#kidbkgrp 2014 schedule

So here we are. The first Thursday of every month, 9-10pm – let’s talk about children’s literature on Twitter with the hashtag #kidbkgrp. Do come along – I’d love to see you there :) Continue reading

Belzhar : Meg Wolitzer

BelzharBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s difficult for me this book, and it’s one that I’ve put aside for a good few days before writing this review. My feelings are complicated and I hope to understand the complexities and tensions of that response through this review.

So, let’s begin at the beginning. Belzhar appealed to me greatly through the premise: the heroine, Jam Gallahue, has experienced the grievous death of her boyfriend and as a result has been sent to study at a somewhat alternative boarding school. The Wooden Barn is part therapy, part school, and is a place for teens to deal with what has happened in their lives. Whilst at this school, Jam is asked to join a special English class where they will be studying Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’. As part of this class, each inhabitant is given a journal where they need to write their thoughts and it is the journal that ultimately provides Jam with a ticket to ‘Belzhar’ – a place where she can be with her boyfriend once more.

Complicated, yes, but I think this narrative works. I think it works better if you have read some Sylvia Plath, I think you gain some thickness to the allusions in Wolitzer’s text and the great impact of Plath herself, but I do think it works well by itself. There are some moments whereby you do require a healthy suspension of cynicism and I think this is perhaps something missing in the packaging of the book. It’s not a novel of hard and definite edges and don’t expect that upon going in. What it is is a book of softness, of grey, pained edges, and of misty spaces where things can be something both good can be bad.

That’s what Belzhar does well, that graceful smudging of space and reality and of truth and heartbreak, but I think it struggles a little in holding its own voice. In situating the novel so firmly amidst the experience of the Bell Jar and of Plath’s work in general, I think it loses a little bit of its own identity. Whilst that is a gloriously metatextual thing at one point (and something that I rather admire), it’s not something that I feel helps Belzhar. Even that title makes me wince a little bit, the allusions of it, the artfulness of it. It doesn’t feel right for what this book is.

Remember where I said my feelings about it were complicated? I hope that you’re getting that as I circle back and forth in this review and try to figure out where I stand. And that’s something I try to do with every book I review. I try to see a space for it. I try to think of the readers I’d recommend this for and where I’d shelve it in the library. And here’s the thing. I do see a place for this book, I see it in that space where people are reading Plath and want more, in that space where people are discovering their own voices and wanting to define and redefine them. And that’s a good thing. That’s a great thing, really, but it’s a limiting thing in the same breath. There’s a tension in that statement, because it rules out a whole host of other readers for me.

I think that’s the thing about Belzhar. There are such tensions in this book and whilst some of them are tensions that I’m rather spectacularly admiring of, they are tensions nonetheless which require acknowledging and some sort of attempt at understanding. But again, after saying that, I think of that metatextual edge of Belzhar, of that self-referential nature of it, and I think I am rather in admiration of it. I’m not sure I like it though. I’m not sure of that at all.

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War Girls : A Collection of First World War stories through the eyes of young women

War GirlsWar Girls by Adèle Geras

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I begin this review by telling you that this compilation, this collection of stories about World War One is one of the better (if not the best) book I have read this year and I am greedy for more.

The authors that have contributed include: Melvin Burgess, Mary Hooper, Theresa Breslin, Sally Nicholls and Adele Geras. In addition to them we have Berlie Doherty, Anne Fine, Matt Whyman and Rowena House.

There are authors in that list who could sell me a trip to the dentist should it come with the promise of more of their writing.

So we begin with Theresa Breslin and her story: Shadow and Light. It is a story which is searing, as so many of them are, and made me breathless and cry and fall in love. It is the story of Merle, an artist, and to give you any more information would be to do a disservice to this great and awful story. It’s so good. Really. And it sets the tone for a collection full of grace and awe and heartache.

To highlight a few other joys (painful, painful joys) in this collection: Mary Hooper’s tearoom saga is a thing of loveliness, and something I would welcome so much more of. There’s an immense story here that fits into the short story form beautifully but god, I want more but I think that’s always the way when I read Mary Hooper.

I also loved Adele Geras’ contribution but I think I will always love how she writes romance. She catches it so gracefully, that moment where something innocent and unexpected turns into something great and blinding (“Blindly, like a plant in search of light, I turn my face up, and his lips are there, on my lips, and my senses and my heart and my body, every part of me, all my love, everything is drawn into the sweetness of his mouth”)

Whilst it feels odd to highlight only a few stories in a collection where they are all so hugely good, the last one I want to mention is Melvin Burgess’ story: Mother and Mrs Everington. Searing. Scarring. And full of a rage that we rarely see in stories of this nature. It is outstanding. Awful. A voice that spills from the pages and burns, burns, burns.

I love this collection. I love how contrary it is. It’s rather quietly designed, rather gently put together, and it’s only when you hold it and get to know itt that it explodes into vicious and powerful life. Rather metaphorical, really. Rather wonderful. A brilliant thing, this book. Don’t let it not be read.

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A few thoughts on reading out loud

Now that I’m an official PhD student, I am officially researching children’s literature. It is terrifying, awe-inducing and a privilege, all at the same time. It’s letting my mind race, hugely, nervously, tentatively, into odd places and to self-indulgent places because I’m able to do what I enjoy. And what I enjoy is talking about books. Children’s books, in particular. (I know, for those of who have been following my blog for a while, I hope you were sat down for that revelation ;) )

So let’s talk a little bit about reading out loud.

Why? Well, why not. But, what I sort of want to do with this post is tell you a little bit about what reading out loud is, and what it can do, and what we’re engaging in when we do this thing that we sort of tend to accept as just what we should be doing and because of that, it’s so ingrained in our consciousness that we don’t really pause to see the great wonder of what it is that we are doing..

(I’ve just had a Twix. Can you tell? Let’s do this!)

Okay. So. Reading out loud to our children, with our children, is a beautiful thing. It is a shared act of reading. It is us introducing them to literature, framing it through our presentation of it to them (oh look at this! isn’t this exciting!) and it is our way of helping literacy develop in our children. It is not the only way, but it is one of our big ways. We bathe our children in words, we let them wash over them from day one, we name our children and we talk, talk, talk to them and with every word, we’re pulling them into the world.

That’s one of the things that reading out loud does (and to be fair, it’s not just one – there’s a multitude of things to be unpacked in that paragraph above), but it’s not the only thing that it does, and this is the part where it starts to get interesting for me. Interesting-er, if you will.

When you read, you’re bringing a story to life. One sentence: “We’re going on a bear hunt”, uttered in real time, to a face or a crowd, and you’re affirming literature. You are bringing the imaginary into the real world because, for that brief and glorious moment of reading the story, you are the story. The story is you. The text in the page doesn’t exist on the page any more, it exists in you.

How amazing is that? It’s like a superpower that we all have: we can be story. 

It’s through that speech act, that simple click and furl of your tongue, that you do it and you do it every day. You bring story to life. You say to your kids, or the kids you look after, or the kids you teach, or the kids that come into your library, that stories are real. You take the time out to go – look at this artefact, look at this thing that I believe in so much that I’m taking time out of my day to read it and let it live, and here’s the thing, here’s the utterly brilliant kicker, you can do it too.

You can make this story happen. You’re making it when you mouth the words along with me, or when your finger runs along the page. You are story and the story is you. 

Every time we read out loud, we’re letting the imaginary live. We’re making it real. We are affirming our belief in the necessity of literature in our world. We believe in fairies. We believe in magic. We believe in words. 

Jo of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Jo of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #2)Jo of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s very little to say about the early Chalet School books other than to rhapsodise over how awfully lovely they are. And they are. They are like snow on the day when you don’t have to go to school. There’s something other worldly about them at this point in the series and it is something rather special and beautiful.

So! Here we are. It is only book two and the school is still finding its feet. We are on the side of the bluest lake in all of Austria and it includes one of my most favourite moments in the entire series. It’s no spoiler to say that there is a point in this book where Joey disappears and nobody knows where she has got to. Dear wonderful Simone insists on looking for her inside the piano. How glorious a sentence is that? There is everything in this series inside that moment; the earnest belief in ones abilities, the knowledge that Jo is a skinigallee (sp, naturally), and the glorious innocence that characterises so much about these early books. It’s lovely. I adore you young Simone and a part of me wishes you’d retained that romantic dippiness of yours for ever.

The Robin makes her debut in this book and I remember spending hours studying the pages and wondering when she lost her ‘The’. That still fascinates me. The Robin (oh lord, I’m doing it now) is rather lovely here and winsome and a welcome addition to the cast (and one, might I add, who should have had more book than she did, but I digress, yet again).

The other thing that Jo of the Chalet School benefits from, quite immensely, is that Madge is still on the scene. She’s such a glorious character; vivid, sharp and lovely and rather inspirational in her own way. What a character she is, and [potential spoiler alert] what a shame she gets married off so swiftly.

But again, I digress.

What makes this series so glorious in its early days is this sense of greatness about it. You feel that this is real. You feel that this is happening. You feel that this is, to paraphrase a certain somebody else, a very great adventure and you feel privileged to be a part of it. And even now, even 88 years later (!), you can feel that there is something quite beautiful and pure and elegant and joyful about these stories and that is a something which deserves to be treasured.

Plus there’s Rufus.

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Awards and children’s literature

Last night #kidbkgrp talked about awards and children’s literature. It was a very brief and quiet chat as there weren’t many people online (my thanks to those who were around!). I therefore decided that the chat as a whole wasn’t worth storifying but, as I do think this is a topic worth pursuing, I decided to blog. Voila! Cogito Ergo Blog!

Photo courtesy of  daverugby83 (Flickr)

Photo courtesy of daverugby83 (Flickr) https://www.flickr.com/photos/daverugby83/3893586483

A brief check of Wikipedia reveals that there are a minimum of 31 children’s book awards in the UK. Now, as per the nature of WIkipedia, that’s not going to be a complete list. And it isn’t. There’s no UKLA award on there and I expect that’s not the only one. Wikipedia is a brilliant resource but it’s not infallible. (Do I sound like I have my librarian hat on? I surely do. It’s a sombrero btw).

Children’s book awards in the UK range from those voted for solely by children, such as the Red House Children’s Book award, administered by the FCBG, through to those selected by professional bodies such as CILIP who look after the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway awards. As I’m a member of CILIP, I get to nominate which is exciting and also rather a huge privilege.

So what does this mean? Why do we have awards?

Well, I think one reason is that we’re sort of honouring the presence of literature in our lives. We’re saying to our contemporaries, our peers and those readers yet to come that these books are wondrous. They are life-changing, vivid beasts and they are good and great and should be read. As previous Carnegie winner Philip Pullman says: “Once upon a time lasts forever”. Stories are forever and they should be and we’re memorialising these books by entering them in a sort of joint record (like a societal bibliography, if you will) and we’re trying to give them a sense of longevity. Just looking at the previous winners of the Carnegie is like looking at a distilled vision of perfect, wonderful (and occasionally intensely challenging) British children’s literature. And it’s right to be proud of that, I think. It’s more than right.

Another reason, as mentioned last night, is to give books by new authors a chance of being read. Did you know that over 10,000 books were published last year in the UK? (At least 10,000 books – some reports go way, way higher than that). Proportionally speaking, the number of children’s books that get published in one year is basically tons (technical, I know, but have a look in your bookshop at the number of new titles and you’ll see what I mean). It’s hard to get read out there. And it’s hard to find books. I read a lot (this is a safe space, right?) and so many of my books are found through browsing and happenstance. A good cover. The librarian reshelving it just in time for me to see. There is so much luck about this. And awards help! They do. They give people a chance to catch their breath and go – wait, this is supposed to be good, I heard about this, let’s give it a chance. Awards can do that signposting towards literature and almost ‘remove’ that risk element of reading. Nobody wants to invest time of their own in reading something rubbish. And when we’re talking about children’s literature, with that always tricksy contextual element that it no doubt has, that’s two fold. You don’t want your kids put off by accidentally reading say War and Peace instead of Where’s Wally.

As it’s always good to do things in threes, here’s a third reason why I rather love what awards can do. They can make statements. They can set out and articulate issues that need articulating.  The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award came into being in 2013 with the aim to “to recognise a rich tradition of radical publishing for children in the UK”. Radical is, they say “include[s] books informed by inclusive/anti-discriminatory concerns or those which promote social equality or social justice”. In an increasingly diverse world, they’re making the statement that diverse and brave literature matters for juvenile readers. And that’s brilliant because it is such a statement. It’s proud and it’s lovely and it’s desperately vital. I believe in the right of children to see themselves in literature and awards that celebrate that right are a good and great thing.

So here we are. As you’ll gather, I’m in favour of literary awards. I do acknowledge that they can be problematic beasts at time but as a whole, I think I’m rather proud that we have them. Here’s to us and our continued celebration of children’s literature. Long may it continue.

No and Me : Delphine de Vigan

No And MeNo And Me by Delphine de Vigan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a strange book ‘No and Me’ as it’s one which didn’t really get me until the end. Written originally in French and translated into English, it is full of eloquent and heartbeat like moments that sort of somehow just are, until you reach the end and have a great, glorious, painful moment of revelation that this is what the book was saying and it was what it was saying all along.

So it is not the most easy of reads I have ever had, and frankly I would have put it aside several times. But something kept me going and I think a lot of that is to do with de Vigan’s languid, lovely prose. She writes beautifully and, acknowledging that this is a translated edition, it’s worthwhile acknowledging the skill that George Miller has brought to this text. I haven’t read the original in French but I’m certain, somehow, that it remains this same momentous thing. Even in English, it is very French. The nuances of the language. The precise impreciseness. Those little Gallic moments. They’re all there.

Story wise it is relatively simple. Relatively, I say, when in fact is deep and full of story that is not remotely simple, not at all. Perhaps I should call the story nominally simple for on first glance, that is exactly what it is. Lou Bertignac, gifted, smart, befriends a girl who is homeless. Lou herself is homeless in a way for her house is not a home. Her family are still suffering from the impact of something that happened to them. Lou brings her friend, No, home and things happen. Big things. Life changing things. For all concerned. Paralleled with this, is the relationship between Lou and Lucas, friends, more than friends, and Lou’s relationship with the world.

It is a very quiet book with a very immense heart. I wish in a way that I’d been able to find that heart earlier than I had, but once I did find it, I was a little bit smitten with No And Me.

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I registered this blog five years ago today

When I started this blog, I started it out of a sort of desperate urge to do something with children’s literature. I wanted to talk about it, to someone. To anyone. I wanted to share this great love of books and find others that loved the same sort of thing. I wanted to connect,  I think, really, and continue the journey that I was on as part of my MA.

It took me a while to find my groove. What to talk about? What to say? How to say it? My early reviews and posts are less than brilliant, but I’ve kept them there for a reason – I want to track the growth of my thinking. I want to track the growth of my reading, too. I think how you read changes, so much, throughout your life and it’s fascinating to look back at something that I wrote and look at the person I was then.

So what’s happened in five years? Well, a lot, and a lot I think comes from doing this blog.

  • I’m writing this in the University of York library where I just started a PhD in children’s literature and literary tourism.
  • I finished my MA in children’s literature and passed.
  • I’ve written a zillion (or near enough) reviews
  • I’ve met some amazing, utterly amazing people, as a direct result of this blog
  • I run a monthly children’s literature discussion group
  • And I have the great joy to be represented by Bryony Woods of DKW Literary Agency.

All of that, all of that, comes either directly or indirectly from blogging. Let’s just say I’m a bit of an advocate of what a blog can do. I think it’s great. And I think you’re all amazing too. Seriously. Books and reading and readers and literacy wouldn’t exist without people like you. You change the world each and every day and that’s a privilege to even be tangentially part of. Here’s to the next five years! :)