip the story, and it’s one that will leave the parents nodding sympathetically at William’s exhaustion and children delighting in being in control. Books like this are good, you know? They work. They remind me what is good and right with the world.
I had a bit of an interesting time in a bookshop recently, spotting a vast pile of those books that you just know are the sort of books that you want. Luckily enough they were also the sort of books that clearly didn’t sell that well in this bookshop, considering by how much dust were on them and the price they were, and so I scooped them up and ran away home, cackling wildly to myself.
Many of the authors in that pile were new ones to me, and my eye was drawn to Home Fetters by Raymond Jacberns as a suitable place to start. Upon hearing the name of this author, my mum turned to me and said, “That’s a pseudonym.” “Is it?” I said, “How do you know?” “I just do,” she said, and then I googled and she was right. Raymond Jacberns was the pseudonym of Georgiana Mary Isabel Ash, and my mum has psychic powers.
Home Fetters was published by the Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1904 and as such is inculcated with a very particular form of values. The moralising is sometimes quite hamfisted, and somewhat unfathomable, but then again this isn’t anything unusual in this particular type of literature. What is unusual about Home Fetters is how good it is despite its marked weaknesses. Not much happens, and that which does happen is a bit episodic, and a little bit ‘wait, why is this all ‘character x’s’ fault’, but what does happen is told in a really genuine and vivid style. Jacberns (Ash) has this great gift of vibrancy which, when it’s allowed to happen, can absolutely shine.
I suspect in a way she’s too early with her style. You can almost feel it fighting against the restrictions of the form to make itself known, and I wonder what we would have had from her if she were writing and working in the context of twenty or thirty years later. She’s a great writer; and when she can express it, this book is surprisingly good.
Just a quick note to say that I will be speaking at the NCRCL Open Day 2018 (June 2nd, University of Roehampton). I know that London might not be an option for many people but if it is, and children’s books are your jam, I would urge you to come along! Studying for the MA changed my life in innumerable ways and I’d reccomend it to anybody (and I’m also happy to answer any questions about it). It’s a free event but you do need to book ahead; and do say hi if you get there!
(That was a lot of exclamation marks for one post, do forgive me… 🙂 )
Sometimes I suspect that, along with ‘Duvet Days’, there should be ‘Streatfeild Days’ where those people who feel a peculiar ache at their soul that they cannot quite identify should be allowed to take a day off to read a Streatfeild of their choice. I picked this one up from a charity shop recently, delighting in that front cover and its peculiar potent sense of time and place, and it’s a joy. It’s perhaps not her strident and raw best but when you consider what her best could be, you realise that those books which are simply ‘good’ are rather transcendent in themselves.
Tim’s family isn’t having a great time of it; his father has been hurt in a car crash, and money is proving immensely tight. Circumstances conspire to see Tim and his family relocate to the countryside with an old house and several new additions to take care of, whilst the father slowly recuperates from his injuries. It ties everything up appropriately, as stories of this nature ought to do, and there’s a few sudden moments of breathless beauty in it; particularly in the rehabilitation of Tim’s dad.
What Streatfeild manages to achieve here, and always, is this sense of the children stepping up and playing their part – in ways that, perhaps, the adult figures of the book do not realise. She had such a wonderful eye for letting children participate and own the movement of their lives that Caldicott Place sings with this sort of increasing childish strength and power and weight the more that the book develops. Streatfeild also had an eye for the adults in her books, rendering them as flawed and realistic characters full of worries and concerns of their own, whilst never, not once, allowing them to be unsympathetic. I think what I’m trying to say is that she understands people, and her books taste like buttered crumpets on a cold, sharp winter’s morning. They make everything alright again.
I am no translator. My French is passable, in that ‘I cannot remember the precise word but can vaguely approximate the sense of what I am trying to describe to you’ sort of manner, but it’s not up to translating prose. My English, however, is and so over the past few weeks I’ve been translating a classic children’s book (which I won’t name just yet) from prose into feminist blank verse. It’s one of my more niche experiments, and yet also something that’s thrilled me deeply because it touches a lot on the things that interest me.
My MPhil thesis, for example, partially discussed the notion of the Golden Age within children’s literature, that is to say the conceit of referring to a particular time of publishing as such – and viewing all since in relation to that Golden Age. I argued for Golden Ages to run on thematic distinction as I did, and still do, view the temporally discreet idea of periodization as something inherently complex. (“I’m sorry Mr Smith, but the Golden Age finished last Sunday…”).
I looked at the school stories located within the first Golden Age, and argued for subsequent Golden Ages to run more or less contiguously. I looked at the school stories, and stories of schooling, for they are my jam, but I also thought a lot about that wider context. The idea of how the quality of children’s books is always assessed by adults, and how popular fiction rarely plays a part in such a thing. (Perhaps we can call this Blytonphobia I don’t know.)
I realised that girls and women don’t often get an easy ride within these Golden Age stories, and I started to wonder what does it mean for our discipline, our sector, to cleave back to these books as gold standard. What do these choices reveal about ourselves and our idea of childhood? How do these stories fit in the contemporary rebel girl phenomenon sweeping children’s publishing? What part do they have to play in contemporary discourse?
So that’s the what, and here’s the why; I decided to rewrite one in blank verse because it gave me the leeway to answer those questions and to redress the balance. I don’t ever argue for the suppression of books, but I do argue for the considered reading of such. The questioning of standards. Challenging the absences.
There are some authors who have this fierce richness about them when they work. They tell story; words that run together and layer something wonderfully thick and dense about you and you don’t quite know what’s happening until you finish it and realise that that was good. Geraldine McCaughrean is one of those authors and The Positively Last Performance is a classy, classic sort of tale.
The Royal Theatre at Seashaw now only plays to ghosts; the humans are long gone, and the theatre is not what it was. One day, a stubborn little girl and her parents arrive at the Royal; Gracie and her Mum and Dad are there to bring it back to its former life. Whilst Gracie makes friends with the ghosts, her parents try to restore the theatre…
Inspired by the Margate, and the theatre there, this is a book that both renders that sense of place superbly but also catches the peculiar joy and sadness of the British seaside. There’s love here, for both what was and what is, but also a recognition that these resorts face complex lives and hold complex, wonderful people. There’s a lot in this book and I don’t think it quite lets you see this until you’re well into it. You have to work past the slightly brittle opening, the defence of rhythm and chapter, until it lets you see the truth of it.
People, really, people. McCaughrean is interested in people, the shape of them and the stories of them, and what happens when they mingle and touch on lives that are not their own. As Gracie gets to know the ghosts and their stories, she learns about the black and white minstrels, mods, artists and librarians who lived and worked in Seashaw. One thing to note is that the n- word does make an appearance in the book (particularly when relating to issues of blackface) but is challenged, rebuked and analysed appropriately. It did stick out for me though, so it’s worthwhile mentioning and taking note of.
I was concerned about this getting repetitive (the rhythm of ghost – backstory – ghost – backstory) but then there’s a sudden, wrenching, movement in the middle of the book that turns all of that on its head. It’s beautifully, horribly, done and the sign of a writer who is simply just very good at what she does. I liked this a lot. I devoured it.
Running On Empty: a story of family, relationships, and of knotty moments and problems that need solving but don’t have easy solutions, a story of life, really. It’s the second novel from SE Durrant (the first, A Little Bit Of Sky, I review here). She’s an interesting writer in that she kind of slides into the heart of things and does so in a very gentle, truthful and honest manner. She’s a writer with heart, and Running On Empty is full of it.
AJ, the twelve year old lead, is having a bit of a rough time. He’s worried about his parents, who suffer from learning difficulties, and he’s trying to come to terms with the death of his grandfather, and the bills are piling up and he’s convinced that social services are at the door ready to break up his family. Throw into the mix the transition to senior school, trainers that don’t fit – not great when you’re a star runner – and there’s a whole whirl of problems all vying to make themselves felt first.
Running On Empty is somewhat stiff at first, reading a little protectively and defensively, but after a while it starts to work its subtle magic. Durrant has this great gift of finding the truth of people and of letting them be what they are, whether that brave or scared or foolish or whatever. This feels like a grounded and honest book, not in the least of the representation of AJ’s relationship with his parents. Young carer’s aren’t represented that much in children’s literature, and Durrant handles this well; never sliding towards ‘I AM WRITING ABOUT A YOUNG CARER ASK ME HOW’, but rather tenderly and sensitively sharing this story with the world.
It’s really quite something to deliver two books in a row that are as quiet and calm and as carefully crafted as these. I really do look forward to seeing what comes next from Durrant.
I am grateful to the publishers for a review copy.
I’ve been looking a lot recently at some choose your own story apps available on Android. This methodological restriction is primarily to the fact that an Android phone is what I have, and I was interested to see the sorts of stories that were available for it. I’ve never really looked at choose your own adventure story apps before, because I’ve always preferred a more self-led narrative. The sort that puts the onus upon the reader, rather than the reader reacting to a preset list of choices. This is something that I seek for across all sorts of literature, and not just those that you find on your phone. Reading is – should be – an active experience. I want to be needed as a reader. I want to be wanted.
I am one of those people who has legitimate and primal and fundamental personal needs for stationery. Good stationery is a human right. Notebooks make everything better. One of the first bits of advice I will give anybody beginning a research degree is to buy yourself all the stationery that your heart desires.
The only problem with this is that some are too pretty to use. And of those that you do use, you reach a point when you do not wish to break their backs nor rip pages out of them, and so let them slide towards the back of the shelf to the fog of forgotten things.
The one benefit of such a loosely functional system is that you tend to recover them at some point, and find the work of the once-you inside these pages. These are photograph albums in their way; delicious little snapshots of the thoughts and feelings of a time once forgotten, and that is the allure of the abandoned notebook. They will always be found again.
I am opening up a brown notebook today, unlined, and with a slim purple ribbon to mark its pages. I found poetry and bare, sparse pages that sang to be used.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 genresor 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: Texacoby 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.
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.