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.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Happy 50th birthday, The Phantom Tollbooth

Image: harpercollins.co.uk

Last year Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth turned 50. It is the story of Milo, a normal boy who discovers a mysterious package in his bedroom. Milo is not interested in anything. When he is in, he wants to be out; when he is out, he wants to be in. But he summons up the energy to open the package. Inside, he finds a toy tollbooth. He gets into his toy electric car (of which he is bored) and drives through the tollbooth, and is transported to a magical land: the Kingdom of Wisdom, through which he travels with Tock, the watchdog
Image: carlemuseum.org

to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air. 

The comical characters (my favourite is Faintly Macabre, the Not-So Wicked Which), word play and literal exemplifications of idioms- for example, Tock can carry Milo through the air, since "time flies"- is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, and also the recent China Mieville  Young Adult novel Un Lun Dun

Image: Norton Juster at Foyles, 26th April 2012 (photo by me)

I went to hear Norton Juster talk about The Phantom Tollbooth with author and journalist Nicolette Jones at the famous London bookshop Foyles. He was a superb raconteur, who explained that his love of wordplay came from his father. He said that he was much like Milo as a child, often bored at home and uninterested at school. However, he said that he felt that the need to entertain himself as a child made him creative (he was an architect as well as an author) and stated his concerns about today's over-scheduled children, who rarely have time to play freely. Interestingly, Juster also stated that he is synaesthesic, associating colours with numbers. One of the characters that Milo encounters is Chroma the Great, the conductor of an orchestra that plays the colours of sunset.

I have loved this book since I was 9. I bought my third copy yesterday, as my previous two copies have fallen apart. I don't think I fully understood all the puns and wordplay then, but I loved the strange characters and the map at the beginning of the book! (All fantasy books should have maps, in my opinion). I hope that you read it and discover it yourself. The 50th anniversary Harper Collins edition that I bought has an introduction by the late Diana Wynne Jones, which was a lovely discovery.


Friday, 20 April 2012

Life in Wartime

Last weekend I went to the fascinating Churchill War Rooms. It is a fascinating, claustrophobic place, showing the difficulties the men and women of Churchill's staff worked through (not least working with the famously irascible Churchill!) I thoroughly recommend it. It made me think about novels to support children's empathy with people living through the war.

Books such as the amazing Goodnight Mr Tom, Carrie's War and The Machine Gunners need no introduction, and Niamh's guest post on Out of Hitler's Time needs no addition. However, there are two other books I'd like to mention for teachers or parents who would like a story to help develop children's understanding of Britain during World War Two.

Image: hive.co.uk

Lenny Levy's father has gone to war. Before he leaves, he gives his son a brass badge with the lion and unicorn, symbols of Britain. Missing his dad, the badge comforts Lenny through the bombing of London. Then he is evacuated to the country, to a big house, where he is the only Jewish child and the only boy. He also wets the bed, and is teased for it. But he finds a walled garden with a unicorn statue, where a wounded soldier called Mick helps him understand that there are different kinds of bravery.

This is a beautiful picture book, a format often (erroneously, in my opinion) thought appropriate for younger children. It is best suited to 7+, and I think that the period detail in the illustrations would help children empathise with Lenny missing his parents and feeling unwelcome in a new environment. It is a book that I would definitely give to 9+ children learning about World War 2, and also those facing difficulties settling into a new environment. 

Image: hive.co.uk

In present day London, Mallie Kelly takes an after-school job in a pet shop so that she can buy her mother a present. Sarah Kelly, Mallie's mother, is an artist who no longer in love with art. The book alternates Mallie's story with that of Tony and Alice, two children who are evacuated to the Lake District during the war. Mallie and Tony's stories become intertwined as the novel progresses, coming together over a drawing of a girl with a rabbit. Adult fans of children's literature may be able to predict the twist, but I doubt child readers would. It's a great book for 8+. I think it would help children realise that people live through a number of historical eras- in this case, the story covers figures from the late nineteenth century to the present day. I loved it! It is published by the wonderful Frances Lincoln, notable for their commitment to celebrating cultural diversity. I recommend exploring their list of picture books in particular. 

Monday, 16 April 2012

An Illustrated Year 4: Fragoline and the Midnight Dream by Clemency Pearce and Rebecca Elliot

Image: libraries.midlothian.gov.uk

I returned from the wonderful Federation of Children's Book Groups yesterday, full of happiness, inspiration and fabulous books! One of the most inspiring seminars I attended was with a panel including Rebecca Elliot on representations of disability in children's books. I will return to this subject at a later date; however, I fell in love with Rebecca's illustrations, and came across this book, illustrated by her and written by Clemency Pearce.

Fragoline and the Midnight Dream is the story of a little girl who is "bright and clean... pure as milk and good as gold" until midnight strikes, when she puts on a black velvet cape, skipping, running and rolling outside while the moon looks down, telling her to go to bed. Fragoline responds:

"I'll do exactly as I please!
I'm Fragoline!" she said.

The text is rhythmical and rhyming, and apparently was initially written as a poem. It is definitely a book for sharing with a child rather than one for early readers; the vocabulary is occasionally challenging- it reminds me a lot of the wonderful Quentin Blake book Mr Magnolia in this respect. The pictures are beautiful; detailed and rich, and Fragoline's mischievous face is delightful. Clemency Pearce is a new writer to look out for, and I'll definitely be seeking out more of Rebecca Elliot's work.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Various dystopias

Image: waterstones.com

The Hunger Games film is a box office success, apparently grossing £290 million world wide. This has been similarly good news for book sales, with Amazon's top 3 sellers this week being The Hunger Games and sequels. However, the books are not universally popular; they are back on the "most challenged" list of books complained about in US schools and public libraries, accused among other things of being anti-family (bizarrely, since Katniss's main concern is with protecting her sister) and "satanic". I have also noted tweets and media comments along the lines of this one from the Wall Street Journal of last year wondering why Young Adult fiction has become too dark, and whether there is too much dystopian young adult fiction. 

Putting to one side the eye rolling and sighing comments that previously there have been complaints that ALL YA/ children's books were about young wizards, or ALL about romantic vampires- whereas of course there as many genres of young adult books as there are for adults- thriller, romance, contemporary drama, historical fiction etc- I find it very interesting that dystopian fiction appears to be so popular in recent years. The first dystopian novel I remember reading was Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien. First published in the 1970s, I remember reading it in the early 80s. People who didn't grow up in the 1980s may not realise how very real the threat of nuclear war seemed to us; as well as news stories about nuclear proliferation and the cold war, there were TV dramas such as Threads on TV- bear in mind that in 1984 there were only 4 channels on UK TV, and practically everybody in my class watched the drama and discussed it at length. Z for Zachariah is the story of a young girl, Ann, who survives a nuclear war in a remote valley in the USA. As far as she knows, she is the only survivor, until one day a man arrives in her valley. He is suffering from radiation sickness, and she nurses him back to health. They agree to live and work together, but he betrays her. Like many contemporary YA dystopian novels, it is told in the first person, in this case through Ann's diaries. I urge you to seek it out if you have read and enjoyed The Hunger Games. 

Within a few years of reading Z for Zachariah I read a large number of dystopian novels: Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid's Tale and Ender's Game. As a young woman growing up in an era with very real concerns about war, peace, human rights and women's reproductive rights, it was clear to me that, while these novels may be set in the future or in alternative worlds, the authors were writing about concerns that were not only contemporary, but timeless- after all, Huxley in 1931 was writing about behavioural conditioning, class distinctions and corporate control, still issues of concern today.

I think that it is clear that thoughtful, intelligent teenagers (the kind that are likely to be reading!) will of course identify with novels writing about war and tyranny, like The Hunger Games. Other dystopian novels that I would recommend are:

Noughts and Crosses  by Malorie Blackman (2001). Set in a world where people are categorised as Noughts and Crosses, Nought Callum and Cross Sephy are at first friends, then fall in love. But when Crosses are the ruling elite and Noughts are the downtrodden minority, how can they find a way to be together? This is a remarkable novel, chapters told in turn from Sephy and Callum's points of view. Blackman has stated that it was inspired by the Stephen Lawrence murder. The Radio 4 Bookclub podcast interview with her is brilliant, but beware of spoilers!

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (2007) was the Times children's book of the year. Claudia is growing up in a world where the whimsy of the ruling family has declared that time must stop in a version of the 18th Century. Clothes, manners and food are stuck in this time, which ironically is supported by a sophisticated technology. This world should be a paradise, as after a period of strife Incarceron was created: a prison world where criminals were sent forever. However, Incarceron is in fact a nightmare world of factions and violence, which the reader (and Finn, a young prisoner), discovers is horribly sentient. Claudia and Finn realise that they are connected. Can they escape their own prisons, and be together? Written in a beautifully poetic style, this novel has a sequel, Sapphique, which I haven't yet read, but fully intend to.

The Declaration (2008) (and sequels) by Gemma Malley is set far in the future, in a world where there is no more death, due to the development of a drug called Longevity. Anna is a "Surplus"- a child born unnecessarily (after all, if there is no more death, why do children need to be born?) Anna is living in Grange Hall, when a mysterious boy arrives. Can they break free from the punitive conditions at Grange Hall? I really enjoyed this series. The ethics and unforeseen consequences of drug research, population control and food instability are sensitively discussed, and the plot twists are exciting and unexpected.

Gone series by Michael Grant (2009 onwards). Disclaimer: I have only read Fear (2012). This series is set in the fictional town of Perdido Beach, California. One day, the town awakes to discover that all the adults over the age of 15 have disappeared. At the same time, the children and young people have developed special powers, such as great physical strength and psychic perception. Two factions develop, centred on half brothers Sam and Caine, but as readers of Lord of the Flies will be unsurprised to discover, power struggles become violent. There is also a threat from a psychopathic boy named Drake, who is increasingly identified with the mysterious event causing the adults to disappear. This is the novel I enjoyed least of the YA dystopian novels I read, but with an endorsement from Stephen King and a pacy narrative, I am prepared to read the rest of the series. 

Delirium (2011) and Pandemonium (2012) by Lauren Oliver is set in an alternate version of USA. Love has been declared a disease, amor deliria nervosa, which can be cured by an operation on the brain, performed on 18 year olds. People who refuse to have the operation are known as Invalids. In the city of Portland, a 17 year old girl named Lena has been awaiting her operation for years, convinced by the repressive government that love is at the bottom of all strife and misery in her country's past. Then she meets an Invalid boy named Alex, and falls in love. These are fantastically thought-provoking books, which I read shortly after Nadine Dorries' abstinence-only sex education bill was withdrawn and the defeat to her proposals to change the abortion bill. 

Lorna Bradbury in the Telegraph has suggested other YA dystopian  novels. I would like to be very clear here that these are novels that I would recommend for 13+, as they have content that I don't feel younger children would be able to understand. Please let me know what you think, or whether you have any other suggestions!


As well as drawing your attention to the Radio 4 bookclub site which I mentioned above, where you can download podcasts of interviews and question and answer sessions with children and young adult novelists such as Benjamin Zephaniah, JK Rowling and Malorie Blackman amongst others, I would like to mention the UKYA blog. It is a great site reviewing YA novels by British novelists. Enjoy it!