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.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Illustrated year 6 and 7- two sad books



I have realised that I am two reviews behind in the illustrated year challenge, so I am combining two books with a linked theme.

Image: hive.co.uk

Michael Rosen's Sad Book was written in the aftermath of the former Children's Laureate losing his 19 year old son Eddie to meningitis. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking evocation of grief and bereavement, demonstrating that we may be feeling sad while not showing it; that sometimes unhappiness may come out in anger and destructiveness as well as in tears. Quentin Blake's illustrations truly are a visual realisation of Rosen's words. This is a fantastic book; one I would urge teachers and parents to buy. In my 20 years of teaching, there was never a year that I did not have a class where at least one child was affected by loss- of a grand parent, parent, sibling, once of the head teacher of the very small village school I was teaching in, and once, horribly, of a child in my class killed in a road accident. If nothing else, the death of a loved family pet can be a devastating loss to a child, realising sometimes for the first time that parents and medicine really cannot do anything to halt the inevitability of death. I wish I had had this book when I was still teaching in the classroom. I recommend this for 6+, to be read with an adult. 

Image: hive.co.uk

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay, is deservedly a joint winner of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway awards  for the best children's book and best illustrated book in June 2012. The novel is inspired by an idea from the late, great Siobhan Dowd, who herself won the Carnegie posthumously for her novel Bog Child

13 year old Conor has been having nightmares about a monster. One night he wakes up at 12:07 and hears a voice calling him from the garden. He looks out of the window and sees a monster; a huge creature of human shape, but made of branches, twigs and leaves, like the yew tree in the nearby churchyard. The creature insists that he has been summoned, and that he will tell Conor a story, in return for which Conor will tell him about his nightmare.

Conor's mother, we learn, has terminal cancer, but he cannot accept this. His parents are no longer together; his dad is living in the US with his new wife and baby. His grandmother is a busy professional woman, and is also processing her own grief at the imminent loss of her daughter. Conor also has problems at school. The monster's intervention (always at 12:07) in these problems initially seem to make things worse, but ultimately Conor comes to realise that he must accept the inevitable and say goodbye to his mother.

Again, Ness demonstrates that grief and hurt do not make us nicer people, as Victorian storybooks would have readers believe. Conor's fear and despair at losing his mother makes him behave quite cruelly to his friend, to being destructive to both objects and to people. Ultimately, the monster's stories, elliptical and baffling as they seem, make greater sense to him than teachers' well meaning platitudes.

Jim Kay's black and white illustrations are incredibly atmostpheric. He describes here  sitting in the back of the car driving through the countryside as night fell, and the way that familiar objects can seem sinister as they lose definition. The monster, in particular, is perfectly realised; anyone who has hurried down a dark lane between streetlights or by torchlight in the winter will recognise jumping at what seems to be monsters out of the corner of one's eye; on closer inspection they are bushes, or dustbins.

This wonderful book is highly recommended for confident readers of 9+. It is written in straight forward, clear prose, but is no less profound for that.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

School daze

This post is part of Playing By The Book's I'm Looking For A Book About... feature. Do please have a look at the other posts about going back to school, or starting school! If you're a teacher, a parent, or a student teacher, you'll be introduced to some fabulous books to inspire you.

Image: waterstones.com

Flora Fox is disgusted. Her parents are going to Italy for three months to help her grandmother, who has fallen and broken her leg, and after a disastrous summer holiday at Casa Boffi, have decided to send their daughter to a progressive boarding school instead of taking her with them. Furious, Flora is on the train when she falls asleep, and seems to hear voices chanting a strange rhyme. When she awakes, she is wearing an uncomfortable school clothes, including enormous knickers (of course Penrice Hall has no uniforms), and her mobile phone, iPod and laptop are all gone. She discovers that she has been switched with another girl called Flora, summoned by three St Winifred's schoolgirls from 1935: sweet but dim Dulcie, bright Pogo and charismatic but spoilt Pete. The girls have found a spell book in a mysterious closed room, and this is the first successful spell they've tried. Flora must survive mean girl Consuela Carver, fearsome Latin teacher Miss Harbottle and huge knickers, and work out how she can get back to the 21st century.

I really enjoyed this book. I've written before about why I love school stories, particularly the Chalet School, and Beswitched has all the best elements: the emphasis on character development, the opportunities for girls to be heroic, a rescue and resolution coming through conflict.  I particularly liked that Flora is not a particularly admirable protagonist to begin with, but the changes in her character don't come through punishment, as poor Eustacia from the Chalet School books, but recognising the unattractive aspects of her character in Consuela and Pete, and her influence on their characters has some unexpected outcomes. It is also a very funny book.

It would be a great book to read with children before they start a new school; Flora makes some mistakes in a strange new situation, but she survives and ultimately triumphs. Highly recommended to 8+, and to fans of time slip novels, particularly Penelope Farmer's Charlotte Sometimes. One word of warning- there are some minor swears (bloody, damn and bollocks) which are totally in keeping with Flora's character and development, but you may want to make this a discussion point about the time and place for such language with children if you're reading it with them, or decide on the appropriate age for this book accordingly.