Thursday, 26 August 2010

Utterly Me, Clarice Bean

Ok, so I’ve long been a fan of Charlie and Lola. I love Child’s use of textures and believable young voices. I love the way she portrays real life and make-believe alongside one another in the same way that children’s brains work. I love the textures and colours, and her incredible observational humour. But for some reason it never occurred to me to pick up the Clarice Bean books.

Clarice Bean, Utterly Me, has all the above. It’s clever, witty, and believable. And it explores one of my favourite book themes: why are books important? What can we learn from books? It turns out reading books for pleasure is important, and fiction can teach you just as much as that dreary non-fiction title! Who knew? :D

Also notable is the layout. In the same way that Charlie and Lola draws younger readers in with collage elements and wonderful illustrations, Clarice Bean is young-reader friendly, littered with pictures and text that does not stick to boring lines, but wanders off to do its own thing.

I am converted.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010


Lucy Christopher's Stolen recounts (in the form of a letter to her captor) the abduction of 16 year old Gemma, held captive in the Australian outback by a man who, it transpires, knows everything about her.

Although utterly creepy and deeply disturbing, this book is more than a simple thriller, providing glimpses of calm and beauty pocketed inside the tension. Christopher cleverly parallels her description of the desert with Gemma’s (and the reader’s) perception of her captor, which is gradually revealed as complex and conflicting; not only the dangerous, stark place we initially picture but also a place of safety, comfort and splendour.

This book will leave you confused, but in a good way; confused about what you should be thinking and feeling, exactly as Gemma is. And like Gemma, you may find the desert and everything that she’s been through, stays with you long after the letter is sealed and the book closed.

Stolen is a fantastically gripping read, dealing sensitively with motive and perception, against a stunning, affecting backdrop: Read it now!

Monday, 18 May 2009

The Man Who Eats Little is Strong.

The first in a series of tales from or set, in Malawi:

There was once a man without a stomach. He was motivated and achieved great things, but he saw how others took joy in eating such things as fried meat parcels and shelled monkey nuts, and he was saddened.

Each year he made pilgrimage to a great shrine, asking the spirits to bless his family, and, if they should see fit, to give him the gift of a belly so that he too may taste these pleasures.

On one such journey, the man happened upon a stomach with no body. The spirits have smiled upon me! thought the man, as he welcomed the stomach with open arms. The stomach leapt into him, becoming a part of his body.
"I must give thanks!" the man cried, and he continued on his way to the shrine.

He had not gone far, when the stomach grew restless.
"feed me!" it cried.

The man stopped at a roadside stall and bought some roasted nuts. When he was rested and his stomach placated, the man stood and once again began to walk.

"feed me!" the cry soon came again, and again the man stopped, this time for fried fish and beans.

At first, the man enjoyed this rest, and he marvelled at all the flavours and textures of different foods, but after several days he grew frustrated with this new reliance on food.
"feed me!" his stomach cried as he trudged beneath the high-set sun.
"not yet; we must reach the shrine."
"Feed me!" it moaned, clenching and clawing at him until he cried out in anguish.
"I will not!" he snapped, "before you came along I would walk for days without rest; I was never tired and always content. You must learn to wait or I shall banish you!"

The stomach was mortally offended. It leapt from the man's body and scurried off away from the path.

The man continued on his way, reached the shrine and gave thanks, apologising for his foolishness. And from then on, although he still sampled a pine-nut every now and then to remind himself of his ordeal, he never truly ate, and he was strong.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Fantasy: Shaping the world for better or worse?

There has been much debate about the morality of fantasy novels, and whether there is a place for such works in the children’s literature canon, from claims that the Harry Potter books promote witchcraft and sin, and perpetuate school-shootings, to those that view Neil Gaiman's Coraline as rejecting family values.

However, fantasy novels consistently explore moral codes. They don’t necessarily stick with a singular idea of what that moral code should be (just as existent cultures do not always agree on the matter), but successfully explore themes of morality such as jealousy, pride and obedience. It’s true that some fantasy novels (such as Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies) may lead to readers being critical of a society’s traits or of moral ideas in their own right and although I believe this to be a positive factor, it is easy to see how this might threaten certain ideologies.

Others texts however, portray a cultural idea of morality in a positive light; as something worth striving for or nestling within. Take A Hat Full of Sky, for example; Terry Pratchett’s second Tiffany Aching book; the story, with 11-year-old Tiffany moving away from her family to apprentice as a witch, explores notions of becoming independent, being yourself, and taking responsibility for your actions.

Tiffany has talent, perhaps, but what she has most, is a sort of gutsy stubbornness and an insistence on doing what must be done. Traits which Granny Weatherwax (more on her in a moment) holds in high regard. Enter the Hiver. The Hiver, is an intangible organism which, always seeking power, lodges itself in a person’s mind; manipulates their actions towards power. This gives ample opportunity for the reader to discover the importance of self control, particularly where Tiffany interacts with her peers, keen to impress her fellow witches in a way that is quintessential in any transformation to adulthood. In addition to self-control, Pratchett uses the same device to explore the notion of ‘facing up to things’ when you make the wrong choice.

Granny Weatherwax portrays a very British ‘stiff-upper-lip’ attitude and pride in everything she is and does, whilst showing a deep humanity which we’d all like to think we possess. She is a character whom everyone in the Ramtops looks up to (however reluctantly). In A Hat Full of Sky, she helps Tiffany understand her responsibilities as a figure of power and demonstrates (in a way that Tiffany later emulates) that you can maintain your pride whilst serving other people. Further, Granny Weatherwax allows the reader to see that power and ego can be used for good and that it is what we choose to do (or not to do, for instance, not turning ungrateful villagers into frogs) that matters.

Granny never abuses her powers, merely bending people’s will so that they help each other and themselves. And she is never violent, allowing Tiffany and the reader to experience speech and attitude as tools far more powerful than fists and swords.

Another strong element to Granny and Tiffany’s relationship, is space. Granny is absent from the majority of the book, allowing the young witches to make their own way for better or worse, but her presence is felt throughout, gently guiding them without being forceful, and there’s never any doubt that Granny will come through for people when they really need it. Opportunities for such freedom is something which has lessened for Britain’s youth over recent years, and its inclusion in Young Adult literature is an important part of growing up. Gaiman’s work clearly acknowledges this too; in The Graveyard Book, Bod’s guardian Silas is never overbearing. Bod gets into scrapes and adventures of his own accord, safe in the knowledge that Silas will be looking out for him even when he is not there.

Harking back to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, something Gaiman freely admits to, The Graveyard Book is as quintessentially British as its predecessor; an early example of fantasy at its best, which may have seemed as outlandish at the time as being raised by ghosts, vampires and hellhounds seems to a modern audience.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Review of The King of the Copper Mountains, by Paul Biegel

One of the best children's books I have ever read (over and over again) is The King of the Copper Mountains, by Paul Biegel. This review would have had a rather sad ending, because it has been out of print for years. Happily, though, I've just discovered that Strident Publishing reprinted The King of the Copper Mountains last year, so many more children should be able to enjoy it.

The King of the Copper Mountains is Mansolain, who has ruled over them for well over a thousand years. Now, though, he is very old and very tired, and the Wonder Doctor tells his last servant, the faithful hare, that he will die soon unless a speeder-up is found for his heart. The Wonder Doctor sets off on a long journey to find the Golden Speedwell plant and make up a potion from it. Until he returns, the only thing that will keep Mansolain alive is a series of stories.

The book takes the form of fourteen chapters, one for each day of the doctor's journey, as each animal he meets on his way is sent to the Copper Mountains to tell the King their tale. The stories span comic turns, fantastic adventure and sad quests. The trials of the smallest creatures are given as much weight as the grander and scarier animals, including a lion and a three-headed dragon. Although each chapter can be read alone – making it perfect for bedtime stories – over the course of the book a mythology of Mansolain's realm is built up, as well as a little community within the castle at the foot of the Copper Mountains.

The King of the Copper Mountains is the first thing I would recommend to anyone looking for an entertaining book to read, or have read to them, that also contains a lot of food for thought. It is a funny, beautiful and haunting story.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

"Henry loves books, but not like you or I. He loves to EAT books!"

A quirky, heart-warming story about the power of books, with sumptuous, clever illustrations. There’s so much detail in this book that parents and children alike could happily pore over it for hours.

Jeffers cleverly uses text from the books which Henry eats as a backdrop for the story. This is witty writing with a powerful message. Writing for young children at its best.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Where the Wild Things Are: the film.

Maurice Sendak's fabulous Picture Book (reviewed below) has now been made into a movie by the experimental film-maker Spike Jonze. Other notable book to film adaptations are David Almond's Skellig and Neil Gaiman's Coraline.

edit: watch the trailer here.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

‘Where the Wild Things are’ has become something of a classic book for young readers (although it holds appeal beyond its intended audience), with Maurice Sendak’s evocative and innovative combination of cross-hatched illustrations and bold text, drawing the reader immediately into Max’s world; a world we’re all familiar with, in which order and social norms must be observed.
Max is an instantly likeable character; made so through his familiarity to the reader; we all know what it’s like to be stifled by authority, to dream of breaking free, and to find that things don’t work out the way we expected. Equally, the Wild Things are simultaneously endearing and exciting; just the sort of creatures you might like to hang out with for an afternoon.
Sendak writes with a certain lyricism, employing tactile phrases, repetition and alliteration to embed his story firmly in the reader’s psyche.
What you don’t notice at first, is how clever this book actually is, beyond being a well-crafted, catchy story. From the off, the illustrated panels begin to expand, as Max’s imagination flourishes. Hints of the Wild Things and their island environment seep into the panels, moving away from ordered, literacy-reliant storytelling to the ‘base’ method of using pictures, until, as we reach the centre of the book, this dominates completely. And as Max begins to miss the comforts of home and makes his journey back to reality, the layout reverses, returning everything to its original state.

All in all, a warm, intelligent book. If you have not yet encountered it, I urge you to seek out a copy; you are missing out.

(Sarah Benwell & Rich Oxenham)

Monday, 16 March 2009

Review of The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Despite having read The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, at the age of six, I took a long time to get around to The Lord of the Rings. After a few failed attempts, I gave up on it until this January when my boyfriend reread it for the fourth time (three times in English, once in German). It was time to give the most famous fantasy epic of all a proper try.

The book starts off quite slowly, picking up from The Hobbit with descriptions of the peaceful land of the Shire and the dealings of the Hobbits – short, hairy-footed, comfortable folk – since Bilbo Baggins had returned from his journey with the Dwarves, laden with mysterious riches. Part of this trove was a gold ring that Bilbo had gained in strange circumstances, a ring that is much more powerful and important than it appears. The wizard Gandalf arrives in the Shire to help with the fabulous birthday party that Bilbo has planned but also to tell his nephew Frodo that a grave danger approaches and he must leave as soon as possible. With eight companions, hobbits, men, an Elf, a Dwarf and Gandalf the Wizard, Frodo sets off on what seems like an impossible quest.

I quickly became engrossed in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien uses many different kinds of language to tell his tale: the jolly, colloquial speech of the hobbits mixes with rather high-flown legendary narration and accomplished descriptions of the lands the Fellowship pass through. I was transfixed by the walking scenes in particular, amazed at how Tolkien was able to describe days' worth of journey at a go without becoming repetitive. The world-building is almost seamless, as details of the myths and history of Middle Earth are given to the reader incidentally. This is definitely a technique I prefer to huge info dumps, and although the reader may not understand all the references at first, they evoke a complex world in the mind.

Another of Tolkien's strengths is his characterisation, especially when he uses dialogue between characters to show motivations and conflicts. I read the scenes involving Aragorn and Boromir wishing that I might one day be able to write conversations like those, or a friendship like the one that develops between Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf. Gandalf, already one of my favourite characters from literature, is revealed layer by layer to be something much more than he seems at the start of the novel, without losing any of his complexity - or sense of humour.

The Lord of the Rings is also full of variation in mood. Jokes are told, long songs sung (note to the reader - it is all right to skip these). Strange wonders are witnessed: I was as excited as the hobbit Sam when we met the Elves of Lorien and saw a fabled oliphaunt. At times, the journey becomes truly sad, and some episodes are downright frightening. The trip through the Mines of Moria is one of the scariest pieces of writing I have read in years. That isn't to say I think children wouldn't be able to handle it, though. I would just recommend reading it like I did - with the lights on and a comforting cup of tea close to hand. I believe Tolkien was very keen to keep an emotional balance in his novel. The stirring battle scenes are coupled with quieter passages. For every loss and sadness, his characters have something to keep them going, whether it's a sign of hope from outside or their own grit, moral compass or love for someone else.

The problems that I had with the book were mostly due, I think, to its having been written in the 1950s and reflecting some attitudes that are no longer current. I had a hard time getting past the way the relationship between Sam and Frodo is written. At home in the Shire, Sam is Frodo's gardener and working class to Frodo's well-off middle class - the class that Tolkien obviously had in mind as his audience. When Sam leaves home to follow Frodo into the wilds, his main motivation for going is to look after Frodo, which is just as well. Somebody needs to! Somehow, though, despite the perils the two hobbits travel through together, and despite the fact that Sam is just as crucial to the quest, in the end, as "his master", the two hobbits remain divided by class in the way that Tolkien writes about them and in the way other characters see them. Elves who boast that they cannot tell hobbits apart from one another somehow recognise that Sam is merely an adjunct of Frodo. I was sometimes uncomfortable reading about Sam's being, for example, "like a dog invited on a walk". I think the same story could have been told about Sam and Frodo without this emphasis on class. The love that Sam feels for Frodo would have stood up on its own without the implication that it is his due as master.

Mentions of race in the work also pulled me up short. All of the (human) main characters are clearly white, while the only people of colour in the book are swarthy Southrons, and some black men from even further south, who have cast their lot in with the evil Sauron. Oh dear. I wonder if Tolkien even realised that. The classification of races of men - for instance the higher Numenorians, who mingled their blood with inferior men - is something I would not expect to see in a more modern fantasy novel. I do mean men, rather than people. With some very fine exceptions - Galadriel and Eowyn are both portrayed as mighty and accomplished, as well as interesting in themselves - this is a book about men, male Dwarfs, Elves and hobbits, male Orcs and a male force of evil.

Outside of these criticisms, I have to say that I loved The Lord of the Rings. I can't believe that I didn't read it sooner, but on the other hand I'm glad to have unwittingly saved such a pleasure for myself. I would recommend it wholeheartedly for anyone who wants to lose themselves in a different universe. You will meet – and grow to love – people in this book who will be with you for the rest of your life.

People over the age of twelve or so will probably get along well with The Lord of the Rings, if they have patience for a rather slow start and some unfamiliar language. Reading The Hobbit beforehand is the way to go, both to be familiar with the back-story of The Lord of the Rings and because it is a wonderful book on its own, which deserves a separate review.

People who enjoy these books will probably also like The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula le Guin.

Ask an Asking...

A group of year 5s have come up with some fabulous questions for author Deborah Ellis:

How do you feel when you are with the people in the countries/ situations you write about?
Do you write for a range of ages? Do you think your stories are suitable for younger readers?
How do you usually start a story?
Where do you get your ideas from?
Do you think both girls and boys will want to read your books?
What do you want to write about next?

If you could ask an author any question, who and what would you ask?

The Savage

The Savage, written by David Almond and illustrated by Dave McKean is presented as 'An extraordinary graphic novel within a novel'.
It describes a young lad who begins to write a story about the eponymous Savage; a feral and violent character who exists outside the realities of society.
Almond typically observes his characters effectively and his words flow nicely throughout the pages. McKean's illustrations are fabulous; he uses a calligraphic ink technique that gives his art an ethereal quality, despite the urbanised and often brutal themes.
Problems arise when the two artists are not working in tandem; sections of the book are text only and they feel empty and soulless.
The story is intriguing, yet elements feel a little whitewashed; like Almond is holding back.
Overall The Savage is important for expanding the publishing market, but isn't quite the bridge between children's picture books and adult graphic novels I'd have hoped.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Knife of Never Letting Go

Patrick Ness’s first book for young adults is beautifully crafted. The plot is edgy, and once the characters start running full-pelt towards the final page they won’t stop for anything; they can’t. Occasionally I had to pull my eyes from the book to catch my breath, exhausted by its relentlessness.

Ness treats the reader to sumptuous language throughout, skilfully drawing us into a world that’s wonderfully terrifying. You will hear the character’s voices – and Noise – in your head, see everything that they see, feel everything that they feel. This is no easy journey, you will find yourself elated, drained, sickened and at times heart-wrenchingly sad even when you can see a glimmer of hope.

There was a moment, about a third of the way through the book, where I thought everything was going to go horribly wrong, turn into a psychological analysis of gender. I was mistaken. This book is an astute, exciting novel which guides the reader through the struggles of responsibility and love and humanness with a strange gentle roughness. My only gripe (and it is a major one) with the author is the book’s ending. There is no ending, just a terribly annoying cliff-hanger, and 2 whole months to wait until the release of Book 2: The Ask and the Answer.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

What's Yours?

I have recently been surrounded and hounded by top-ten lists and requests to Name Your Favourite So-and-So. For the most part, I have tried to oblige, and have found other people's ideas quite interesting. When it came to the question 'What's your favourite book?' however, I froze. I couldn't do it...

There were far too many things to consider. Did they mean my favourite book of all time? Best-written book? Favourite characters? Contemporary or classic? What genre? Book that had the biggest long-term effect upon me? The list could go on and on...

But then, sitting wondering how to kick-start this site, I started thinking about it again. 'I should review my favourite book' I thought. Except, the same list of questions was there... what does this mean? How do I narrow down the options?

So then I thought 'what's my favourite children's book at the moment?' and this was a little easier.

Mine would have to be 'The Heaven Shop' by Deborah Ellis. It's a tough read, with heavy, difficult concepts to grapple with from the very first page. Some parents (and children) may be disturbed by the content; not one to pick up if you are after light-hearted entertainment. However, it sensitively tackles important issues, treating young readers as capable beings with the right to know about the real world. Outside of the heavy materials, Ellis creates real, warm characters and a detailed, sometimes surprising environment, which can only stem from spending time with the people whom the book concerns.

Still thinking about the purpose of these questions, I realised that this is the perfect opportunity to start a debate, introduce ourselves, and offer new ideas to each other. And so, I pose the question to all of you: 'what's your favourite (children's) book... at the moment?'

Answers in the 'comments' section at the bottom of this post, please.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Welcome One And Welcome All!

Roll up, roll up, for exciting insight into the world of Children's Literature.

What you can expect to find...

Author ideas and story excerpts, children's views, important considerations for reader and writer alike, reviews, analyses, and other miscellany.

Content and comments always welcome; come join the fun!