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.