2012 rewind! The best books I’ve read this year

I’m very lucky in that I have access to an amazing children’s literature library. It’s one of those places that make you skip along the shelves and want to just stroke the spine of every book on the shelf. Even the ones that have been there a little too long, those ones who have gone pale in the sun, have a peculiar appeal. It’s an addictive place to visit. It’s a place that has sourced my best reads of this year. And it’s a place that I know is going to continue to inspire me next year.

So here’s to the best reads of 2012! You’ll see not all of these books were published in 2012, but they are the best books I read this year.  I spent 2012 surrounded by books I liked, and books I loved. And some of those books bordered on utter perfection.

In no particular order, we have:

My David Almond phase with a look at the incredible My Name is Mina and My Dad’s A Birdman. These two books defined the end of the year for me and have had a massive impact on me.

The other author who appears twice on my best of 2012 is Sita Brahmachari (who, if you get to hear speak, is ridiculously charming and coped very well with my geeking out in front of her – sorry Sita 😉 ) and her books Artichoke Hearts and Jasmine Skies. Magical, evocative books both.

Patrick Ness’ multi-award winning piece of perfection A Monster Calls appears on my list and to be honest, is in a class of its own. The pairing of Patrick Ness’ spare, elegant text with Jim Kay’s illustrations is world-class.

Another award winning book that’s on my best of 2012 is The Unforgotten Coat by my book Yoda Frank Cottrell Boyce. A gorgeous, sharply heart-breaking, and beautifully produced book.

Then there’s the newcomer (to me!) Guy Bass with his reminder that good things come in small packages. The adorable Stitch Head was superb, moving, and a reminder of all that can be good in children’s books.

I came back to my other book Yoda – Michelle Magorian — and rediscovered her beyond perfect A Little Love Song. Magorian is so superbly gifted, and this book is a gift. She’s one of those effortlessly heartbreaking (and rather amazing) writers.

And finally, I read an amazing picture book and a graphic novel. Alex T Smith dazzled me with the epic and hysterical glory of Claude on Holiday. If you’ve not discovered Claude and Sir Bobblysock, hop to it because you won’t be disappointed. Graphic novel wise, I read a lot of good stuff but loved discovering the work of Gareth Hinds and his magisterial version of Beowulf in particular.

And here’s to 2013! 😀

An esoteric and distinctly biased list of 50 children’s books you probably really should read (part one)

Artichoke Hearts – Sita Brahmachari

Brahmachari stormed into publication with this stunning tribute to life, love and growing up. Told in first person by the engaging Mira Levenson, Artichoke Hearts covers some difficult topics but does so with such warmth and love that it’s hard not to fall in love with this rare gem of a book.

Similar to : Itself.

Jasmine Skies – Sita Brahmachari

The sequel to Artichoke Hearts, Jasmine Skies sees Mira exploring her heritage in India. Kolkata and India are intensely drawn with a lush richness that is gorgeous to read. Mira faces some difficult decisions and, in a way, completes the ‘coming of age’ story began in the previous novel.

Similar to : Artichoke Hearts (ha, sorry but it really is!)

Who’s afraid of the big bad book – Lauren Child

Both a stunning treatise on the book as object, the act of reading and also a metatextual treatment of fairytales, this book is superb. Plus it’s really, really very funny. I adore this.

Similar to : Revolting Rhymes

Beowulf – Gareth Hinds

Adapting an epic poem into graphic novel form is no mean feat (have you seen a graphic novel version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for example?) but Hinds does it with brilliant skill. His book has dark, macabre artwork that is so vital that it practically sings from the page.

Similar to : The Odyssey (Gareth Hinds)

Unhooking the Moon – Gregory Hughes

Another book which deserves to be a classic, this is the story of Bob and his sister ‘The Rat’ on their way to New York to meet their long lost Uncle. If you’ve not read this, you’re missing out on one of the greatest female characters this century: The Rat. She’s adorable, gorgeous and heartbreaking.

Similar to : Jack Kerouac meets Willy Wonka.

A Little Love Song – Michelle Magorian

This is one of Magorian’s lesser known titles, this is the story the summer where Rose fell in love, A Little Love Song is one of – and perhaps – her greatest. Set in the middle of the second world war, and featuring the ‘holiday’ town from Goodnight Mr Tom, it is a stunning achievement.

Similar to : I Capture The Castle

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

What to say about this stunning multi-award winning book? It is devestating, stunning, and deserves to be a forever classic. Based on an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd and ultimately written by Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay, Conor faces the unfaceable in the shape of a monster who visits him at night and forces him to confront the worst things in his life.

Similar to : Neil Gaiman (His ‘Sandman’ series in particular)

Life : An Exploded Diagram – Mal Peet

Sometimes we need a book to just go giddy and revel in what it is. Life : An Exploded Diagram is such a book. Stretching majestically over countries, lives, and years, this book is vividly human and alive. Alive. It’s an interesting thing for a book to be, but this one is.

Similar to : Brideshead Revisited, Flambards, Where the Wind Blows

Claude on Holiday – Alex T Smith

This is probably one of the only books which has transferred the ‘saucy British seaside’ aesthetic into a witty, astute and very very funny picture book suitable for all ages. Claude, and his best friend Sir Bobblysock, go to the seaside and naturally hijinks ensue. This book is gorgeous.

Similar to : That postcard your Nan sent you from Southend

Dead Man’s Cove – Lauren St John

Laura Marlin deserves to be on the national curriculum. A funny, brave, Buffy-esque heroine (without the actual violence!), she’s sent to the seaside to live with her mysterious Uncle and rapidly discovers there’s mysteries in her new home.

Similar to : Nancy Drew meets the Famous Five

Tune in next time for part two! It’ll be a picture book / graphic novel special 🙂

Beowulf : Gareth Hinds

BeowulfBeowulf by Gareth Hinds

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book. Oh this glorious, and gorgeous, and breath-taking book.

Based on the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, this graphic novel adaptation by Gareth Hinds. is stunning. I’ve not read the original poem so cannot comment on the translation of the narrative, or its adherence to the original. What I can comment on is the savage beauty of some of these frames.

I’m a fan of Hinds. I adored his version of the Odyssey – visually it was stunning but stumbled in the lettering department. If it weren’t for the lettering, that book would be perfect for me. To be frank, even with the lettering, it’s not far off. I was therefore fascinated to see what he did with Beowulf.

It’s darker. Harder. Braver, almost, with how it mutates form and frame and narrative to suit the moment. And oh there are some stunning moments. I was particularly in love with how Hinds managed the battles. There’s several long pages without dialogue. The framing device of the poem is abandoned. All we have is the visual; the stark, bloody, superhuman violence of a battle. It’s amazing. I commented on Twitter that this book bordered on audible. You can hear these fights. You can hear the grunts and the punches and the wheezing gasps for air. These aren’t theatrical fights. They feel real. This book feels so very real.

And I love his style throughout. The characters are drawn in an almost wood-cut effect. It feels almost grainy, like looking at sepia tinged film. There’s also an interesting allusion to the Bayeux Tapestry in the way some of these scenes are staged. This is bold, historic and viscerally visual storytelling that is, to be frank, epic.

This is what I feel a graphic novel adaptation of a classic should be. Don’t dumb it down. Don’t force the story to fit a context that it doesn’t. Don’t force your art to be something it isn’t. Hinds has gone right to the heart of this book – his book – and produced something really rather outstanding.

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The Odyssey : Gareth Hinds

The OdysseyThe Odyssey by Gareth Hinds

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gareth Hinds’ adaptation of The Odyssey into graphic novel form is a stunning achievement. I grew up on these stories (seriously, I love a good bit of derring-do) and I admire his work here. Adapting The Odyssey can’t be easy. He does well in selecting ‘highlights’ and creating a continuous narrative that drives itself steadily throughout the book. The only areas where it faltered a little for me were at the start as we had a lot of exposition to get through.

However, if you persevere through these opening chapters, you’re rewarded with a richly coloured tapestry of stories. I love the colour palette that Hind’s chosen to work with; warm, sun-bleached colours of blues and greens and yellows. It’s intensely Mediterranean and also very classical.

I think if this book struggles anywhere it’s in the use of lettering . Speech and captions throughout tend to default to a sort of left-justified Times New Roman esque font. You can see an example of it in the image below. What’s particularly galling is that this page also possesses one of the most stunning panels in the entire book. The speech bubble where the Bard recounts the fall of Troy is superb. Utterly utterly superb.

This use of lettering remains steady regardless of the shape of the speech bubbles or the interaction throughout the scene. So we regularly see lovely, fluid, interlocking speech bubbles in a conversation (as above)  but then they’re filled with this kind of rigorously standardized font which can’t help but feel disjointed. Lettering everything in this manner also doesn’t help to distinguish characters or captions – it borders on being typographical white noise. It’s a shame as well because there are points where the lettering (sound effects etc) is superbly done and shows what this book is capable of.

It’s a shame that the lettering doesn’t match the quality of the artwork. Some of Hinds’ strongest panels are wordless and some moved me to tears. The visual storytelling on display here is, at points, outstanding. The below image for example silently tells us that these characters are connected, despite distance and divide, they remain irrevocably connected. It’s brilliant.

Hinds’ Odyssey is ultimately a book of contradictory brilliance. It’s so beautiful but you may have to wade past a lot of stuff to get there.

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