Blue & Other Colours with Henri Matisse

Blue & Other Colours: with Henri MatisseBlue & Other Colours: with Henri Matisse by Henri Matisse

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wonderful book. Genuinely. It’s rare to find board books that slip into non-fiction but do it so deftly, so unconsciously, so ‘without getting massively educational in the process and whoah yes I’m bored and I’m three hundred years older than the target audience’ sort of thing.

Blue & Other colours is part of a series of ‘first concepts with fine artists’. This title focuses on Matisse and quietly works through a series of his works by picking out the colours. Every time ‘Blue’ is mentioned, the font turns blue, and as each new colour is introduced the font changes once more to reflect that colour. This is such a nice, subtle touch of design and will help immensely with both colour recognition and language development.

The captions are simple, ranging from: “Blue Again” through to “Blue and yellow, and look – orange dots too!”. Each caption is set against a clean white background which again is another good design; this book could have been very easily over-designed and too busy, particularly with some of Matisse’s more exuberant works, but it carefully stays away from that. It includes a little bit of blurb about Matisse at the end, which speaks about his methods and techniques.

This is such a delightful, solid book. I loved that it included a list of the works depicted throughout the book, because these are books to be shared. To be played with. To live with. I also suspect this will be a book that will last with the reader for a while and grow with them, particularly because certain elements of it do read up and towards imaginative play and craft activities. I loved it. More please.

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This Is Not A Book : Jean Jullien

This Is Not A BookThis Is Not A Book by Jean Jullien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Shall we start the week off with a very good book indeed? Yes. Of course we should.

This is Not A Book by Jean Jullien is an outstanding thing; a board book that defies conventions and expectations by resolutely refusing to be a board book. There’s no linear narrative here, rather there’s a series of double page spreads where the book is something other than a book. It’s a set of piano keys with the sheet music for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, or it’s a man walking across a tightrope, or it’s the inside of a tent, a girl sat on a chair reading a book to her pet dog, or a gorgeously simply rendered pink bottom.

This is a delightful book because of its ability to give a constant surprise. It’s so defiant of convention and expectation that it manages to deliver something quite extraordinary. Not quite book, not quite toy, but rather wonderfully creative experience. I loved it. This is classy, brave and smart work.

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The Glass Bird Girl : Esme Kerr

The Glass Bird GirlThe Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of books out like this at the moment (no bad thing -ed). The school story with a hint of mystery seem to be having a little bit of a resurgence (like I said, no bad thing -ed) and that’s clearly no bad thing at all (finally -ed).

The Glass Bird Girl is a very beautiful little book. From the precise eloquence of that title, through to the old-time feel of it, it’s a book that harks back to the classics of the genre and one which both plays with and pays tribute to the genre itself.

The first in a series, it tells the story of Edie who’s been sent by her uncle to Knight’s Haddon School to keep an eye on the daughter of one of his clients. Anastasia, a Russian princess, is finding school hard and there’s something afoot…

It’s a book which I liked a lot but also had a few troubles with. It’s a reticent book which, I grant, fits the nature of the beast but it’s also one that is not quite easy to grasp onto. I liked it, as I say, but there were moments when I felt quite removed from it. I wonder if a part of that is due to the nature of it being an opener to a series (and thus, having to set A Lot Of Things Into Place), but it’s something I’d like addressing in the next title in the series.

What is clear, is that Kerr is an eloquent, graceful writer and she does something I will always admire and pay tribute to. She’s written a book where school girls are school girls and where adults are mysterious, fallible, and three-dimensional. It’s always good for a school story to acknowledge the fact that the adults are people too because it invariably adds weight to the text of itself. It gives the story, the world, import. And Knight’s Haddon is full of truth, of import and of weight. I loved that about it.

This is a perfect book for those readers who are looking to graduate on from something like Malory Towers or St Clare’s onto something a little more mature and challenging. Kerr writes in a lovely, eloquent and accessible manner (though some of the ‘home’ scenes are little difficult to reconcile with the grace of the ‘school’ story itself). A book of two halves! It’s a good job the school part works so well.

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Rose Under Fire : Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under FireRose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“And still the sky is beautiful.” (p26)

If there’s a phrase that sums this book up for me, and perhaps Code Name Verity too (which I reviewed here) it is this phrase, this poetic and graceful phrase that sings from the page. There’s something in the way both books look upwards, finding freedom, finding equality, finding hope even in the skies.

We are more than we ever think we are.

Rose discovers this about herself throughout Rose Under Fire. Through circumstance, through action, she finds herself in the darkest of places and she must survive for she has a story to tell.

Set after Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire provides the next part of the story for certain characters in that book. It also provides mild spoilers for Code Name Verity so I’d suggest reading that first if you’re anything like me. Whilst there could be an issue in returning to the scene of the crime (as it were), Wein handles this continuation very well. She closes the story and opens another, and perhaps eases us through the utter loss that Code Name Verity caused. She does this by this closeness, this reminder that pain and heartbreak was not something you escaped from in this war. It was not something that happened to a friend of a friend. It happened to everyone. That tightness, that narrative woven from the darkness of war, the way it is almost inescapable is very very cleverly done.

What shines here as well is the voice of Rose. She grows, unfurls, and then shrinks back inside of herself, recoiling at the horrors she is experiencing. That second unfurling, that coaxing out, that rediscovery of herself and that she still exists and that she *is* Rose Justice, is something that is heartbreaking and beautiful and viciously emotional to bear witness to.

I keep talking of beauty in this book, and I think that’s an odd thing to do. The subject matter is dark, dark, numbingly so but then again I think that Wein’s gift really does lie in beauty. It’s something she found in Code Name Verity and it’s something she finds here; that ability to find grace and in friendship, and hope and love and belief that the people that have been shattered by the world matter. In that they make a difference. In the way that we all make a difference.

In a way, through shining a light on the story at the heart of Rose Under Fire, and through the hope that by telling this story this will never ever happen again, Wein reminds us that sometimes the most powerful weapon is our voice. And if you do not will Rose on by the end of this, turning the pages and hoping, just hoping that she will come back to us, then you are reading a different book than the one I held in my hands.

If you’re recommending or working with this book and young adults, I would suggest taking some time over the excellent afterword from Wein. In this she’s provided further resources that illustrate the awful truth that is behind this story. I would also draw your attention to Lydia Kokkola’s excellent Representing the Holocaust in Children’s Literature, something I discuss in a blog post here.

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The Blue Lady : Eleanor Hawken

Blue Lady front coverThe Blue Lady
by Eleanor Hawken

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is the best school story I’ve read this year.

I tweeted about this book and that feeling still stands. There’s something about The Blue Lady, that dark meshing of The Craft and the close, almost Stepfordian potential that the genre always has. Because that’s the thing about boarding schools, they hold secrets. Every school does but there’s something about the forced insularity of a boarding school that heightens that tension. You are forced to be in a community, sometimes against your will, and you’re adopting a world that is not your own. It is the Chalet School meets 1984: you are assimilated into this society or you are not.

Hawken plays with that, very gorgeously, throughout this book. St Mark’s College is layered in secrets, thick and ghostly secret stories and spaces, shadowy and terrifying. Frankie arrives to this world, and she gets lost in it, drawn in by the entrancing and exciting Suzy.

I loved this book. There’s genuine edge here, and Hawken makes you shift from protagonist to protagonist, never quite sure who to root for or who to feel heartache for. It’s a powerful, shivery book that I’d massively massively recommend for school story fans, scary story fans and anybody who thinks they’re brave enough to learn about the truth of the Blue Lady.

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Pantomime: Laura Lam

Pantomime (Pantomime, #1)Pantomime by Laura Lam

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We’ve come a long way, you and I. You’ve listened to me obsess over the nuances of the Chalet School, the way Clara Vulliamy is so perfect in her picture book construction and the way I get slightly evangelical when somebody tells me that Children’s Literature does not matter and if any of that counts for anything, I would ask that you do not read the blurb on this book.

Because this book is not about that blurb.

Pantomime is one of those curious fantasy books that worked for me, and it worked very well. There’s a sensitivity to it, a humanity, that translates through genre to deliver a nuanced and engrossing read that moved me. Hugely. I’m not one of those people who can read fantasy easily. Tolkien, Trudi Caravan (lolz), the odd Marion Zimmer Bradley (is she officially fantasy? Can you tell how much I do not know about this genre?) are about the limit for me. A lot of my feelings about the genre are summed up in this fascinating review of Urgle.

There’s a part of that review that I want to draw attention to. Bradman says that: “Good fantasy is such a hard act to bring off. If your characters are two-dimensional and your plot uncompelling, it won’t matter how incredibly detailed and believable your fantasy world might be. Equally, the slightest suspicion that you haven’t expended enough effort on building your world can bring the whole thing down like a house of cards.”

That’s what works here for me in Pantomime. The way that, when it all comes down to it, Lam is writing about people, and choices, and being who we are and not who we’re wanted to be. It’s a brave, thoroughly fascinating novel that deserves a lot more attention outside of its genre because it’s very quietly delivering one of the most complex and fascinating protagonists I’ve ever read.

Just don’t judge it on that blurb.

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Under My Hat : ed. Jonathan Strahan

Under My Hat: Tales from the CauldronUnder My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron by Jonathan Strahan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a smart, stylish collection of witch stories all based around the starting point of a tall black pointy witch hat. The hat may be real, metaphorical, allusive, and the witch – well, might be anything.

I really enjoyed this. It’s a collection of some stunning names and I was excited to see Peter S. Beagle and Frances Hardinge in the mix alongside Holly Black. Garth Nix and Neil Gaiman.

The joy of a short story collection is that you can flip back and forth in it and wholly skip stories that aren’t working for you. Following the sensitive and astute introduction by editor Strahan, we slip straight into a stunning opener by Diana Peterfreund and this was probably one of my favourite stories in the entire collection. All of these stories are written with vivid skill but something about Peterfreund’s really hit home.

I also had a lot of love for Hardinge’s contribution. She’s an author I need to read more of and on the basis of this, will definitely be doing so.

There were stories in this that didn’t quite work for me but there were so many that did. This is a really clever, unusual, and occasionally very dark collection of stories that reward the reader hugely.

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