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!