Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley

Milly-Molly-Mandy StoriesMilly-Molly-Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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 Harsher voices might call this sort of thing twee or outdated, but they’re idiots and we know better.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.

I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Ink House by Rory Dobner

The Ink HouseThe Ink House by Rory Dobner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy

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Mary And Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Júlia Sardà

Mary, Who Wrote FrankensteinMary and Frankenstein by Linda Bailey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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?

Mary does”

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.

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Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich, with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

Dear Evan HansenDear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Amal UnboundAmal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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What Does An Anteater Eat? : Ross Collins

what does an anteater eatWhat Does An Anteater Eat? by Ross Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Pony on the Twelfth Floor : Polly Faber, illus. Sarah Jennings

Pony on the Twelfth FloorPony on the Twelfth Floor by Polly Faber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy.

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