Review policy

I am very happy to review any novel that fits in with the theme of this blog: novels aimed at 9-14 year olds, preferably with a fantasy/ speculative world setting. However, I will make clear in the review that I was sent the book by the publisher and I will write my honest opinion. Please feel free to contact me via Twitter or Facebook, or fantasticreads at gmail dot com.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Guest post: Books and reading as a child – a personal memoir part 5

This is the final guest post from Richard, which today brings us up to date with some books he has enjoyed reading with his own children. I've really enjoyed reading these posts; thank you Richard!

Adrian Mole was, I think, the last children’s book I read whilst still technically a child. I kept a lot of my childhood books (to be honest, my mum helped a bit with this) and didn’t look at them again until I had children of my own in my mid-thirties. Four years ago we moved into a semi-detached house with a front lounge with built-in bookshelves, and although the children (then three and one) were still rather small I instinctively set aside the lowest shelf by the sofa just for children’s books so they were easy for them to get at. I’m very proud to say that I’ve read to them every evening since then barely without exception, always allowing them to choose the books they want.

image: booksforkeeps.co.uk

 Since having the boys, a steady stream of children’s books has come into the house, either bought by friends and family or given through the wonderful Bookstart scheme. My children’s own favourites include Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson, a lovely young child’s picture book about three baby owls who worry what’s happened to their mother when she flies off one day; Tiddler by children’s laureate Julia Donaldson, a fantastically-illustrated (by Axel Scheffler) rhyming adventure about a small fish who always turns up late for school with a risible excuse; The Night-Pirates by Peter Harris (illustrated by Deborah Allwright), about a small boy taken on an adventure by a group of girl pirates; and A New House for Mouse by Petr Horáček, in which a mouse tries to find a new home big enough for her and a huge apple she’s found. The latter is engineered with beautiful simplicity, with real holes in the pages allowing you a peek of something on the next page and then as you turn the page, focusing on a detail from the previous page. The mouse finds larger and larger “holes” in the landscape but each is occupied by a larger animal with a different reason for not wanting to share their home. As she travels, she takes bites from the apple, which becomes imperceptibly smaller and smaller, so that by the end she’s left with just the core which fits perfectly into an unoccupied den, which we then realise is her own home. The story is like a beautifully structured poem. The illustrations are big, bold and colourful, the mouse’s house furnished zen-fashion with only a bed covered with a lovely striped duvet and a jug.

image: justimaginestorycentre.co.uk
Another recent book my sons and I both love is Mr Big by Ed Vere, concerning a sensitive gorilla who, being the largest person in town, is forever inadvertently frightening everybody else away. Spotting a piano in a shop window, he buys it “because it looked just as lonely as he was”, carries it (by himself, effortlessly) upstairs to his flat and simply starts playing it whilst “thinking of all the things that made him sad”. Because his window is open, the whole neighbourhood can hear the beautiful music pouring out of him, until eventually a local jazz band invite him to sit in with them. The gig is a great success and he’s never lonely again. As a musician myself I think it’s a fabulous theme for a young child’s book, and again the illustrations are appropriately rough, chunky and jazzy.

image: miroslavsasek.com
A wonderful recent discovery of mine is This is London by Miroslav (“M.”) Sasek. Written originally in 1958, it was reissued in 2004 in a delightful hardback format making it perfect for a gift and for a child to keep. It’s a non-fiction tour of London’s landmarks and culture, filled with funky, cartoony illustrations typical of the era ranging from spindly city gents to bowler-hatted tube travellers (their newspapers collaged from real newsprint) and tattooed Smithfield fishmongers. London as a city is first seen from the air as a stippled, modernist canvas, then close-up onto landmarks both still here (most of them) and since gone (Lyons’ corner houses). Parts of the original text are annotated to bring them up to date (in 1958 London was “the largest city in the world”, a title now held by Mumbai) but otherwise the book is unchanged. We lived in Surrey when I was a child and I have fond memories then of being taken up to Town in the train by my dad and going for long walks around the West End and the City, something that is harder for me to do with my own children now that we’ve moved to the more affordable Midlands, so it’s a nice book to have in the house.

image: wikipedia.org
Our best recent acquisition is a storybook version of The Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine, a wonderful large-format hardback reproducing much of the original surreal artwork from the movie. The story is much condensed (I hadn’t seen the film for many years, and when I bought a copy on DVD and played it to the kids they gave up to do something else at about the 70-minute mark) but is otherwise faithful to the original plot of Pepperland securing the Beatles’ help to defeat the Blue Meanies and the “Dreadful Flying Glove”. I also try to read it to the boys in a Liverpool accent, although this isn’t strictly necessary for enjoying the fabulously imaginative illustrations, especially the “undersea” section.

image: amazon.com
I can’t complete this article without a special mention of two excellent children’s books by a friend of mine, Elizabeth Hoffman – Miss Renee’s Mice and Miss Renee’s Mice Go To An Exhibition (illustrated by Dawn Peterson). Miss Renee is a miniature maker whose dolls houses become inhabited by a family of mice. Miss Renee lives on her own in an idyllic setting by the sea in Maine and is used to her own company, so when the mice create too much noise she sends them away on a little ship, tricking them into thinking they’re going on a world cruise. Having left, she feels guilty and lonely, but one day the ship comes back: the mice have indeed been on a cruise and they’ve brought her sweets and samples of fabric from each country they’ve visited. In the second book, the mice persuade Miss Renee to take them to a dolls’ house exhibition which she agrees to on the basis that they pretend to be toy mice; they co-operate, but the visitors ignore her dolls’ houses and fall in love with the “realistic” mice instead. Jealous, she denies them lunch, and chaos ensues when the hungry mice escape and run amok looking for food. They’re both very witty books, the illustrations excellent and detailed (look carefully and you’ll see a dental appointment for the punworthy “2.30” noted on a calendar, and a photo of Elizabeth’s favourite musician Tiny Tim pinned to Miss Renee’s wall).

Elizabeth has also sent any number of lovely books for the boys from the US, including Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, which I understand is a modern American classic, and at least four books by Christopher Wormell, who I am surprised to find is English, including The Animal Train and Off To The Fair. Wormell is a fantastic illustrator and tells great little stories usually involving animals; in the latter an elephant, a bear and a seal attempt to go into town to see the fair but keep stopping along the way for things to eat (trashing an ice-cream parlour), for a swim (emptying the pool of water) and to see a film (sitting in the front row and blocking the view of most of the audience). He’s also illustrated some lovely alphabet and numbering books for small children.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Russell Hoban's Soonchild

San Diego State University's English department blog has an extract from Russell Hoban's forthcoming Young Adult book, Soonchild to be released in March next year. I saw the proofs on my visit to Russell on his birthday in February. It looks beautiful. Thanks to @SA4QE for the heads up.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Guest post: Books and reading as a child – a personal memoir part 4



Image: biblio.com

A child’s meeting with a children’s writer

I was good at English, and at the age of about 11 won a school prize for a short sci-fi story which was terrifyingly psychological (I’ll spare you the plot summary). The prize was a book voucher and it was presented to me by the children’s writer H. E. Todd, who was famous for the Bobby Brewster series, although to be perfectly honest I’d never read any of his books. He came mainly to give us a talk about writing, which was fun; I remember a short, round, wheezy man in his seventies wearing braces and NHS spectacles; his main message (or the one that I was left with, at any rate) was the magic of the number three in stories: “Think of the Three Little Pigs or Goldilocks and the Three Bears – two isn’t quite enough, you’ll leave your readers thinking ‘is that it?’ while four is too many, you’ll send them to sleep. But three is just right.” I still have a signed copy of Bobby Brewster’s Torch although I think I’ve still never read it. I’ll have to test it out on the boys.

Image: amazon.co.uk

Schoolboys in literature: Grimble (Clement Freud, ill. Quentin Blake), The Compleet Molesworth (Geoffrey Willans, ill. Ronald Searle), The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ (Sue Townsend)

Another book I think I got from the school book club was Grimble and Grimble at Christmas by Clement Freud. At this time my peers were reading (if they were reading anything at all) The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which I could never get into. Fantasy was not really my thing; I much preferred realism and humour, preferably at the same time. Grimble is a boy of “about ten” whose parents are so vague that they don’t even know the exact date of his birthday (they make up for it by presenting him with a cake at random intervals). They are absent for most of the story, having at the start taken off to Peru (what is it about Peru?) leaving Grimble alone to fend for himself. You could probably not even write a children’s book in which that happens these days for fear of catching hell from the Daily Mail crowd, but actually I’m sure that a lot of children, maybe even all of them, love the idea of having the house to themselves. (I myself was often technically home alone, even though mum and dad were only downstairs in the shop, which felt really just like another room of the house.) Grimble’s parents seem so ordinarily distant that when they’re not actually there it barely makes any difference to their son, who appears quite indifferent. In any case, they haven’t actually abandoned him, but have been sure to leave him with an oven full of sandwiches, a fridge full of flasks of tea and and a list of addresses of family friends he can visit. Each day he goes to a different house, although instead of finding someone at home, there’s simply a recipe and ingredients for a different dinner. Among the unlikely dishes he makes are a coconut tart, eggs in mayonnaise, and – the best one, in my opinion – biscuits in burnt chocolate sauce, which he cooks in a saucepan on a camping gas fire in a railway signalman’s hut.

Image: http://www.stcustards.free-online.co.uk/intro.htm
Another schoolboy character I loved as a schoolboy was Nigel Molesworth from The Compleet Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. (I know Willans was the writer and creator of the character, but it seems unthinkable not to co-credit the books to Searle whose magnificent spindly illustrations were perfect for the chaotic language and period detail.) Even though the Molesworth books were set in a public (or prep) school in the 1950s with jokes in Latin, and I was a comprehensive-educated eighties child with a decidedly flakey grasp of precisely what the Romans had done for us, the books were still hilarious and easy for me to identify with. I even found myself fantasising about being in Molesworth’s “skool” myself, wishing that my own school life was more like his, probably because it belonged to a bygone age, and a fee-paying boarding school was more like a “community” compared to the humdrum daily life of a modern comprehensive. I said earlier about Grimble that I much preferred my books to be realistic, but when The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole came along, even though I devoured the book I still preferred the “lost realism” of Nigel Molesworth’s 1950s school to Adrian’s educational experience, possibly because the latter was an experience I shared. As a character in a Woody Allen film put it, “Too much reality is not what the people want”, and in a weird way, the Molesworth books became my preferred fantasy fiction. The Adrian Mole books (I only include the “original” ones, i.e. The Secret Diary and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole – I lost interest in the many sequels) were massively successful when they came out in the early eighties, although when I look at them now they feel more dated than the Molesworth ones. What I loved most about the Mole books was the diary narrative; often I struggled to work my way through long chapters (I still do), but with a series of short diary entries the pages just flew by. I started writing a diary myself at the time and remember one of the entries read “Am on page 86 of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole ALREADY!!!”
Image: amazon.co.uk
Adrian was a year or two older than me, so reading his diary was like having an older brother, which as an only child was a good thing. That said, with his various problems he wasn’t exactly a role model, although he was basically a good person and certainly lucky to get Pandora Braithwaite to be his girlfriend (or to get a girlfriend full stop, I think – something that Townsend has said is largely due to the fact that the books were written by a woman). I’ve forgotten almost the whole book now but the part I always remember involves Adrian joining (after finally deciding he can’t beat them) school bully Barry Kent’s gang. The gang hang around deserted shopping centres after dark and one of them smashes a bottle on the ground; later, after they’ve all split up for the night, Adrian goes back, picks up the pieces of glass and puts them in a bin because he hates the idea of a “little kid” falling over on it the next day. In another scene Adrian goes to Barry’s home where “once I got used to the funny smell in the house, I started to relax for the first time in weeks”. Adrian is a very human, humane, “normal” boy in a world of mostly (with some notable exceptions) selfish, objectionable people. In this I suppose there are superficial similarities with Harry Potter; I sometimes wonder how many millions less Sue Townsend made from Adrian Mole than J.K. Rowling did from Potter because the former was “just too real” (not to mention the lack of merchandising rights).

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Bronx is up, but the Battery's Down


This post is inspired by Keris Stainton's new novel, Jessie Hearts NYC, and by Chicklish's New York Books Challenge. Now my interest is more older children's literature than Young Adult/ teen, but still, this got me thinking, so I came up with three New York-set books. (Another I loved recently is Unhooking The Moon, which I wrote about here).


The Saturdays written and illustrated by Elizabeth Enright (1941)
The four Melendy children, Mona, Rush, Miranda (Randy) and Oliver, live in a brownstone in Manhattan with their widower Economics professor father, Cuffy, their housekeeper and Willy Sloper, the maintenance man. One rainy Saturday the children are in their Office at the top of the house, bored and wishing they had enough money to do something interesting, when they come up with a plan to pool their pocket money once a month so that they each get the chance to do something fun, and the Independent Saturday Afternoon Adventure Club- I.S.A.A.C- is born. The Melendy children's afternoon ambitions are in keeping with their creative and intellectual family life. Randy has ambitions to become a dancer or a painter; her Saturday is spent at an art gallery on Fifth Avenue, where she sees French paintings (Impressionist?) where she also learns to appreciate Mrs Oliphant, an elderly family friend better. Rush, who wants to be a pianist or an engineer, goes to the opera to see Siegfried- maybe this production at the Met?- where he also finds a dog that the family names Isaac. Mona, who wants to become an actress, goes and gets her hair bobbed, but also learns that growing up does not just mean changing the way you look. Finally, little Oliver goes to Madison Square Gardens to the circus, but comes home on a police horse.

The Manhattan setting is evocative; mentions of Tiffany's, Central Park, Broadway, Lexington Avenue will instantly take anyone who has visited New York City right back there. This book is no longer in print in the UK, but can easily be obtained online, or your local bookshop can order it from US publisher Macmillan's.

Eloise by Kay Thompson illus. Hilary Knight (1955)


This, more than any other, is my New York book. Six year old Eloise lives with her English nanny, Skipperdee her turtle and Weenie her dog on the top floor of the Plaza Hotel, just of 5th Avenue near Central Park. Told in Eloise's voice, she talks us through her busy life at the hotel where her friends are the staff, and her mother occasionally sends for her to "Europe and to Paris... if there is any sun". Kay Thompson was a nightclub performer and friend of Judy Garland; one theory about Eloise is that it was based on Liza Minelli, although Thompson always said she herself was Eloise.

Knight's pink, white and black illustrations remind me of Ronald Searle's; of course the St Trinian's books are contemporary (1948-1953) with Eloise. The voice of the book reminds me a little of Lauren Child's  Charlie and Lola books. I bought this book at the 5th Avenue Barnes and Noble store (the only place other than the gift shop in the Museum of Modern Art that I encountered any of the famous New York rudeness!) and it is a big part of my memories of that trip. With the strapline "A book for precocious grown-ups", it was originally written for adults (also like St Trinian's), although revisions were made when it was republished for children. However, you can still see the gin bottle in Eloise's bedroom on pages 20 and 21! Again, shades of St Trinian's!



If you were going to run away from home, the detail that you put into your planning and what you consider important will give away a lot about your character. My running away fantasies involve a cottage by the coast, a large pile of books and no phones, which probably tells you something about me! However, 11-year-old Claudia Kincaid  is a practical sort of person who doesn't like discomfort. She decides to take her 9-year-old brother Jamie, because he is a frugal boy who has not wasted his pocket money on baseball cards. Claudia is resentful and feels unappreciated at home. She decides after extensive research to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a place of culture and beauty. At the museum the children sleep in a state bed (possibly like this one), wash in the fountains and eat in the museum cafe, using the money they have saved and later funds that they fish out of the fountains. During their stay the children become fascinated by the statue of an angel sold to the museum by Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, of Farmington, Connecticut, and are determined to find out whether or not it was sculpted by Michaelangelo. Eventually they travel to Mrs Frankweiler's house and search the mixed-up files of the title for the answer. However, the story is also the story of Claudia's discovery that she has run away to find herself, as so many stories are.

Mrs Frankweiler serves an interesting role in the book, which opens with a letter to her lawyer (a similar device is used in Charlotte Bronte's The Professor, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), and she serves as (an unreliable) narrator, a facilitator and ultimately frames the novel with an address to her lawyer, who is unexpectedly also connected to the story.

So interested are many visitors to the museum in this Newbery Medal winning book that the museum's website has these frequently asked questions! And of course many museums do have sleepovers. It's a great New York book, featuring Grand Central Station, the (now closed) Donnell Branch Children's Public Library and the Grand Central Post Office. I adored the New York Public Library.

The book has been adapted twice: the 1973 film version had Ingrid Bergman as Mrs Frankweiler.

I would recommend The Saturdays to 8+, Eloise to be read to 4+ and to read alone 6+, and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler for 8+.

I'm eagerly awaiting a copy of Jessie Hearts NYC, and will be writing about it as soon as possible!
Two of my favourite New York songs:
Piazza New York Catcher by Belle and Sebastian (a very bookish band!)
Elegance from Hello Dolly! Any time Brits feel like laughing at Dick Van Dyke's London accent in Mary Poppins, check out Michael Crawford's Yonkers accent and blush.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Guest post: Books and reading as a child – a personal memoir part 3

The third part of Richard's guest post. Thanks Richard, really enjoying these!
Books at home


My gran was a reading influence of sorts when I was five or six, albeit she didn’t have much success in getting me to read many of her suggested books. Black Beauty was a favourite of hers but never appealed to me (oh that long hour spent in front of the TV version on stuffy Sunday afternoons, longing for Batman) and the one occasion I recall of her reading to me in bed on a “sleepover” ended literally in tears. The book was called something like The Fantastic Journey and told the story of three animal compatriots escaping from either a laboratory or a pound. [Ed: Was it The Incredible Journey?] It was a miserable book, and something sad happened to one of the animals which made me cry, and that was that. (I am certain of course that my gran didn’t mean to upset me.)

In my own home my mum and dad didn’t have many books – they spent more of their spare time listening to music – but I definitely remember two: one was called Man, Myth and Magic, which was actually some collectable magazines in a binder, and The History of Theatre which I’m pretty sure was by J.B. Priestley, although I can’t find a reference to it online. Man, Myth and Magic aspired to be an encylopedia of paganism and the supernatural, although oddly enough it wasn’t as disturbing as the Theatre book, which had a picture of some antique carved wooden masks in it which frightened the life out of me. Like many such pictures, I looked at it over and over again. The only other book I remember at home as a young child was A Dictionary of Music, where you could look up anything from J.S. Bach’s biography to the definition of a crotchet. I remember dipping into it occasionally throughout my childhood, but most of it went in one ear and out the other, and I grew up loving the blues.

The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (W. Heath Robinson)
Image from amazon.co.uk

Books which frighten or disturb you as a child are always fascinating. The one that really did it for me was The Adventures of Uncle Lubin by W. Heath Robinson. I didn’t make the connection between Robinson’s more famous pictures of “complicated and implausible machinery” and this book for many years – it just seemed to have always been there, a weird and unsettling oddity on a shelf in my room waiting to pounce. The story itself is disturbing enough – the titular Lubin is looking after his beloved baby nephew Peter one hot afternoon when he (Lubin) falls asleep, and wakes to see the baby being carried off in the beak of a “wicked bag-bird”. Lubin, who looks like a cross between Ken Dodd and a minor character from The Lord of the Rings, builds an “air-ship”, actually fairly conservative as Heath Robinson’s contraptions go (an attached handbag labelled “sandwiches” is a great touch), and floats off to find the bird. The stories that follow are very short, typographically eccentric and illuminated with surreal creatures, with a black-and-white illustration on every facing page. The main illustrations vary between mildly disturbing and utterly nightmarish – a warty sea-serpent tangled in its death throes, a laughing giant with enormous teeth, a small boy running through a snowy landscape from a sword-wielding dwarf. Robinson seems to have a thing for nightscapes – Lubin and his deflated air balloon hanging off the sharp point of a crescent moon, or charming a “dragon snake” with his concertina. It’s not a book I would recommend to any child, or most adults come to that.

The Robot, The Dinosaur and the Hairy Monster (Anita Harper, ill. Sara Silcock)

Paddington (Michael Bond)
Image from virginmedia.com

Another book from this period was called The Robot, the Dinosaurand the Hairy Monster, a short Blackie “Easy to Read” book by Anita Harper with illustrations by Sara Silcock. It was published in 1975 so would have been new when I was a small boy. The story is perhaps unusual in that all the characters are female. Alliterative titular friends Rachel, Daphne and Hilary (respectively) “meet in a forest” and come across a faulty magic box. They enlist a witch to help them get it working, travel to an island where Hilary gets sick from eating wild berries, enlist the witch’s help again to cure her and then have a fun time playing musical instruments that pop out of the magic box (even though what they’d actually wanted was food). There’s a lovely illustration of Daphne, who seems to be a small diplodocus, pulling her two friends across the water to the island on a raft. I think though my favourite story featuring a small hairy animal at this time was Paddington by Michael Bond. The two books couldn’t actually be more unalike and to compare them is risible but it’s interesting to see why Paddington became an international phenomenon and the other didn’t – I think it’s because Paddington is such a character, and a loner. He’s easy to identify with because he’s on his own, unique, alienated, rather than one of a group of friends in their own self-accepting world. He has a backstory – he was being looked after by his aunt Lucy in “Darkest Peru” until she got too old and he had to stow away in a suitcase for a new life abroad, living on jars of marmalade for the duration of the trip. How he ended up at Paddington Station isn’t altogether clear but it doesn’t matter, especially as Paddington is a superb name for a bear. His duffel coat, floppy hat, small stature, love of marmalade sandwiches and well-spokenness all mark him out as a crypto-English eccentric, and I think we all like those.

Comic strippage and the school book club

There was then a period when I read almost nothing but comics. My favourites were the Beano, the Dandy and the (relaunched) Eagle; I could spend hours reading both the weekly comics and the annuals. It didn’t do anything for my attention span, although I did become quite good at drawing cartoons and at one point seriously considered becoming a cartoonist when I grew up. I also obtained entire books of comic strips including Garfield by Jim Davis (of whom I remain a big fan) and Peanuts by Charles M. Shulz. The latter – which was a sumptuous, thick paperback called something like Peanuts: A 30-Year Celebration, full of colour cartoon strips – was bought through the school book club, which was a wonderful thing. Every month or so we had the option to buy books from a catalogue, so you filled in your order form, enclosed the cash or cheque and gave it to the teacher, and after what seemed an age the entire class’s order would arrive. Usually just before hometime on a Friday, everyone would be handed out their beautiful, shiny new books in one ecstatic sitting. It was a fantastic occasion. Another book I remember getting from the book club was The Ha-Ha Bonk Book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, a joke book full of terrible old gags, teeming with funny little cartoon characters. My introduction to poetry also came through the book club as I bought Silly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan and Rabbiting On by Kit Wright. The latter was illustrated by Posy Simmonds, these days more famous for Tamara Drewe. Milligan’s own illustrations were wonderful and surreal; the best poem in it was by far On the Ning Nang Nong, which several years later was voted the country’s favourite comic poem in a BBC TV poll. Rabbiting On had a terrific poem about a disastrous kids’ party (“My dear old friend, Dave Dirt, / Was terribly sick / All over the flowers. / We cleaned it up. / It took hours.”) as well as one called Give Up Slimming, Mum (“She says she / looks as though / someone had / sat on her – / BUT WE LIKE MUM / WITH A BIT / OF FAT ON HER!”)
Image: Forbiddenplanet.com

Saturday, 16 July 2011

School's Out For Summer!

Even though I haven't taught children in school for nearly 10 years, I still get a distinctly end of term feeling at this time of year. Students are gone from my University campus (and they fondly believe that lecturers do nothing in the summer; I guess those module handbooks and reading lists just prepare themselves...) and although I am still at work, my reading has taken a summery turn.


I was reminded recently of Noel Streatfeild's The Growing Summer (1966); one of her later books, it is the story of the Gareth children (Alex, Penny, Robin and Naomi). Interestingly, the children seem on the surface to have the standard middle class life: their mother gave up a career as a nurse to have them, the live in a road called Royal Crescent in a London suburb; Alex and Penny are diligent children at Secondary school, in sport as well as in academic lessons; Robin and Naomi are expected to be the same once they leave Junior school. However all is not what it seems. Mrs Gareth is a New Zealander who met their father, a research scientist (he is studying a microbe causing a rare disease) at the hospital where she worked. He has always had an urge to work abroad, but his parents in law wanted to know that if their daughter must live on the other side of the world, at least they could know where she is. So they bought a house for the young couple in a London suburb, and they settled down.

However, an opportunity comes up for him to work in the far east, and so he leaves the family behind for a year. At first, the older children relish the opportunity to get to know their mother better, but then their father becomes dangerously ill and she must go to him. It is nearly the end of school, so the children are sent to Ireland, to live with their father's eccentric Aunt Dymphna on the Cork coast, in an old house 12 miles from Bantry, called Reenmore.

Image: irelandwide.com.

Initially the children are both terrified and horrified at being given the wing of a house, access to the kitchen and told to look after themselves, with the help of Mrs O'Brien from the farm down the hill. This is a great book; there is a mysterious boy who appears with a tale of escaping from Communist spies (well, it was the 1960s), whose selfishness and expectation that someone will look after him gives them pause for thought; there is their growing understanding of their aunt, the wartime events that makes her cling to her home even though it is shabby and inconvenient, and eventually they grow in self sufficiency, tolerance and even enjoy Cork, the sunshine, playing on the beach and fishing.

One of the things I love about Noel Streatfeild's books is the way she can show the tensions and worries between adults, but is always on the side of the children. Obliquely she demonstrates that the trauma of losing everything in the War (her escape from occupied France, the loss of her brother and his wife- Mr Graham's parents) has affected Aunt Dymphna, and how his childhood has affected him, but this is only relevant in showing the growing maturity and empathy of the children, and we work it out ourselves; she doesn't tell us. Adding to the attractions of this book are Edward Ardizonne's illustrations. I strongly recommend that you investigate beyond Ballet Shoes- The Circus Is Coming (now called Circus Shoes- I blame Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail), Apple Bough and the Gemma books, an incredibly touching demonstration of what happens to a child star when she gets too old to play a little girl.


Sam Palmer and his family have just moved to the country. Sam is bored and fed up, missing his friends and the social life he had in the city. He has always been interested in insects, but now he has become hyper-aware of them, almost to the point of obsession. One summer Saturday he decides that instead of letting the insects follow him, he will follow them, and see where they are coming from. Little does he know that they are slipping between the fabric of our world and the connected world of Aurobon, where there is a fierce war on to stop General Hekken and the dictator Odoursin from destroying humanity in revenge for a terrible accident.

The Dreamwalker's Child by Steve Voake (2005) is a fast paced, exciting read, with an environmental message; if Artemis Fowl is Die Hard with fairies, then this is Rambo with pilot-controlled insects. Sam and Skipper, the daredevil girl insect pilot who rescues him from Hekken's prison-cum-insect breeding factory, are great protagonists, and the action sequences made me hold my breath. This is former Primary head teacher Voake's first novel, and I'll be certainly be hunting down others. Highly recommended for Artemis or Alex Ryder fans.


Come Away from the Water, Shirley by John Burningham (1977) is a classic picture book from the author of Mr Gumpy's Outing and Avocado Baby. It is one of my favourite books, as it is one where the story told in the pictures is far more complex than the story told in words, and contradicts much of what is written.

Shirley and her mum and dad go to the beach for a day. Mum and Dad have deckchairs, a packed lunch including a Thermos flask of tea, knitting and the paper. The text is simply Mum's monologue of instructions of Shirley not to get her shoes dirty with the tar that was all over 1970s British beaches, not to throw stones, not to touch a strange dog- while the illustrations show Shirley battling pirates, walking the plank, diving into the sea, landing on a desert island and finding buried treasure. Every class I have read this to (Nursery to Year 1) has loved it, and has always understood that it is a love poem to the imagination that can take something mundane and turn it into drama and adventure. Burningham is a very special writer, and if you have never encountered one of his books, I can't recommend them highly enough. Oi! Get Off Our Train is another of my favourites.


Jack and Boo's Bucket of Treasures, by Philip and Eleanor Bell (2010), is the story of two small children's day out at the beach, and the treasures that they find on the beach. The illustrations are interesting, being a blend of photographs and drawings of children (based on the Bell's own two children). The book would be great to take to the beach with small children, to read the story, do some of the beach activities suggested in the book, collect their own bucket of treasures and then use the spotter's guide to identify what they have found. Children who love writing may like to use printed out family holiday photos to create their own picture book of a day out with drawings of themselves and their families stuck on. I'll be passing this book on to my sister to give to my nephew (he's 3), who lives on the coast- I'm sure he'll love finding treasures on the beach to identify.

I'd recommend The Growing Summer for 8+, The Dreamwalker's Child for 9+, Come Away From The Water, Shirley for 4+ and Jack and Boo's Bucket of Treasures for 3+. I heard this on the radio while writing this post: perfect indie summer music!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Guest post: Books and reading as a child – a personal memoir part 2

Thank you again to Richard for these great memories of books and reading. Very nostalgic- Mr Men and Ladybird books are a big part of my childhood reading memories. I had a Ladybird Rapunzel to keep me quiet in church as a child!
Talking of biscuits brings me onto the Mr Men books. Scholars may debate the subtexts of Mr Happy going deep underground to bring Mr Miserable up into the light, or speak highly of the structure of Mr Messy’s journey into cleanliness. But my favourite Mr Man was Mr Tickle because of what he did with a biscuit. You may recall Mr Tickle had extremely long, elastic-like arms which could stretch great distances, enabling him to surreptitiously tickle unsuspecting people. I thought this was funny enough, but Roger Hargreaves’s true genius was to have Mr Tickle lay in bed and extend his long arms all the way downstairs to the kitchen where he took a biscuit from the biscuit tin and brought it all the way back upstairs where he ate it, all without having to get up. I don’t have the book to hand but I believe Mr Tickle repeats the action, which if true is even more brilliant when you consider that he could simply bring the whole biscuit tin upstairs – he (and Hargreaves) simply love the idea of being able to get hold of something from somewhere in the house without having to get up. To me this was (and is still) a much more potent superhero power than being able to fly, run faster than a speeding bullet or spin webs from your wrists.

A book I became very familiar with as a young child was a 1975 Ladybird Special edition of Aesop's Fables, “retold” by Marie Stuart and illustrated by Robert Ayton. The inner flyleaf of the hardback had a picture that haunted me – a drawing of a 6th century marble carving of the storyteller, the arms and legs missing and a fig leaf hovering oddly just below his stomach. The potted biography of Aesop which this drawing illustrates says he was “said to be deformed”, and as a child I thought the poor man was actually quadriplegic. The strange blank marble eyes also made me think he was blind. All of this meant his stories only made a deeper impression on me. My favourite fables were the goose that laid the golden eggs, the fox and the sour grapes, and a great one about a contest between the sun and the wind to see which one could get a man to remove his cloak – the wind tries by blowing at the cloak as hard as he can, which of course only makes the man wrap it around himself all the more, while the contest is won by the sun who simply shines hard, making the man take off his cloak in the heat. The moral “kindness often gets things done more quickly than force” is something I try hard to aspire to. The oddest story in the collection is about a crow who wants to be a swan, thinking that swimming in a pond and eating fish will make him into the majestic bird he wants to be, which of course fails. I feel uncomfortable reading the story with its language of the black crow “wishing it could be white” – as a modern-day liberal and Guardian-reading parent I am probably reading too much into this but I can't help but wonder if the author had a hidden racial agenda. When I read it to my children however I desist from referring to this paranoid theory.

When I was six years old I won a book as a school prize for “music”. I can’t remember what I actually did to justify the award except sing. I have a vivid memory of singing at the actual school prizegiving ceremony when I was given the book, a Ladybird called Do You Know by “W. Murray”. W seemed to be a kind of expert on everything in the way that middle-aged pipe-smoking uncles are experts on everything. The book introduces Earth as one of nine planets (I am psychologically incapable of adjusting to the recent decision that the number is actually eight), and goes on to talk about natural phenomena such as meteorites, volcanoes, rainbows and “things that live in the sea”. It was a fascinating book; my favourite page talked about the Dead Sea, featuring a drawing of a man floating in the water, unable to sink because of its high salt content. As a non-swimmer this idea attracted me, and still does. I’m sure it’s terrible for your skin though.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Books and reading as a child- a personal memoir (part 1)- guest post

I'm very pleased to have a series of posts from Richard from Thoughtcat, a fellow Russell Hoban fan. I'll be adding posts (probably midweek) for the next couple of weeks. Thank you, Richard! If you're on Twitter, follow him @thoughtcat.
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I count myself a very lucky person for two reasons: one, I can't remember a time when I couldn't read, and two, as a child I was given lots of books. These facts, together with the books themselves, have made their mark on me, and some 40 years and two children later I still feel that mark.



James by Kathryn

The first book I ever remember reading was called James, whose author was identified only as “Kathryn”. It was a largeish format slim hardback with the title, author and illustration in white ink on a plain black cover. The pages were unnumbered. To this day I've not seen another book like it. Because of its odd packaging, and because we had a vague family friend called Kathryn when I was a small boy, I was under the impression for many years that the book had been written by her especially for me and that it was the only copy in existence.

The story was what you might call metatextual: the author, also the illustrator, explains in longhand that she's bought a “lovely new pen”, and decides to write a story. She starts doodling. A zig-zag sprig appears: what is it? It’s the hair of a small boy; this leads her to draw the rest of the boy, whom she calls James. She decides he needs a companion, so she draws him a small, friendly dog. The author then tries to “get on with writing the story”, but James and the dog start playing on the pages, literally trampling over her handwritten words, sliding down sentences, pushing letters out of shape. No matter what the author tries to do, she can't control the pair of characters she’s created, who are having enormous fun. At one point James steals the letter “S”, and until he gives it back the author can't write James’s own name. For punishment she temporarily “ties” him to the spine of the book with “a length of line”. And so it goes on.


Despite (or perhaps because of) its low-tech, simple black and white style, James is altogether a brilliant book. I’ve never found another copy anywhere, not even online (you try Googling for “James by Kathryn” and see how far it gets you!) I hadn’t looked at my own copy for many years until I came to write this article, and read it for the first time to my own children (six and four) the other night. They loved it – James’s antics with the words were hilarious. The six-year-old was even inspired to write his own version, which he called Tommy, on small pieces of paper stapled together.

The Great Pie Robbery (Richard Scarry)
Little Richard (Patricia M. Scarry, ill. Cyndy Szekeres)

I had a few books that were bought for me because they had some connection with my name or the family business (my mum and dad had a restaurant called The Cherry Pie when I was born, and managed grocery shops throughout my childhood). Two examples of these were – by coincidence I believe – written by Richard Scarry (The Great Pie Robbery) and Patricia M. Scarry (Little Richard). The former is a surreal cartoon crime caper featuring a cat and pig detective who chase some “cherry pie thieves” across town. The getaway car is spotted outside a restaurant, but when they get inside they find the restaurant is full of customers (all different species of animals) all eating cherry pies. I couldn't (and still can’t) read the book without smacking my lips with the taste of those cherry pies. The best thing about the book is the tiny, strange details in the illustrations – for example, while in chase, the detectives cause chaos on the roads, and in the corner of one page is a small, smiling green beetle driving a tiny “Bugdozer” sweeping up the mess.

Little Richard concerned a family of rabbits. This was a very American book and a little bit on the twee side, but there was something nice about it, mainly the sumptuous illustrations (by Cyndy Szekeres) of life deep in the countryside. The inside cover has a map of the rabbit family’s neighbourhood indicating points in the story; as Russell Hoban said recently, “When you see a map in the front of a book you know good things are in store for you.” He was talking specifically about Treasure Island but I think this works for any book – the map (like any at the start of an adventure) shows you places you haven’t been to yet, so you get a taste of what’s going to happen before you’ve read the book. In the first of several short stories the eponymous rabbit helps his mother bake some biscuits, which as a lifelong biscuit lover I related to instantly and have always remembered. In another story Richard goes “tracking” and strawberry-picking with his friend Porcupine. It’s a book of complete comfort and reassurance to a child.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Nannies and Grannies and Governesses, oh my!

A couple of months ago, I was watching Nanny McPhee,. I realised that while I knew the film was based on the Nurse Matilda stories of Christianna Brand I had never read them. I finally found a second hand copy of the collected tales, illustrated by her cousin Edward Ardizzone, and I read them with enormous enjoyment.


Of course, the film changes many of the details of the stories; Mr Brown is not a slightly hopeless, hardworking undertaker; instead there is an incredibly fecund Mr and Mrs Brown with an indeterminate number of incredibly naughty children. The Browns live in a large country house with a butler, cook and tweeny (Evangeline), and one of the most memorable pieces of naughtiness they get up to involves them going through the green baize door into the servants' domain, culminating in an almighty food fight in a pond, with Cook's wig as a major casualty. I particularly enjoyed the repetition of listing the naughtiness, and I can imagine children wriggling in vicarious delight. Some will be familiar to people who have watched the film (decapitating dolls, feigning measles, dressing animals in best clothes), although the outcome is quite different. The enigmatic Nurse Matilda, who arrives when children need but don't want her, but must go when they want but don't need her, is much the same, and it would be interesting to discuss with children whether she really does get less ugly as the children behave better, or do they grow to love her and therefore no longer see her blemishes?


Nurse Matilda is a great contrast to the original magical nanny, P. L. Travers' Mary Poppins. The Mary of the book is an altogether far more astringent character than Nurse Matilda (and bears little resemblence to the saccharine Disney version). Traver's Mary is vain, sharp tongued and clearly doesn't speak 1930's received pronunciation: "Strike me pink!" It's a hugely enjoyable re-read, and again, it would be an interesting subject of  discussion- it has been adapted numerous times, including similarities with Hindi film Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic, where Geeta, the female lead, is like a cross between Maria Von Trapp and Mary Poppins. Graphic novel fans may remember Mary Poppins being in the Blazing World sequences from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (definitely not recommended for children!)

Interestingly in both books the magical nannies have had to come to help out the families because the badly-behaved children have driven away the former nannies. Mrs Brown fails to see that her children do anything wrong and has absolutely no authority over them; Mrs Banks in the first book has only recently had the twins and is rarely mentioned. The fathers seem to have no involvement with the children at all.

With nannies being less and less common for middle class families, there remains a problem of obtaining suitable childcare where one parent staying at home is an impossible dream. Who, then, steps in to look after the children? In  Granny Nothing by Catherine McPhail there is Sue, the  mean, reality TV obsessed nanny of the McAllister children (Stephanie, Ewen and Baby Thomas), whose parents are too busy to see that they are miserable. Then in the middle of a dark and stormy night Granny Nothing arrives, the mysterious mother of narrator Stephanie's father.


Mr McAllister is ashamed of his eccentric, fat, untidy mother, and initially only Thomas sees the good in her. However, as she helps the children deal with such threats as scary dogs and bullies, she wins over Stephanie, Ewen and their school friends, and ultimately is the conduit for Nanny Sue's downfall. While perhaps not magical, she certainly has special powers and is incredibly strong. According to Strident Publishing, the book was reissued due to popular demand from teachers, librarians and children, and I can quite see why: I read it on a train journey, and it is lucky my train could go no further without going into the sea, as I was enjoying it so much I would certainly have missed my stop!


Imagine a cross between Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events and Jane Eyre, and that would give you an idea of how engrossing and enjoyable the first book in  Maryrose Wood's The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series is. Miss Penelope Lumley is 15 years old, and having completed her studies at Agatha Swanburne's Academy for Poor Bright Females, she is summoned to an interview at Ashton Place, the home of Lord and Lady Ashton. She is expecting a rigorous interview, and is instead surprised to find Lady Constance begging her to stay. However, unline the young Browns or Banks, Alexander, Beowulf and Cassiopeia Incorrigible are not naughty; they were discovered in the forests surrounding Ashton Place, apparently raised by wolves and with an unfortunate fascination with squirrels. As many teachers have asked themselves, what does one do with a child who growls in public? Penelope does incredibly well until, at one of the most hilarious Christmas parties I have ever read about, events come to a head and the mystery is at least partially explained; of course, there is a sequel...

With the exception of The Incorrigibles, I would suggest that these books could be read with great pleasure to 6 years +, read alone from 7-8 years, depending on the child's confidence. I would read The Incorrigibles to 8 year olds, but I think the humour and sophistication would be best appreciated by 9 years + (and stolen by parents and older siblings!)

Monday, 4 July 2011

A brief review of Ronia, the Robber's Daughter by Astrid Lindgren




In the middle of a storm, a daughter is born to Matt the robber and his wife, Lovis. The little girl is named Ronia, and she grows up fearless, outfacing harpies and trolls in Matt’s Forest, swimming in the rivers and climbing trees. She grows up in Matt’s Fort amongst his gang of robbers, always a little lonely, until she meets a red-haired boy of her own age, Birk. Unfortunately he is the son of Matt’s rival, Borka.

This is a wonderful story, beautifully translated by Patricia Crompton. Any lover of Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking will not be surprised that Ronia is a fearless, charming character, but for me this book is a richer, more satisfying read, depicting family love and conflict, particularly a beautiful depiction of a loving but exasperated wife and mother in Lovis, and the growing friendship between Ronia and Birk despite their families’ disapproval.

This is a great read for 7-11 year olds, and should, I think, appeal to both boys and girls. It is a little frightening in places; the harpies chasing Ronia in particular are a little unsettling, so parents may prefer to read it to younger or more sensitive readers, but I think most children who like adventurous, slightly scary stories with a bit of the supernatural thrown in should love it. I'm very grateful to Zoe from the always wonderful Playing By The Book for introducing it to me.

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Congratulations to @AllisMcD who tweeted about the giveaway and commented on the post, and won the copy of The Little White Horse! Look out for a Doctor Who-themed giveaway in the next few weeks (when my guest reviewer has time to write his review!) and join in!