Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Monday, 27 June 2011

The Little White Horse

If Proust had madeleines that took him back to childhood Sunday mornings, I have books that can transport me to a place and time. The place is the mobile classroom where I was for my last two years of Primary school, the time is 1978 and one of the books is Elizabeth Goudge's Little White Horse. It was first published in 1946, and won the Carnegie Medal in 1947.  

It is the story of recently orphaned Maria Merryweather, and the first chapter opens with Maria, her governess Miss Heliotrope and spaniel Wiggins travelling to the West Country to live with Maria's uncle, Sir Benjamin Merryweather, the squire of Moonacre Manor. On re-reading this passage I found that the description was so powerful that it has stayed with me for over 30 years, and I remember struggling over the word "bereaved", having sounded it out as "be-rev-ed". My teacher told me how to pronounce it, and to look it up in the dictionary. Maria is wearing lavender and grey, so presumably her father is not recently dead- this detail stayed with me for years, until I read Tracy Chevalier's Falling Angels and the fashions in mourning became clear (although The Little White Horse is set in 1842, well before Queen Victoria went into protracted mourning for Prince Albert, so mourning etiquette was not quite so formalised).

Moonacre, Maria discovers, is a fantastic, almost magical place, cut off from the rest of the world by hills and a forest on two sides and the sea on a third. It is accessible by a tunnel through the hills. In the manor house, Maria is doubly secluded as her bedroom is a tower, with a door so small that neither Miss Heliotrope or her uncle can enter; for the first time in her thirteen years Maria sleeps alone. However, there is someone who can get in her bedroom; she wakes to a fire, her clothes laid out for her and a bunch of fresh flowers, and at night her bed has been warmed and milk and biscuits have been set out. (Elizabeth Goudge writes an amazing meal, by the way- expect to feel hungry throughout this book!)

However all is not perfect in the valley; there is a gang of poaching fishermen in the woods and a parson with a secret, and why is Sir Benjamin so adamant that no female has entered the manor for twenty years? Luckily Maria is a determined young woman who is convinced that she must make amends for a wrong done by her ancestors. And then a mysterious boy that she used to play with in London turns up to help her...

I was reminded of this book by my recent reading of Stephanie Burgis's Kat books, and by Astrid Lindgren's Ronia, the Robber's Daughter; the magic and the feisty protagonists of both, and the robbers in the forest of the second. It is well worth re-reading. It has, I think, been in print since 1946, and gained interest after J. K. Rowling named it as her favourite book as a child.  Possibly as a result, it was made into a frankly awful film. It is now printed by Lion Books, a Christian publishing company. Goudge was an avowedly Christian writer, and while much of the action is built around the church, parson and atoning for past sins, she is not a "preachy" writer. 

One of the joys of the book for me is the character of Maria. Re-reading it as an adult, it is great to see that she is brave, stubborn, curious and a little vain ( the latter two traits are portrayed as faults, for which she is gently reprimanded but not punished), but very much portrayed as a girl, who likes to dress fashionably while still running, climbing and reading. At the time, the most popular author for my contemporaries was Enid Blyton, and the Famous Five was being serialised on TV. Approved girls seemed to me to be honorary boys, but Maria is truly a heroic girl. It's a great read for 9-13 year olds, or to read to 7+ year olds. Or enjoy it yourself!

I have a copy of the Lion reprint to give away. If you would like it, please make a comment telling me so, and for an extra chance to win, please tell me how you have spread the word about this giveaway, by tweeting about it, or by posting a link to your Facebook page or blog by Sunday 3rd July. The winner will be picked at random.

EDIT: I understand that some people are having difficulty in commenting. If you have a Google account, uncheck the "keep me signed in" box. If you're still having problems, please feel free to comment on the Facebook page, or send a tweet to @fantasticreads. If you're not on Twitter or Facebook, then email fantasticreads at gmail dot com. Phew!

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Irresistably Sweet Blog Award

This week Barbara from March House Books Blog very kindly gave me this award. Thank got very much Barbara! Please check out her blog about classic illustrated children's books; if you're someone who can't pass a second hand booshop, like me, you'll be salivating at your keyboard.

There are a few rules for this award:
1. Send a thank you to the person who nominated you and include their link. 
2. Share seven random facts about yourself.
3. Pass the award along to at least 8 deserving bloggers.
4. Contact those bloggers to congratulate them.
My list:
Catherine Pope- Victorian Geek
Did You Ever Stop To Think And Forget To Start Again?
Okey Dokey, Pig in a Pokey
Ramblings of a Tactless Blonde
Open a Bookshop, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

There are so many fabulous bloggers out there!
Now, the random facts:
1. I qualified as a teacher in 1993. This is terrifying! Where have the 18 years gone?
2. I have a BA in English and Community Studies, a PGCE in Primary Education, a MA in Victorian Studies and am about to start a PhD in Children's Literature. I really love learning.
3. I love music almost as much as I love reading. I play the guitar very badly and have a Fender Telecaster electric guitar. I could blog about music as much as I blog about reading. I first got chatting to my boyfriend because we have the same favourite band- The Smiths.
4. I grew up just outside North West London in a suburban area. There were farms there, and we had a pet sheep at my Primary School. People think I'm pulling their legs when I tell them this.
5. I stopped growing when I was 13. One minute I was one of the tallest people in my class, the next I was one of the smallest. I'm just under 5 ft 4. Year 6 children (10 and 11 year olds) are often taller than me.
6. Alongside loving to learn, I love to teach. I teach English and Primary Education Studies to student teachers, and yesterday was my students' last day of school placements. One of them gave me a thank you card saying she hoped to be as good a teacher as me. I opened it on the bus home and burst into tears.
7. I love Twitter and Tumblr. I think social media is a fantastic way to meet like minded people from all over the world, share ideas and change your ideas. I have encountered people, books and music that I would never have done without Twitter.

Thank you again, Barbara!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Refugee Week reads

(photo: Nana Varveropoulou, via

20th- 26th June is Refugee Week. Here are my suggestions for books to read with children, to help them understand why refugees seek asylum in other countries, and how difficult it must be to arrive in an alien country.

Judith Kerr (of Mog and The Tiger Who Came To Tea fame) was born in Berlin. Her father was a writer and critic, highly critical of the Nazis. After his book was burnt the family was forced to escape from Germany, first to Swizerland, then to France, and finally to England, and this book is a fictionalised version of their journey. While "Anna" and "Max"s' parents are struggling to make a living after their comfortable life in Berlin, the children's concerns are with making friends, settling into new schools when they don't speak French or English, and the impermanent life of a refugee. The second and third books in the trilogy, Bombs on Aunt Daisy (previously entitled The Other Way Round) and A Small Person Far Away continue Anna's story, and outline the difficulty of family relationships where the children are forced to take charge of the parents, when their language skills and social contacts are greater than that of the adults.

The story of a man who leaves his wife and children, and must create a new life for himself  in another country. Shaun Tan's story is told through distorted and mysterious illustrations show the alienating experience of immigration. There are problems in the old country (demonstrated by dragons overshadowing a city), but the new country is also strange and disorienting; there are odd creatures living in the Arrival's flat, the customs and language are strange. However, he learns from other immigrants, and is eventually reunited with his family. This is a rich and beautiful book, told through pictures, and would be a great book for an adult to share with young (6+) children, or for older children to share with each other to retell the story.

These books are the story of Emilia and her family. Arriving in a housing estate, escaping from persecution in Romania, the family believe they are safe. Emilia goes to school, much to the joy of Frankie, who has a crush on her. But Portsmouth is not to be a safe haven for them; Frankie's mother starts a campaign against the Roma gypsies arriving in the estate, and tragedy ensues. Pictures in the Fire continues the story; a disturbingly claustrophobic tale that flits between Romania, England and the detention hostel where the family are living in an unnamed country and Emilia is obsessively drawing in a diary she has found with stolen crayons. Hicyilmaz is a wonderful writer; The Frozen Waterfall is a great read about economic migration and issues of belonging; I wish I had found it when I was teaching 10 and 11 year olds in North London as the Turkish children I taught did not see themselves and their experiences depicted in stories.

I urge anyone wanting to learn more about the recent history of immigration to London (Huguenots, Irish, Jews and the making of multicultural Britain) to visit 19 Princelet Street on one of its rare open days. It is an astonishing building that should be preserved.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Art for art's sake

Two weeks ago I went to see the Cult of Beauty exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On the Aesthetic movement of 1860-1900, it outlined the movement's impact on art, architecture, literature, interior design, fashion, and some of the political and cultural influences on it.

Some of the exhibits strongly reminded me of two books by Louisa May Alcott: Eight Cousins (1875) and its sequel, Rose in Bloom (1876). Published in the decade following the great success of Little Women, Alcott used the novels to outline her political and educational philosophy, based on that of her father, Trancendentialist philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott.

Eight Cousins is the story of recently orphaned Rose Campbell. She has come to live with her great aunts while her guardian, Uncle Alec, is away at sea. Her aunts are loving but old fashioned, and when we first meet Rose she is feeling a little sorry for herself. Uncle Alec has very advanced views, through which Alcott is able to promote her ideas about diet, feminism, fashion, philanthropy and bringing up girls. Many of these appear to be Alcott's father's ideas, but they resonate with many of the Aesthetes' tenets, outlined in the exhibition.

On Uncle Alec's arrival, Rose is presented with many mementos of his travels, decorating her room in a way that would have delighted Aesthetic taste: bamboo furniture, a Japanese screen, a painting of the Madonna and a blue and white jug and bowl. Japanese porcelein and paintings had been arriving in the West since the 1860s, after the end of the Kaei era of seclusion of Japan; French artists were particularly influenced by Japanese woodblock printing, and Little Women paid for May Alcott, Louisa's artist sister, to visit Paris. Later in the story Rose goes to the harbour and meets Chinese merchant Mr Whang Lo and his nephew, Fun See, and is presented with a fan, packets of tea and a tea service. In Rose in Bloom, Fun See marries one of Rose's closest friends.

(Image: Victoria and Albert Museum. This fan is Japanese but was made in 1870s).

Uncle Alec has very advanced ideas in woman and girls' dress; firstly he loosens Rose's tight leather and steel belt so that she can breathe freely and run; later he stops fashionable Aunt Clara from dressing Rose in ultra-fashionable style. The description is similar to the costume on the right:
(University of Texas collection)
"The upper skirt was tied so tightly back that it was impossible to take a long step, and the under one was so loaded with frills that it "wobbled"- no other word will express it- ungracefully fore and aft. A bunch of folds was gathered up just below the waist behind, and a great bow rode a-top. A small jacket of the same material was adorned with a high ruff at the back, an laid well open at the breast, to display some lace and a locket."
Uncle Alec advocates dress reform; Rose is dressed in "pyjamas" or pantaloons with a dress over the top; described as being to the top of her boots, Rose's dress is longer than the one pictured:

The Aesthetic dress in the Cult of Beauty was of a later period. I was particularly taken with this Liberty one:
(Victoria and Albert collection)
It could be worn without a corset and lacks the embellishment of much late Nineteenth Century fashion.

Any readers wanting to read more of Alcott's feminist writing for girls could also try An Old-Fashioned Girl, which advocates independence and employment for young women, an urges practical philanthropy and fair wages for working women.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Poor kids

Three "cultural" events recently have chimed with my research (take THAT, government funding bodies only interested in PhDs in Science and Technology!), which is in social class and social capital in children's fantasy fiction. The first one was at Stoke Newington Literary festival, where The Independent's Johann Hari and The Guardian's Suzanne Moore were on a panel discussing Chavs by Owen Jones. For non-British readers, Chav is a term that has come into use in the last 10 years to describe what might also be termed the proletariat. It is in my opinion, a highly objectionable term; used sneeringly to describe people who do not share middle class values, in a way that would, if directed to non-white people, be racist.

Jones' contention (and I haven't read the book) is that Britain has become so separated in social class that many people using this term are so totally divorced from working class people that (usually young) people have become demonised. Traditional working class jobs have gone, and people who would formerly have worked in ship building, car manufacturing or mining are now in retail or service industries, which do not pay the same wages and do not provide the same sense of identity, since these jobs are not easily identifiable as "working class". Hari stated that he frequently asks senior journalists what the average salary is; the editor of a national newspaper believed it to be £80 000 (Hari says it is £22 000). Yet many of our images of feckless, scrounging, criminal and stupid working class people come from these journalists, who are with some notable exceptions (Moore and Hari being two) privately educated Oxford or Cambridge graduates.

A few days before the literary festival, the Literacy Trust released research indicating that book ownership and its relationhip to success, attainment and social mobility. It was reported that three in ten children in the UK do not own their own books. Then yesterday I watched the BBC documentary Poor Kids. Watching these bright, articulate children struggling to attend school (poor housing leads to health problems; 85% of children living in poor housing suffer from asthma; school uniforms are too expensive for some parents) was heartbreaking. One small girl was trying to complete her homework standing up in a cold bedroom while her sister was shivering in bed. In contrast to some of my students' assertions that parents "don't care" about their children's education, her mum ran up the stairs to help her with her Maths.

I was thinking about class in children's literature. It is my assertion that not only has it largly disappeared as an overt theme in children's fantasy (for example, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, written in the 1960s, is notable for it's treatment of class in high fantasy) but also that protagonists are increasingly middle class and priviledged children. An exception is the work of Eoin Colfer. His book Half Moon Investigations is the story of a 12 year old detective solving what begins as the theft of a lock of a pop star's hair, but develops to assault, arson and kidnapping. The theft is originally blamed on Red Starkey, bully and scion of the local "no good" family. However, as Fletcher joins up with the Starkeys to clear Red's name, he discovers that they don't deserve their reputation. By contrast, the local goody good middle class girl gang are much more sinister than their Barbie-fixated appearance would suggest. The portrayal of the Starkey family is particularly nuanced; they are clearly working class and not always on the right side of the law, but on the other hand, Fletcher sees how being constantly accused of everything that goes wrong in his town has affected the Starkeys.

If you wanted to do something about the appalling levels of child poverty and associated social exclusion and lack of educational attainment in the UK (we are ranked as 18th out of 22 industrialised countries for child poverty by Unicef, and children born poor here are far less likely to escape from poverty than most other countries) you may like to donate to Save the Children or The Literacy Trust. Or if you're one of those people who buy far more books than you can ever hope to read, or if you have a child who has grown out of a big pile of books, you may like to donate them. The wonderful Book Elf Leeds has links to a Primary school in Birmingham you can send books to- they will be given to the children to take home. Of course they should be in a decent condition and appropriate for 3-11 year olds. You may like to donate books to a local community centre or homeless organisation. My children's books are in constant use, but I have a pile to take to the Homeless mobile library run by Quaker Homeless Action. I will find out if they need children's books as well.

Edit: I read this yesterday saying that charity is not enough to deal with this issue. I agree. You may like to contact your MP via They Work For You and urge them to think again about closing libraries and benefits caps which affect the poorest and most vulnerable in society the most.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Won't somebody think of the children?

I woke up, ridiculously early considering that my neighbours were drinking in the garden until 2am, to a Twitter maelstrom in the US due to this Wall Street Journal article. My initial feeling about this article was "Why is a mother still choosing books for her teenage daughter?", given my own unpoliced reading at a similar age, and then disappointment that in the 21st Century books are still being divided into "for boys" and "for girls". I disagree profoundly with the premise that 40 years ago there were no "young adult" books.

The first book written specifically for "young adults" is generally considered to be Teens by Louise Mack (1897), but a case could be made for Six to Sixteen by Juliana Horatia Ewing (1875), one of the fascinating Gatty family of South Yorkshire. Of course for most of the 19th century, when publishing really took off commercially, most young people were economically active in some way from a very early age, and only middle and upper classes had a prolonged period before adult life, however Sunday school books and family reading was what was considered appropriate for young adults. These were not simply "goody goody" reading, and I think it is a big mistake to presume that there was a period of cosy problem free reading- simply that the problems described within the books were different.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of those books that many of us "know", but have not read. Many people will know it as a film vehicle for the current gap toothed charm of the child actor of their generation. When we think of Tom Sawyer we tend to remember him bunking off school to go fishing, tricking his friends into painting the fence, falling in love with Becky Thacker; we forget that Tom and his friends witness a grave robbery and murder, where they are genuinely in danger for their lives, and in the sequel/ companion book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is kidnapped and imprisoned by his drunken wastrel father, taken up by conmen and takes up with a runaway slave.
These books were, and continue to be, controversial and "challenged" novels in the USA (and indeed Twain claimed in 1905 that the books were never intended for children and he regretted their access to them, although I think this can be contradicted by other correspondence with his publishers where he relished the publicity of the controversy). Nowadays the objections are not so much against Huck and Tom's petty criminality, smoking, drinking and swearing but to the attitudes to "Injun" Joe and the freed man Jim, and the use of the word "nigger". I am very much against bowdlerising, and feel that a more useful approach would be to consider the very marginal existence Huck has and the possible reasons for his attitudes.

The other novel I was thinking about is Louisa M Alcott's Little Women (1868-9). this novel was explicitly written as a "girls' book", unlike Alcott's previous works, Gothic horror and thrillers. However, Little Women is an extremely radical text; it makes claims that were shocking for the time. The March family are poor middle class (their father is a chaplain in the army). The two older girls (Meg and Jo) are out working; Meg is a governess and Jo is the paid companion to her wealthy aunt. In an era when it was considered that working "coarsened" girls by allowing them to have contact outside the home, thus making them unsuitable for marriage, this was revolutionary for a girls' book. The girls are seen caring for their neighbours (even poorer German immigrants, the Hummels), developing a friendship with their wealthy next door neighbour, wealthy Lawrie (and being accused of gold digging) and overcoming vanity, anger, pride and timidity to become "Little Women" rather than artificial "Young Ladies". Even their eventual marriages are unconventional; Meg marries a young tutor despite threat of disinheritance, and Jo marries a German intellectual refugee rather than the more conventional romantic hero Lawrie. The girls pick their own husbands, and all three turn down wealthy men that they know will not make them happy.

I think that there is a debate to be had, but I don't believe that the exclusion of everything unpleasant or challenging from Young Adult fiction is the one to have. Sit on the bus behind a group of young people and listen to what they are talking about; they are not immune from the world that we adults have created for them. They watch the news, they read the magazines that we do; they have concerns about ongoing wars, the environment, politics as adults do. Family separation, physical and mental health, housing problems, substance abuse and sexuality are issues that affect young people of our times as well as those of Tom, Huck and the March sisters (alcohol addiction is more explicitly addressed in Alcott's Rose in Bloom).

I feel that firstly, the lack of vision and originality in YA fiction, and the unwillingness of publishers to take a risk is of more concern; we have had teenage wizards, then romantic vampires and now dark dystopias as fads; there is more to YA novels than these, but the marketing appears very much focused to what is popular rather than what is genuinely new and original. Secondly, again, we seem to expect young people to be reading the way we encourage them to eat fruit and vegetables: because it is good for them. Do we adults only read Proust and Rushdie? Of course not; we may read "quality" fiction, but we also read Heat magazine, thrillers, romances and popular biography for fun. Why don't we expect young people to do the same? And readers who are my contemporaries may remember the truly hair raising Flowers In The Attic; is Twilight really any worse than the Gothic tale of family murder, betrayal and incest?

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Case of the Deadly Desperados- Guest Post

Today I am delighted to have a guest post from Juliette Harrisson, from the wonderful Pop Classics blog.
Photo from Western Mysteries website

Review of The Case of the Deadly Desperados (Book One of The Western Mysteries) by Caroline Lawrence

Juliette Harrisson

This book was received as a review copy from the author, but the review represents my honest opinion.

The Case of the Deadly Desperados in the first in a new series by Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries, a bestselling series of children’s detective stories set in and around ancient Rome. I’m a big fan of The Roman Mysteries, but since I have a PhD in Roman history, I always have a slight feeling that I’m working when reading them. This means I absolutely loved getting stuck into this Western Mystery, as I know nothing whatsoever about the Wild West! (I’ve read exactly one book about it – Charles Portis’ True Grit – and seen exactly two films – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and True Grit (2011)).

The story follows PK Pinkerton, who comes home one day to find his foster parents murdered and three desperados hunting him for a valuable document left to him by his biological father. PK ends up in Virginia City, where he encounters treacherous hurdy-gurdy girls, helpful poker aces, talented artists and one soon-to-be-very-famous writer. The story is fast-paced and full of danger and excitement, and the setting described beautifully, all dust and sand and heat.

The thing I loved most about this book was the narrative voice, which is, essentially, a direct cross between True Grit and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Like True Grit’s Mattie Ross, PK speaks with nineteenth-century syntax and vocabulary, using no abbreviations and speaking in a very formal and correct manner, with just a few bits of Western slang thrown in. Like Curious Incident’s Christopher, he is autistic, though without the benefits of a diagnosis and a social worker. The most useful thing about this for the book is that although PK feels, he witnesses such traumatic events as the murder of his foster parents without showing much emotion outwardly, which allows the story to keep up a fast pace and avoid dwelling too much on the trauma of such an event. The disadvantage, of course, is that unlike The Roman Mysteries’ Flavia Gemina, he finds it difficult to make friends and lacks a close-knit group around him, though that may develop over the course of future books.

When I was about ten years old, I used to read the Babysitters’ Club books and I used to assume, as I did with everything I read, that they were set in Britain. I’d never heard of Connecticut, so I assumed it was somewhere in the Home Counties and became very confused when one character took a train to New York City, which I did know was across the Atlantic Ocean in America! With this in mind, British children reading this book may need to ask their parents and teachers to explain some things to them, like the meaning of ‘Temperance’ or where Dayton is. However, the Glossary at the back will help with most of the things they haven’t heard of and the story is perfectly comprehensible without intimate knowledge of the setting. Parents may also need to explain the in-joke in the book’s opening, in which the author claims, after the style of Mark Twain, that this is a true story, but I expect most modern children, who are used to books with authors like Lemony Snicket, will understand.

The theme of the deceptiveness of appearances runs neatly through the book, brought out using a series of disguises that are both amusing and educative – as PK changes costume, the reader sees just how much the reactions of those around him to his presence change. With a limited ability to use facial expressions, PK is a character who identifies himself to the world around him through costume. The way he uses costume to control how people view him is clever and carries with it the subtle message that looks can be very deceiving, a thread that also runs through his conversations with Poker Face Jace on the subject of faces, feet and poker tells.

I have a great fondness for first person narrative and for books with a really clear or unusual voice, so I was hooked on this story from the first page! You can hear the Southern accents as you read, and each character’s vocabulary clearly reflects their accent and origin, which really brings them to life. This story gave me a rich introduction to a place and time I’m entirely ignorant of, and I can’t wait to see what PK does next – I look forward to Book Two!