Saturday, 30 June 2012
Most of my reading is children's and young adult literature, mostly fantasy and SF. However, I do read literature for grown ups too! So, here are some suggestions for books that in my opinion have the strong narrative and vivid characterisation I love in literature for young people.
If you love Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia, then Lev Grossman's The Magicians may be for you. New York high school senior Quentin Coldwater is a gifted student, but is miserable, still obsessed with a series of English children's fantasy novels about a magical land called Fillory and infatuated with his best friend's girlfriend, Julia. Quentin and his best friend, James, arrive at the venue of their Princeton interview only to find the interviewer dead. A paramedic gives him an envelope: in it is the manuscript for a final, unpublished Fillory novel. On his way home, chasing a page of the manuscript, Quentin finds himself at Brakebills, a very private, very secret university for magicians, where he learns magic alongside having the other sort of education that students have: in sex, alcohol, friendship, betrayal and an insufferable sense of superiority. Upon graduation, Quentin and his friends discover the challenge of living with their gifts: if you are able to obtain by magic anything you need (a cool New York apartment, money from the cash point whenever you need it, admittance to all the best bars and clubs) then what do you do to fill your hours? Then a former Brakebills student arrives, with some unbelievable news: Fillory is real, and they can travel there. This is a wonderful mixture of Harry Potter, Narnia and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. I found it an enjoyable, engrossing read. You can hear an interview with Lev Grossman about the book on the wonderful Wisconsin Public Radio programme To The Best Of Our Knowledge here. I thoroughly recommend subscribing to podcasts of this fantastic show.
If you enjoyed Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, then you may enjoy Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army. It is Britain in the near future. After catastrophic floods, much of the country is under water. There is a fuel crisis, the country is committed to costly wars overseas and reliant on relief supplies from the USA. A repressive government, the Authority, has forced people to live in closely monitored urban areas, to hand in all weapons, and women are compulsorily fitted with contraceptive devices. The story is narrated by a woman known only as Sister, and the narrative is her confession from a prison cell. Sister tells how she leaves her husband and home in the Cumbrian town of Rith, and journeys to a remote farm in the fells to join a group of women living outside the law. The group is led by a charismatic woman called Jackie, and as Sister's story progresses, the reader is left to wonder whether this is a group, a commune or a cult? and is Jackie a rebel or a cult leader? and ultimately, is she any better than the Authority? I found this a thought-provoking read, by no means without flaws: I found the ending a little unsatisfying- but then, that is partly what makes it troubling. You can hear Sarah Hall talking about it on the BBC book club here.
If you enjoyed Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, then you may enjoy Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. Set in a post-apocalyptic Kent, it is the story of Riddley, who has just turned 12- the age of maturity in Riddley's world. Shortly after Riddley's naming day, three significant things happen: his father dies in a work accident, a wild dog seems to willingly die on Riddley's spear, and when the travelling puppet show telling a mix of the story of St Eustace (Eusa), the history of the nuclear catastrophe and government propaganda arrives in Riddley's settlement, he discovers that the government of Inland (England) is on the verge of rediscovering the technology that could create nuclear fission. Then Riddley finds a Punch puppet in the landfill site he is mining, and refuses to give it up. He is forced to run from the authorities, through Kent, accompanied by the pack of dogs whose leader he has killed. Told in Riddley's voice, in the language of a people who are "post literate", this is an astonishing book. I'm now on (I think) my fourth copy, since nobody I have loaned it to has ever returned it! You can hear Russell Hoban talking about the book to the Guardian book club audience here.
Sunday, 24 June 2012
Once a month, I help to organise the children's book group at my fantastic local independent bookshop, Big Green Books in Wood Green, North London. It's on the last Saturday of the month (although next month it's the second to last), and all keen readers 9-14 are very welcome. I love doing it, it makes me enormously happy to eat biscuits and talk about a book with keen, intelligent readers. This month we read Undead by Kirsty McKay.
The children choose the books, which is fantastic as they lead me to read books I often wouldn't read otherwise. Undead is not a book I would ordinarily have chosen to read, but it is hugely enjoyable. Bobby has just moved from the US (where her mum has been working) back to the UK. Just before term starts, she goes on a skiing trip to Aviemore, Scotland with her new classmates. It's a disaster. She's marked out by both her American accent and by her proficiency in skiing, and has had a thoroughly miserable time. So, when the coach taking them back home pulls into a service station, she decides to stay on the bus. A boy in her class, Smitty, is banned from leaving the coach too as he has been caught drinking. The rest if the group rush for the cafe (and the man dressed as a carrot giving out free juice), and so far- so awful. Until they see a figure racing through the snow. It's blonde mean-girl Alice, with horrible news. Everyone is lying in the cafe, dead, including the teachers. However, they don't stay quietly dead. Soon Bobby, Smitty, Alice and the only other survivor, geeky Pete, are escaping their zombie classmates in the Scottish countryside, with no adults, weapons or mobile phone reception. Will they survive?
We loved this book so much that next month we're reading another zombie book: Charlie Higson's The Enemy.
Sharing books is a wonderful thing to do. Reading is a solitary pleasure, and that for me is a delight- my working life is intensively people-focused, and much as I enjoy that, I need time and space alone to recharge my batteries. However, I get so much delight from books and reading, I want to pass it on to other people. I do that through my job- lecturing student Primary teachers in the teaching of English- and in my personal life. I've pledged to share 20 books this year to help celebrate Bookstart's 20th anniversary. I hope that you will, too, through recommending books to friends, family and work colleagues, through tweeting book recommendations (perhaps with #bookstart20 hashtag), on your Facebook page or in person. But please do. It will help Bookstart to secure future funding, to continue providing packs of books for new babies.
Saturday, 16 June 2012
Hassan has just arrived from Somalia. Even though his new teacher and classmates try to make him feel at home, everything is very strange, including the English language. His teacher gives him paper and paint and asks him to paint a picture.
At first Hassan draws his family and home on Somalia, all vibrant colours, but then through his picture he displays the war and violence that drove his family from their home. The next day at school there is a Somali interpreter, so that he can explain his family's story to Miss Kelly. He then paints another picture for his family and plays football with a new friend in the playground. Back at his family's new flat, he can see the colours of home, both from objects from his old life in Somalia and the new life that his parents are trying to create.
This book has beautiful illustrations by Karin Littlewood, with the colour palette changing to reflect not only Hassan's life in Somalia and his life in his new country, but also his emotional state. Interestingly enough, many American reviews that I have seen assume that Hassan has moved to the USA, although the new country is not specified. I'd assumed that the new country was the UK due to him playing football (soccer)- maybe this is changed in American editions? In any case, it shows what a universal and powerful story it is- it really could be understood by any European, North American, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand child.
I recommend this book to read with children 6+ during Refugee Week (18th-24th June), or indeed at any point that you wanted to discuss war and migration. It is a very simple though powerful story. Salusbury World, based at Salusbury Primary School, North West London, has some great ideas for lessons using The Colour of Home to discuss refugees and support children's development of empathy.
Saturday, 9 June 2012
This post will be part of Playing By The Book's blog carnival I'm Looking For A Book About... on seaside and all things beachy. Please do go and check out the others!
I think if I was to do any kind of proper analysis, Cornwall and the West Country in general would feature very highly as a setting for children's fiction. From two of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series to Enid Blyton's Famous Five, the combination of mythology, wild landscape, sea, caves and lawless history has been an irresistible combination for authors. And for adults, Daphne du Maurier's novels, such as My Cousin Rachel, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, evoke the history and landscape of Cornwall very powerfully.
Dead Man's Cove by Lauren St John is a wonderful mystery adventure story, in the tradition of Malcolm Saville, but it is thoroughly up to date. 11 year old Laura Marlin is an orphan, living in a children's home, when she learns that she has an uncle and she will be going to live with him. She arrives at his house in Cornwall in the middle of the night, and finds him oddly relaxed about her care. All she is told is that she must not go to Dead Man's Cove. However, Laura's hero is Matt Walker, a detective in a series of novels, and various events have piqued her curiosity: where does her uncle, Calvin Redfern, go in the middle of the night? Why is the housekeeper so interested in him? And what is the secret connected to the strange, silent boy Tariq, nephew of the owners of the North Star Grocery? Laura, accompanied by her trusty three-legged husky, must find out.
This is a really wonderful book. The atmosphere of a Cornish seaside town out of season is wonderfully conveyed, and the geography and geology of the place are integral to the plot. I loved the way that the romantic past of smugglers is undercut by the modern realities of criminal gangs. Fabulous, and I can't wait to read the next book.
Venus Rocks by Fiona Dunbar is the third in the Kitty Slade series; I reviewed the second, Fire and Roses, here. Kitty lives with her grandmother and brother and sister, Sam and Flossie. They are home schooled, following incidents at Kitty's school in the first novel, Divine Freaks, where Kitty discovered her rare condition, Phantorama- the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. Being home schooled means that the family are able to spend a lot of time travelling in their camper van, the Hippo. In this novel the family are in Pelporth (based on Polperro, Fowey and Port Isaac), staying with their Aunt Phoebe, Uncle Sean and cousins Ty and Ashley. So far, Kitty has seen only solitary ghosts, but here in Pelporth she sees not only a whole ghost ship, but also a very persistent ghost girl, who Kitty discovers is Beth, who disguised herself as a cabin boy to stow away, follow her lover Jed and escape her brutal father.
The Venus has a gruesome reputation: people who see it die soon afterwards. Kitty must solve the mystery of the ship (who it turns out was not simply a merchantman, but a privateer, a government-sponsored pirate ship), reunite Beth the ghost girl with her lost love and also deal with some present-day nefarious goings on, which threatens to involve Ashley's former friend Megan.
The Cornish atmosphere, landscape, folklore and history again permeates the book, and is integral to the plot. Readers will learn a good deal about tides, caves, marine biology and geography from reading both books; any upper KS2 (8-11 year olds) studying Cornwall as a contrasting location in Geography, or indeed visiting Cornwall on holiday would enhance their learning from these books. However, they are both fantastic reads and I would recommend them! Dead Man's Cove for 9+, Venus Rocks for 10+. Happy reading!
Saturday, 2 June 2012
This weekend is the Queen's diamond jubilee. I've been reading and thinking a lot about fairy tales, fairies and queens recently, in particular about Tam Lin (also known as Tom Lin, Tamlane and various other spellings).
The ballad of Tam Lin is a very old story, and there are several versions. The one I will be referring to is the one in Alison Lurie's excellent Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales, where he is named Tomlin. Despite the ballad being named after Tam Lin, the main character is in fact Janet, a wilful young girl who visits Carterhaugh Wood alone (see photo above) despite being warned by her father, a Scottish lord, that young Tam Lin will extract a price, whether that is gold or jewels, or from young women, their virginity. One summer's day she braids up her yellow hair, hitches up her skirts and goes to Carterhaugh Wood. In a glade she finds a well with roses growing over it, and she picks one. Instantly Tam Lin asks her why she is picking a rose from his wood. She insists that the wood is hers; it belongs to her family, and her father has given it to her, and she would come and go as she pleased, without any man's permission. Tam Lin kisses her and lies her down, without her protest.
A few months later, Janet's father realises she's pregnant and demands to know the name of the knight responsible, but Janet refuses to name one. She braids up her hair, hitches up her skirt and goes to Carterhaugh Wood. She picks a rose, and up pops Tam Lin. She tells him that she's pregnant and that her father wants to marry her to one of his knights. Tam Lin tells her that he was once a human knight who was riding back from a hunt through the wood when he was spotted by the fairy queen. He was enchanted by her and carried off to fairy land, and though it is very pleasant there, he would like to be a human so he could marry Janet. He tells Janet that that night, Hallowe'en, the fairy hunt will ride by, the first fairy knights on black horses, a second group on brown, and the third, where Tam Lin will be riding next to the Fairy Queen, on milk white horses. Janet must pull him off his horse and hold him tight no matter what happens. At midnight, Janet does so, holding on to Tam Lin as he turns into a bear, a hawk, a snake, a block of ice and finally, a burning branch. Janet throws him into the river, whereupon he becomes a human man again. The fairy queen in fury says that if she had known that a human woman would rescue him, she would have changed Tam Lin's eyes to wood and his heart to stone.
Sally Gardner's I, Coriander is set in Puritan London. Coriander is given a pair of silver slippers, which she covets. Her mother forbids her from wearing them, but she disobeys and travels to fairyland. She returns, but shortly afterwards her mother dies. Her father remarries, a horrible widow with a daughter. Coriander's stepmother moves the sinister preacher Arise Fell into Coriander's house. As a punishment, Coriander is locked in a chest, which is a portal to Fairyland. There, Coriander learns that her mother was a fairy princess. Her mother's stepmother, Queen Rosemore, wishes to marry her daughter to handsome Prince Tycho. Coriander shows the courage and tenacity of Janet, defeating Rosemore and protecting Tycho in Fairyland, then defeating her stepmother and Arise in the mortal world.
Terry Pratchett uses the Tam Lin story twice. It is used in The Wee Free Men, where Tiffany Aching must defeat the Queen of the Fairies to rescue Roland, the son of the local baron, and her brother, both of whom have been kidnapped by the Queen of the Fairies. I wrote about the book here, but not specifically about the Tam Lin aspects of the story. Roland is riding a white horse and has been hunting when Tiffany meets him. He challenges her presence in "his" woods, as Tam Lin does. Furthermore, it is Tiffany's intelligence and courage that rescues him.
Pratchett's earlier (1992) adult Discworld novel, Lords and Ladies, also references Tam Lin (as well as a Midsummer Nights' Dream and another Scottish ballad, Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas). The Lancre witches, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick, have just returned from Genua, when Magrat learns that King Verence of Lancre (with whom Magrat has an "understanding") has arranged their marriage. However, this is Lancre's Circle Time, where crops circles are forming, and a portal between Discworld and the land of the Elves has opened in the Stone Circle.
The Queen of the Elves has determined to marry Verence herself, and thereby rule Lancre and Elfland. After the Elves have hypnotised the residents of Lancre, Magrat must, with the help of Nanny and Granny, defeat the Elves and rescue Verence.
Another amazing book which echoes Tam Lin is Alan Garner's astonishing Red Shift. Charles Butler has written an excellent essay on this subject, so I will simply say: it is three interlocking stories across a timeslip, all set in Cheshire. The centre of each story is the relationship between a man and a woman and pregnancy. In all three stories there is something keeping the man and the woman apart. It's a book that I read as a teenager, but didn't really understand at the time I read it. But Garner is for a longer post and another time.
I would recommend I, Coriander to 8 or 9+, Lords and Ladies is an adult book but nothing in it is inappropriate for 12+ and Red Shift for 13+. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.