Once you do an Abbey reread, you can’t stop. Though I was much more intrigued by the middle-aged spy drama happening in the background of this cover, and disappointed that it did not appear in the actual text itself, this was pleasant. Pleasant! It’s such an empty word and yet sometimes it’s full of everything that something actually is. I could not tell you what happened here, nor could I really remember who is who and what was what, but I can tell you that Mary-Dorothy is a cabbage, Joy remains a moron, the vaguest hint of something naughty (the smallest of things!) is presented as something akin to murdering a puppy, there’s an INTERMINABLE amount of dancing, and then there’s a bit more dancing, and a bit more, and then Maidie’s all I HAVE TO TALK TO JOY and Ros is all MAIDIE YOU MUSTN’T and Maidie is all BUT I HAVE TO ROS IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO, and then everything is okay! We’re all friends! Let’s dance about it!
And yet, it’s really rather pleasant. There’s no other way to describe it. Pleasant!
(I am here to provide summaries of EJO’s entire oeuvre, you really only have to ask).
I have such a love-hate relationship with Elsie Oxenham. When I’m thinking about culling some books, hers are always the first that I look at and yet they’re still here. They’ve been in a bag a few times, and I’ve taken them all the way to the door on at least one occasion, but they’ve come back every time. And I think much of that staying power comes from how I’m increasingly beginning to realise that I find them a very peculiarly enjoyable form of ridiculous.
I mean, let’s take The New Abbey Girls. It’s a delight because it introduces Ros and Maidie, two of the more potent and well-rounded characters within the series. We’ll leave Ros’ adult fecundity out of the question for now. They are good characters. They work well with each other, and any book that talks about them is something that’s good in my eyes.
But then, as ever, there’s the ridiculousness. The amount of time Maidie pants in this book! “Maidline panted”; “Maidline panted” “Maidline panted.” I know she is an emotional and overwrought and Not Abbey Girl Material Just Yet at this point in time, but the panting! The actual panting! And when she’s not panting, she’s breathless and half-sobbing, or she’s gasping, and I know this is meant to convey her High Emotions, but it just makes her sound like a tool.
Oxenham’s exuberantly asthmatic speech-tags aside, this is a fairly standard Abbey book. We dance; Joy’s a muppet; we dance a bit more; Jen turns out to be the best; we have another dance; maybe a bun; everything’s cool. And it is ridiculous, but I do like it. Though it is ridiculous, there’s an odd comfort in it. The world can be solved by a bun, problems can be sorted by a dance, and the panting girl in the corner can Learn To Get A Grip. Like I said, ridiculous, but sometimes it’s nice to believe in that. Just a little. Just enough.
It’s kind of terrifying to adapt something because you’re not just adapting the thing in question. You’re trying to adapt the aura of it; some books have this indefinable something about them that you can’t ever pin down in words, but you know it’s there. And even little white girls growing up in rural North Yorkshire knew that there was a something about To Kill A Mockingbird. I cannot speak for the text itself, nor for its nuanced problems and challenges which better voices than I have elaborated on, nor for its cultural status, but I can speak for this adaptation itself. The care of it, the craft of it, and the curious way that it is neither graphic novel nor book but rather something in between.
I would call it more of an illustrated novel, rather than a graphic novel. The difference is fine, I know, and probably something I’d struggle to describe to you were I pushed, but it’s there. The lettering uses the same font throughout for example, a calm steady consistent font that doesn’t vary by character or panel. It gives the book a great sense of intimacy but also adds this strangely intriguing sense of remove. We see what we’re told to see, read what we’re told to read, and the text itself? Well, that felt distant – even now, even despite the great embedded cultural weight that To Kill A Mockingbird holds within the world. I find that intriguing; that a story so well known can still hide away, just a little, just enough.
This is a beautifully produced book and Fordham’s aesthetics here are wonderful. He draws a lot from the film (particularly, I thought, with his interpretation of Atticus), and situates him within a town full of quiet, soft colours. I rather loved his use of frames; a vast amount of his panels are un-edged, merging softly with the book itself and giving the whole page a sense of timelessness. Those that are framed are rare but potent, introducing a note of dynamism and sudden focus. It’s a quality piece of work. It is, however, a clear adaptation. It’s not a repurposing, nor a retelling, nor a questioning. It’s adapted. Deliberately. Carefully. Perhaps a little too carefully at points but again, understandably so.
It’s also important to note that stylistically I felt that it reached down towards the younger end of secondary but the text itself retains the use of the n- word and the themes located therein. It’s perhaps something then to read in company with the text itself, or rather with the facility to discuss and challenge and think about some of the content.
Sometimes, due to library reservation queues and the like, it takes me a long time to get to a book. And that’s a good thing, because it tells me that it’s being talked about, that it’s being passed from hand to hand fever-quick and passion-bright, and sometimes it makes me nervous. I wonder whether these books that have had such buzz about them can live up to that noise; I ask myself if they can be all that I want them; I wonder whether they’re worth the wait. But every now and then I forget all of that because I’ve got an alert about a book that I put it on hold a long time ago, and now it’s finally here. And that moment will never not feel like Christmas.
And oh my friends, El Deafo is everything. It’s a treat; a fictionalised autobiography, drawing on the childhood experiences of Cece Bell herself, but allowing moments to merge together, and conversations and characters to be reshaped and remade for the story. It’s rendered in a softly beautiful palette of sun-soaked colour and rich, rounded lines that allow this story of childhood to almost fall off the page and into your heart. God, I sound like some hideous advert you have on channel 339402 but forgive me because it’s true. This is richness here, heartfelt and lovely and warm and honest storytelling. It is the story of Cece’s deafness, caused by an illness at age four, and it is so beautifully personal, funny and honest, that it’s difficult not to fall in love with it.
But I fell in love with it a little more once I read Bell’s potent afterword. She is, as she writes, “an expert on no ones deafness but my own” and provides some context on “what a deaf person might choose to do with his or her hearing loss”. It’s eloquent, calmly told truth, and something that underlines the great depth of El Deafo. This is a story of layers and texture, driven by Bell’s personal experience but also her recognition that “our differences are our superpowers.” A potent message for any age, but when it’s teamed with art this adorable and a story with this much heart, it’s almost irresistible.
Aya is eleven, Syrian, and seeking asylum in Britain. Her mum, her, and her baby brother, escaped from the war in Syria – but her father got separated from them on the way. Her whole family is suffering from the experience (and it’s handled so delicately and sensitively and well by Bruton but fyi if you’re working with children who may have undergone a similar experience), and her life is not easy. One day she comes across a ballet class, and it’s there that everything starts to change…
In her introduction to this, Bruton name-checks some of the best dance stories out there – the Sadlers Wells books by the wonderful Lorna Hill; Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild; and The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown. It’s a small thing, but incredibly important as it means that she knows her stuff. These are totemic books, in a perenially popular genre of children’s literature, and I think that No Ballet Shoes In Syria more than stands up to them. In fact, it’s out in May and I’m telling you about it now because I think it’s great. It made me cry, and it made me smile, and it feels like one of those quietly classic stories that British children’s literature does so utterly well.
It’s full of a lot of heart this, not in the least with the representation of Aya. She’s a powerful, brave character and the impact of her experience is never far from her. It’s no easy thing to write somebody suffering from trauma, let alone to render that in such a beautiful, under-stated and kind manner, but Bruton manages it extremely well. The narrative engages in a series of flashbacks, talking about her life in Syria and the slow erosion of this by war, and the contrast is starkly rendered at some points. I was particularly moved by the points where the relative privilege and comfort of Aya’s new life in Britain triggered some painful flashbacks for her. It’s also important to note that this is a book that knows its stuff; the distinction between a refugee and an asylum seeker is carefully made, and the historic parallels of Aya’s journey are sensitively and movingly explored.
This is a good book. It’s honest, kind, heartbreaking and really rather utterly lovely.
Delightfully nutty in the way that only turn of the century children’s literature can be, this starts as something quite typical and then escalates to quite the heights. Were I the sort of scholar to throw around labels in a willy-nilly sort of fashion, I’d label this as Mills and Boon meets Young Adult literature, but I’m not so I’ll settle for calling this dippy and loving it for that. Any book called A Girl’s Stronghold, (with six illustrations by Victor Proud no less), featuring nuns and devoted servants and brave and noble young women would never be the sort of story to mess about.
And it doesn’t. It races from Belgium to England to France; skirting around several wars, one inevitable parental death (as ever, these books do not refrain from knocking everybody off left right and centre) and at the heart of it rests our girl. She’s called Faith (who would have thought it!!!!!!!). She’s devoted to her father, but has A PAST. Honestly, I love how melodramatic these books can be. They have absolutely no shame about them, and about halfway through A Girl’s Stronghold, the plot goes absolutely off the rails. One sandwich short of a picnic. Two stops short of Dagenham. And it doesn’t care one bit. We get death, war (like – about seven? just sort of there?), a couple of beseiged cities, a case of GOSH DOESN’T THIS GIRL REMIND ME OF SOMEBODY ELSE IF ONLY I COULD REMEMBER WHO, and it’s great. I thoroughly recommend it.
First published in 1885, ‘Us’ is a fairly typical piece of children’s literature for this age. The good are good, the bad are bad, and the upper classes are full of moral upstanding-ness and the lower classes (particularly gypsies) are the worst. They are prejudices of the time, and though I don’t excuse them in the slightest, it’s important to recognise that they exists and that they colour this book quite substantially. Having said that however, it’s also important to recognise that this is a ferociously well-written book. Honestly, I was surprised by how post-modern it felt at points; Mrs Molesworth engages in asides to the reader, ruminations upon the motives of the characters, and genuinely tells this story in such a fresh and dynamic manner, that it doesn’t feel like an 1885 kind of story at all.
The children, however, are tools. Forgive me, but I can’t describe them in any other manner. Everybody is besotted with their angelic ways and their fair appearance, but then the kids accidentally break a bowl, don’t confess, decide to buy a new one from the gypsies, and then get stolen by said gypsies, and really there’s nobody to blame but their own idiocy at this point. Of course there’s some social commentary at play here and some pointed moralising about how it’s best to confess to your sins otherwise you might be stolen by gypsies and sold to a circus man, but that’s all par for the course for the books of this era. They work to maintain the status quo, whether it’s right or wrong. (I was particularly amused, for example, that the Noble Gypsy Boy Who Helps Out The Tool Children gets the happy reward of being their servant).
Baby speech aside (forgive me, but if you write about “mouses” and “teef”, that will always make you lose brownie points with me), not everybody does this as well as Mrs Molesworth. Us was a real surprise and a solid, solid read.